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Start Reading THE QUEEN by Josh Levin

Linda Taylor was a con artist, kidnapper, and possibly a murderer, but in the media, she was only looked at as a welfare cheat. In The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, Slate’s national editor Josh Levin delves into the life and lies of Linda Taylor as she assumed dozens of false identities, scammed various government programs and became a hot topic during a U.S presidential run—all during her reign as “Welfare Queen.” Read the first page of Josh Levin’s The Queen below.

PAGE ONE

 

On August 25, 1974, Jack Sherwin and three other Chicago police officers drove to Linda Taylor’s apartment on South Clyde Avenue. When Taylor answered the door, Sherwin said good morning and asked if he could come inside. Despite the complaint she’d filed with Area 2 headquarters, she waved him in. Sherwin walked into the front room and sat in a chair facing Taylor’s couch. The detective told her he hadn’t dropped by to chat or ask questions or get a glass of water. He’d come to take her into custody on behalf of the State of Michigan.

After Sherwin read Taylor her rights, she called someone to come pick up the two children she had with her, then asked the officers for a moment to change out of her housecoat. Taylor stepped into the bedroom and put on a new outfit, a short-sleeved brocade dress. She then took a cardboard suitcase from the closet and placed it on her bed. Taylor shuffled from her dresser to the suitcase and back again, grabbing armfuls of clothes and stuffing them inside the cheap piece of luggage. Five minutes after she’d started packing, one of the other detectives shouted at Sherwin—he thought he’d seen Taylor try to stash something away.

When Sherwin entered the room, Taylor slammed the cardboard suitcase shut. The detective asked her what was inside. “Clothes for the children,” she said. Sherwin opened the valise. He found a bunch of children’s clothing, as well as green Illinois Department of Public Aid identification cards bearing the names Connie Walker and Linda Bennett. One of Sherwin’s fellow officers searched Taylor’s purse and found another welfare ID card that had her name as Connie Walker, plus a driver’s license that said Linda Bennett. Sherwin seized the ID cards, the driver’s license, and every other piece of paper he could find in the apartment. There was an apartment lease, a receipt from a hospital stay, and stock certificates from old-time prospecting firms like the West End Extension Mining Company and the Boulder King Gold Mining Company. Sherwin also found eleven books of food stamps and a delayed record of birth for a Constance Beverly Wakefield. It took six police department inventory forms to write it all down.
Related: The Best True Crime Books of 2019 (So Far)
“I know you by the name of Connie Jarvis. I know you by the name Connie Walker. This card says you’re named Linda Bennett,” Sherwin said. He asked Taylor to tell him her real name. The woman at 8221 South Clyde Avenue wouldn’t give him a straight answer. On his arrest report, Sherwin took his best guess. He typed the name “Taylor, Linda,” then wrote in more names underneath: “Gordon—Green—Connie.” He listed Linda/Connie Taylor/Gordon/Green as an unemployed nurse, height five foot one, weight 130 pounds. Her race was N, for Negro, her eyes brown, hair black, and complexion light. He guessed at Taylor’s age, listing it as thirty-nine. That afternoon, the Chicago Police Department took Taylor’s fingerprints one more time. She posed for two mug shots, one with her hair hanging down in a loose ponytail and the other with her natural locks hidden beneath a black curly wig. In both photographs, Taylor fixed her lips into a frown, and the flash from the camera reflected off her brocade dress.

* * *

Eight days after he’d exchanged vows with Linda Taylor at city hall, Lamar Jones got a phone call. It was his new wife. She was in the Cook County jail.

“Remember what I told you to do if I got in trouble?” she asked. He remembered.

Taylor had prepared him for this day, though he hadn’t known it at the time. Shortly after they’d started going together, she’d brought him to meet a banker on Chicago’s Northwest Side. If anything ever happens to me, she’d said, you should go see this man right away.

Jones hadn’t thought much of the introduction—Taylor seemed to know a lot of men with money. But now, with his wife behind bars, Jones knew what he was supposed to do. He went to the bank, the man gave him a briefcase full of cash, and he used it to bail Taylor out.

 

Buy THE QUEEN by Josh Levin:

Start Reading Michael Connelly’s New Harry Bosch Book The Night Fire

Read the first five chapters of the new Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch novel below.

 

BOSCH

1

Bosch arrived late and had to park on a cemetery lane far from the gravesite. Careful not to step on anybody’s grave, he limped through two memorial sections, his cane sinking into the soft ground, until he saw the gathering for John Jack Thompson. It was standing room only around the old detective’s gravesite and Bosch knew that wouldn’t work with his knee only three weeks post-op.

He retreated to the nearby Garden of Legends section and sat on a concrete bench that was part of Tyrone Power’s tomb. He assumed it was okay since it was clearly a bench. He remembered his mother taking him to see Power in the movies when he was a kid. Old stuff they would run in the revival theaters on Beverly. He remembered the handsome actor as Zorro and as the accused American in Witness for the Prosecution.

The service for Thompson lasted a half hour. Bosch was too far away to hear what was said but he knew what was said. John Jack—he was always called that—was a good man who gave forty years of service to the Los Angeles Police Department in uniform and as a detective. He put many bad people away and taught generations of detectives how to do the same.

One of them was Bosch—paired with the legend as a newly minted homicide detective in Hollywood Division more than three decades earlier. Among other things, John Jack had taught Bosch how to read the tells of a liar in an interrogation room. John Jack knew when somebody was lying. He always did.

Their pairing had lasted two years only because Bosch trained well and John Jack was needed to break in the next new homicide man, but the mentor and student had stayed in touch through the years. Bosch spoke at Thompson’s retirement party, recounting the time they were working a murder case and John Jack pulled over a bakery delivery truck when he saw it turn right at a red light without first coming to a complete stop. Bosch questioned why they were stopping their search for a murder suspect for a minor traffic infraction and John Jack said it was because he and his wife, Margaret, were having company for dinner that night and he needed to bring home a dessert. He got out of their city ride, approached the truck, and badged the driver. He told him he had just committed a two-pie traffic offense. But being a fair man, John Jack cut a deal for one cherry pie and he came back to the city car with that night’s dessert.

Those kinds of stories and the legend of John Jack Thompson dimmed in the twenty years since his retirement but the gathering around his grave was thick and Bosch recognized many of the men and women he had worked with himself during his own time with an LAPD badge. He suspected that the reception at John Jack’s house after the service was going to be equally crowded and might last into the night.

After the casket was lowered and people started heading back to their cars, Bosch made his way across the lawn to where Margaret remained seated, a folded flag in her lap. She smiled at Bosch as he approached.

“Harry, you got my message,” she said. “I’m glad you came.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Bosch said.

He leaned down and kissed her cheek and squeezed her hand.

“He was a good man, Margaret,” he said.

“He was,” she said. “And you were one of his favorites. He took great pride in all of the cases you closed.”

Bosch turned and looked down into the grave. John Jack’s box appeared to have been made of stainless steel.

“He picked it,” Margaret said. “He said it looked like a bullet.”

Bosch smiled.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get over to see him,” he said. “Before the end.”

“It’s okay, Harry,” she said. “You had your knee. How is it doing?”

“Better every day. I won’t need this cane much longer.”

“When John Jack had his knees done, he said it was a new lease on life. That was fifteen years ago.”

Bosch just nodded. He thought a new lease on life was a little optimistic.

“Are you coming back to the house?” Margaret asked. “There is something there for you. From him.”

Bosch looked at her.

“From him?”

“You’ll see. Something I would give only to you.”

It looked like two generations of children.

“Can I walk you over to the limo?” Bosch asked.

“That would be nice, Harry,” Margaret said.

 

2

Bosch had picked up a cherry pie that morning at Gelson’s and that was what had made him late to the funeral. He carried it into the bungalow on Orange Grove, where John Jack and Margaret Thompson had lived for more than fifty years. He put it on the dining room table, where there were other plates and trays of food.

The house was crowded. Bosch said hellos and shook a few hands as he pushed his way through the knots of people, looking for Margaret. He found her in the kitchen, oven mitts on and getting a hot pan out of the oven. Keeping busy.

“Harry,” she said. “Did you bring the pie?”

“Yes,” he said. “I put it on the table.”

She opened a drawer and gave Bosch a spatula and a knife.

“What were you going to give me?” Bosch asked.

“Just hold your horses,” Margaret said. “First cut the pie, then go back to John Jack’s office. Down the hall, on the left. It’s on his desk and you can’t miss it.”

Bosch went into the dining room and used the knife she had given him to cut the pie into eight slices that were equal to the width of the triangular spatula. He then made his way through the people crowded in the living room to a hallway that he remembered led back to John Jack’s home office. The door was closed and for some reason he knocked, even though he knew no one should be in there.

He opened the door and entered a small, cluttered office with shelves on two walls and a desk pushed up against a third under a window. Sitting on a green blotter was a blue plastic binder that was thick with three inches of documents inside.

It was a murder book.

 

BALLARD

3

Ballard studied what she could see of the remains with an unflinching eye. The smell of kerosene mixed with burned flesh was overpowering this close, but she stood her ground. She was in charge of the scene until the fire experts arrived. The nylon tent had melted and collapsed on the victim. It tightly shrouded the body in places where the fire had not completely burned through. The body was broad-shouldered and large. She assumed the victim was a male. He seemed to be in repose and she wondered how he could have slept through it. She also knew that toxicity tests would determine his alcohol and drug levels.

Ballard knew it would not be her case but she pulled out her phone and took photos of the body and the scene, including close-ups of the overturned camping heater, the presumed source of the blaze. She then opened the temperature app on the phone and noted that the current temperature listed for Hollywood was 52 degrees. That would go in her report and be forwarded to the fire department’s arson unit.

She stepped back and looked around. It was 3:15 a.m. and Cole Avenue was largely deserted, except for the homeless people who had come out of the tents and cardboard shanties that lined the sidewalk running alongside the Hollywood Recreation Center. They stared both wide-eyed and addled as the investigation into the death of one of their own proceeded.’

“How’d we get this?” Ballard asked.

Stan Dvorek, the patrol sergeant who had called her out, stepped over.

“FD called us,” he said. “They got it from coms. Somebody driving by saw the flames and called it in as a fire.”

“They get a name on the PR?” Ballard asked.

“He didn’t give one. Called it in, kept driving.”

“Nice.”

There were two fire trucks still on scene, having made the journey just three blocks down from Station 27 to douse the tent fire. The crews were standing by to be questioned.

“I’m going to take the fire guys,” Ballard said. “Why don’t you have your guys talk to some of these people, see if anybody saw anything.”

“Isn’t that arson’s job?” Dvorek asked. “They’re just going to have to re-interview if we find anybody worth talking to.”

“First on scene, Stan. We need to do this right.”

Ballard walked away, ending the debate. Dvorek might be the patrol supervisor, but Ballard was in charge of the crime scene. Until it was determined that the fatal fire was an accident, she would treat it as a crime scene.

She walked over to the waiting firefighters and asked which of the two crews were first on scene. She then asked the six firefighters assigned to the first truck what they saw. The information she received from them was thin. The tent fire had almost burned itself out by the time the fire-rescue team was on scene. Nobody saw anyone around the blaze. No witnesses, no suspects. A fire extinguisher from the truck was used to douse the remaining flames, and the victim was determined to be dead and therefore was not transported to a hospital.

From there Ballard took a walk up and down the block, looking for cameras. The homeless encampment ran along the city park’s outdoor basketball courts, where there were no security cameras. On the west side of Cole was a line of one-story warehouses inhabited by prop houses and equipment-rental houses catering to the film and television industry. Ballard saw a few cameras but on closer inspection they turned out to be either dummies or set at angles that would not be helpful to the investigation.

When she got back to the scene, she saw Dvorek conferring with two of his patrol officers. Ballard recognized them from the morning-watch roll call at Hollywood Division.

“Anything?” Ballard asked.

“About what you’d expect,” Dvorek said. “‘I didn’t see nothin’, I didn’t hear nothin’, I don’t know nothin’.’ Waste of time.”

Ballard nodded.

“Had to be done, D.,” she said.

“So where the fuck is arson?” Dvorek asked. “I need to get my people back out.”

“Last I heard, in transit. They don’t run twenty-four hours, so they had to roust a team from home.”

“Jesus, we’ll be waiting out here all night. Did you roll the M.E. out yet?”

“On the way. You can probably clear half your guys and yourself. Just leave one car here.”

“You got it.”

Dvorek went off to issue new orders to his officers. Ballard walked back to the immediate crime scene and looked at the tent that had melted over the dead man like a shroud. She was staring down at it when peripheral movement caught her eye. She looked up to see a woman and a girl climbing out of a shelter made of a blue plastic tarp tied to the fence that surrounded the basketball court. Ballard moved quickly to them and redirected them away from the body.

“Honey, you don’t want to go over there,” she said. “Come this way.”

They walked down the sidewalk to the end of the encampment.

“What happened?” the woman asked.

Ballard studied the girl as she answered.

“Somebody got burned,” she said. “Did you see anything? It happened about an hour ago.”

“We were sleeping,” the woman said.

The girl had still not said anything.

“Why aren’t you in a shelter?” Ballard asked. “This is dangerous out here. That fire could’ve spread.”

She looked from the mother to the daughter.

“How old are you?”

The girl had large brown eyes and brown hair and was slightly overweight. The woman stepped in front of her and answered Ballard.

“Please don’t take her from me.”

Ballard saw the pleading look in the woman’s brown eyes.

“I’m not here to do that. I just want to make sure she’s safe. You’re her mother?”

“Yes. My daughter.”

“What’s her name?”

“Amanda—Mandy.”

“How old?”

“Fourteen.”

Ballard leaned down to talk to the girl. She had her eyes cast down.

“Mandy? Are you okay?”

She nodded.

“Would you want me to try to get you and your mother into a shelter for women and children? It might be better than being out here.”

Mandy looked up at her mother when she answered.

“No. I want to stay here with my mother.”

“I’m not going to separate you. I will take you and your mother if you want.”

The girl looked up at her mother again for guidance.

“You put us in there, and they will take her away,” the mother said. “I know they will.”

“No, I’ll stay here,” the girl said.

“Okay,” Ballard said. “I won’t do anything, but I don’t think this is where you should be. It’s not safe out here for either of you.”

“The shelters aren’t safe either,” the mother said. “People steal all your stuff.”

Ballard pulled out a business card and handed it to her.

“Call me if you need anything,” she said. “I work the midnight shift. I’ll be around if you need me.”

The mother took the card. Ballard’s thoughts returned to the case. She turned and nodded toward

the crime scene.

“Did you know him?” she asked.

“A little,” the mother said. “He minded his own business.”

“Had he been here a long time?”

“A couple months. He said he had been over at Blessed Sacrament but it was too crowded.”

Ballard knew that Blessed Sacrament over on Sunset allowed the homeless to camp on the front portico. She drove by it often and knew it to be heavily crowded at night with tents and makeshift shelters.

“Did he have any trouble with anybody here?” she asked.

“Not that I saw,” said the mother.

Ballard looked at Amanda to see if she had a response but was interrupted by a voice from behind.

“Detective?”

Ballard turned around. It was one of Dvorek’s officers. His name was Rollins.

“What?”

“The guys from arson are here.”

“Okay. I’ll be right there.”

 

 

4

The men from arson were named Nuccio and Spellman. Following LAFD protocol, they were wearing blue coveralls with the LAFD badge on the chest pocket and the word ARSON across the back. Nuccio was the senior investigator and he said he would be lead. Both men shook Ballard’s hand before Nuccio announced that they would take the investigation from there. Ballard explained that a cursory sweep of the homeless encampment had produced no witnesses, while a walk up and down Cole Street had found no cameras that might have had an angle on the fatal fire. She also mentioned that the M.E.’s Office was rolling a unit to the scene and a criminalist from the LAPD lab was en route as well.

Nuccio seemed uninterested. He handed Ballard a business card with his email address on it and asked that she forward the incident report she would write up when she got back to Hollywood Station.

“That’s it?” Ballard asked. “That’s all you need?”

She knew that LAFD arson experts had law enforcement and detective training and were expected to conduct a thorough investigation of any fire involving a death. She also knew they were competitive with the LAPD in the way a little brother might be with his older sibling. The arson guys didn’t like being in the LAPD’s shadow.

“That’s it,” Nuccio said. “You send me your report and I’ll have your email. I’ll let you know how it all shakes out.”

“You’ll have it by dawn,” Ballard said. “You want to keep the uniforms here while you work?”

“Sure. One or two of them would be nice. Just have them watch our backs.”

Ballard walked away and over to Rollins and his partner, Randolph, who were waiting by their car for instructions. She told them to stand by and keep the scene secure while the investigation proceeded.

Ballard used her cell to call the Hollywood Division watch office and report that she was about the leave the scene. The lieutenant was named Washington. He was a new transfer from Wilshire Division.

“LAFD has no need for me here, LT,” she said.

“What’s it look like?” Washington asked.

“Like the guy kicked over his kerosene heater while he was sleeping. But we’ve got no wits or cameras in the area. Not that we found, and I’m not thinking the arson guys are going to look too hard beyond that.”

Washington was silent for a few moments while he came to a decision.

“All right, then, come back to the house and write it up,” he finally said. “They want it all by themselves, they can have it.”

“Roger that,” Ballard said. “I’m heading in.”

She disconnected and walked over to Rollins and Randolph, telling them she was leaving the scene and that they should call her at the station if anything new came up.

The station was only five minutes away at five in the morning. The rear parking lot was quiet as Ballard headed to the back door. She used her key card to enter and took the long way to the detective bureau so that she could go through the watch office and check in with Washington. He was only in his second deployment period and still learning and feeling his way. Ballard had been purposely wandering through the watch office two or three times a shift to help establish the relationship.

Technically her boss was the division’s detective lieutenant, but she almost never saw him because he worked days. In reality, Washington was her boots-on-the-ground boss and she wanted to solidly establish the relationship.

Washington was behind his desk, looking at his deployment screen, which showed the locations of every police unit in the division.

“How’s it going?” Ballard asked.

“All quiet on the western front,” Washington said.

His eyes were squinted and holding on a particular point on the screen. Ballard pivoted around the side of his desk so she could see the screen.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I’ve got three units at Seward and Santa Monica,” Washington said. “I’ve got no call there.”

Ballard pointed. The division was divided into seven geographic zones called reporting districts.

“You’ve got three RDs that are contiguous there—sixty-three, sixty-seven, and seventy-seven,” she said. “And that’s where an all-night mariscos truck parks. They can all code seven there without leaving their zones.”

“Got it,” Washington said. “Thanks, Ballard. Good to know.”

“No problem. I’m going to go brew a fresh pot in the break room. You want a cup?”

“Ballard, I might not know about that mariscos truck out there, but I know about you. You don’t need to be fetching coffee for me. I can get my own.”

Ballard was surprised by the answer and immediately wanted to ask what exactly Washington knew about her. But she didn’t.

“Got it,” she said instead.

She walked back down the main hall and then hooked a left down into the hallway that led to the detective bureau. As expected, the squad room was deserted. Ballard checked the wall clock and saw she had ninety minutes until the end of her shift. That gave her plenty of time to write up the incident report on the fire death. She headed to the cubicle she used in the back corner of the room. It was a spot that gave her a full view of the room and anybody who came in.

She had left her laptop open on the desk when she got the call out on the tent fire. She stood in front of the desk for a few moments before sitting down. Someone had moved her computer to the side, and a faded blue binder—a murder book—had been left front and center on the desk. She flipped it open and there was a Post-it on the table of contents.

Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Ballard took the Post-it off because it was covering the name of the victim printed at the top of the standard-form table of contents.

John Hilton—DOB 1/17/66—DOD 8/3/90

She didn’t need the table of contents to find the photo section of the book. She flipped several sections of reports over on the three steel loops and found the photos secured in plastic sleeves six to a page. Back in 1990 they used Polaroids. In 2019 they were faded almost white but Ballard was able to make out the body of the young man slumped across the front seat of a car, a bullet hole behind his ear.

She studied the photos for a moment and then flipped the binder closed. She pulled her phone, looked up a number, and called it. She checked her watch as she waited.

A man answered quickly and did not sound to Ballard as if he had been pulled from the depths of sleep.

“It’s Ballard,” she said. “You were in here at the station tonight?”

“Uh, yeah, I dropped by about an hour ago,” Bosch said. “You weren’t there.”

“I was on a call. So where’d this murder book come from?”

“I guess you could say it’s been missing in action. I went to a funeral yesterday—my first partner in homicide way back when. The guy who mentored me. He passed on and I went to the funeral, and then afterward at his house, his wife—his widow—gave me the book. She wanted me to return it. So that’s what I did. I returned it to you.”

Ballard flipped the binder open again and read the basic case information above the table of contents.

“George Hunter was your partner?” she asked.

“No,” Bosch said. “My partner was John Jack Thompson. This wasn’t his case originally.”

“It wasn’t his case, but when he retired he stole the murder book.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d say he stole it.”

“Then what would you say?”

“I’d say he took over the investigation of a case nobody was working. Read the chrono, you’ll see it was gathering dust. The original case detective probably retired and nobody was doing anything with it.”

“When did Thompson retire?”

“January 2000.”

“Shit, and he had it all this time? Almost twenty years.”

“That’s the way it looks.”

“That’s really bullshit.”

“Look, I’m not trying to defend John Jack, but the case probably got more attention from him than it ever would’ve in the Open-Unsolved Unit. They mainly just work DNA cases over there and there’s no DNA in this one. It would have been passed over and left to gather dust if John Jack hadn’t taken it with him.”

“So you know there’s no DNA? And you checked the chrono?”

“Yeah. I read through it. Why do you think I dropped it off at four a.m.? I got home from the funeral and started going through it.”

“And why did you bring it here?”

“Because we had a deal, remember? We’d work cases together.”

“So you want to work this together?”

“Well, sort of.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I’ve got some stuff going on. Medical stuff. And I don’t know how much—”

“What medical stuff?”

“I just got a new knee and, you know, I have rehab and there might be a complication. So I’m not sure how much I can be involved.”

“You’re dumping this case on me.”

“No, I want to help and I will help. John Jack mentored me. He taught me the rule, you know?”

“What rule?”

“To take every case personally.”

“What?”

“Yes. Take every case personally and you get angry. It builds a fire. It gives you the edge you need to go the distance every time out.”

Ballard thought about that. She understood what he was saying but knew it was a dangerous way to live and work.

“He said every case?” she asked.

“Every case,” Bosch said.

“So you just read this cover to cover?”

“Yes. Took me about six hours. I had a few interruptions. I need to walk and work my knee.”

“What’s the part in it that made it personal for John Jack?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see it. But I know he found a way to make every case personal. If you find that, you might be able to close it out.”

“If I find it?”

“Okay, if we find it. But like I said, I already looked.”
Ballard flipped the sections over until she once again came to the Polaroids held in plastic sleeves.

“I don’t know,” she said. “This feels like a long shot. If George Hunter couldn’t clear it and then John Jack Thompson couldn’t clear it, what makes you think we can?”

“Because you have that thing,” Bosch said. “That fire. We can do this and bring that boy some justice.”

“Don’t start with the justice thing. Don’t bullshit me, Bosch.”

“Okay, I won’t. But will you at least read the chrono and look through the book before deciding? If you do that and don’t want to continue, that’s fine. Turn the book in or give it back to me. I’ll work it alone. When I get the time.”

Ballard didn’t answer at first. She had to think. She knew that the proper procedure would be to turn the murder book in to the Open-Unsolved Unit, explain how it had been found after Thompson’s death, and leave it at that. But as Bosch had said, that was probably a move that would result in the case being put on a shelf to gather dust.

She looked at the photos again. It appeared to her on initial read that it was a drug rip-off. The victim pulls up, offers the cash, gets a bullet instead of a balloon of heroin or whatever his drug of choice was.

There’s one thing,” Bosch said.

“What’s that?” Ballard asked.

“The bullet. If it’s still in evidence. You need to run it through NIBIN, see what comes up.”

“What’s that, a one-in-ten shot? No pun intended.”

She knew that the national database held the unique ballistic details of bullets and cartridge casings found at the scenes of crimes, but it was far from a complete archive. Bullet data had to be entered for it to be part of any comparison process, and most police departments, including the LAPD, were behind in the entering process. Still, the bullet archive had been around since the start of the century and the data grew larger every year.

“It’s better than no shot,” Bosch said. “No pun intended.”

Ballard didn’t reply. She looked at the murder book and ran a fingernail up the side of the thick sheaf of documents it contained, creating a ripping sound.

“Okay,” she finally said. “I’ll read it.”

“Good,” Bosch said. “Let me know what you think.”

 

BOSCH

5

Bosch quietly slipped into the back row of the Department 106 courtroom, drawing the attention of the judge only, who made a slight nod in recognition. It had been years, but Bosch had had several cases before Judge Paul Falcone in the past. He had also woken the judge up on more than one occasion while seeking an approval for a search warrant in the middle of the night.

Bosch saw his half brother, Mickey Haller, at the lectern located to the side of the defense and prosecution tables. He was questioning his own witness. Bosch knew this because he had been tracking the case online and in the newspaper and this day was the start of the defense’s seemingly impossible case. Haller was defending a man accused of murdering a superior court judge in a city park less than a block from the courthouse that now held the trial. The defendant, Jeffrey Herstadt, not only was linked to the crime by DNA evidence but had helpfully confessed on video to the murder as well.

“Doctor, let me get this straight,” Haller said to the witness seated to the left of the judge. “Are you saying that Jeffrey’s mental issues put him in a state of paranoia where he feared physical harm might come to him if he <em confess to this crime?”

The man in the witness box was in his sixties and had white hair and a full beard that was oddly darker. Bosch had missed his swearing in and did not know his name. His physical appearance and professorial manner conjured the name Freud in Harry’s mind.

“That is what you get with schizoaffective disorder,” Freud responded. “You have all the symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations, as well as mood disorders like mania and depression and paranoia. The latter leads to the psyche taking on protective measures such as the nodding and agreement you see in the video of the confession.”

“So, when Jeffrey was nodding and agreeing with Detective Marston throughout that interview, he was what—just trying to avoid being hurt?” Haller asked.

Bosch noticed his repeated use of the defendant’s first name, a move calculated to humanize him in front of the jury.

“Exactly,” Freud said. “He wanted to survive the interview unscathed. Detective Marston was an authority figure who held Jeffrey’s well-being in his hands. Jeffrey knew this and I could see his fear on the video. In his mind he was in danger and he just wanted to survive it.”

“Which would lead him to say whatever it was Detective Marston wanted him to say?” Haller asked, though it was more statement than question.

“That is correct,” Freud responded. “It started small with questions of seemingly no consequence. ‘Were you familiar with the park?’ ‘Were you in the park?’ And then of course it moved to questions of a more serious nature. ‘Did you kill Judge Montgomery?’ Jeffrey was down the path at that point and he willingly said, ‘Yes, I did it.’”

Haller let that hang in the air for a few moments while he pretended to check the notes on his legal pad. He then went off in a different direction.

“Doctor, what is catatonic schizophrenia?” he asked.

“It is a subtype of schizophrenia in which the affected person can appear during stressful situations to go into seizure or what is called negativism or rigidity,” Freud said. “This is marked by a kind of stupor, a resistance to instructions or attempts to be physically moved.”

“When does this happen, Doctor?”

“During periods of high stress.”

“Is that what you see at the end of the interview with Detective Marston?”

“Yes, it is my professional opinion that he went into seizure unbeknownst at first to the detective.”

Haller asked Judge Falcone if he could replay this part of the taped interview conducted with Herstadt. Bosch had already seen the tape in its entirety because it had become public record after the prosecution introduced it in court and it was subsequently posted on the internet.

Haller played the part beginning at the twenty-minute mark, where Herstadt seemed to shut down physically and mentally. He sat frozen, catatonic, staring down at the table. He didn’t respond to multiple questions from Marston, and the detective quickly realized that something was wrong.

Marston called EMTs, who arrived quickly. They took Herstadt’s vitals through a finger-clip oximeter and determined he was in seizure. He was transported to the County-USC Medical Center, where he was treated and held in the jail ward. The interview was never continued. Marston already had what he needed: Herstadt on video, saying, “I did it.” The confession was backed up a week later when Herstadt’s DNA was matched to genetic material scraped from under Judge Montgomery’s fingernails.

Haller continued his questioning of his psychiatric expert after the video ended.

“What did you see there, Doctor?”

“I saw a man in catatonic seizure.”

“Triggered by what?”

“It’s pretty clear it was triggered by stress. He was being questioned about a murder that he had admitted to but in my opinion didn’t commit. That would build stress in anyone, but acutely so in a paranoid schizophrenic.”

“And Doctor, did you learn during your review of the case file that Jeffrey had suffered a seizure just hours before the murder of Judge Montgomery?”

“I did. I reviewed the reports of an incident that occurred about ninety minutes before the murder in which Jeffrey was treated for seizure at a coffee shop.”

“And do you know the details of this incident, Doctor?”

“Yes. Jeffrey apparently walked into a Starbucks and ordered a coffee drink and then had no money to pay for it. When confronted by the cashier about this, he became threatened and went into seizure. EMTs arrived and determined he was in seizure.”

“Was he taken to a hospital?”

“No, he came out of seizure and refused further treatment. He walked away.”

“So, we have these occurrences of seizure on both sides of the murder we’re talking about here. Ninety minutes before and about two hours after, and both of which you say were brought about by stress. Correct?”

“That is correct.”

“Doctor, would it be your opinion that committing a murder in which you use a knife to stab a victim four times in the chest and torso would be a stressful event?”

“Very stressful.”

“More stressful than attempting to buy a cup of coffee with no money in your pocket?”

“Yes, much more stressful.”

“And yet have you seen any report indicating that Jeffrey Herstadt had any seizure during the commission of this murder?”

“No, I have not.”

“To your knowledge, when he was arrested in Grand Park less than one hundred yards from the murder scene, was he in seizure?”

“No, not to my knowledge.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

Haller advised the judge that he reserved the right to recall the doctor as a witness and then turned over the witness to the prosecution. Judge Falcone was going to break for lunch before cross-examination would begin but the prosecutor—Deputy District Attorney Susan Saldano—promised to spend no more than ten minutes questioning the doctor. The judge allowed her to proceed.

“Good morning, Dr. Stein,” she said, providing Bosch with at least part of the psychiatrist’s name.

“Good morning,” Stein replied warily.

“How long had you been treating the defendant before his arrest in this murder?”

“On and off for four years.”

“When was the last time you saw and treated him before this murder took place?”

“About four weeks.”

“Do you know if upon his arrest and subsequent treatment at County-USC whether a blood sample was taken from him and scanned for drugs and alcohol?”

“Yes, it was. That would’ve been routine.”

“And when you reviewed this case for the defense, did you review the results of the blood test?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Can you tell the jury what, if anything, the scan revealed?”

“It showed low levels of a drug called paliperidone.”

“Are you familiar with paliperidone?”

“Yes, I prescribed it for Mr. Herstadt.”

“What is paliperidone?”

“It is a dopamine antagonist. A psychotropic used to treat schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. In many cases it allows those afflicted with the disorder to lead normal lives.”

“You said you prescribed it for Mr. Herstadt?”

“Yes, I did.”

“How is it administered?”

“It is an injection given every two weeks.”

“And prior to the murder, when had you last injected Mr. Herstadt with paliperidone?”

“About four weeks before.”

“So then, he missed an injection two weeks before the murder?”

“Uh, yes, but the residual—”

“Just answer yes or no, Dr. Stein. Did he miss an injection?”

“Yes.”

“Would the effects of paliperidone begin to wear off after a month since the last injection?”

“To some extent but this was a long-running therapy.”

“Are you saying that there would be no fall-off in the effect of the drug?”

“No.”

“So then, if a paranoid schizophrenic stopped taking his paliperone, could symptoms of agitation begin to return?”

“They could, yes.”

“What about aggression, Doctor? Could aggressive behavior return in a month’s time since the last injection.”

“Well, yes, I suppose, but in Jeffrey’s—”

“Just a yes or no answer, Doctor. Could aggressive behavior return, yes or no?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Doctor. No further questions.”

Bosch watched Haller stand up quickly and tell the judge he would be quick. The judge nodded his approval.

“Doctor, how long did you say you had you been treating Jeffrey before this incident?”

“Four years.”

“When did you put him on paliperidone?”

“Four years ago.”

“Did you ever see him act aggressively toward anyone during that time?”

“No, I did not.”

“Did you ever hear of him acting aggressively toward anyone?”

“Before this…incident, no, I did not.”

“Were you ever concerned at all that he might be violent toward you or any member of the public.”

“No. If that had been the case, I would have prescribed a different drug therapy.”

“Had he missed his paliperone shot before?”

“Yes, on a few occasions.”

“More than one time in a row?”

“Yes, there was one occasion when he did not come in for two months.”

“Any reports of aggressive behavior during that time?”

“No.”

“So, is it your opinion that the effect of the prescribed dosage of paliperone would last longer than the two-week intervals between shots?”

“Yes. I believe four years of this therapy would have allowed him to coast, if you will, for several weeks. The residual effects of the drug would be in play.”

“Are you saying there could be several weeks where he would not act out or be aggressive.”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

Saldano said she had no further questions. Before the judge could tell the jury to take a lunch break, Haller addressed the court.

“Your Honor, I expected Ms. Saldano to spend most of the afternoon on cross-examination of Dr. Stein,” he said.

“I thought I would take the rest of this afternoon on redirect. This is quite a surprise.”

“What are you telling me, Mr. Haller?” the judge asked, his tone already set with consternation.

“My next witness is my DNA expert coming in from New York. She doesn’t land until four o’clock.”

“Do you have a witness you can take out of order and bring in after lunch?”

“No, Your Honor.”

“Very well.”

The judge was clearly unhappy. He turned and addressed the jury, telling its members that they were finished for the day. He told them to go home and avoid any media coverage of the trial and to be back in the morning at nine.

Everyone waited until the jurors had filed into the assembly room and then the judge turned his frustration on Haller.
“Mr. Haller, I think you know, I don’t like working half days when I have scheduled full days.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“You should have brought your witness in yesterday so that she would be available no matter how things progressed in the case.”

“Yes, Your Honor. But that would have meant paying for another night in a hotel and, as the court knows, I’m handling this case pro bono.”

“Then maybe you should have chosen a local DNA expert. Court is adjourned until nine o’clock tomorrow. Have your witness ready at that time, Mr. Haller, or there will be consequences.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

The judge got up and left the bench.

 

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Prologue

Yukon Quest Trail

Where Woodchopper Creek met the Yukon River, blown snow whipped across the ice like big white sheets curling and unfurling on a mile-long clothesline. Trail markers lay like fallen soldiers, splintered by the dogsleds that had come through before me. We were traveling on the frozen Yukon River, and I was in the first stages of a gripping panic. Miles ago, Lance and his team had been just ahead of me. But now they were a long, dark ghost in the far distance, already across the entire river valley from us. The next team was a day behind us, and the trail was disappearing. At the head of my twelve-dog team, my lead dog Solo hopscotched from one patch of snow to the next, linking them together over slippery, wind-polished glare ice peppered with sharp shale. His nose was to the ground as he sniffed for the scent of teams who had come before us, giving him hints about where to go. But the wind was blowing away their trail one gust at a time. It was a chinook—incessant and warm, heralding a new weather system that was sweeping in and erasing the extreme cold of the past week. My giant white windbreaker flapped loudly, whipping against my body, catching air like a sail. But as we hugged turns in the river and thus became sheltered from the wind, last week’s remnant −40°F cold seeped up from the Yukon—a bitter reminder of the fickle flux of this place. Alongside the frozen ramparts of jagged, jammed-up ice, the dogs’ ears perked up and they stared down at the trail. Out of the wind, it was quiet enough that they could hear water pulsing a few feet below us, under the ice. It was frightening, and I imagined my sled crashing through the ice and falling into the river. And now that Lance was leaving me behind, there would be no one to help us. Ahead, the Yukon was a cracked and expansive sea, claiming the entire landscape.

As Lance’s team surged and disappeared into the distance, my team kept stopping for one reason or another. The dogs found prior teams’ snacks on the ground and stopped to chew them out of the ice. They mouthed their booties, ripping off the Velcro fasteners, and the booties had to be replaced. They played with their partners and then got tangled. I became unreasonably short with them, telling them we needed to keep up. I began panicking about falling too far behind and being alone. The more I worried, the less motivated the dogs became. I stopped and pulled on my parka, realizing a reset was needed as the insidious cold infiltrated my layers. Attitude was every-thing, and I knew that I needed to believe in my dogs. And seven hundred miles into a one-thousand-mile race, I had no reason not to. We had all gotten ourselves this far, hadn’t we?

As the sun descended behind a gunmetal wall of lenticular clouds, shards of light glowed on the distant mountains behind us. But for us, it would be into the dark. Into the clouds and into the wind. For us, it would never be the easier of two ways. Hadn’t I learned by now that nothing worth doing was easy? The dogs faced forward as another gust ruffled their fur. They were silent, patient, composed, self-possessed. They were on an adventure. They were on a new trail. They were not scared. I looked at my sled and saw that it had everything we needed to survive out here. Everything I had learned in an entire lifetime was within my power. I was capable. We needed no one.

I stood on the runners of my sled and looked forward. I snugged my fleece neck gaiter up around my nose and it smelled like my unbrushed teeth, raw meat, dog shit. Before us stretched some of the most lonesome country on earth. It was huge and thrilling, and we were a part of it. An understanding rippled like a current from the dogs to me, and from me back to them. Without a word, they jolted forward, leaning into their harnesses as we glided into the coming night. The only witnesses to our silent transformation were the wolves who traveled wraithlike on the periphery, welcoming us in their way to a lone wildness.

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CHAPTER

ONE

 

Simon sat on a bench in Central Park—in Strawberry Fields, to be more precise—and felt his heart shatter. No one could tell, of course, at least not at first, not until the punches started flying and two tourists from Finland of all places started screaming while nine other park visitors from a wide variety of countries caught the whole horrible incident on smart-phone video.

But that was still an hour away.

There were no strawberries in Strawberry Fields and you’d be hard-pressed to call the two-and-a-half-acre landscaped grounds a field (singular), let alone more than one, but the name was derived not from anything literal but from the eponymous Beatles track. Strawberry Fields is a triangular-shaped area off Seventy-Second Street and Central Park  West dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, who was shot and killed across the street. The centerpiece of this memorial is a round mosaic of inlaid stones  with a simple caption in the middle:

 

IMAGINE

 

1

 

Simon stared straight ahead,  blinking,  devastated.  Tourists streamed in and snapped photos with the famed mosaic—group shots, solo selfies, some kneeling on the inlaid stone, some lying down on it. Today, as it is most days, someone had decorated the word imagine with fresh flowers, forming a peace sign of red rose petals that somehow didn’t blow away. The visitors—maybe because the place was a memorial—were patient with one another, waiting their turn to step toward the mosaic for that special photo that they’d post on their Snapchat or Instagram or whatever social media platform they favored with some John Lennon quote, maybe a Beatles lyric or something from the song about all the people living life in peace.

Simon wore a suit and tie. He hadn’t bothered to loosen the tie after leaving his office on Vesey Street in the World Financial Center. Across from him, also sitting near the famed mosaic, a—what do you call them now? vagrant? transient? drug-addled? mentally ill? panhandler? what?—played Beatles songs for tips. The “street musician”—a kinder name perhaps—strummed an out-of-tune guitar and sang in a cracked voice through yellowing teeth about how Penny Lane was in her ears and in her eyes.

Odd or at least funny memory: Simon used to walk past this mosaic all the time when his children were young. When Paige was maybe nine, Sam six, Anya three, they would head from their apartment only five blocks south of here, on Sixty-Seventh Street between Columbus and Central Park West, and stroll across Strawberry Fields on their way to the Alice in Wonderland statue by the model-boat pond on the east side of the park. Unlike pretty much every other statue in the world, here children were allowed to climb and crawl all over the eleven-foot-tall bronze figures of Alice and the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit and a bunch of seemingly inappropriate giant mushrooms. Sam and Anya loved to do just that, swarming the figures, though Sam at some point always stuck two fingers up Alice’s bronze nostrils and screamed at Simon, “Dad! Dad, look! I’m picking Alice’s nose!” to which Sam’s

 

2

 

mother, Ingrid, would inevitably sigh and mutter, “Boys,” under her breath.

But Paige, their firstborn, had been quieter, even then. She would sit on a bench with a coloring book and intact crayons— she didn’t like it when a crayon broke or the wrapper came off— and always, in an ironic metaphor, stayed within the lines. As she grew older—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—Paige would sit on a bench, just as Simon was doing now, and write stories and song lyrics in a notebook her father had bought her at the Papyrus on Columbus Avenue. But Paige wouldn’t sit on just any bench. Something like four thousand Central Park benches had been “adopted” via big-money donations. Personalized plaques were installed on the benches, most of them simple memorials like the one Simon now sat on, which read:

 

IN MEMORY OF CARL AND CORKY

Others, the ones Paige gravitated toward, told little stories:

For C & B—who survived the Holocaust and began a life in this city . . .

To my sweetie Anne—I love you, I adore you, I cherish you.

Will you marry me? . . .

This spot is where our love story began on April 12, 1942 . . .

The bench that Paige most preferred, the one she’d sit on for hours on end with her latest notebook—and maybe this was an  early indicator?—memorialized a mysterious tragedy:

The beautiful Meryl, age 19. You deserved so much better & died so young. I would’ve done anything to save you.

 

3

 

Paige would move from bench to bench, read the inscriptions, find one to use as a story prompt. Simon, in an attempt to bond, tried to do that too, but he didn’t have his daughter’s imagination. Still, he sat with his newspaper or fiddled with his phone, checking the markets or reading the business news, as Paige’s pen moved in a flurry.

What happened to those old notebooks? Where were they now?

Simon had no idea.

“Penny Lane” mercifully came to an end, and the singer/pan- handler segued right into “All You Need Is Love.” A young couple sat on the bench next to Simon. The young man stage-whispered, “Can I give her money to shut up?” to which his female companion snickered, “It’s like John Lennon is being killed all over again.” A few people dropped some coins into the woman’s guitar case, but most people stayed clear or backed away making a face that indicated they had gotten a whiff of something of which they wanted no part.

But Simon listened and listened hard, hoping to find some semblance of beauty in the melody,  in the song, in the lyrics,      in the performance. He barely noticed the tourists or their tour guides or the man who wore no shirt (but should) selling water bottles for a dollar or the skinny guy with the soul patch who told a joke for a dollar (“Special: 6 Jokes for $5!”) or the old Asian  woman burning incense to honor John Lennon in some vague way or the joggers, the dog walkers, the sunbathers.

But there was no beauty in the music. None.

Simon’s eyes stayed locked on the panhandling girl mangling John Lennon’s legacy. Her hair was matted clumps. Her cheekbones were sunken. The girl was rail-thin, raggedy, dirty, damaged, homeless, lost.

She was also Simon’s daughter Paige.

 

—————

 

4

 

Simon had not seen Paige in six months—not since she had done the inexcusable.

It had been the final break for Ingrid.

“You leave her be this time,” Ingrid had told him after Paige ran out.

“Meaning?”

And then Ingrid, a wonderful mother, a caring pediatrician who dedicated her life to helping children in need, said, “I don’t want her back in this house.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do, Simon. God help me, I do.”

For months, without Ingrid’s knowledge, he’d searched for Paige.  Sometimes his attempts were well organized, like when he hired the private investigator. More often, his efforts were hit-and-miss, haphazard, consisting of walking through dangerous drug-infested areas, flashing her photograph to the stoned and unsavory.

He’d come up with nothing.

Simon had wondered whether Paige, who had recently celebrated her birthday (how, Simon wondered—a party, a cake, drugs? Did she even know what day it was?), had left Manhattan and gone back to that college town where it all began to go wrong. On two separate weekends, when Ingrid was on shift at the hospital and thus wouldn’t be able to ask too many questions, Simon had driven up and stayed at the Craftboro Inn next to the campus. He walked the quad, remembering how enthusiastically all five of them—Simon, Ingrid, incoming freshman Paige, Sam, and Anya—had arrived and helped settle Paige in, how he and Ingrid had been so cockeyed optimistic that this place would be a great fit, all this wide-open green space and woodland for the daughter who had grown up in Manhattan, and how, of course, that optimism withered and died.

Part of Simon—a part he could never give voice to or even admit existed—had wanted to give up on finding her. Life had, if

 

5

 

not improved, certainly calmed since Paige ran away. Sam, who had graduated from Horace Mann in the spring, barely mentioned his older sister. His focus had been on friends and graduation and parties—and now his sole obsession was preparing for his first year at Amherst College. Anya, well, Simon didn’t know how she felt about things. She wouldn’t talk to him about Paige—or pretty much anything else. Her answers to his attempts at conversation consisted of one word, and rarely more than one syllable. She was “fine” or “good” or “’k.”

Then Simon got a strange lead.

His upstairs neighbor Charlie Crowley, an ophthalmologist downtown, got into the elevator with Simon one morning three weeks back. After exchanging the usual neighborly pleasantries, Charlie, facing the elevator door as everyone does, watching the floors tick down, shyly and with true regret, told Simon that he “thought” he had seen Paige.

Simon, also staring up at the floor numbers, asked as nonchalantly as possible for details.

“I might have seen her, uh, in the park,” Charlie said.

“What, you mean like walking through?”

“No, not exactly.” They reached the ground floor. The doors slid open. Charlie took a deep breath. “Paige . . . was playing music in Strawberry Fields.”

Charlie must have seen the bewildered look on Simon’s face. “You know, um, like for tips.”

Simon felt something inside him rip. “Tips? Like a—”

“I was going to give her money, but. . .”

Simon nodded that it was okay, to please continue.

“ . . . but Paige was so out of it, she didn’t know who I was. I worried it would just go . . .”

Charlie didn’t have to finish the thought. “I’m sorry, Simon. Truly.”

That was it.

Simon debated telling Ingrid about the encounter, but he

 

6

 

didn’t want to deal with that particular fallout. Instead he started hanging around Strawberry Fields in his spare time.

He never saw Paige.

He asked a few of the vagrants who played if they recognized her, showing a photo off his phone right before he tossed a couple of bills into their guitar case. A few said yes and would offer more details if Simon made that contribution to the cause somewhat more substantial. He did so and got nothing in return. The majority admitted that they didn’t recognize her, but now, seeing Paige in the flesh, Simon understood why. There was almost no physical overlap between his once-lovely daughter and this strung-out bag of bones.

But as Simon sat in Strawberry Fields—usually in front of an almost-humorously ignored sign that read:

 

A QUIET ZONE—NO AMPLIFIED SOUND

OR MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS

 

—he had noticed something odd. The musicians, all of whom leaned heavily on the grungy-transient-squalid side, never played at the same time or over one another. The transitions between one street guitarist and the next were remarkably smooth. The players changed on the hour pretty much every hour in an orderly fashion.

Like there was a schedule.

It took Simon fifty dollars to meet a man named Dave, one of the seedier street musicians with a huge helmet of gray hair, facial hair that had rubber bands in it, and a braided ponytail stretching down the middle of his back. Dave, who looked to be either a badly weathered midfifties or an easier-lived seventy, explained how it all worked.

“So in the old days, a guy named Gary dos Santos . . . you know him?”

“The name is familiar,” Simon said.

 

7

 

“Yeah, if you walked through here back in the day, boy, you’d remember him. Gary was the self-appointed Mayor of Strawberry Fields. Big guy. Spent, what, twenty years here keeping the peace. And by keeping the peace, I mean scaring the shit out of people. Dude was crazy, you know what I’m saying?”

Simon nodded.

“Then in, what, 2013, Gary dies. Leukemia. Only forty-nine. This place”—Dave gestured with his fingerless gloves—“goes crazy. Total anarchy without our fascist. You read Machiavelli? Like that. Musicians start getting in fights every day. Territory, you know what I’m saying?”

“I know what you’re saying.”

“They’d try to police themselves, but come on—half these guys can barely dress themselves. See, one asshole would play too long, then another asshole would start playing over him, they’d start screaming, cursing, even in front of the little kids. Sometimes they’d throw punches, and then the cops would come, you get the deal, right?”

Simon nodded that he did.

“It was hurting our image, not to mention our wallets. So we all came up with a solution.”

“What’s that?”

“A schedule. An hour-to-hour rotation from ten a.m. to seven p.m.”

“For real?”

“Yes.”

“And that works?”

“It ain’t perfect, but it’s pretty close.”

Economic self-interest, thought Simon the financial analyst. One of life’s constants. “How do you sign up for a slot?”

“Via text. We got five regular guys. They get the prime times.

Then other people can fill in.”

“And you run the schedule?”

“I do.” Dave puffed out his chest in pride. “See, I know how to

 

8

 

make it work, you know what I’m saying? Like I never put Hal’s slot next to Jules because those two hate each other more than my exes hate me. I also try to make it what you might call diverse.”

“Diverse?”

“Black guys, chicks, spics, fairies, even a couple of Orientals.” He spread his hands. “We don’t want everyone thinking all bums are white guys. It’s a bad stereotype, you know what I’m saying?”

Simon knew what he was saying. He also knew that if he gave Dave two one-hundred-dollar bills torn in half and promised to give him the other halves when Dave told him when his daughter signed up again, he would probably make progress.

This morning, Dave had texted him:

 

11AM today. I never told you. I ain’t a snitch.

Then:

But bring my money at 10AM. I got yoga at 11.

 

So here he was.

Simon sat across from Paige and wondered whether she would spot him and what to do if she bolted. He wasn’t sure. He’d figured that his best bet was to let her finish up, pack up her measly tips and guitar, make his approach.

He checked his watch. 11:58 a.m. Paige’s hour was coming to an end.

Simon had rehearsed all kinds of lines in his head. He had already called the Solemani clinic upstate and booked Paige a room. That was his plan: Say whatever; promise whatever; cajole, beg, use whatever means necessary to get her to go with him.

Another street musician in faded jeans and ripped flannel shirt entered from the east and sat next to Paige.  His guitar case was a black plastic garbage bag. He tapped Paige ’s knee and pointed to an imaginary watch on his wrist. Paige nodded

 

9

 

as she finished “I Am the Walrus” with an extended “goo goo g’joob,” lifted both arms in the air, and shouted, “Thank you!” to a crowd that was not even paying attention, let alone applaud-  ing. She scooped the few pathetic wrinkled singles and coins up and then lowered her guitar into the case with surprising care. That simple move—lowering that guitar into the case—hit him hard. Simon had bought that Takamine G-Series guitar for her at the Sam Ash on West Forty-Eighth Street for her sixteenth birthday. He tried to conjure up the feelings to go with the memory—Paige’s smile when she plucked it off the wall, the way she closed her eyes as  she  tested  it  out,  how  she  threw her arms around his neck and shouted, “Thank you, thank you,  thank you!” when he told her it was hers.

But the feelings, if they were real, wouldn’t come.

The awful truth: Simon couldn’t even see the little girl any- more.

Oh, for the past hour he had tried. He tried again now to    look at her and conjure up the angelic child he’d taken to swim classes at the 92nd Street Y,  the one who sat on a hammock out in the Hamptons while he read her two full  Harry Potter books over the three-day Labor Day weekend, the little girl who insisted on wearing her Statue-of-Liberty Halloween costume complete with green face two weeks early, but—and maybe it  was a defense mechanism—none of those images would come  to him.

Paige stumbled to a stand. Time to make his move.

Across the mosaic, Simon stood too. His heart pounded hard against his rib cage. He could feel a headache coming on, like giant hands were pressing in against both his temples. He looked left, then right.

For the boyfriend.

Simon couldn’t say exactly how it all started spiraling, but he blamed the boyfriend for the scourge brought on his daughter and

 

10

 

by extension his entire family. Yes, Simon had read all about how an addict has to take responsibility for her own actions, that it was the addict’s fault and the addict’s fault alone, all of that. And most addicts (and by extension, their families) had a tale to tell. Maybe their addiction started with pain medication after an operation. Maybe they traced it back to peer pressure or claimed that one-time experimentation had somehow evolved into something darker.

There was always an excuse.

But in Paige’s case—call it a weakness of character or bad parenting or whatever—it all seemed somewhat simpler:

There was Paige before she met Aaron. And Paige now.

Aaron Corval was scum—obvious, unsubtle scum—and when you blended scum and purity, the purity was forever sullied. Simon never got the appeal. Aaron was thirty-two years old, eleven years older than his daughter. In a more innocent time, this age difference had concerned Simon. Ingrid had shrugged it off, but she was used to such things from her modeling days. Now, of course, the age difference was the least of it.

There was no sign of Aaron.

A small bird of hope took flight. Could Aaron finally be out of the picture? Could this malignancy, this cancer, this parasite who fed off his daughter have finished his feast and moved on to a more robust host?

That would be good, no question about it.

Paige started east toward the path across the park, her gait a zombie-like shuffle. Simon started to make his move.

What, he wondered, would he do if she refused to go with him? That was not only a possibility but a  likelihood. Simon had tried to get her help in the past, and it had backfired. He couldn’t force her. He knew that. He’d even had Robert Previdi, his brother-in-law, try to get a court order to have her committed. That hadn’t worked either.

Simon came up behind her now. Her worn sundress hung too

 

11

 

loosely off her shoulders. There were brown spots—sun? illness? abuse?—on her back, blotting the once-flawless skin.

“Paige?”

She didn’t turn around, didn’t so much as hesitate, and for a brief second, Simon entertained the fantasy that he had been wrong, that Charlie Crowley had been wrong, that this disheveled bag of bones with the rancid smell and shot voice was not his firstborn, not his Paige,  not the teenager who played Hodel in   the Abernathy Academy production of Fiddler on the Roof, the one who smelled like peaches and youth and broke the audience’s heart with her “Far from the Home I Love” solo. Simon had never made it through one of her five performances without welling   up, nearly breaking into sobs when Paige’s Hodel turned to Tevye and said, “Papa, God alone knows when we shall see each other again,” to which her stage father replied, “Then we will leave it in His hands.”

He cleared his throat and got closer. “Paige?”

She slowed but did not turn around. Simon reached out with a trembling hand. Her back still faced him. He rested his hand on the shoulder, feeling nothing but dried bone covered by papery skin, and tried one more time.

“Paige?”

She stopped.

“Paige, it’s Daddy.”

Daddy. When was the last time she had called him Daddy? He had been Dad to her, to all three kids, for as long as he could remember, and yet the word just came out. He could hear the crack in his voice, the plea.

She still wouldn’t turn toward him.

“Please, Paige—”

And then she broke into a run.

The move caught him off guard. Paige had a three-step lead when he snapped into action. Simon had recently gotten himself into pretty good shape. There was a health club next to his office

 

12

 

and with the stress of losing his daughter—that was how he looked at it, as losing her—he had become obsessed with various cardio-boxing classes during his lunch hour.

He leapt forward and caught up to her pretty quickly. He grabbed Paige by the reedlike upper arm—he could have circled the flimsy bicep with his index finger and thumb—and yanked her back. The yank may have been too hard, but the whole thing— the leaps, the reach—had just been an automatic reaction.

Paige had tried to flee. He had done what was necessary to stop her.

“Ow!” she cried. “Let go of me!”

There were loads of people around, and some, Simon was sure, had turned at the sound of her cry.  He didn’t care, except it added urgency to his mission. He would have to act fast now and get her out of here before some Good Samaritan stepped into “rescue” Paige.

“Honey, it’s Dad. Just come with me, okay?”

Her back was still to him. Simon spun her so that she would have to face him, but Paige covered her eyes with the crook of her arm, as though he were shining a bright light in her face.

“Paige? Paige, please look at me.”

Her body stiffened and then, suddenly, relaxed. Paige lowered her arm from her face and slowly turned her gaze up at him. Hope again took flight. Yes, her eyes were sunken deep into the sockets and the color was yellow where it should have been white,   but now, for the first time, Simon thought that maybe he saw a flicker—life—there too.

For the first time, he saw a hint of the little girl he once knew. When Paige spoke, he could finally hear the echo of his daughter: “Dad?”

He nodded. He opened his mouth, closed it because he felt too overwhelmed, tried again. “I’m here to help you, Paige.”

She started to cry. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.”

 

13

 

He stretched out his arms to sweep his daughter into safety, when another voice sliced through the park like a reaper’s scythe.

“What the fuck . . . ?”

Simon felt his heart drop. He looked to his right. Aaron.

Paige cringed away from Simon at the sound of Aaron’s voice. Simon tried to hold on to her, but she pulled her arm loose, the guitar case banging against her leg.

“Paige . . .” Simon said.

But whatever clarity he had seen in her eyes just a few seconds ago shattered into a million pieces.

“Leave me alone!” she cried.

“Paige, please—”

Paige started to backpedal away. Simon reached out for her arm again, a desperate man falling off a cliff and trying to grasp a branch, but Paige let out a piercing scream.

That turned heads. Lots of them. Simon did not back away.

“Please, just listen—”

And then Aaron stepped between them.

The two men, Simon and Aaron, were eye to eye. Paige cowered behind Aaron. Aaron looked strung-out, wearing a denim jacket over a grungy white T-shirt—the latest in heroin chic minus the chic. He had too many chains around his neck and had that stubble that aimed for fashionable but fell way short, and work boots, which were always an ironic look on someone who wouldn’t recognize a day of honest work if it kicked him in the groin.

“It’s okay, Paige,” Aaron said with a smooth sneer, still meeting Simon’s gaze. “You just keep moving, doll.”

Simon shook his head. “No, don’t. . . ”

But Paige, almost using Aaron’s back for leverage, pushed off and started to sprint down the path.

“Paige?” Simon shouted. “Wait! Please just—”

 

14

 

She was getting away. Simon veered right to go after her, but Aaron slid with him, blocking his path.

“Paige is an adult,” Aaron said. “You got no right—”

Simon cocked his fist and punched Aaron straight in the face.

He could feel the nose give way under his knuckles, heard the break like a boot stomping on a bird’s nest. Blood flowed.

Aaron went down.

That was when the two tourists from Finland screamed.

Simon didn’t care. He could still see Paige up ahead. She turned to the left, off the pavement and into the trees.

“Paige, wait!”

He jumped to the side of the fallen man and started toward her, but from the ground, Aaron grabbed his leg. Simon tried to pull free, but now he could see other people—well-meaning but confused people—approaching, a lot of them, some taking videos with their damn phones.

They were all shouting and telling him not to move.

Simon kicked free, stumbled, got his legs back. He started down the path, down toward where Paige had veered off.

But it was too late now. The crowd was on him.

Someone tried to tackle him up high. Simon threw an elbow. He heard the tackler make an oof noise and his grip slackened. Someone else wrapped their arms around Simon’s waist. Simon pulled him off like a belt, still running toward his daughter, still moving like a halfback with defenders all over him toward the goal line.

But eventually, there were too many of them.

“My daughter!” he screamed. “Please . . . just stop her . . . ”

No one could hear over the commotion, or perhaps they simply weren’t listening to the violent madman who had to be taken down.

Another tourist jumped on him. Then another.

As Simon finally began to fall, he looked up and saw his daughter back on the path. He landed with a crash. Then, because

 

15

 

he tried to get back up, blows rained down on him. A lot of them. When it was all over, he would have three broken ribs and two broken fingers. He would have a concussion and need twenty-three stitches in total.

He didn’t feel a thing, except for the ripping in his heart.

Another body landed on him. He heard shouts and screams and then the police were on him too, flipping him onto his stomach, digging a knee into his spine, cuffing him. He looked up one more time and spotted Paige staring from behind a tree.

“Paige!”

But she didn’t come to him. Instead she slipped away as, once again, Simon realized that he had failed her.

 

16

 

 

 

CHAPTER

TWO

 

For a while, the cops just left Simon facedown on the asphalt with his hands cuffed behind his back. One cop—she was female and black with a nametag that read—HAYES—bent down and calmly told him that he was under arrest and then read him his rights. Simon thrashed and screamed about his daughter, begging someone,  anyone,  to stop her.  Hayes just kept reciting the Miranda rights.

When Hayes finished, she straightened up and turned away.  Simon started screaming about his daughter again. No one would listen, possibly because he sounded unhinged, so he tried to calm himself and conjure up a more polite tone.

“Officer? Ma’am? Sir?”

They all ignored him and took statements from witnesses. Several of the tourists were showing the cops videos of the incident, which, Simon imagined, did not look good for him.

“My daughter,” he said again. “I was trying to save my daughter. He kidnapped her.”

The last part was a quasi lie, but he hoped for a reaction. He didn’t get one.

Simon turned his head left and right, looking for Aaron. There was no sign of him.

 

17

 

“Where is he?” he shouted, again sounding unhinged. Hayes finally looked down at him. “Who?”

“Aaron.”

Nothing.

“The guy I punched. Where is he?”

No answer.

The adrenaline rush began to taper off, allowing a nauseating level of pain to flow through his body.  Eventually—Simon had no idea how much time had passed—Hayes and a tall white cop with the nametag white hoisted him up and drag-walked him to a squad car. When he was in the backseat, White took the driver’s side,  Hayes the passenger.  Hayes,  who  had  his  wallet in  her  hand,  turned  around  and  said,  “So  what  happened,  Mr. Greene?”

“I was talking to my daughter. Her boyfriend got in the way. I tried to move around him . . .”

Simon stopped talking.

“And?” she prompted.

“Do you have her boyfriend in custody? Can you please help me find my daughter?”

“And?” Hayes repeated.

Simon was crazed, but he wasn’t insane. “There was an altercation.”

“An altercation.”

“Yes.”

“Walk us through it.”

“Walk you through what?”

“The altercation.”

“First tell me about my daughter,” Simon tried. “Her name is Paige Greene. Her boyfriend, who I believe is holding her against her will, is named Aaron Corval. I was trying to rescue her.”

“Mm-hmm,” Hayes said. Then: “So you punched a homeless guy?”

“I punched—” Simon stopped himself. He knew better.

 

18

 

“You punched?” Hayes prompted.

Simon didn’t reply.

“Right, that’s what I thought,” Hayes said. “You got blood all over you. Even on your nice tie. That a Hermès?”

It was, but Simon didn’t say anything more. His shirt was still buttoned all the way to the throat, the tie ideally Windsored.

“Where is my daughter?”

“No idea,” Hayes said.

“Then I don’t have anything else to say until I speak to my attorney.”

“Suit yourself.”

Hayes turned back around and didn’t say anything else. They drove Simon to the emergency room at Mount Sinai West on Fifty-Ninth Street near Tenth Avenue, where they took him immediately to X-ray. A doctor wearing a turban and looking too young to get into R-rated films put Simon’s fingers into splints and stitched up his scalp lacerations. There was nothing to be done  for the broken ribs, the doctor explained, other than “restrict activity for six weeks or so.”

The rest was a surreal whirlwind: the drive to Central Booking at 100 Centre Street, the mug shots, the fingerprints, the holding cell. They gave him a phone call, just like in the movies. Simon was going to call Ingrid, but he decided to go with his brother-in-law Robert, a top Manhattan litigator.

“I’ll get someone over there right away,” Robert said. “You can’t handle it?”

“I’m not criminal.”

“You really think I need a criminal—?”

“Yeah, I do. Plus Yvonne and I are at the shore house. It’ll take me too long to get in. Just sit tight.”

Half an hour later, a tiny woman in her early to mid seventies with curly blonde-to-gray hair and fire in her eyes introduced her- self with a firm handshake.

“Hester Crimstein,” she said to Simon. “Robert sent me.”

 

19

 

“I’m Simon Greene.”

“Yeah, I’m a top-notch litigator, so I pieced that together. Now repeat after me, Simon Greene: ‘Not guilty.’ ”

“What?”

“Just repeat what I said.”

“Not guilty.”

“Beautiful, well done, brings tears to my eyes.” Hester Crim- stein leaned closer. “Those are the only words you’re allowed to say—and the only time you’ll say those words is when the judge asks for a plea. You got me?”

“Got you.”

“Do we need to do a dry rehearsal?”

“No, I think I got it.”

“Good boy.”

When they headed into the courtroom and she said, “Hester Crimstein for the defense,” a buzz started humming through the court. The judge raised his head and arched an eyebrow.

“Counselor Crimstein, this is quite the honor. What brings you to my humble courtroom?”

“I’m just here to stop a grave miscarriage of justice.”

“I’m sure you are.” The judge folded his hands and smiled. “It’s nice to see you again, Hester.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“You’re right,” the judge said. “I don’t.”

That seemed to please Hester. “You’re looking good, Your Honor. The black robe works on you.”

“What, this old thing?” “Makes you look thin.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” The judge sat back. “What does the defendant plead?”

Hester gave Simon a look.

“Not guilty,” he said.

Hester nodded her approval. The prosecutor asked for five thousand dollars in bail. Hester did not contest the amount.

 

20

 

Once they went through the legal rigmarole of paperwork and bureaucracy and were allowed to leave, Simon started for the front entrance, but Hester stopped him with a hand on his forearm.

“Not that way.”

“Why not?”

“They’ll be waiting.”

“Who?”

Hester pressed the elevator button, checked the lights above the doors, said, “Follow me.”

They hit the steps and took them down two levels. Hester started leading him toward the back of the building. She picked up her mobile.

“You at the Eggloo on Mulberry, Tim? Good. Five minutes.”

“What’s going on?” Simon asked.

“Odd.”

“What?”

“You keep talking,” Hester said, “when I specifically told you not to.”

They headed down a dark corridor. Hester led the way. She turned right, then right again. Eventually they reached an employee entrance. People were flashing badges to come in, but Hester just barreled through to exit.

“You can’t do that,” a guard said.

“Arrest us.”

He didn’t. A moment later, they were outside. They crossed Baxter Street and cut through the green of Columbus  Park,  passed three volleyball courts, and ended up on Mulberry Street.

“You like ice cream?” Hester asked.

Simon did not reply. He pointed to his closed mouth.

Hester sighed. “You have permission to speak.”

“Yes.”

“Eggloo has a Campfire S’mores ice cream sandwich that’s to die for. I told my driver to grab two for the ride.”

 

21

 

The black Mercedes was waiting in front. The driver had the ice cream sandwiches. He handed one to Hester.

“Thanks, Tim. Simon?”

Simon shook off the other. Hester shrugged. “All yours, Tim.” She took a bite of her own and slipped into the backseat. Simon got in next to her.

“My daughter—” Simon began.

“The police never found her.”

“How about Aaron Corval?”

“Who?”

“The guy I punched.”

“Whoa whoa, don’t even joke around about that. You mean the guy you allegedly punched.”

“Whatever.”

“Not whatever. Not even in private.”

“Okay, I got it. Do you know where—?”

“He took off too.”

“What do you mean, ‘took off ’?”

“What part of ‘took off ’  is confusing? He ran away before the police could learn anything about him. Which is good for you. No victim, no crime.” She took another bite and wiped the corner of her lips. “The case will go away soon enough, but . . . Look, I got a friend. Her name is Mariquita Blumberg. She’s a ballbuster—not a sweetheart like me. But she’s the best handler in the city. We need Mariquita to get on your PR campaign right away.”

The driver started up the car. The Mercedes started north and turned right on Bayard Street.

“PR campaign? Why would I need—?”

“I’ll tell you in a minute, but we don’t need the distraction right now. First tell me what happened. Everything. From beginning to end.”

He told her. Hester turned her small frame to face him. She was one of those people who raise the phrase “undivided attention”

 

22

 

into an art form. She had been all energy and movement. Now that energy was more like a laser beam pointed directly at him. She was focusing on every word with an empathy so strong he could reach out and touch it.

“Oh man, I’m sorry,” Hester said when he finished. “That truly sucks.”

“So you understand.” “I do.”

“I need to find Paige. Or Aaron.”

“I’ll check again with the detectives, but like I said, my understanding is that they both ran off.”

Another dead end. Simon’s body started to ache. Whatever defense mechanisms, whatever chemical responses that delay if not block pain were eroding in a hurry. Pain didn’t so much ebb through as flow in.

“So why do I need a PR campaign?” Simon asked.

Hester took out her mobile phone and started futzing with it. “Hate these things. So much information and so many uses, but mostly it ruins your life. You have kids, right? Well obviously. How many hours a day do they spend. . . ” Her voice drifted off. “Not the time for that particular lecture. Here.”

Hester handed him the phone.

Simon saw that she’d brought up a YouTube video with 289,000 views. When he saw the screenshot preview and read the title, his heart sank:

 

PROSPERITY PUNCHES POVERTY

WALL STREET WALLOPS VAGABOND

DADDY WARBUCKS DESTROYS THE DESTITUTE

BROKER BOPS BUM

“HAVE” HITS “HAVE-NOT”

 

23

 

He flicked his eyes up at Hester, who gave him a sympathetic shrug. She reached across and tapped Play with her index finger. The video had been taken by someone with the screen name ZorraStiletto and posted two hours ago. ZorraStiletto had been panning up from three women—perhaps his wife and two daughters?—when some kind of disturbance drew his attention. The lens jerked to the right, regaining focus with ideal timing on a pompous-looking Simon—why the hell hadn’t he changed out of that suit or at least loosened the goddamn tie?—just as Paige was pulling away from him and Aaron was stepping up to get between them. It looked, of course, as though a rich, privileged, suited man was accosting (and maybe worse) a much younger woman, who was then being rescued by a stand-up homeless guy.

As the scared, fragile young woman cowered behind her savior’s back, the man in the suit started screaming. The young woman ran away. The man in the suit tried to push past the homeless guy and follow her. Simon knew, of course, what he was about to see. Still he watched, wide-eyed and hopeful, as though there were a chance that the suited man would not be moronic enough to actually pull back his fist and punch the brave homeless man straight in the face.

But that was exactly what happened.

There was blood as the kindly homeless Samaritan crumpled to the pavement. The uncaring rich man in the suit tried to step over the rubble of him, but the homeless Samaritan grabbed his leg. When an Asian man in a baseball cap—another Good Samaritan no doubt—entered the fray, the suited man elbowed him in the nose too.

Simon closed his eyes. “Oh man.” “Yep.”

When Simon opened his eyes again, he ignored the cardinal rule for all articles and videos: Never ever read the comment section.

 

24

 

“Rich guys think they can get away with stuff like this.”

“He was going to rape that girl! Lucky that hero stepped in.”

“Daddy Warbucks should get life in jail. Period.”

“I bet Richie Rich gets off. If he was black, he would have been shot.”

“That guy who saved that girl is so brave. If the mayor lets this rich guy buy his way to freedom.”

 

“Good news,” Hester said. “You do have a few fans.” She took the phone, scrolled down, pointed.

 

“The homeless guy is probably on food stamps. Congrats to the suit for cleaning up the trash.”

“Maybe if that smelly meth bum gets a job instead of living off the dole, he won’t get decked.”

 

The profile avatars of his “supporters” had either eagles or American flags on them.

“Terrific,” Simon said. “The psychos are on my side.”

“Hey, don’t knock it. A few might be on the jury. Not that this is going to a jury. Or even a trial. Do me a favor.”

“What?”

“Hit the Refresh button,” Hester said.

He wasn’t sure what she meant, so Hester reached across and hit the arrow at the top. The video reloaded. Hester pointed to the viewer count. It had jumped up from 289,000 views to 453,000   in the last, what, two minutes.

“Congrats,” Hester said. “You’re a viral hit.”

 

25

 

 

 

CHAPTER

THREE

 

 

Simon stared out the window, letting the familiar green of the park blur in front of him. When the driver made the left off Central Park West onto West Sixty-Seventh Street, he heard Hester mutter, “Uh-oh.” Simon turned.

News vans were double-parked in front of his apartment. Maybe two dozen protestors stayed behind blue wooden-horse barriers that read:

 

POLICE LINE—DO NOT CROSS
NYPD

 

“Where’s your wife?” Hester asked.

Ingrid. He had completely forgotten about her or what her reaction might be to all this. He also realized that he had no idea what time it was. He checked his watch. Five thirty p.m.

“At work.”

“She’s a pediatrician, right?”

He nodded. “At New York–Presbyterian at 168th Street.”

“What time does she finish?”

 

26

 

“Seven tonight.”

“Does she drive home?”

“She takes the subway.”

“Call her. Tim will pick her up. Where are your kids?”

“I don’t know.”

“Call them too. The firm has an apartment in midtown. You guys can stay there tonight.”

“We can get a hotel.”

Hester shook her head. “They’ll find you if you do that. The apartment will be better, and it’s not like we don’t charge.”

He said nothing.

“This too shall pass, Simon, if we don’t feed the fire. By tomorrow, the next day at the latest, the loonies will all be on to the newest outrage. America has zero attention span.”

He called Ingrid, but with her working in the emergency room today, it went directly into her voicemail. Simon left her a detailed message. Then he called Sam, who already knew all about it.

Sam said, “The video’s gotten over a million hits.” His son seemed both startled and impressed. “I can’t believe you punched out Aaron.” Then he repeated: “You.”

“I was just trying to get to your sister.”

“Everyone’s making it sound like you’re some rich bully.”

“That’s not what happened.”

“Yeah I know.”

Silence.

“So this driver, Tim, will pick you up—”

“That’s okay. I’ll stay with the Bernsteins.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it okay with his parents?”

“Larry says it’s no problem. I’ll just go home with him after practice.”

“Okay, if you think that’s best.”

“It’ll just be easier.”

 

27

 

“Yeah, that makes sense. If you change your mind though . . .”

“Right, got it.” Then Sam said in a softer voice, “I saw . . . I mean, Paige in that video . . . she looked . . .” More silence.

“Yeah,” Simon said. “I know.”

Simon tried his daughter Anya three times. No answer. Eventually he saw on his caller ID that she was calling him back. When he picked up though, it wasn’t Anya on the line.

“Hey, Simon, it’s Suzy Fiske.”

Suzy lived two floors below him. Her daughter Delia had been going to the same schools as Anya since Montessori when they were both three.

“Is Anya okay?” he asked.

“Oh, she’s fine. I mean, don’t worry or anything. She’s just really upset. You know, about that video.”

“She saw it?”

“Yeah, you know Alyssa Edwards? She was showing it to all the parents during pickup, but the kids had already . . . you know how it is. All the tongues wagging.”

He did. “Can you put Anya on, please?”

“I don’t think that’s a great idea, Simon.”

I don’t give a shit what you think, he thought, but wisely enough—learning curve after his earlier outburst?—he didn’t actually say it out loud.

This wasn’t Suzy’s fault anyway.

He cleared his throat and aimed for his calmest tone. “Could you please ask Anya to get on the line?”

“I can try, Simon, sure.” She must have turned away from the phone, because the sound was tinnier now, more distant. “Anya, your dad would like . . . Anya?” Now all sound was muffled. Simon waited. “She just keeps shaking her head. Look, Simon, she can stay here as long as you need. Maybe you can try later or maybe Ingrid could give her a call when she’s off work.”

There was indeed no reason to push it. “Thanks, Suzy.”

 

28

 

“I’m really sorry.”

“I appreciate your help.”

He pressed the End button. Hester sat next to him, staring straight ahead with her ice cream sandwich.

“I bet you wish you’d taken that ice cream when I offered it to you, right?” Then: “Tim?”

“Yes, Hester.”

“You have that extra ice cream in the cooler?”

“I do.” He handed it back to her.

Hester took out the sandwich and showed it to him.

Simon said, “You’re billing me for the ice creams, aren’t you?”

“Not me personally.”

“Your firm.”

She shrugged. “Why do you think I push them so hard?”

Hester handed the ice cream to Simon. He took a bite, and for a few seconds, it was better.

But that didn’t last.

 

—————

 

The law firm apartment was located in a  business tower one floor beneath Hester’s office, and it showed. The carpets were beige. The furniture was beige. The walls were beige. The accent pillows . . . beige.

“Great interior decorating, don’t you think?” Hester said.

“Nice if you like beige.”

“The politically correct term is ‘earth tones.’”

“Earth tones,” Simon said. “Like dirt.”

Hester liked that one. “I call it Early American Generic.” Her phone buzzed. She checked the text. “Your wife is on her way. I’ll bring her up when she arrives.”

“Thanks.”

Hester left. Simon risked a peek at his phone. There were too many messages and missed phone calls. He skipped them all

 

29

 

except the ones from Yvonne, both his partner at PPG Wealth Management and Ingrid’s sister. He owed her some sort of explanation. So he texted her:

 

I’m fine. Long story.

 

He saw the little dots showing Yvonne was writing him back:

 

Anything we can do?

 

No. Might need coverage tomorrow.

 

No worries.

 

I’ll fill you in when I can.

 

Yvonne’s reply was some comforting emojis telling him that there was no pressure and that all would be good.

He scanned the rest of the messages.

None from Ingrid.

For a few minutes he paced around the apartment’s beige carpeting, checked out the view from the windows, sat on a beige couch, stood again, paced some more. He let the calls go to voice- mail until he saw one coming in from Anya’s school. When he picked it up and said, “Hello,” the caller sounded startled.

“Oh,” a voice Simon recognized as belonging to Ali Karim, the principal of Abernathy Academy, said, “I didn’t expect you to answer.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Anya is fine. This isn’t about her.”

“Okay,” Simon said. Ali Karim was one of those academics who wore it—tweed blazers with patches on the elbow, unruly mutton- chops on the sides of his face, balding with too-long shocks of hair on the crown. “So what can I do for you, Ali?”

 

30

 

“This is a bit sensitive.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s about the parent charity ball next month.” Simon waited.

“As you know, the committee is meeting tomorrow night.”

“I do know,” Simon said. “Ingrid and I are co-chairs.”

“Yes. About that.”

Simon felt his hand tighten around the phone. The principal wanted him to say something, to dive into the silence. Simon didn’t.

“Some of the parents feel it’s best you not come tomorrow.”

“Which parents?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Why not?”

“Simon, don’t make this harder than it has to be. They’re upset about that video.”

“Aww,” Simon said.

“Pardon?”

“Is that all, Ali?”

“Uh, not exactly.”

Again he waited for Simon to fill the silence. Again Simon didn’t.

“As you know, the charity ball this year is raising funds for the Coalition for the Homeless. In light of the recent developments, we feel that perhaps you and Ingrid shouldn’t continue as co-chairs.”

“What recent developments?”

“Come on, Simon.”

“He wasn’t homeless. He’s a drug dealer.”

“I don’t know about that—”

“I know you don’t,” Simon said. “It’s why I’m telling you.”

“—but perception is often more important than reality.”

“Perception is often more important than reality,” Simon repeated. “Is this what you guys teach the kids?”

 

31

 

“This is about doing what’s best for the charity.”

“The ends justify the means, eh?”

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

“You’re some educator, Ali.”

“It seems that I offended you.”

“More like disappointed, but okay, whatever. Just send us back our check.”

“Pardon?”

“You didn’t make us co-chairs because of our winning personalities. You made us co-chairs because we donated big bucks for this ball.” He and Ingrid hadn’t given the money strictly because they believed in the cause. Things like this—it’s rarely about the cause. The cause is a by-product. It’s about sucking up to the school and the administrators like Ali Karim. If you want to support a cause, support a cause. Do you really need the enticement of some boring rubber-salmon dinner where you honor a random rich guy to get you to do the right thing? “Now that we’re no longer co-chairs . . .”

Ali’s tone was incredulous. “You want to take back your charitable donation?”

“Yep. I’d prefer if you overnighted the check, but if you want to send it two-day express, that’s fine too. Have a great day, Ali.”

He hung up and chucked the phone onto the beige pillow on the beige couch. He’d still give the money to the charity—he couldn’t be that much of a hypocrite—just not via the school’s fundraising ball.

When he turned around, Ingrid and Hester were standing there, watching him.

“Personal rather than legal advice,” Hester said. “Don’t engage with anyone for a few hours, okay? People have a tendency to be rash and stupid under this kind of pressure. Not you, of course. But better safe than sorry.”

Simon stared at Ingrid. His wife was tall with a regal bearing, high cheekbones, short blonde-to-gray hair that always looked in

 

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vogue. In college she’d worked a bit as a model, her look described as “aloof, icy Scandinavian,” and that was still probably the first impression, which made her career choice—pediatrician who needed to be warm with kids—a bit of an anomaly. But kids never saw her that way. They loved and trusted Ingrid immediately. It was uncanny, the way they saw straight to her heart.

Hester said, “I’ll leave you guys to it.”

She didn’t specify what “it” referred to, but maybe she didn’t have to. When they were alone, Ingrid shrugged a what-the-hell and Simon launched into the story.

“You knew where Paige was?” Ingrid asked.

“I told you. Charlie Crowley said something to me.”

“And you followed up. Then this other homeless guy, this Dave—”

“I don’t know if he’s homeless. I just know he runs the schedule for the musicians.”

“You really want to play semantics with me now, Simon?”

He did not.

“So this Dave . . . he told you that Paige was going to be there?”

“He thought she might, yes.”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

“I didn’t know for sure. Why upset you if it was nothing?”

She shook her head.

“What?”

“You never lie to me, Simon. It’s not what you do.”

That was true. He never lied to his wife and in a sense, he wasn’t lying here, not really, but he was shading the truth and that was bad enough.

“I’m sorry,” Simon said.

“You didn’t tell me because you were afraid I’d stop it.”

“In part,” Simon said.

“Why else?”

“Because I’d have to tell you the rest of it. How I’d been searching for her.”

 

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“Even though we both agreed that we wouldn’t?”

Technically he hadn’t agreed. Ingrid had more or less laid down the law, and Simon hadn’t objected, but now didn’t seem the time for that kind of nuance.

“I couldn’t. . . I couldn’t just let her go.”

“And what, you think I could?”

Simon said nothing.

“You think you hurt more than I do?”

“No, of course not.”

“Bullshit. You think I was being cold.”

He almost said, “No, of course not” again, but didn’t part of him think that?

“What was your plan, Simon? Rehab again?”

“Why not?”

Ingrid closed her eyes. “How many times did we try . . . ?”

“One time too few. That’s all. One time too few.”

“You’re not helping. Paige has to come to it on her own. Don’t you see that? I didn’t ‘let her go’”—Ingrid spat out the words— “because I don’t love her anymore. I let her go because she’s gone—and we can’t bring her back. Do you hear me? We can’t. Only she can.”

Simon collapsed on the couch. Ingrid sat next to him. After some time passed, she rested her head on his shoulder.

“I tried,” Simon said.

“I know.”

“And I messed up.”

Ingrid pulled him close. “It’ll be okay.”

He nodded, even as he knew it wouldn’t be, not ever.

 

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CHAPTER

FOUR

 

Three Months Later

 

Simon sat across from Michelle Brady in his spacious office on the thirty-eighth floor directly across the street from where the World Trade Center towers once stood. He had

seen the towers fall on that terrible day, but he never talked about it. He never watched the documentaries or news updates or anniversary specials. He simply couldn’t go there. In the distance on the right, over the water, you could see the Statue of Liberty. It was small out there, dwarfed by all the closer high-rises, bobbing alone in the water, but she looked fierce, torch held high, a green beacon, and while Simon had long grown tired of most of his view—no matter how spectacular, if you see the same thing every day, it grows stale—the Statue of Liberty never failed to offer comfort.

“I’m so grateful,” Michelle said with tears in her eyes. “You’ve been a good friend to us.”

He wasn’t a friend, not really. He was a financial advisor, she his client. But her words touched him. It was what he wanted to hear, how he himself viewed his job. Then again, wasn’t he a friend?

Twenty-five years ago, after the birth of Rick and Michelle

 

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Brady’s first child, Elizabeth, Simon had set up a custodial account so that Rick and Michelle could start saving for college.

Twenty-three years ago, he helped them structure a mortgage for their first home.

Twenty-one years ago, he got their paperwork and affairs in order so they could adopt their daughter Mei from China.

Twenty years ago, he helped Rick finance a loan to start a specialized printing service that now served clients in all fifty states.

Eighteen years ago, he helped Michelle set up her first art studio.

Over the years, Simon and Rick talked about business expansion, about direct depositing paychecks, about whether he should become a C corporation and what retirement plan would work best, about whether he should lease or buy a car, about whether private school for the girls would be affordable or too big a stretch. They talked investments, portfolio balance, the company payroll, the cost of family vacations, the purchase of the fishing cabin by the lake, a kitchen upgrade. They had set up 529 accounts and reviewed estate plans.

Two years ago, Simon helped Rick and Michelle figure out the best way to pay for Elizabeth’s wedding. Simon had gone, of course. There had been lots of tears on that day as Rick and Michelle watched their daughter walk down the aisle.

A month ago, Simon ended up sitting in the same pew in the same church for Rick’s funeral.

Now Simon was helping Michelle, still reeling from losing her life partner, learn how to do the little things she’d left Rick to handle: balancing a checkbook, setting up charge cards, seeing what funds had been in joint and separate accounts, not to mention  how to keep the business running or decide whether they should sell.

“I’m just glad we can help,” Simon said.

“Rick prepared for this,” she said.

“I know.”

 

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“Like he knew. I mean, he always seemed so healthy. Were there any health issues he hid from me? Did he know, do you think?”

Simon shook his head. “I don’t, no.”

Rick had died of a massive coronary at age fifty-eight. Simon wasn’t an attorney or an insurance agent, but part of being someone’s wealth manager was to prepare the estate for any eventuality. So he talked about it with Rick. Like most men his age, Rick had been reluctant to consider his own mortality.

Simon felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He had a strict rule: No interruption when he was with clients. Not to get highfalutin about it, but when people came to this office, they wanted to talk about something that meant a great deal to them.

Their money.

Pooh-pooh it all you want. Money may not buy happiness, but. . . well, nonsense. Money, pretty much more than anything else you might be able to control, can conjure up and elevate that elusive ideal we call happiness. Money eases stress. It provides better education, better food, better doctors—some level of peace of mind. Money provides comfort and freedom. Money buys you experiences and conveniences and most of all, money buys you time, which, Simon had realized, was right up there with family and health.

If you believe that—and even if you don’t—the person you chose to handle your finances was up there with choosing a doctor or clergyman, though Simon would argue that your wealth manager was even more involved in your daily life. You work hard. You save. You plan. There are virtually no major life decisions you make that are not in some way based on your finances.

It was an awesome responsibility when you stepped back and thought about it.

Michelle Brady deserved his undivided attention and complete focus. So the pocket phone-buzz was a signal that something important was up.

 

37

 

He surreptitiously glanced at the computer screen. A message had come up from their new assistant, Khalil:

 

A POLICE DETECTIVE IS HERE TO SEE YOU.

 

He stared at the message long enough for Michelle to notice.

“You okay?” she asked him.

“I’m fine. It’s just . . .” “What?”

“Something has come up.”

“Oh,” Michelle said. “I can come back . . .”

“Can you just give me two seconds to . . . ?” He gestured toward the phone on his desk.

“Of course.”

Simon lifted the receiver and pressed Khalil’s line.

“A Detective Isaac Fagbenle is on his way up to see you.”

“He’s in the elevator?”

“Yes.”

“Keep him in reception until I tell you.”

“Okay.”

“Do you have the credit card forms filled out for Mrs. Brady?”

“Yes.”

“Have her sign them. Make sure that the cards are issued for her and Mei today. Show her how the automatic payment works.”

“Okay.”

“I should be done by then.”

Simon hung up the phone and met Michelle’s eyes. “I’m really sorry about this interruption.”

“It’s okay,” she said.

No, it wasn’t. “You know about my, uh, situation from a few months ago.”

She nodded. Everyone knew. Simon had joined the pantheon of viral video villains, up there with the dentist who shot the lion and the racist lawyer who had the meltdown. The morning shows

 

38

 

on ABC, NBC, and CBS had fun with it the day after it happened. Cable news too. As Hester Crimstein had predicted, the notoriety had burned hot for a few days and then quickly faded to near oblivion by the end of the month. The video shot up to 8 million views in the first week. Now, nearly three months later, it was still short of 8.5.

“What about it?” Michelle asked.

Maybe he shouldn’t go there. Then again, maybe he should. “There’s a cop on his way up here to see me.”

If you expect your clients to open up to you, well, was it fair to make that street one-way? It wasn’t Michelle’s business, of course, except that now he was interrupting her time and so he felt that she had the right to know.

“Rick said the charges were dropped.”

“They were.”

Hester had been right about that too. There had been no sign of either Aaron or Paige in the past three months, and with no victim, there was no case. It also didn’t hurt that Simon was fairly well-off or that Aaron Corval, as Simon soon found out to his chagrin if not surprise, had a fairly extensive criminal record. Hester and the Manhattan DA made a deal quietly, away from prying eyes.

Nothing signed, of course. No obvious quid pro quo. Nothing so gauche. But then again, hey, there was a fundraising campaign coming up, if Simon and Ingrid wanted to attend. Principal Karim had also reached out two weeks after the incident. He didn’t directly apologize but wanted to offer his support, reminding Simon that the Greenes were part of the Abernathy Academy “family.” Simon was all set to tell him to go fuck off, but Ingrid reminded him that Anya would be entering her freshman year there soon, so Simon smiled and returned the check and life continued.

The one small caveat was that the Manhattan DA wanted to wait a bit before he officially dropped the charges. The incident

 

39

 

needed to be far enough in the rearview mirror that the media wouldn’t notice or ask too many questions about privilege or any of that.

“Do you know why the police are here?” Michelle asked.

“No,” Simon said.

“You should probably call your attorney.”

“I was thinking the same thing.”

Michelle stood. “I’ll leave you to it.”

“I’m really sorry about this.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Simon’s office had a glass wall looking into the cubicles. Khalil walked by and Simon nodded for him to come in.

“Khalil will get you all set with the paperwork. When I’m done with this police officer—”

“Just take care of yourself,” Michelle said.

She shook his hand across the desk. Khalil escorted her out. Simon took a deep breath. He picked up his phone and called Hester Crimstein’s office. She got on the line fast.

“Articulate,” Hester said.

“What?”

“That’s how a friend answers his phone. Never mind. What’s up?”

“A cop is here to see me.”

“Where is here?”

“My office.”

“Seriously?”

“No, Hester, this is a prank call.”

“Great, wiseasses are my favorite clients.”

“What should I do?”

“Asswipes,” she said.

“What?”

“Those asswipes know I’m your attorney of record. They shouldn’t approach you without calling me first.”

“So what should I do?”

 

40

 

“I’m on my way. Don’t talk to him. Or her. I don’t want to be sexist here.”

“It’s a him,” Simon said. “I thought the DA was dropping the charges—that they had no case.”

“They are and they don’t. Sit tight. Don’t say a word.”

There was a gentle knock on his door and Yvonne Previdi, In- grid’s sister, slid into his office. Yvonne, his sister-in-law, was not quite as beautiful as her model sister—or was that bias on Simon’s part?—but way more fashion obsessed, Yvonne wore a pink pencil skirt with a sleeveless cream blouse and four-inch, gold-studded Valentino pumps.

He had met Yvonne before Ingrid, when they were both in the training program at Merrill Lynch. They had become instant best friends. That was twenty-six years ago. Not long after they finished their training, Yvonne’s father, Bart Previdi, had taken two partners into his growing firm—his daughter Yvonne and his not- yet son-in-law Simon Greene.

PPG Wealth Management—the P’s in the name stood for the two Previdis, the G stood for Greene.

Motto: We Are Honest But Not Very Creative With Names.

“What’s up with the hot cop?” Yvonne asked.

Yvonne and Robert had four kids and lived in the tony New Jersey suburb of Short Hills. For a short time, Simon and Ingrid had tried the suburbs too, moving from their Upper West Side apartment to a center-hall colonial, right after Sam’s birth. They did that because that’s what you did. You lived in the city until you had a kid or two and then you moved out to a nice house with a picket fence and a backyard and good schools and lots of sports facilities. But Simon and Ingrid didn’t like the suburbs. They missed the obvious: the stimulation, the bustle, the noise. You take a walk at night in the big city, there is always something to see. You take a walk at night in the suburbs . . . well, nada. All that open space—the hushed backyards, the endless soccer fields, the town pools, the Little League diamonds—it was all so damned

 

41

 

claustrophobic. The quiet wore on them. So did the commute. After giving it two full years, they moved back into Manhattan.

A mistake in hindsight?

You could make yourself crazy with such questions, but Simon didn’t think so. If anything, the bored kids out in the burbs were acting out and experimenting more than their urban counterparts. And Paige had been fine in high school. It was when she left the big city for the rural-ensconced college—that was when the problems had started.

Or maybe that was rationalization. Who knows?

“You saw him?” Simon asked.

Yvonne nodded. “He just got to reception. Why’s he here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you call Hester?” “Yes. She’s on her way.”

“He’s awfully good-looking.”

“Who?”

“The cop. Looks like he should be on the cover of GQ.”

Simon nodded. “That’s good to know, thanks.”

“You want me to take care of Michelle?”

“Khalil’s on it, but you might want to look in on her.”

“Done.”

Yvonne turned to leave, when a tall black man in a sleek gray suit suddenly blocked the doorway. “Mr. Greene?”

Yep, right out of GQ. The suit didn’t look so much tailored as birthed, created, cultivated for him and only him. It fit like some tight superhero suit or like a second skin. His build was rock solid. He sported a shaved head and perfectly  trimmed  facial hair and big hands and everything about the guy just screamed “cooler than you.”

Yvonne gave Simon a nod that said, “See what I mean?”

“I’m Detective Isaac Fagbenle with the NYPD.”

“You shouldn’t be back here,” Simon said.

He flashed a smile so dazzling Yvonne took a step back. “Yeah,

 

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well, I’m not here for a standard appointment, am I?” He took out his badge. “I’d like to ask you some questions.”

Yvonne didn’t move.

“Hi,” he said to her.

Yvonne waved, speechless for once. Simon frowned.

“I’m waiting for my attorney,” Simon said.

“Would that be Hester Crimstein?”

“Yes.”

Isaac Fagbenle crossed the office and sat uninvited in the chair across from Simon. “She’s good.”

“Uh-huh.”

“One of the best, I hear.”

“Right. And she wouldn’t want us talking.”

Fagbenle arched an eyebrow and crossed his legs. “No?”

“No.”

“So you’re refusing to talk to me?”

“I’m not refusing. I’m waiting for my attorney to be present.”

“So you won’t talk to me right now?”

“Like I said, I’m going to wait for my attorney.”

“And you just expect me to do the same?”

There was an edge in his voice now. Simon glanced at Yvonne.

She’d heard it too.

“Is that what you’re telling me, Simon? Is that your final answer?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean, are you really refusing to talk to me?”

“Only until my attorney gets here.”

Isaac Fagbenle sighed, uncrossed his legs, and stood back up. “Buh-bye then.”

“You can wait in reception.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”

“She should be here soon.”

“Simon? Can I call you Simon, by the way?”

“Sure.”

 

43

 

“You take good care of your clients, don’t you?”

Simon glanced at Yvonne, then back to Fagbenle. “We try.”

“I mean, you don’t waste their money, right?”

“Right.”

“I’m the same. My clients, you see, are the taxpayers of the city of New York. I’m not going to waste their hard-earned dollars reading financial magazines in your reception area. Do you understand?”

Simon said nothing.

“When you and your attorney are available, you can come down to the precinct.”

Fagbenle smoothed down his suit, reached into his jacket pocket, and plucked out a business card. He handed it to Simon.

“Bye now.”

Simon read the card and saw something that surprised him. “The Bronx?”

“Pardon?”

“It says your precinct is in the Bronx.”

“That’s right. Sometimes you guys in Manhattan forget that New York has five boroughs. There’s the Bronx and Queens and—”

“But the assault”—Simon stopped, hit rewind—“the alleged assault took place in Central Park. That’s in Manhattan.”

“Yep, true,” Isaac Fagbenle said, flashing the dazzling smile again, “but the murder? That took place in the Bronx.”

 

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Read an Exclusive Extended Preview of Not The Duke’s Darling

Chapter One

Now this is how it all began.

Long, long ago there lived a powerful prince who had but one child, a daughter.

She was beautiful, haughty, and spoiled, and her name was Rowan.…

—From The Grey Court Changeling

# # #

 

May 1760

London, England

Had someone asked Freya Stewart de Moray at the age of twelve what she expected to be doing fifteen years later, she would’ve listed three things.

One, writing a pamphlet on the greater intelligence of females compared to males—especially males who were brothers.

Two, indulging in as much raspberry trifle as she pleased.

And three, breeding spaniels so that she might have an endless supply of puppies to play with.

She’d been veryfond of puppies at twelve.

But that was before the Greycourt tragedy, which had torn her family apart and nearly killed her eldest brother, Ran.

Everything had changed after the tragedy.

Which was possibly why Freya’s twelve-year-old self could never have predicted what she was actuallydoing at seven and twenty: working as an agent of the ancient secret society of Wise Women.

Freya hurried along the London street toward Wapping Old Stairs. At the last cross street she’d realized that they were being followed. She glanced at her charges. Betsy was a nursemaid only just turned twenty. The girl was red faced and panting, her mouse-brown hair coming down around her damp cheeks, her eyes wide with terror. In the nursemaid’s arms was Alexander Bertrand, the seventh Earl of Brightwater.

Age one and a half.

Fortunately His Minute Lordship was asleep in Betsy’s arms, round cheeks pink and tiny rosebud mouth pursed.

Behind them were two disreputable men who looked very much as if they were stalking Freya and her charges.

Freya racked her brain, trying to think of a plan of escape. The day was sunny. Seagulls screamed above the Wapping streets. She and Betsy walked parallel to the Thames, only blocks away, and the fetid smell of the river was strong in the air.

She estimated that it was less than a quarter mile to Wapping Old Stairs. The street was busy at this time of day. Carts rattled by, filled with foreign goods brought through the Port of London. Smartly dressed merchants and ship captains bumped shoulders with staggering sailors already in their cups. Working-class women made sure to avoid the sailors, while women who worked the streets made sure to accost them.

Freya chanced another look behind.

They were still there.

The two men might simply be traveling in their direction. Or they might have been sent by Gerald Bertrand, Alexander’s paternal uncle, with orders to bring back the baby earl. If they took him, she wouldn’t have a second chance to rescue the toddler.

Or, of course, they might be Dunkelders.

Freya’s pulse picked up at that last thought. The Wise Women had long been hunted by Dunkelders—nasty, superstitious fanatics who knew about the Wise Women and believed they were witches who should be burned.

If the followers were either Dunkelders or Bertrand’s men, she had to do something soon, or they’d never make it to the stairs.

“What is it?” Betsy asked breathlessly. “Why do you keep looking back?”

“We’re being followed,” Freya told her as a huge black carriage came around the corner, moving toward them at a snail’s pace due to the crowded street.

Betsy moaned and hitched His Lordship higher in her arms.

The carriage door bore an ornate gold crest Freya didn’t recognize. Not that it really mattered. They needed safety and a place to hide from the men. Whoever the aristocrat in the carriage was, Freya was certain she could stall him for a minute or two.

That was all they needed.

She seized Betsy’s arm. “Run!”

Freya darted behind the carriage, pulling Betsy along with her. There was a shout from the men following them, and the carriage shuddered to a stop.

On the far side of the carriage she dragged Betsy to the door, wrenched it open, and shoved both nursemaid and baby inside. Freya leaped in, slamming the carriage door behind her.

She landed on hands and knees and looked up.

Betsy was sitting on the floor of the carriage, cowering away from a large yellow dog, who appeared to be regarding the maid with surprise. Miraculously, Alexander, the tiniest earl in all the land, hadn’t woken.

The gentleman beside the dog stirred. “I begyour pardon?”

At least that was what he said. What he quite obviously meantwas, “What the bloody hell?”

Freya tore her gaze from the dog and looked up into cerulean eyes framed by thick black eyelashes. Lounging on the squabs, his legs stretched clear to the opposite seat, was Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe.

The man who had helped destroy her brother Ran.

Freya’s breath seized, her eyes dropped, and she saw something else.

The bastard was wearing Ran’s signet ring.

Her gaze snapped back to his, and she waited for him to shout her name. For her true identity to be revealed after five long years of hiding in London.

Instead his expression changed not at all as he said, “Who are you?”

He didn’t recognize her.

He and Julian Greycourt had been Ran’s best friends. He had seen her every week of her life until the Greycourt tragedy. She’d once vowed to marry the swine. Of course she’d been twelveand that was before he’d nearly gotten Ran killed, but even so.

He didn’t recognize her.

What a complete and utter ass.

Freya straightened her bonnet and glared up at the duke. “You are not Lady Philippa.”

The duke’s eyebrows snapped down. “I—”

“What,” Freya said with rather enjoyable ire, “are you doing in Lady Philippa’s carriage?”

Said carriage lurched and began moving as Alexander woke with a whimper.

Outside a man cursed.

Freya made sure to keep her head below the level of the open window.

Someone pounded on the carriage door.

Harlowe looked from Freya to Betsy and the baby and then back to Freya again.

Holding her gaze, he stood.

Freya stilled.

Betsy and the baby sobbed.

Harlowe leaned over Freya and glanced out the window before shutting it and drawing the curtain. He resumed his seat, a muscle twitching in his jaw as his right hand dropped to the dog’s head. “I don’t know what trouble you might be in or why those brutes are after you.”

Freya opened her mouth, desperately thinking of a story.

The duke held up his hand. “Nordo I care. I’ll take you to Westminster. After that you’re on your own.”

Harlowe was offering to helpthem, two strangers? That didn’t make sense from the man who had so coldheartedly abandoned Ran.

But she had no time to ponder his vagary.

“Thank you,” Freya said, the words like acid etching hatred on her tongue. “But that won’t be necessary.” She looked at Betsy. “I’m going to jump out when next the coach slows. I want you to wait to the count of twenty and then follow.”

“What of the child?” the duke interrupted imperiously. “Surely you don’t wish to endanger the both of them by ordering her to jump from a moving carriage?”

“Then stop the coach for her,” Freya replied sweetly.

For a second they locked gazes. His face was wrathful. Obviously he wasn’t used to being given orders by anyone—a woman least of all.

Too bad.

Freya leaned close to Betsy and murmured in her ear, “Remember to head for Wapping Old Stairs and to look for the woman wearing a black cloak with a gray hood.”

“But what of you?” Betsy whispered frantically.

Freya straightened and gave the girl an encouraging smile. “I’ll find you, never fear.”

“Oh, miss—”

Freya shook her head firmly, bussed the baby earl on his adorably fat cheek, and winked at the duke. “A pleasure, Your Grace.”

Then she leaped from the carriage.

She stumbled when her boots hit the cobblestones, and for a ghastly second she thought she might go under the carriage wheels.

But she recovered.

Just as she heard a shout from behind her.

Freya hitched up her skirts in both hands and ran. She ducked down a road, heading to the river.

Behind her came the clatter of pursuit.

She turned into a narrow alley and skidded to a stop. At the other end was the second man.

Freya spun.

The first man was behind her, closing fast.

She darted into an arched opening to her right, coming out almost at once into a small courtyard enclosed on all sides by the surrounding buildings. The stink of the public privy was near overwhelming. She could see, straight ahead, the back of a tavern.

A man opened the door to the tavern and threw slops to the side.

Freya ran up the steps, pushed past him, and rushed into a steaming kitchen. Two maidservants looked up in astonishment as she ran through. The man at the back door belatedly swore behind her.

She found herself in a dark passage. There was a common room ahead and stairs to her right. She could try to hide in one of the rooms above, but that was a dead end. If they chased her up there, she’d be cornered.

Freya ran through the common room, where, except for a single lewd suggestion, no one paid her any mind. She came out of the front of the tavern onto the wharves. She could see the Thames beyond, the water sparkling in the sun prettily. Of course that was deceiving: the privy she’d just run past would empty directly into the river.

Freya turned to the left, heading east with the river on her right hand. She walked rapidly, for she’d gotten a stitch in her side from running. Her pursuers hadn’t emerged from the tavern. Perhaps she’d lost them.

Perhaps they’d caught Betsy and the baby.

Dear God, no.

A figure emerged from the alley just ahead. Freya started before she recognized Betsy. Relief nearly made her stumble.

The nursemaid was wild eyed. “Oh, thank the Lord I found you, miss. If Mr. Bertrand’s men catch me I don’t know what he’d do.”

“Then we shan’t let that happen,” Freya replied stoutly. She glanced at the earl and found him grinning at her around a fat finger stuck in his mouth. She pressed her lips together. “No, I won’t let either of you fall back into his hands.”

Behind them came a shout.

They’d been found.

“Hurry,” Freya urged, breaking into a jog. She could see the alley that led to Wapping Old Stairs just ahead.

Betsy was praying under her breath.

They weren’t going to make it. The stairs were too far, the men behind them too close.

“Give me the baby,” Freya said.

“Ma’am?” Betsy looked terrified, but she did as Freya ordered.

Freya wrapped her arms around Alexander’s little body. He started to cry, his open mouth wet against her neck. “Run for the stairs!”

Unencumbered by Lord Brightwater, Betsy flew.

The earl was wailing in Freya’s ears as she ran, his body shaking, his little face bright red with distress. If they caught her, she’d be unable to fight them off with the baby in her arms. She’d lose Alexander. His uncle would hide him away behind walls and guards and the laws made by men and she’d never get him back.

Up ahead a figure emerged from the mouth of the alley leading to the stairs. She was short and slight and wearing a black cloak with a gray hood.

She raised her arms, a pistol in each fist.

Freya dove for the ground, landing hard on her shoulder so the baby wouldn’t be hurt.

The blasts were simultaneous and so loud Lord Brightwater stopped crying, his mouth open, his eyes wide as he gasped.

He blinked up at her, tears in his big brown eyes.

Freya kissed him and then checked behind them.

One man was on the ground, swearing. The other had turned tail and run.

When Freya looked back, the Crow was striding to her. “You’re late.” She held out her hand to help Freya up.

“Thank you,” Freya muttered, taking the hand.

Together they hurried to the stairs.

Betsy was there, sobbing in the arms of an elegantly dressed woman with a beauty patch on her upper lip.

“Alexander!” The woman turned to them.

The Earl of Brightwater started struggling in Freya’s arms. “Mama.”

Freya handed the baby to his mother.

“Oh, my precious darling.” The Dowager Countess of Brightwater hugged her only child close, pressing her cheek to his. She looked up at Freya, her eyes shining. “Thank you. You cannot know how much this means to me. I thought I’d never see Alexander again.”

The countess’s fears had nearly come true: her brother-in-law, Mr. Bertrand, had barred her from her son so that he could control both the countess and the estate left to his tiny nephew.

Freya nodded, but before she could draw breath to reply, the Crow said, “Best we leave immediately, my lady. We don’t know if there’s other men behind.”

Lady Brightwater nodded and turned to descend the stairs with Betsy. Freya could see a wherry waiting below.

“She and her servants have passage on a ship to the Colonies,” the Crow murmured. “They’ll be out of her brother-in-law’s influence there.”

“Good,” Freya replied softly. “A child should never be raised without a loving mother if it can be helped.”

The Crow cocked her head at Freya, but said only, “Be in the mews at midnight tonight. I have word.”

She turned and swiftly ran down the stairs.

Freya inhaled. Her part of the matter was finished. She watched as the little party got in the wherry and the wherryman pushed off from the steps. Betsy raised a hand in farewell.

Freya waved back. She’d probably never see Betsy, the adorable earl, or his mother again, but at least she’d know they were safe.

And that was everything.

# # #

 

Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe, stared out the window of his carriage later that day as he traveled toward the West End of London.

His morning had been like any other since he’d returned to England—tedious—until a spitting wildcat had hurled herself into his carriage. He found himself entirely unable to stop thinking of her. She’d been like a splash of cold water to the face: shocking, but also refreshing. And like a splash of water she’d woken him up for the first time in months.

Perhaps years.

The woman had glared up at him from the floor of his carriage with beautiful green-gold eyes and challenged him, indifferent to the disadvantage of her position, literally at his feet.

It had been dumbfounding.

Intriguing.

In the two years since he’d rather implausibly gained the dukedom, he’d almost grown used to the awe, fawning, and frank greed his rank prompted in others. Few if any regarded him as a living, breathing man anymore.

And none treated him dismissively.

Except the wildcat.

She’d worn a plain brown dress and one of those ubiquitous white caps with a ruffle around her equally plain face, hiding both the color and style of her hair. She might’ve been a tavern keeper’s wife or a fishmonger, and had she not opened her mouth, he would’ve assumed her accent to be common. Instead he’d detected both education and a hint of Scotland.

And then there’d been that venomous glare, as if she knew him somehow and had cause to loathe him.

Tess leaned against his thigh as the carriage swayed around a corner.

Christopher absently dropped his hand to her head, rubbing the soft points of her ears between his fingers. “Perhaps she’s mad.”

Tess whined and placed her paw on his knee.

A corner of his mouth lifted. “In any case, no doubt that will be the last we see of her.”

He sighed and once again glanced out the carriage window. They were past Covent Gardens and nearly to Jackman’s Club. After a morning spent in Wapping warehouses, overseeing a new venture in shipping, followed by a tiresome afternoon in the city center, consulting with men of business, Christopher had a strong urge for coffee and an hour or so reading the newspapers in quiet.

And, as always, alone.

For years he’d been exiled from these shores. Had lived in a country with foreign sights and smells and people. And he had thought all that time—thirteen years—that when he returned to England, his birthplace, everything would be different.

That he would be home.

Except when he returned it was to a title too grand. To parents dead and friendships destroyed and turned to dust. To grand manors that echoed with his solitary footsteps when he walked through them.

England was no longer home. All that he could’ve built and loved there had been lost as he spent his youth in India. It was too late to find a home now.

He did not belong anywhere.

# # #

 

Five minutes later Christopher entered Jackman’s with Tess. The livery-clad footman at the door blinked at the dog padding by Christopher’s side, but was far too well trained to make any objection.

Being a duke did have someadvantages.

Jackman’s was fashionable but not too fashionable, and frequented by gentlemen who had lived in India and abroad. The selection of newspapers was one of the best in the city and the main reason he’d become a member.

He found a chair near the fire, had a footman open the window behind him, and was soon immersed in the news, a coffeepot on a small table at his elbow. Tess lay nearly under the table. He’d ordered a plate of muffins with his coffee, and every now and again he dropped a torn-off piece to Tess, who snapped it up.

Christopher was frowning over an account of the battle with the French at Wandiwash in southeast India when someone sat in the chair across from him.

Tess growled.

Christopher tensed. No one bothered him at Jackman’s.

He raised his head and saw that idiot Thomas Plimpton looking nervously at Tess.

Christopher snorted. He’d been back in England for nearly two years now and hadn’t seen Plimpton in four, but unless a miracle had occurred, the man was still the worst sort of coward. Plimpton had startled blue eyes, a round face, and a mouth that always seemed to be half-opened. Oddly these features somehow combined to make the man handsome—at least in ladies’ eyes.

Christopher stared at him.

“Ah…,” Plimpton said, sounding nervous, “might I have a word, Renshaw?”

“Harlowe,” Christopher drawled.

“I…beg your pardon?”

“I am,” Christopher said slowly and precisely, “the Duke of Harlowe.”

“Oh.” Plimpton swallowed visibly. “Y-yes, of course. Erm…Your Grace. Might I have a word?”

“No.” Christopher turned his attention back to the newspaper.

He heard a rustling and glanced up.

Plimpton had a piece of paper in his hand. “I’m in need of funds.”

Christopher didn’t reply. Frankly, he saw no need to encourage the man’s impertinence. Plimpton knew well enough that Christopher despised him—andwhy.

But Plimpton must’ve found a shred of bravery somewhere. He lifted his chin. “I need ten thousand pounds. I’d like you to give it to me.”

Christopher slowly arched an eyebrow.

Plimpton gulped. “A-and if you don’t I shall make public this.”

He shoved the piece of paper at Christopher.

Christopher took it and opened what was obviously a letter. The messy handwriting inside was instantly recognizable and brought a small pang to his heart. Sophy.

His wife had been dead four years, but that didn’t end Christopher’s vow to honor and protect her.

He balled up the letter and flung it into the fire.

The paper immediately caught, flaming brightly before dying almost instantly. Gray ash crumpled into the grate.

“That’s not the only one I have,” Plimpton said predictably.

Christopher waited.

Plimpton still had his chin up, a gallant, defiant look in his eyes. No doubt the man fancied himself some sort of chivalrous knight. He’d certainly cast himself in the role of hero in India. “I have many more letters, hidden in a safe place. A place you won’t be able to find. A-and if something happens to me, I’ve left instructions to publish them.”

Did the idiot think he’d murderhim? Christopher merely looked at the man, but Tess growled again, the sound low and threatening.

Plimpton’s eyes widened, darting to the dog and back up to Christopher’s face. “In a fortnight your brother-in-law, Baron Lovejoy, will hold a house party. I’ve been invited and no doubt you have as well. Bring the money there and in exchange I’ll give you the letters.”

Christopher inhaled and for a moment debated his next action. He despised social events, and a house party by its very premise was a confined affair without respite from fellow guests. He couldrefuse and do something nasty to Plimpton instead, but really in the end paying for the damned letters was the easiest and least complicated course.

Allthe letters.” Christopher made it a statement.

“Y-yes, all the—”

Christopher stood and walked away while Plimpton was still stuttering out his reply, Tess trotting by his side. Better to leave rather than do something he might regret later.

He’d failed Sophy once. He wasn’t about to fail her again.

 

Chapter Two

Rowan had hair the color of flames, skin as white as clouds, and eyes as green as the moss that grew on the riverbanks.

She had three cousins who were her constant companions. They were named Bluebell, Redrose, and Marigold. Rowan was fond of Bluebell and Redrose, but Marigold she loathed.

Why has never been told.…

—From The Grey Court Changeling

# # #

 

Late that evening Freya selected a strand of floss silk and threaded her embroidery needle.

“Whatever are you embroidering, Miss Stewart?” the eldest of the Holland girls, Arabella, asked, leaning over Freya’s arm. They shared a settee together in the sitting room of Holland House.

Freya had been Lady Holland’s companion ever since she’d come to London five years ago to be the Wise Women’s Macha. From the beginning she’d used her middle name, Stewart—a Scottish name to explain her Scottish accent. The Dunkelders knew that women of the de Moray family had been Wise Women for generations, so it was imperative that no one know she was the daughter of the Duke of Ayr.

“It’s a merlin,” Freya replied now, placing a bright scarlet stitch below the raptor.

“What’s it doing?”

“Tearing the heart out of a sparrow,” Freya said serenely.

“Oh.” Arabella looked a little pale. “It’s quite realistic.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Freya said. She smiled down at her violent artwork before glancing at the mantel clock. It was just after ten, which meant she had another two hours before her meeting with the Crow.

Freya’s job as Macha was to gather information, gossip, and news for the Wise Women, the majority of whom lived at their estate near Dornoch in the far north of Scotland. It was the Wise Women like her and the Crow—the ones who lived outside the compound—who were fighting a war against the Dunkelders. A war for survival.

A war for women in Britain to live freely.

“What did you do on your day off, Miss Stewart?” Lady Holland asked absently. She sat in the armchair to Freya’s left and was frowning at her own embroidery, which appeared to be tangled.

“Not anything very exciting, my lady,” Freya replied. She set down her hoop, reached for Lady Holland’s, and started teasing apart the tangled silks.

“Oh, thank you,” Lady Holland said with what sounded like relief. Freya’s employer was a short lady with an unfashionably rounded bosom and a practical, decisive personality, but embroidery defeated her. “And how was your outing with Mr. Trentworth, Regina?”

“He has a new pair of bays and they were simply gorgeous,” Regina said from the chair across from Freya. “Perfectly matched and so high spirited. I begged him to give the team their heads and race about Hyde Park, but he refused.”

“I should think so,” Lady Holland said, but smiled fondly. “I’m pleased that he’s a young gentleman of sense.”

Andhe has a classical profile.” Regina looked dreamy for a moment before straightening. “Mama! Mr. Trentworth said today that he’s thinking of calling on Papa.”

Did he?” Lady Holland’s head came up like that of a greyhound sighting a rabbit. “I shall have to tell your father.”

Regina frowned worriedly. “What do you think he’ll say to Mr. Trentworth?”

“Don’t be silly,” Lady Holland replied. “Mr. Trentworth is of an indisputably good family and has quite a nice income. If he hadn’t your father would’ve sent him packing long before now. He’ll give his blessing to your beau, never fear.”

Regina squealed and Arabella hugged her, but Freya noticed that Lady Holland’s gaze lingered on Arabella. She had a small line between her brows.

“May Arabella and I retire for the night, Mama?” Regina asked, clearly eager to gossip with her sister.

Lady Holland waved her assent and the girls hurried from the room.

Freya handed back the embroidery hoop. There was a silence as Lady Holland frowned down at it.

She cleared her throat, choosing her words carefully. “You disapprove of the match, my lady?” She couldn’t think why her employer would—Lady Holland had already enumerated Mr. Trentworth’s assets, and she’d always seemed fond of the young gentleman. Freya thought that if Regina mustmarry, he was well suited to her.

“Not at all.” But Lady Holland sounded disturbed.

Freya glanced sideways at her. “Then…?”

“I would prefer that Arabella be settled first.” Many mothers wouldn’t particularly care in which order their daughters married, but Lady Holland fretted about Arabella.

“Ah.” Freya bent her head to her own embroidery and reminded herself that the ways of the Wise Women were not the ways of London society ladies—though they really ought to be.

Neither Regina nor Arabella was a great beauty, but both had their mother’s wheat-colored hair and creamy complexion. Regina was the prettier and more vivacious of the two. Arabella had her father’s long face and nose, and his serious manner. She had a dry wit and could speak intelligently on philosophy, literature, and history—none of which were attributes that seemed to attract London aristocrats.

As far as Freya could see, the average London gentleman looked for wealth, a noble lineage, and comeliness.

Things that lay outside a woman rather than within her.

Even dog breeders knew to value intelligence in their animals. Really, it was rather surprising that the English aristocracy hadn’t descended into drooling idiocy.

“If only she had a chance for quiet conversation with an eligible gentleman,” Lady Holland murmured absently. “It’s a pity the London season is ending.”

“Yes, my lady.” Freya hesitated, then said, “Perhaps a country house party?”

“For Arabella, you mean?” Lady Holland narrowed her eyes and then shook her head. “You’re aware Lord Holland dislikes large gatherings. I don’t think I can make him change his mind on the matter, particularly since he considers the country house his retreat.”

Freya nodded thoughtfully. “Then perhaps one of the invitations we’ve already received.”

“Perhaps. We’ll look them over in the morning,” Lady Holland stifled a yawn. “I’m for bed now, though. Are you coming up?”

“Not yet.” Freya indicated her embroidery. “I’d like to finish this bit here.”

Lady Holland shook her head as she rose. “I don’t know how you do it, Miss Stewart. I should be quite blind if I embroidered as well as you.”

Freya permitted herself a small smile. “One must have an interest to occupy one’s time.”

They said their good nights, and then Freya was alone in the sitting room.

She waited, diligently working on the merlin and his meal, and her thoughts turned to the Duke of Harlowe and how she would get the ring back. He’d seemed so certain of his power as he’d sat above her in the carriage, so arrogant. She gritted her teeth. That a man such as he should be able to swan about London while Ran had been all but destroyed by the Greycourt tragedy…

She shook her head. No use thinking of Ran and what he was like now. Better to find a way to bring down the prideful duke. Harlowe had inherited a fabulously wealthy dukedom through sheer luck. Society had been rife with gossip two years ago when the old duke died and Harlowe—a very distant relative—had returned from India. But in all the time since, she’d never seen him at any London social events. Was he shunning society? If so, it might be difficult to run across him again without rousing suspicion. Perhaps if she bribed a servant—

The clock on the mantel struck midnight with a tinkling chime, pulling her from her thoughts.

Freya put her embroidery away in a basket and went into the outer hall.

Everything was quiet.

She crept to the back of the house without a candle—she’d lived here for five years, after all. She slipped out of the door that led to the back garden.

The moon had risen and the garden was cast in black and white, the scent of roses in the air. She took the path straight back to the mews, gravel crunching beneath her slippers. It was chill this late at night and she regretted not fetching a shawl from her room.

The back gate had been oiled and opened smoothly beneath her hand. She made sure to push a rock against the gate to keep it from closing behind her.

It wouldn’t do for prim Miss Stewart to become locked out of the garden after midnight.

Freya stood looking up and down the mews for a minute. She’d just decided to walk toward the road when the Crow emerged from the shadows.

“Lady Freya.”

Freya stilled. “You shouldn’t call me that.”

The Crow drew back her hood. An earring glinted in the mass of her thick black hair. “I’m sorry.”

By rights, as the daughter—and sister—of a duke, Freya should’ve been at the pinnacle of power. Should’ve been able to move among the most influential of London’s elite to do the work of the Macha. But the Greycourt scandal had destroyed all that. The de Moray name had sunk into the mud, the ducal fortunes beggared. Not long after the scandal, Papa had died from the shock, and then she and her sisters, Caitriona and Elspeth, had gone to live with their Aunt Hilda in Dornoch.

It was because of Aunt Hilda that Freya was the Macha. She’d vowed to the old woman to preserve the teachings and the ways of the Wise Women.

That thought brought her back to the present. The Crow’s sharp eyes watched her, black and impossible to read.

Freya frowned at her. “What have you to tell me?”

“You are recalled by the Hags.”

“What?” Freya couldn’t hide her shock. The Hags—three appointed women—were the ruling body of the Wise Women. “Why would the Hags recall me? Are they displeased with my service as the Macha? Do they wish to replace me?”

“Not at all.” The Crow pressed her lips together as if she wished to say more but dared not.

“Then why? It’s imperative that I be in London right now. You know that there’s talk of a new Witch Act before Parliament. What has changed?”

“We have a new Cailleach,” the Crow said carefully, naming one of the positions within the Hags. “She feels that ’twere better if the Wise Women all withdrew to Dornoch.”

Freya stared. “You jest.”

The Crow shook her head. “Nay, my lady.”

“Retire and do what?” Freya demanded. “Forget about all the women who need our help? Pretend we don’t have a sacred duty to right the wrongs of a man-led society? Hide like cowering mice in a nest until the Dunkelders finally discover and burn us all?”

The Crow shrugged, watching her.

Freya’s upper lip curled and she hissed, “If the new Witch Act passes we’ll be hunted by everyone, not just the Dunkelders. There will be tribunals and burnings again. The Wise Women will not survive another great witch hunt.”

know that,” the Crow murmured, “but I am not the Cailleach.”

“And the other two Hags are growing old,” Freya said bitterly. The Hags ruled equally together, but of course if one was a particularly strong personality she could persuade the others to her cause.

The Crow nodded. “I heard the eldest has taken to her bed. They say she hasn’t long and her successor is of a like mind with the Cailleach.”

“What of the Nemain?” Freya asked. The assassin of the Wise Women was used only in the direst of circumstances. “Is she recalled as well?”

“Yes.”

“And you?”

“I will follow you and the Nemain to Dornoch after my work is done,” the Crow said.

Freya squeezed her eyes shut. Think. She’d known there was a movement within the Wise Women to retire entirely from the world of men. She’d just not known how strong it was. If they retreated to Scotland and the Witch Act passed, she truly believed that the Wise Women would be destroyed.

And with them a millennium of knowledge, tradition, and dedication. Aunt Hilda’s knowledge, tradition, and dedication.

She could not let that happen.

Freya opened her eyes to find the Crow waiting patiently, her black gaze fixed on Freya’s face. “Give me a month. Tell the Hags that I’ll return to Dornoch in four weeks. That I cannot leave before then without arousing suspicion.”

The Crow’s brows rose. “What can you do in a month?”

“Listen to me,” Freya said. “Lord Elliot Randolph spearheads the Witch Act in Parliament. I’ve searched these many months for his weakness. He has none that I can find—save possibly one.”

The Crow cocked her head in question.

“His wife,” Freya said. “Lady Randolph suddenly died last year and was buried at his country estate in Lancashire before her family in London was even notified of her death. It seems to me that Lord Randolph might have had a reason to prevent his wife’s family from seeing the body. If I can find evidence that he had a hand in her death, then we can stop him—and with him the new Witch’s Act before it’s ever brought to Parliament.”

The Crow shook her head. “It’s the end of the London season. All the English aristocrats will be deserting the city for their country estates.”

“Yes, they will. Everyone including Lord Randolph.”

“Then how—?”

“Lady Holland has an invitation to a house party at Lord and Lady Lovejoy’s estate.” She met the Crow’s eyes. “In Lancashire. They’re neighbors. The estates adjoin.”

Understanding dawned in the Crow’s face. “You plan to attend the house party.”

Freya grinned fiercely. “Give me a month. I’ll investigate Lady Randolph’s death—and find evidence to destroy Lord Randolph.”

# # #

 

Two weeks later Freya winced as the carriage jolted over a rut in the Lancashire road. She sat facing backward with Regina on one side and Selby, Lady Holland’s middle-aged lady’s maid, on the other. Arabella and Lady Holland were across from them.

They’d been traveling for a week, and everyone was heartily sick of dusty roads, inns with dubiously clean linens, and the constant rattling of the carriage.

“We mustbe nearly there,” Regina said, staring hopefully out the carriage window. “If we drive much further we’ll be in Scotland.”

“Perhaps that’s why Miss Stewart was so keen that you accept Lady Lovejoy’s invitation in particular amongst all the others we received,” Arabella murmured, darting a small smile at Freya.

“Not at all,” Freya replied loftily. “For one thing, Lovejoy House isn’t anywhere near Scotland proper.”

Both Arabella and Regina stifled giggles at that—Scotland and all things Scottish had become something of a jest between them and Freya over the years. Freya felt a sudden pang. She’d lived with the Holland sisters for five years. Had watched them grow from gawky young girls into elegant ladies.

It wouldn’t be easy leaving them or Lady Holland in two weeks.

Freya squared her shoulders. Two weeks to find out what had happened to Lady Randolph.

Two weeks in which to prevent disaster to the Wise Women.

“Why did you choose Lady Lovejoy’s house party, Mama?” Regina asked, interrupting her thoughts. “I thought you were set on Bath this summer?”

“There’ll be more than enough time for Bath later in the summer, my darlings,” Lady Holland replied. “Lady Lovejoy is a particular friend of mine. She assures me that Lord Lovejoy has an extensive stable, and the countryside is wild and romantic around Lovejoy House.” She nodded at Freya. “And finally, our dear Miss Stewart was in favor of the idea.”

“Not to mention Mr. Aloysius Lovejoy will be attending with his friends,” Regina murmured.

Arabella blushed rather splotchily.

Freya hid a smile. The younger Mr. Lovejoy had the most beautiful golden hair she’d ever seen, but beyond that he seemed a kind man. Arabella would need a sensitive gentleman to match her quiet intelligence. It was the prospect of several eligible bachelors that had been the deciding factor for Lady Holland in attending the Lovejoy house party in particular.

“We’ve arrived, my lady.” Selby nodded to the carriage window, and all of them leaned forward to look.

The carriage had stopped to let a gatekeeper pull back the massive iron gates. The man touched his hat as the carriage turned in to a gravel drive.

Lovejoy House stood surrounded by a tended lawn, the better to be admired. The house itself was a red stone building that looked at least several centuries old. It rose arrogantly certain of its place in the cosmos, and for a moment Freya had a longing for her own ancestral home. Ayr Castle was older and bigger than Lovejoy House, a stately gray monolith that no doubt looked arrogant to strangers as well.

But not to her. To her it had been home.

“Oh, someone’s come just before us,” Arabella said, bringing Freya’s attention back to the present.

A black coach with a familiar crest stood before the doors, the coachman still in the box.

Freya schooled her features even as her heart began to thud in her ears. If the master of that coach was who she thought it was, she should be afraid. Worried that her identity would be revealed and her mission imperiled.

Instead she felt herself readying for battle. Her muscles tightening, her senses quickening. Oh, this was a divine gift indeed. She’d not expected him here, would never have guessed he would attend. And yet she could see the booted foot emerge from the carriage, the flash of lace at the masculine wrist. She inhaled leather and mud and the scent of her own body warming.

She felt alive.

Oh, let it be him.

She wanted that ring. She wanted to make him pay.

“Perhaps it’s Mr. Lovejoy,” Regina said, darting an impish look at Arabella.

That’s not Mr. Lovejoy,” her sister replied. “He’s far too broad in the shoulders and too tall.”

The man stood beside the carriage, large and commanding as others scurried around him.

“Do you recognize the crest?” Regina whispered as their carriage drew to a stop.

Lady Holland pursed her lips in thought. “No, but whoever he is, he’s wealthy. That carriage is new.”

Freya’s heart felt as if it had climbed into her throat.

The footman set the step, and then there was the flurry of gathering items and exiting the carriage.

Freya made herself wait. She was the last to leave, ducking her head to clear the carriage doorway.

A male hand appeared before her, wearing Ran’s signet ring. The fingers long, the nails square, and the palm broad and strong.

She inhaled to steady herself and placed her hand in his, stepping down.

“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced,” the Duke of Harlowe rumbled over her head.

She looked up…into cerulean eyes watching her with complete attention. His gleaming chestnut hair was pulled neatly back from his forehead, and he wore a nut-brown suit that made his eyes nearly glow.

Not that she was particularly noticing. “Are you sure, Your Grace?” Oh, this was playing with fire.

His eyes narrowed. How often did anyone question him? “I certainly thought I was.”

“Have you met our chaperone, Miss Stewart, Your Grace?” Regina asked with innocent curiosity.

He cocked his eyebrow at Freya, murmuring too low for Regina to hear, “Have I, Miss Stewart?”

“I believe we met at the Earl of Sandys’s ball,” Freya replied, pulling a story from thin air. “I’m afraid I was so clumsy as to bump into His Grace.”

“I seem to remember you falling at my feet,” Harlowe said, a too-attractive smile playing about his lips. “I do hope you’ve recovered from the incident?”

“Entirely.”

She lowered her gaze and imagined disemboweling him. Vividly.

He nodded in dismissal and turned to Lady Holland. “May I?” he asked, offering his arm.

Lady Holland blushed. “Your Grace is so—”

The yellow dog bounded up and shoved her nose into Freya’s skirts.

Regina stifled a shriek—she’d never liked dogs, having been bitten as a child.

Lady Holland said sharply, “Whose dog is that?”

“Mine.” The duke snapped his fingers. “Tess, come here.”

Tess ignored him, sniffing with great interest all about Freya’s hem. She remembered now that there’d been a friendly cat at their last stop.

Freya glanced up and said blandly, “I don’t believe Tess knows that you’re a duke, Your Grace.”

He sighed. “No, she most certainly doesn’t.”

Freya’s lips twitched before she regained control of them. She held out her hand to the dog—it wasn’t Tess’s fault that she had such a vile man for a master.

The dog snuffled wetly against her fingers and then looked up, letting her jaw hang open in a friendly canine smile as her tail gently waved. Her ears were upright triangles, her eyes and nose black against the dust yellow of her fur, and her head reached nearly to Freya’s hip. She didn’t seem like an aristocratic dog, but then Freya wasn’t sure she’d ever seen a dog exactly like Tess before.

“She’s quite harmless,” Harlowe said, glancing at Regina. “Would you care to meet her?”

Regina visibly hesitated, her hands clutched to her chest.

Tess turned and trotted to her master.

“V-very well,” Regina said.

“Come. Give me your hand,” Harlowe said, and it was amazing how gentle he sounded when Freya knewwhat he was capable of.

Regina held out her trembling hand. The duke took it and bent with her hand in his to let Tess sniff them both. “That’s my girl, Tess. Softly now. What do you think of Miss Holland, then? Will you be friends?”

Freya swallowed. His voice was deep and rumbling as he spoke to the dog, and the sound made her belly tremble.

The cad. Freya tried to look away but found herself strangely loath to do so.

A smile bloomed on Regina’s face when she petted Tess’s head. “Her ears are so soft.” She glanced shyly at Harlowe. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

He bowed gravely, but a corner of his wide mouth quirked. “My pleasure, Miss Holland.”

“Your Grace! I’m so pleased you could come.” Daniel Lovejoy, Baron Lovejoy stood on the steps of his house. He was a man of forty-some years with gray powdered hair. “And Lady Holland. A pleasure as always, ma’am.”

That seemed to be the signal to go inside the house, Freya trailing behind, all but forgotten.

Just the way she liked it.

# # #

 

Two hours later Christopher descended the grand staircase of Lovejoy House to the main floor, Tess padding by his side. He’d had a hot bath and changed his clothes and finally felt rested after a week of travel in a confined carriage. He hoped to find Plimpton and settle this matter as soon as possible. It made his skin itch to know the bastard still had Sophy’s letters. The letters were a last chore—a mess he needed to mop up so he could set Sophy’s memory in order.

They came to a larger hallway, and he could hear male voices nearby.

Christopher pushed open a sky-blue door and entered a room with dark paneling and several groupings of chairs—evidently his brother-in-law’s study. Three gentlemen seated by the fireplace turned to him.

Tess huffed, raising her head alertly.

Absently Christopher dropped his hand to her head.

“Ah, there you are, Harlowe,” Lovejoy said, sounding jovial.

The man was nearly two decades older than his sister had been, and yet the resemblance was marked. Fifteen years ago, when Christopher had married Sophy, he remembered thinking that at a distance Lovejoy and Sophy might’ve been twins, both with round, moonlike faces and impossibly blond hair. Lovejoy powdered his now, so it was difficult to tell if it was still that nearly white color.

Lovejoy stared at Tess as Christopher crossed to him. “Erm…perhaps the dog would be more comfortable in the stables?”

“No,” Christopher said, “she wouldn’t. Thank you for inviting me.”

Lovejoy went a delicate pink, though his next words were obsequious. “Entirely my pleasure, Your Grace. May I present my son, Aloysius Lovejoy?”

The younger man sprang to his feet. He had the Lovejoy white-blond hair, worn in a tail and with fussy curls across his forehead and at his temples. If Christopher didn’t know that the color ran in the family, he would swear it was a wig.

“Your Grace.” Aloysius bowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last. At least, I know I met you when I was but ten at your wedding to Aunt Sophy, but it hasbeen fifteen years. Shall I call you Uncle?”

Christopher eyed the man, wondering if Aloysius was mocking him. The younger Lovejoy looked entirely serious. The man was only eight years younger than Christopher, though Christopher felt much older than Aloysius.

In any case, the request was quite inappropriate.

“I think not.”

Aloysius’s eyebrows flew up, but he didn’t seem particularly put out.

The third man in the room snorted. “Shot down at once. That’ll teach you, Al.”

“And this”—Lovejoy indicated the man—“Is Aloysius’s friend Leander Ashley, Earl Rookewoode.”

The earl was thirty-odd and handsome, with sardonic eyes beneath a white wig. Rookewoode bowed elegantly and with a bit of a flourish. “It’s quite an honor to meet you, Your Grace. I fear you’re not much seen in society. You’ve become almost a legend.”

“Have I?” Christopher murmured dismissively. The truth was that he avoided balls and soirees. The press of bodies made him ill at ease, brought a choking feeling of pressure to his throat, and filled him with the urge to escape to untainted air.

On the whole, he’d rather drink poison than attend a crowded event.

Rookewoode narrowed his eyes at Christopher’s tone, though his grin was quick and charming.

“May I present Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe,” Lovejoy hastily continued. “My late sister’s husband, of course.” He glanced at Christopher. “We were about to join the rest of the party in the small salon.”

Christopher nodded and fell into step beside Lovejoy, Tess loping by his side.

“Have all your guests arrived?” Where the hell was Plimpton?

“Not as yet, Your Grace,” Lovejoy said. “I know Lady Lovejoy will be ecstatic that you’ve deigned to attend our little party. We’ve hardly seen you since you returned from India.”

The last was said with a stiff little smile.

Christopher supposed he was meant to feel guilty.

“My business affairs have kept me busy,” he replied with complete honesty.

“I’m sure, I’m sure,” Lovejoy murmured. “Ah, here we are.”

They’d arrived at a sitting room painted a deep shade of crimson. At one end a fire roared, making the place stuffy and overheated.

The room felt too small.

He took a slow breath, letting his hand fall to Tess’s head.

Christopher scanned the seated crowd, not realizing he was looking for someone until his gaze snagged on Miss Stewart. Even from across the room her eyes seemed to blaze at him, though her prim face was carefully composed.

What was she up to? She seemed perfectly respectable—even boring—in this setting, yet only a fortnight before he’d seen her fleeing two hulking men and leaping recklessly into his carriage. With a baby no less.

He set his questions aside and brought his attention back to the present. There were other people in the room and Lovejoy was introducing each.

He’d already met Lady Caroline Holland and her daughters. Regina was sitting with her mother. Across from them were Arabella and Miss Stewart, who apparently had no Christian name—at least none that he’d been given.

At right angles to the Hollands, Lady Lovejoy shared a settee with Malcolm Stanhope, Viscount Stanhope. The man looked to be under the age of thirty, but he held himself as rigidly as a cantankerous old man.

Lovejoy finished the introductions and Lady Lovejoy turned to Christopher. “Will you take a dish of tea, Your Grace?”

Christopher indicated he would and selected a chair closest to the French doors. They were shut, but they looked as if they led onto a terrace. The prospect of escape was at least near.

Tess crawled under his chair to lie down. Unlike her husband, Lady Lovejoy didn’t bat an eyelash at her guest’s bringing a dog to a country house party. Either she was more liberal than Lovejoy or—more likely—she’d let Christopher do just about anything because of his title.

People usually did. The moment they realized he was a duke they scraped and bowed and stuttered, as if he pissed gold.

As if he were set apart, alone and immune to human contact.

That is, mostpeople treated him that way.

There were exceptions.

At the thought he felt his pulse pick up. He turned his head and caught Miss Stewart staring at him with loathing in her lovely green-gold eyes.

 

Chapter Three

 

One day Rowan and her companions rode deep into the forest until at last they came to a clearing. To one side stood a grotto, beautiful, green, and silent.

The horses shied away.

“They say that Fairyland lies in there,” Marigold whispered, and Redrose and Bluebell looked frightened.

But Rowan said, “Bah! A wifes’ tale. Let us explore inside and prove the tale wrong.”…

—From The Grey Court Changeling

# # #

 

He’d been a skinny boy with a man’s full height at eighteen, but not his weight. He’d looked like a medieval king, his face long, sensitive, and ascetic. And his eyes had been blue, luminous, and beautiful—at least that was how Freya remembered Christopher Renshaw.

She sipped her tea and contemplated the Duke of Harlowe. He was fully formed now, big and solid, his shoulders wide, his calves muscular in his fine stockings as he stretched his legs before him in his chair. His face had filled out into craggy cheekbones and a strong jaw. He was no longer a dreamy poet.

No, now he more closely resembled a warrior king—hardened and merciless. A man who could betray his friend without thought.

A man who still didn’t recognize her.

Well, why should he? she thought rather irritably. When Harlowe had last seen her she’d been a skinny girl in the schoolroom. The younger sister of his great friend Ranulf. Someone he’d had no reason to notice. A child while he’d been a young man and a student at Oxford with Julian Greycourt and Ran.

Freya pressed her lips together to stop them trembling at the memory. They’d been so bright, the three of them, shining like young gods. She’d thought them wonderful, invincible, and now…

Now Ran was crippled because of Julian and Harlowe.

“Does your head ache?” Arabella asked softly beside her.

“No, not at all.” Freya caught herself frowning. She forced a smile and turned to the elder Holland sister. “Have you recovered from the carriage ride this morning?”

“I’m glad to have a bit of a rest from bouncing up and down,” the younger woman replied with feeling.

“What do you think of Lady Lovejoy’s guests?”

“You mean the gentlemen?” Arabella asked with a wry twist to her lips.

Freya winced. “I was trying to be more subtle than that.”

“I don’t know that there’s any point.” The younger woman sounded bitter.

Freya glanced at her quickly.

Arabella gave her a half-hearted smile. “I know Mama wishes me wed before Regina, and with Mr. Trentworth ready to propose…”

She shrugged.

Freya tightened her mouth and silently patted Arabella’s hand, which felt like no comfort at all. Ladies of Arabella’s rank sometimes didn’t wed, but the vast majority did, and Freya knew that Lord Holland expected his daughters to not only wed but wed well.

Freya silently gave thanks that she was a Wise Woman. If she wished to, she could certainly marry and have a family, but it wasn’t an imperative. In fact, were she to wed she might be less welcome at the estate in Dornoch. The Wise Women were very careful about which men they let into their sanctuary.

Freya said, “If you truly dislike everyone you meet here, I have no doubt that your mother will give you time to find another suitor.”

“Yes.” Arabella scanned the gentlemen in the room with an oddly dispassionate eye. “But I’ve had three years to find a husband. She and Father cannot wait on me forever.”

“You sound quite grim.”

Arabella turned and gave her a small curl of the lips. “I’m planning a campaign to find a husband, Miss Stewart. Such things should be done most gravely.”

Freya took a sip of tea, trying to cover her own unease. So many things could go wrong in a marriage, and once the vows were said there was no returning to what freedom there was in maidenhood.

A grave business indeed.

Freya cleared her throat, attempting a lighter note. “Lord Stanhope is quite beautiful, don’t you think?”

Arabella sent her an appalled glance.

Freya tried to look innocent.

“You’re awful,” Arabella whispered. “Lord Stanhope looks like he swallowed a toad. And quite recently.”

Freya repressed a smile. “Perhaps he’s shy.”

Arabella widened her eyes disbelievingly.

“Well, he mightbe.” Freya shrugged. “I’ve noticed that sometimes gentlemen who present a forbidding exterior are simply timid.”

Timid.” Arabella raised a single eyebrow. “Then the duke must be a rabbit. He was kind to introduce Regina to darling Tess, but I would never have guessed him to be so gentlemanly from simply his appearance. He looks as if he might bite one’s head off if his tea wasn’t to his satisfaction.”

Freya glanced at Harlowe before she could stop herself.

He was seated with Lord Lovejoy. Tess was under his chair, watching the assembly alertly, her head on her crossed paws. Harlowe listened with a frown on his face to something their host was saying. As she watched, he glanced at the fire and then the door and shifted in his chair, almost as if he wished to leave the room.

She shook her head at her own ridiculousness. Harlowe was hardly the sort of man to be shyin a gathering. No, Arabella was right.

He did appear rather intimidating.

“I should avoid him were I you,” Freya found herself saying.

“What do you mean?” Arabella asked. “I’ve always thought that when a man has the devotion of a dog it shows his true character, and Tess quite obviously loves the duke.”

The thought of Arabella setting her cap at Harlowe made Freya feel irritable. She glanced back at the girl.

Arabella’s brows were knit.

Freya shook her head. “Dogs are such loving animals, and really it takes little to win them over. Food and companionship, mostly. I don’t think the duke is very nice.” Arabella looked so young in a pretty pale-pink gown. “At least, not nice enough for you.”

“You’re quite cynical on occasion, Miss Stewart,” Arabella said. “Sometimes I wonder if a gentleman hurt you in the past. If there was a beau who spurned you and broke your heart.”

“Alas, nothing so romantic,” Freya said dryly. “What do you think of the younger Mr. Lovejoy? You’ve met him before, I believe.”

Arabella gave her a disconcertingly considering stare. “You always turn the conversation away from yourself. Really, I hardly know anything about your past.”

“There’s not much to know,” Freya said lightly, meeting her gaze.

“Hmm.” Arabella sighed and glanced again at the gentlemen. “As to your question, yes, I danced with Mr. Lovejoy at a ball last winter. Once. He danced with Regina twice.”

Freya ignored the last. “Mr. Lovejoy seems quite nice.”

“Mama would prefer a titled gentleman.”

“Of course,” Freya replied, refraining from rolling her eyes. Naturally the lineage of the prospective groom was more important than whether or not the bride actually liked him. “But Mr. Lovejoy will inherit a barony someday—and quite a wealthy one at that. I think, in the end, Lady Holland wishes above all that you be happy.”

“I know she does, but I also know Papa would like me to marry someone of rank.” Arabella raised her eyes, meeting Freya’s gaze frankly. “I want to make them both proud of me, but I’m not as vivacious as Regina. I don’t know if I canattract a titled gentleman.”

“You can,” Freya said, taking her hand. Arabella’s vulnerability made her heart want to break. “I know you can if you set your mind to it. You are kind and intelligent and very witty when you wish to be. We simply need to find the right gentleman to appreciate you.”

Arabella looked uncertain, and Freya pressed her lips together. She didn’t want to see Arabella hurt.

“Arabella,” Lady Holland called. “Lady Lovejoy has the most intriguing embroidery patterns. Come see.”

Lady Lovejoy had joined Lady Holland on a settee.

“Of course, Mama,” Arabella said obediently, rising to cross and sit with her mother and their hostess.

The fact was that Freya wasn’tcertain the girl could make a suitable match. Titled gentlemen had their pick of aristocratic ladies. What she wished she could tell Arabella was that there was no need to worry. That there was plenty of time for Arabella to find a gentleman who was kind and who loved her for herself.

But the awful reality was that Arabella was expected to marry. To make familial ties for her father and to breed the next generation of aristocrats. The girl really had no choice.

Freya might, on the surface, work as a companion and chaperone—quite near the bottom of aristocratic society—but in reality she had more freedom than any duchess.

Because she was a Wise Woman.

And now she had only a fortnight to save the Wise Women.

She had to find something to hold over Lord Randolph.

Freya sipped from her teacup and scanned the room. Her gaze almost immediately clashed with the duke’s.

He was staring at her, his sky-blue eyes narrowed in what looked like consideration.

The sudden surge of hatred for him caught her off guard. Made her chest so tight it was hard to breathe. Had Harlowe forgotten not only her but Ran as well? It was a thorn in her breast, the knowledge that he was living his life freely and without remorse while her brother Lachlan toiled over the remaining de Moray lands.

While Ran hid himself away from the world.

Across from her, Arabella laughed at something.

Freya glanced over. The girl was smiling at the pattern book Lady Lovejoy was showing her and Lady Holland. If only Arabella could be so relaxed when conversing with a gentleman. Unfortunately she became stiff when—

“Miss Stewart,” a deep voice said next to her.

Freya fancied that she could feel the reverberations to her bones. “Your Grace.”

She turned to find that Harlowe had seated himself in a chair pulled up beside the settee she perched on. He was at a perfectly proper distance. No one could look askance at the fact that he’d sat down beside her. But the point that he was talkingto her might cause comment. She was the hired companion and chaperone. She wasn’t supposed to be noticed at all.

She didn’t wantto be noticed.

And he was well aware of it. There was a gleam in his startlingly blue eyes as he murmured, “I find myself curious, Miss Stewart. I don’t think you are what you seem to be.”

“Are any of us?”

He shrugged. “Perhaps not.”

She smiled, aware that it was closer to a grimace. “What dire secrets do you hide, Your Grace?”

“How do you know I hide any?”

“Intuition?” She tilted her head, studying him, and picked her words carefully. If she mentioned Greycourt, the game would be given away directly. All the same she was tempted to do it. Instead she settled on something more vague. “You’re a gentleman past thirty, widowed, but in the two years since you gained your title you’ve not bothered remarrying.”

“I wasn’t aware that lack of a wife is a suspect state,” he drawled.

“It is for a gentleman who holds such a lofty title. Shouldn’t you be searching for a young, nubile maiden? One you can tie to your side and who will bear for you your heirs? Duty to the dukedom surely demands it.”

His lips curved cynically. “Are you acting as a pander for the Misses Holland?”

“No.” Her reply was curt. No, this man wasn’t for Regina or Arabella. He was a powerful man—a dangerous man. The woman who married him would have to be not only strong but stubborn, able to hold her ground. Not that she would wish marriage to him on anywoman, of course. “I would not recommend you to any young girl.”

“Should I be offended?” His eyes were so blue it was hard to look away.

“Yes.” She lifted her chin. “You are not good enough for them.”

He was very still, and only the tightening of his jaw gave away his ire before he said caustically, “And am I good enough for you, Miss Stewart?”

“I am a companion, Your Grace. You know well enough that you are not for me.” This was too close to flirtation. She could not be distracted by cerulean eyes, blunt conversation, and her own heightened awareness of him. She turned her hand over in her lap, exposing the vulnerable palm. “Tell me. What are your thoughts on revenge?”

Silence.

She glanced up.

He was watching her as if she were a cannon poorly primed. “What an odd question.”

“Is it?” she asked carelessly. “I beg your pardon. I shall return to proper subjects of conversation. The weather is quite pleasant, don’t you think?”

He snorted and said seriously, “I think revenge destroys the soul, Miss Stewart.”

She felt an odd thrill. He’d accepted her conversational gambit. “I disagree. If I am wronged, shouldn’t I seek revenge for it?” She leaned a little toward him, wondering how much further she could push him. When he reached his limit, would he walk away—or turn on her? “What would you do, Your Grace, if you were vilely used, terribly hurt, had everything you held dear taken from you?”

“I would be more careful in the future,” he said slowly, but without hesitation, as if he’d actually mused on the topic before. “And I would try to live my life as honorably as I could.”

For the first time it occurred to her that perhaps he hadbeen wronged at some point. After all, it was fifteen years since she’d last seen him. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the sinner was himself sinned against?

“What a paragon of restraint you are, Your Grace,” she said, sweetly mocking. “You would simply let your tormentor free? Wish him a long and happy life?”

“No, naturally not.” He sighed impatiently. “I am only human. I would want to bring him to justice. But justice is not always possible—or for the greater good. Surely you realize this.”

“I realize that to give up the drive for revenge—or justice, as you put it—is to relinquish a part of oneself,” she said far too passionately. “To succumb to the mundanity of life instead of reaching for the most valiant part of ourselves.”

“You think revenge valiant.” He glanced away from her as if he couldn’t bear to see her face. “And after you have revenged yourself, what then, Miss Stewart?”

She didn’t want him to turn from her. “Then I will have peace.”

His expression when he looked at her was sardonic. “Madam. Have you ever sought peace in your life?”

She couldn’t help the wry twist of her mouth. “Truthfully, no.”

He nodded as if unsurprised. “I thought not. So tell me, who is this man you wish to revenge yourself upon? Was it one of the men chasing you through the streets of east London a fortnight ago?”

Good Lord, had anyone heard him?

She caught her breath at her own idiocy. She wasn’t a shallow girl, to have her head turned by a pair of pretty eyes. This was her enemy. “Do keep your voice down, if you please.”

“Why?” He lounged back, watching her with the dispassionate interest of a tomcat playing with a crippled mouse. “Are you hiding something?”

She widened her eyes. “Obviously.

“What?”

“Why do you think you have any right to ask?” Talking to this man was far too seductive. She was perilously close to giving everything away. Freya took a sip of tea to cover her disquiet.

“Possibly because I didn’tthrow you and your companions from my carriage,” he replied mildly.

“I am forever in your debt,” she snapped.

He paused, his eyes narrowing. “I could simply ask your employer.”

“You could,” she replied, a tight smile firmly in place, “but by doing so you admit that you are unable to handle me by yourself. And then I should know you for a coward.”

He stilled, and she knew she’d found the line.

Found it and crossed it.

“Most people in your position, Miss Stewart,” he said very quietly, “would be careful not to offend me.”

# # #

 

Christopher stared at Miss Stewart, aware that he couldn’t remember when he’d last been this angry. Come to that, he hadn’t felt any emotion so deeply in a long time.

She wasn’t cowed by his ire. Quite the opposite—those green-gold eyes were glittering with almost feverish excitement as she replied, “Your pardon. If you want careful argument, then you must seek it elsewhere.”

“I certainly would be a coward if I left the field to you,” he said softly. “And I assure you, madam, that I am not.”

Her smile this time was quick and real, revealing a dimple on one cheek. He caught his breath at the sight. This, this was what he’d been missing without even realizing it: genuine conversation. Genuine feeling.

In the next second her smile was gone, almost as if she were ashamed of the lapse. “I’ll have to take your word for it, Your Grace.”

Another insult. They seemed to spill off her tongue. What was it about this awful woman that held him so? Her appearance didn’t match her personality at all. On the outside she was dowdy and forgettable, her clothes prim and drab. The cap on her head particularly irritated him—it hid most of her brownish hair and distracted from the rest of her.

“You wear the most ghastly cap,” he said.

One never spoke to a lady in this manner. A gentleman always used polite little lies, glossing over anything that might distress a lady.

He remembered once when he’d tried to talk with Sophy about a maid who was stealing. His wife had been so upset over even the thoughtof reprimanding the maid that she’d taken to bed for the rest of the day. He’d dealt with dismissing the maid himself. Sophy hadn’t seemed to notice beyond commenting on the new maid’s lazy eye.

It had been better all around to live a polite fiction with his wife. A sort of make-believe life in which the truth was never mentioned. In which he always cared for her and her worries, and she existed in a childish state of dependence.

Never an equal adult.

Never a real partner.

Miss Stewart’s acid retorts were refreshing.

Her eyes had widened in something like outrage—certainly not shock. Is she shocked by anything? “How rude to say so, Your Grace.”

He tutted. “A miss, I’m afraid. Have you grown weary, darling?”

Her upper lip curled, baring her teeth, and for a moment he thought she might hit him. He inhaled, strangely anticipatory. Would she throw aside her thin disguise and reveal herself to the sedate sitting room as the warrior she was?

To his disappointment she controlled herself and in the next second was looking at him almost serenely. “I can’t think that you’re an expert in ladies’ millinery fashions. At least not respectable ladies’ fashions.”

He wanted to laugh at her restraint. “Are you attempting to imply I’m a roué, madam?”

She pursed her lips, drawing his attention to her mouth. Undoubtedly she was trying to look proper and disapproving, but she was rather betrayed by her own mouth. She might have the personality of a harpy, but her lips were voluptuously lush. Wide and plump and curved. Naturally tinted pink. Her smile would be glorious. And if she were to use that mouth for other, more erotic tasks…

No, those weren’t the lips of a prude.

And they were parting now. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh my dear,” he said gently. “Have you lost your nerve? Surely you can do better than that feeble riposte. Perhaps you can imply that I have the pox. Or simply stand up and call me a ravisher of women.” He watched her outraged eyes, enchanted. She had the loveliest dark lashes. “You must admit that if nothing else it would enliven the party.”

If he hadn’t been staring at her he might’ve missed it: a slight twitch of those luscious lips. The sight sent a thrill through him. He wanted to make her smile again—that full-fledged smile that brought out her dimple.

“I’ll do no such thing,” Miss Stewart bit out.

“Pity. I don’t see how you’ll make me face my sins otherwise.”

“Perhaps you need to face your sins on your own.”

“Oh, I already have.” He smiled humorlessly as he met her eyes. “I assure you.”

Her eyes narrowed in what looked like grudging curiosity. “What do you mean?”

“Do you think I’d tell you my weaknesses?” he asked softly. “You, my adversary?”

“I’m not your…” She caught herself before she could say it, blinked, and lifted her chin.

A point to him.

“You are.” He smiled. “You’ve taken pains to impress your antagonism upon me.”

“Have I?”

He gazed at her thoughtfully. “I’m not sure how I’ve offended you.”

Aren’tyou?” Her voice was mocking.

His jaw clenched and he said abruptly, “I’m not, you know. A ravisher of women.”

“I suppose I should simply believe you?” she inquired politely. “Because if you werea libertine that is exactlywhat you’d say, you realize.”

“I don’t recollect ever being so insulted,” he said slowly, “by man or woman. Are you trying to goad me into revealing to the party what you were doing in Wapping?”

She made an abrupt movement, then stilled. Her eyes when she looked at him burned. “You have no idea what I was doing in Wapping.”

“No, but I do know you don’t want me speaking about it,” he mused. “Otherwise I think you would’ve told me to go to the Devil. I don’t suppose you’ll tell me?”

“Tell you my secrets?” She arched her brows. “You, my adversary?”

For a moment he savored her repartee—the bright satisfaction in her eyes, the way she leaned a little forward as if waiting for him to bat back a tennis ball.

He let his lips quirk. “No, you’re right. That would be most unwise. For both of us, I think.”

He should stand and leave her. Go speak to another member of the party.

And yet he found something compelling about her, this seemingly ordinary woman.

Or perhaps he simply found her frank animosity refreshing.

He was about to say something else, see if he could make that dimple appear again, but there were footsteps and voices from in the hallway.

Christopher straightened, his attention entirely on the door. Had Plimpton arrived?

Two ladies entered the salon, and Christopher felt a shock of recognition that went straight to his core.

The nearest, a tall, striking woman with black hair, glanced up. For a second her gaze flickered to Miss Stewart, and then it was on him.

She walked toward them, her hands outstretched as her handsome gray eyes widened. “Christopher, darling, it’s been an age since we’ve seen you. How are you?”

# # #

 

The problem with having grown up with a person was that they never forgot that once upon a time one had been a girl.

No matter how old one might be now.

Messalina Greycourt watched as Christopher Renshaw rose from his seat beside Freya. “Messy?

Her eldest brother, Julian, had christened her with the ghastly nickname when she’d been five and he a very superior eleven. Sadly the name had stuck…at least until the events of her twelfth summer, when they’d lost their sister, Aurelia—and with her Julian’s playfulness.

“Not even Julian calls me that anymore,” she replied. “Do you remember my sister, Lucretia?”

Christopher turned to Lucretia. “Of course, though I would never have known you.”

Lucretia curtsied. “I’m so glad. It would be rather lowering if I still looked the same as I did in leading strings.”

That provoked what looked like a reluctant smile from Christopher.

Messalina glanced from Christopher to Freya de Moray. The two had been deep in discussion when she and her sister had entered the sitting room, and she had a multitude of questions.

The foremost among them: had Freya told Christopher why she was working as a companion? Messalina had been curious about that for years.

Messalina looked away from Freya and nodded at Christopher. “We knew that you’d returned to England, but we never saw you. I think Julian even invited you to tea, didn’t he?”

Christopher simply shrugged. His smile was already gone.

Were he and Julian no longer speaking? If so, she’d not been aware of the rift. Although of course Christopher had been in India for all those years. And Julian was damnably closemouthed.

Messalina cleared her throat. “Do you mind if I call you by your Christian name? I’m afraid habits made in childhood are hard to shake.”

She glanced at Freya and saw her former friend staring at her, a haunted look on her face. Freya turned her head before rising and quietly moving away.

Messalina couldn’t help the pang of hurt. Damn Freya de Moray.

“Not at all,” Christopher replied, bringing her attention back to him. “I can hardly stand on ceremony when you once saw me after a night of veryunwise drinking.”

She recalled her smile. “You did have trouble holding your liquor at sixteen.”

His expression was melancholy, but then it was Ranulf de Moray who’d been his illicit drinking partner that night.

“I’d heard you’d come into the title,” Messalina said to change the subject. “It was the talk of the ton for almost the entire season.”

She’d heard, too, that he’d lost his wife, Lord Lovejoy’s sister. What had been her name? Becky or Molly or Lizzy—some sort of diminutive at any rate. She wondered suddenly if there was anyone to call him by his given name now. Both his parents were dead, he had no brothers or sisters, and as far as she knew he hadn’t remarried.

“Yes, I inherited quite unexpectedly,” he said dryly. “The last duke was a second cousin, and suffered the tragedy of his own sons and grandson leaving this world before him. My cousin was ninety when he died and appeared to have placed far too much trust in a none-too-honest man of business. The title came with two years’ worth of work.”

“Your Grace?”

They both turned at Lord Lovejoy’s interruption.

Their host was looking apologetic. “I’ve word that dinner is ready. Perhaps you’d care to lead us in?”

Of course. Christopher was the ranking aristocrat.

He bowed to Messalina and strode to their hostess, offering Lady Lovejoy his arm. Lord Rookewoode, escorting Lady Holland, followed them. The rest of the company trailed behind.

Lucretia murmured beside Messalina, “Will you ask Lady Lovejoy for help tonight?”

Messalina shook her head. “Tomorrow, I think.”

“Mm.” Lucretia hummed. “He isvery handsome, isn’t he?”

Messalina blinked at the non sequitur. “Christopher?” She’d never thought of him in that way.

“No, not him. It’s strange, I didn’t recognize the duke at all.”

“Well, you were only what, seven when we last saw him?”

“Eight,” Lucretia said with the exactitude for age found only in the youngest members of families, “and in any case, no, that’s not who I meant. I was referring to the earl.” She nodded at Lord Rookewoode’s back. “There’s something about him that just draws a lady’s eye. Though I suppose the duke is quite nice to look at as well.”

“Hussy,” Messalina murmured.

“I noticed that Freya is still ignoring you,” Lucretia whispered.

“Is she?” Messalina replied with feigned disinterest as they came to the dining room.

They had to part to find their seats before Lucretia could call her out. Naturally they weren’t seated together. Jane Lovejoy had done her best to seat them lady-gentleman-lady, and Messalina found herself between Viscount Stanhope and Mr. Lovejoy. Directly across from her was the earl, flanked on either side by Lucretia and Arabella Holland. And down at the bottom of the table was LadyFreya de Moray.

Messalina dipped her spoon into a lovely eel soup and considered Freya. It was rather ironic, really. As the daughter and sister of dukes she was in actuality the highest-ranking lady at the table.

Something that no one knew besides Messalina, Lucretia, and Freya herself.

And Christopher. Hadhe recognized Freya? Messalina was beginning to wonder. She glanced at him speculatively. Would Freya have told him who she was if he hadn’t recognized her?

Considering how matters stood between Christopher and the de Moray family, Freya might’ve kept her identity to herself.

It was a possibility at least that Christopher didn’t know who Freya was. Freya was no longer the skinny, tangled-haired wild lass of their youth. Now she was sedate, her adult curves confined and stifled by boring brown gowns, her red hair hidden and tamed. No doubt she fooled the vast majority of people she met, mostly by simply being overlooked.

Messalina humphed under her breath.

Freya de Moray had neverbeen sedate in their youth, and she very much doubted the other woman had changed so very much in fifteen years. She didn’t know why Freya was presenting herself as such a staid and boring person, but that was almost certainly notwho Freya truly was.

And she could not ask Freya why she was essentially in disguise because, simply put, they did not speak to each other.

Messalina had first seen Freya in London society four years ago. It had been at an afternoon musicale, a quartet of string instruments or perhaps a harpsichord player, she couldn’t remember now. There had been seating on either side of the entertainment, and only a few minutes in, Messalina had found herself staring across the way into the eyes of Freya de Moray.

Her best friend from childhood.

It had been a strange experience. She’d had no doubt it was Freya, even though they hadn’t seen each other in years. She knew those green eyes, the shape of her chin, and the slight slope of her nose.

Freya had stared back without expression. Without recognition.

Without emotion.

As if they’d never hidden from Freya’s governess or begged cakes from Cook or lain together in a dark bed, whispering their deepest secrets to each other.

As if they hadn’t loved each other better than sisters.

Damn Freya.

She hadn’t been the one to lose an older sister that night. Bright, sparkling Aurelia, dead at only sixteen.

That long-ago night Messalina had woken to her mother weeping, Julian’s silent, white face, Lucretia confused and crying, and Aurelia’s twin, Quintus, vomiting again and again until the whites of his eyes were flooded red with burst blood vessels.

No, Freya hadn’t any cause to snub her. If anyone should be snubbing someone, it was Messalina. It had been Freya’s brother Ran who had murdered Aurelia.

Messalina reached for her wineglass and in doing so caught Lucretia’s eye. Her younger sister raised a pointed eyebrow.

Messalina nodded and inhaled to calm herself. She wasn’t here to brood on Freya, their awful past, and what exactly she was doing working as a companion under an assumed name now. Messalina was here to flirt, laugh, and, most importantly, find out what had happened to a very dear friend.

Eleanor Randolph.

Lord Randolph had buried poor Eleanor without ceremony or even notice. Messalina hadn’t even found out that Eleanor was dead until weeks afterward. The least she owed her friend was to find out how she had died.

Thus recalled to her mission, Messalina turned to her right and smiled at Viscount Stanhope. “I hope your travels were pleasant?”

The viscount swallowed before speaking in a marked Scottish accent. “I would not say pleasant precisely. The inns I was told to stop at were not at all as was expected. Loud and licentious behavior in the first, and in the second bed linens stinking quite terribly of mildew. I had something to say to both innkeepers, I can assure you.”

“Oh, indeed?” Messalina couldn’t quite keep her lips from twitching. Lord Stanhope sounded as if he spent quite a bit of his time complaining to innkeepers and the like. It was a pity really. He was quite a nice-looking gentleman, with wide beautiful eyes and a Roman profile—if only he didn’t have a moue of distaste on his face.

“I was very happy to arrive, I can tell you that,” the viscount said. “Although I think that Lady Lovejoy needs a firmer hand with her servants. There was duston the picture frame in my room. Do you think I should inform her?”

“Well…” Messalina darted a glance at Jane Lovejoy. Darling Jane had eyes too small for her round face and a nose too big, making her rather plain. That hadn’t stopped her from becoming a popular London hostess. She was known for her salons and balls, quite packed with the cream of society. Though she was nearly two decades older than Messalina, they’d struck up a fast friendship on first meeting. “Perhaps not tonight. Our hostess no doubt has much to do.”

“Hm.” Lord Stanhope’s brows drew together. “I don’t see what. Surely she simply needs to make conversation.”

Messalina kept her smile intact with difficulty. Obviously the viscount had never planned a house party.

Fortunately she was saved from having to reply when Regina Holland said something to the viscount.

Messalina turned toward her other table mate and her eye snagged on Freya. Her former friend was staring rather intensely up the table. Messalina picked up her wineglass and took a sip to cover following Freya’s line of sight. She was watching Christopher.

Interesting.

Freya had had quite a tendre for Christopher fifteen years ago, but back then she’d been in the schoolroom. Surely Freya hadn’t started something with him now?

Messalina felt a strange pang of hurt. How could Freya forgive Christopher—who had been there that night with Julian and Ran—and not Messalina?

They’d only been children.

Back then they’d told each other everything.

Back then they’d been innocents.

 

Chapter Four

 

The princess and her three friends dismounted and entered the grotto.

Moss grew up the sides and water dripped slowly, but the cave was quite shallow.

“That’s a disappointment,” Rowan said, and the girls returned to the entrance.

Rowan was beside Marigold, and she noticed the strangest thing. Instead of ducking her head shyly as she’d always done, Marigold stared at her boldly and grinned.…

—From The Grey Court Changeling

# # #

 

At a little past one in the morning, Freya crept from her bedroom into the narrow hallway outside. As a companion, she’d been given a small bedroom at the very end of the hall, apart from the house party guests.

Her single candle cast a wavering light on the pink-painted walls as she briskly walked to the area of the house where the guests’ bedrooms were.

Where the Duke of Harlowe was.

The rest of the house party was abed early, having spent but a short time in the sitting room after dinner. Freya had watched Messalina all evening in case the other woman should suddenly reveal Freya’s identity. They’d never discussed the matter—never, in fact, talked at all, even on that afternoon when they’d first seen each other in London at a musicale—but for whatever reason, Messalina had always kept Freya’s secret. Sometimes late at night or when she was very tired Freya wondered if Messalina kept her secret out of love for her.

But in the cold light of day Freya knew that couldn’t be the case. How could Messalina still love her when all the world thought Ran had killed Aurelia?

She sighed. This was an old sorrow—one she couldn’t let distract her.

Tonight all her thoughts should be on revenge.

The corridor met another hall and Freya turned. She’d paid a maid earlier in the evening to tell her which room the duke was sleeping in. The maid had been surprisingly forthcoming without undue curiosity about whyFreya needed the information. The maid also hadn’t asked questions when Freya had given her a small satchel of powder to stir into the brandy decanter in Harlowe’s room.

Uncurious servants in need of ready cash were rather a boon in her line of work.

On her right was a painting of dead birds on a table—not very well done—and after that was a portrait of a piebald horse with its groom. Freya nodded in satisfaction. Her informant had said the duke’s room was the one next to the piebald horse.

Freya laid her hand on the doorknob and carefully turned it without making a sound.

Well. A sound a human could hear.

It wasn’t until she saw the eyes at hip height reflecting back her candlelight that she remembered Tess.

Freya froze…or she started to in any case. A large, masculine hand seized her arm and dragged her into the bedroom.

She gasped as the door was closed behind her and she was shoved up against it.

Her candle was plucked from her hand.

Harlowe set the candle on a table by the door. He propped his hand on the wall and leaned over her, smiling a very untrustworthy smile. “Had I known you were coming to visit me tonight, Miss Stewart, I would’ve called for a tray of bonbons.”

Freya glanced at the decanter of brandy, sitting on a table next to his bed.

It was full.

Blast.Why hadn’t he drunk a glass before bed like every other gentleman she knew? For that matter, why ask for a brandy decanter in the room at all if one wasn’t going todrink the brandyin it?

What a maddeningly capricious creature he was.

And that was not excitement rising in her breast at the realization that he was awake and ready to spar.

She put both hands on his chest and pushed.

Nothing happened.

“Let me go,” she snarled at him.

“Oh dear, I amsorry,” he said with patently false concern. “You must’ve mistaken the room. Were you looking for Lord Rookewoode? Or was it Lord Stanhope?”

Her nostrils flared with rage. “I—”

“No.” His smile disappeared and what remained on his face was an expression that made her shiver involuntarily. “Whatever lie you were about to tell me, darling, don’t.”

For a moment he simply stared at her and she stared back, her breaths coming faster and faster.

Tess sat down and whined under her breath.

“Now,” the Duke of Harlowe said, “why are you in my rooms?”

She raised her eyebrows and said in a voice made steady only through great will, “You’ve already guessed, Your Grace. I find I’m overcome by a sudden tendre for you.”

His mouth twisted into something ugly and for a second—just a hairof a second—she thought he might strike her.

Then he straightened. “Tell me, Miss Stewart, do you loathe all men or am I special?”

“Oh,” she whispered, and this time she couldn’t still the waver of pure hatred in her voice, “you’re very special.”

His brows drew together. They stood only inches apart. Every time he inhaled, his chest nearly touched her unbound breasts beneath her chemise and wrap. They were so close, she could almost hear his heartbeat.

They might’ve been lovers.

Or enemies about to kill each other.

“Do I know you?” he murmured. “Have I caused you harm in some way?”

She couldn’t afford to have him recognize her.

She should apologize. Let him believe whatever he wished so long as he let her go and she left.

That was the smart thing to do.

The responsible thing.

Rings, memories, and revenge shouldn’t matter at all.

She reached up and placed her palm gently—so gently!—against his hard cheek, feeling his bristles, and widened her eyes. “If you can’t remember, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”

His eyes began to narrow, but she rose on tiptoe, wrapped her hand around his fingers, and jerked him toward her in a single movement.

She ground her mouth against his.

His lips tasted of betrayal and wine. Night and childhood memory.

Love and loss.

The emotion he aroused in her was so profound she almostlost herself in the embrace.

She opened her mouth, licking across his bottom lip until his own tongue came out to tangle with hers.

Then she bit him.

Fuck!” He stepped back, blood beading on his mouth, his face twisted in confusion and outrage. “You’re insane.”

The dog was on her feet, whining in distress.

“No. I’m not.” Freya opened the door. She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Oh, and you might want to avoid the brandy.”

Freya closed the door and all but ran down the corridor, her breath coming in shaky gasps. When she reached her own room she shut the door behind her and pushed a chair under the doorknob.

She sat on the side of her bed, trying to calm her heart.

Perhaps she was insane.

For five years she’d been nothing but dull and circumspect, polite and utterly forgettable. She’d served the Wise Women well as the Macha. Every step she took, every word she spoke, was considered carefully so she would not be revealed. She had a mission that was vitallyimportant to the continued existence of the Wise Women.

And yet in less than twelve hours she’d thrown all that away.

Freya opened her hand. Nestled in her palm was Ran’s ring. She’d wrested it from Harlowe’s finger when she’d bitten him.

She held it up, studying the worn gold of the band. It was a signet ring with a carved onyx meant to be used to seal wax. The intaglio was of a bird of prey. The bird, worn about the edges, might’ve been a falcon or even a hawk, but Freya knew that it was a merlin.

The de Moray family symbol.

Merlins were the smallest of the falcons. Swift and ruthless, merlins caught other, smaller birds on the wing before landing and devouring their prey.

This ring had been worn by generations of de Moray men, including her own papa before he’d given it to Ranulf on his eighteenth birthday.

Freya closed the ring in her fist again. No doubt Harlowe would soon realize his ring was gone.

Too bad.

He might be a duke now, but she was a de Moray woman, small, swift, and above all ruthless.

# # #

 

It was barely light the next morning when Freya slipped out the back door of Lovejoy House. A misty fog lingered just above the wet grass, swirling around her skirts as she walked across the lawn. Last night she’d let herself be distracted by rage and revenge and that damnable kiss.

She touched Ran’s ring, strung on an old silver chain about her neck, then tucked it under her fichu. Memories and regret and whatever that feelingwas that Harlowe provoked in her. Today she had to put aside all of that. She was a Wise Woman, and she had a mission to complete.

To that end she was headed to Randolph lands. Lady Randolph had been buried on unconsecrated ground within the estate—an odd choice—and Freya wanted to see the grave.

The lawn ended abruptly at the edge of an overgrown wood. Freya paused, eyeing the trail that led into the dim interior. It reminded her a bit of the sorts of woods that had featured prominently in her nursemaid’s fairy tales: dark, forbidding, and wild. Nothing good had ever happened in those fairy-tale woods.

She glanced behind her.

The sun had fully risen, shining brightly on the dewed lawn and a formal garden surrounded by a tall hedge. It seemed a bit odd that the woods so close to the house should be untended.

Still. She had only a few hours before the rest of the party rose.

She stepped into the woods.

There was a trail, thank goodness, though it looked little used. Around her the wood was oddly quiet for daybreak. Where were the singing birds? She hastened her step—and not entirely because she was worried about the time.

Five minutes later she saw sunlight and stepped into a clearing. To one side was a small stone structure, and for a moment her hopes rose, though she couldn’t have crossed into Randolph land yet. Then she saw that the building wasn’t a mausoleum. She hesitated, staring at it, but she would run out of time if she didn’t keep going, so she crossed the clearing and continued through the woods.

It was another fifteen minutes before the woods began to thin. Freya emerged onto a small hill overlooking what must be the Randolph estate. She could see a manor, probably half the size of Lovejoy House, but still grand. There were stables behind the house and a garden that looked in need of tending.

She followed the path toward the manor, wondering where Lady Randolph might be buried. Perhaps on the other side of the house? She could see a drive disappearing into trees. It must lead to the same road that passed by Lovejoy House.

A thorn pricked at her calf and she bent to pull it from her skirts.

Someone cleared their throat.

Freya straightened to see a man walking toward her with a musket over his shoulder.

She might’ve been afraid had he not been positively ancient.

“You there,” the man wheezed as he came closer, “what’re ye doin’ on Randolph land?”

“I beg your pardon,” she replied with her most disarming smile. “I had no idea I was trespassing.” Freya gestured to the wood behind her. “I’m a guest at Lovejoy House.”

“Are ye, then?” The old man paused, hawked quite disgustingly, and spit to the side of the path. “Beggin’ yer pardon then, miss. Have to be vigilant-like, as it’s my job as gamekeeper. Right early for a stroll, though, isn’t it?”

“Oh, it is,” Freya assured him earnestly. “But I do so like to take a brisk walk at sunrise. I believe it’s good for the constitution.”

“Argh,” the man replied, rather enigmatically.

“I understand that Lord Elliot Randolph lives here,” Freya said.

“Aye, so he does, though m’lord’s not here now.”

“Really? I’m afraid I’ve not had the honor of an introduction to Lord Randolph, but I didconverse with his wife once or twice,” Freya lied outrageously. She’d seen Lady Randolph at a few social events, but she’d never spoken to her. “I thought it such a pity…” She paused delicately.

The old man snapped up the bait. “Oh aye, ’tis a tragedy one so pretty should die young.” He shifted, placing the butt of his musket on the ground and leaning on it. “Course she weren’t quite right at the end.” He eyed her expectantly.

Freya hastened to prompt him. “Oh?”

“Aye,” he replied with the relish of a good gossip. “Shoutin’ and carrying on and the like as if she were bedeviled. Heard it from the head footman himself. And His Lordship not one to like a fuss. Why ’tis said she was quite mad, the poor lassie. Went running through the stable yard near naked. Wearing just her shift she were, her hair all about her shoulders. They say up there”—he tilted his head to the manor—“that she caught an ague after that. Died the next night, she did.”

“My goodness,” Freya murmured, placing her hand to her chest and hoping she wasn’t overacting. “How shocking! I suppose Lord Randolph must’ve consulted with all the best doctors about his ill wife?”

“Nay.” The gamekeeper shook his head. “Wasn’t time, was there? Caught ague, was abed with fever, and dead the next day.”

“What a tragedy for Lord Randolph. He must be devastated.”

“Well, aye,” the man said, but he sounded doubtful. “The rich do things different, I understand. He left directly after she were buried.” He nodded in the general direction of the house. “She’s right there, across the garden.”

Freya feigned surprise. “Lady Randolph was buried here?”

“She were,” the old man leaned closer. “Afore sundown on the same day she died. They say her body were putrid. Rotted as if it were weeks old rather than a day.” He nodded and straightened. “Most like because of her brain sickness.”

Freya wasn’t sure how madness would make a corpse decay faster, but she wasn’t about to argue. “My!”

“Would you like to see?” The groundskeeper beamed, and at first Freya had the horrible thought that he was talking about Lady Randolph’s remains.

Then her common sense reasserted itself. “Oh yes, I’d like to visit her grave and pay my respects.”

The old man turned without further ado and led her down the shallow slope and to the house.

Randolph House might not be as large as Lovejoy House, but there was something forbidding about it nonetheless. Perhaps it was the dark reddish brown of the stones used to build it, the color of dried blood. Or maybe it was the small, narrow windows. There could be little light let inside the house, Freya thought. It would be a dark, gloomy place.

They rounded the corner of the building, stepping through a sadly overgrown cobblestoned yard. No one stirred. The house in fact seemed empty.

“Are there any staff at the house now?” she called softly to the gamekeeper.

He shrugged but didn’t turn. “The housekeeper, Mrs. Sprattle, the butler—what is her father, old man Deacon—and a maid or two.”

Behind his back Freya raised her eyebrows. Most manors had dozen of servants working, even when the master wasn’t in residence. Lord Randolph must be a parsimonious sort of man.

In the back of the manor was what had once been a formal garden but was now rather sad and messy. To the side was a small stone. Had Freya not been expecting the grave she would’ve entirely overlooked it.

They walked to it and paused, silently regarding the simple gravestone. Under a crude bas-relief of a skull were the words:

Here Lieth the Body of

Eleanor Randolph

Who left this World April 2, 1759

May God Grant her Forgiveness

“Forgiveness for what?” Freya whispered.

“Her earthly sins?” The gamekeeper shook his head and spit—fortunately not on the grave. “Mayhap she did something in her madness that needs forgiving.”

“Such as?”

“Don’t know,” the man said, suddenly looking cagey. “But she’s a restless spirit, she is. Sometimes at dusk, just when the nightjars come out, I’ve heard a wailing.”

He made a gesture against his side and Freya glanced down.

His fingers were crossed—an ancient sign in this part of the world. To ward off evil and the devil.

And witches.

# # #

 

Christopher woke gasping.

The room was black and he could feel the press of hot, sweating bodies. The stink of urine and wet earth. The sound of panting and moans.

Then Tess stuck her cold nose in his ear and reality came rushing back.

Christopher sagged back against the damp sheets, feeling the sweat chilling on his arms and neck. He reached up and stroked Tess’s warm head.

He ought to order her off the bed, but he hadn’t the heart. She must’ve known he was having another nightmare and crawled up beside him to show her concern.

She whined as if to agree.

“It’s all right,” he said to her, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat. “I’m all right.”

Tess huffed and nosed his cheek.

Obviously he hadn’t convinced her. Perhaps because his fingers weretrembling.

God.This was unacceptable. It’d been four years now. He’d returned to England, he’d become a duke, he held power and wealth in the palm of his hand.

And at night he shook.

He grimaced and looked at the window. There was a sliver of light peeking from behind the drawn curtains, so it must be morning. Early yet, but he wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep again.

He never could.

Christopher sat up and Tess jumped off the bed, making it quake. She stood looking hopefully at him.

“Very well,” he muttered to her, and stood.

She watched him intently as he shaved with cold water and dressed hastily. Gardiner, his valet, would be most disapproving when he found out his master had readied himself on his own.

At the moment Christopher didn’t give a damn. He slapped his thigh and strode out the door, Tess eagerly trotting beside him.

The house was still quiet, except for a few housemaids tiptoeing around with ash buckets. They would be sweeping the grates and lighting fires. A footman showed him the way to a door at the side of the house, and then Tess and he were outside in the brisk morning air.

Lovejoy House was surrounded by carefully tended lawns, but Christopher could see a wood beyond and he started toward it.

As he walked he thought about last night. About Miss Stewart—and that kiss. Her lips had been soft and giving—until she’d bitten his mouth bloody and stolen his ring. How could such a sour woman kiss so sweetly—even when pretending attraction?

He scoffed to himself. He was a fool to be taken in by her for even so much as a minute. She’d made it clear enough that she had no interest in him as a man and in fact loathed him. She’d only been after his ring.

The thought made him melancholy.

Miss Stewart—what was her given name?—had twisted the ring off his finger sometime during their kiss. He’d been so angered by the goddamned bitethat he hadn’t noticed for a crucial few minutes that his ring was gone.

Which had been enough time for her to disappear.

Was she some sort of thief disguised as a companion? Was that why the bullies in Wapping had been chasing her—because she’d stolen something from them? But he discarded the thought as soon as it came. A thief with any intelligence would hide the theft. Miss Stewart had made no attempt to.

It was almost as if she were goading him.

He grimaced as he entered the wood with Tess running ahead.

In his rage he’d nearly chased Miss Stewart down last night.

He inhaled and kicked a rock in the path. Something about her prodded him to the very edge of his control as no one—no woman—had ever done before. Her hostility, the excitement of their clashes, his curiosity about what she was doing, something, made him feel as if he were waking from a long, drugged sleep. Opening his eyes wide to the light of her pure passion.

Thankfully his reason had ruled last night. No point in causing an uproar in the wee hours.

Besides. He didn’t know which room was hers.

He snorted now at his own stupidity. That ring—Ran’s ring—was important.

Tess came running up, her tongue hanging half out of her jaws, panting happily. He absently fondled her ears and she went racing off again.

Julian had given him the ring on that night at Greycourt. It must’ve fallen off Ran’s hand as he was beaten. Julian had bent down and picked up the ring after the Duke of Windemere’s toughs had dragged Ran away, after the duke had sauntered off, and after Christopher had realized—far too late—what a terrible mistake he’d made. Ran could never have killed Aurelia. Christopher had known that then as he knew it now, but he’d been paralyzed by the sudden violence and the urgent way that Julian had told him not to interfere.

There had been fear in Julian’s eyes that night.

No, someone else must have murdered poor Aurelia—perhaps a stranger or a servant. That was the best conclusion, for if it hadn’t been a stranger or servant that terrible night, then a person far closer to Aurelia had snatched away her life. Perhaps Julian.

Perhaps the Duke of Windemere himself.

Christopher shook his head and remembered the way Julian had looked at Ran’s ring that night. His face had been both sad and determined. Then he’d drawn back his arm as if to throw the ring. Christopher had caught his hand and Julian had looked at him and then given him the ring.

Ran’s ring.

Christopher had meant to give it back to Ran. But he’d been immediately caught up in his arranged marriage and shipped off to India still bewildered, and by then he’d grown used to the ring on his finger.

Like a criminal’s brand.

The beating was so long ago now, but at the same time it was forever near. That night—that damnable night—had changed him forever.

Had changed them all.

The ring was a reminder of that. Of how utterly he’d once failed as a friend and a gentleman, and how he had to spend the rest of his life making sure he never did so again.

He had to get his ring back from the harpy. He could simply inform Miss Stewart’s employer of her theft. Her rooms would be searched and the ring found, and no doubt she’d be let go without reference.

Somehow that method seemed unsporting. Miss Stewart was brave, if nothing else. Quite possibly mad, but brave.

No, the matter was a personal one between the two of them, and he’d handle it the same way: personally.

Tess barked and continued barking in that joyful way dogs had to signal they’d found something important. She was out of sight beyond a turn in the path, and Christopher quickened his step. Just in case she’d done something silly such as cornered a badger.

He rounded the bend and saw that what Tess had found was a bit bigger than a badger. She was circling an ancient building, like a stone house for Lilliputians, squat and immovable. Strange. It was standing here all alone in a clearing.

But as he approached, Christopher discovered stones half-hidden in the leaves under his feet. He scuffed aside the leaves and could see that the buried stones were the remains of walls. Something had once stood beside the little structure—a house, perhaps? He reached Tess and followed her around the building. There were no windows, and the doorway was only to his shoulder. Christopher peered at the padlocked door and saw that over it was a crude carving of a waterspout.

Of course. This must be a well house, built over a well both for safety’s sake and to keep the water untainted.

He glanced at the ruined walls he’d uncovered. The little building appeared to have survived the house it had belonged to.

Christopher shook his head and whistled for Tess. She raised her head from where she was sniffing the foundation, but she wasn’t looking his way. She was focused on something farther in the woods.

Suddenly Tess was off, dashing ahead on the trail.

Christopher swore under his breath. If she was on the scent of a rabbit he might lose her in the trees.

“Tess!” He loped after her. “Tess!”

A single bark came from ahead of him, and then he rounded a bend in the trail and saw the dog’s quarry.

His idiot dog was standing by Miss Stewart’s side, tongue lolling happily, as the woman ruffled Tess’s ears.

Miss Stewart glanced up and saw him. “Good morning, Your Grace.”

She seemed perfectly composed, as if the events of last night had never happened.

As if he hadn’t tasted her mouth. As if she hadn’t taken his lip between her teeth.

As if she hadn’t stolen his ring.

“Miss Stewart.” He wondered if her heart beat as savagely as his beneath the layers of wool and linen. “I believe you have something of mine.”

Do I?” she answered carelessly, and he wanted to either laugh or strangle her.

“You know you do,” he said, advancing on her. “I don’t want to bring your unconventional activities to the attention of your employer, but don’t think I won’t.”

That got her attention. Her head went back and she stared at him with loathing and defiance in her eyes, which, oddly, made his cock twitch.

Before she could reply, though, Tess barked once, staring behind him.

Christopher turned, hiding his irritation at the interruption.

Messalina Greycourt was approaching along the path. “Christopher! I had no idea anyone else was about this morning.”

Her gaze went beyond him, and a strange expression crossed her face.

He glanced at Miss Stewart, but she was merely standing there, her hand on Tess’s head and her face blank.

When he looked back at Messalina, her expression was calm.

Did she think he was having an assignation with Miss Stewart? Surely not. They weren’t even standing near each other.

“And…Miss Stewart, is it not?” Messalina asked.

“It is,” the chaperone replied, almost with significance.

What the hell?He whistled to Tess and both ladies jumped.

Tess trotted over.

He fondled her ears before saying to Messalina, “I’m thinking Tess will be wanting her breakfast. Will you walk back with us?”

“Yes,” Messalina said, a smile suddenly lighting her face. “I will.”

They tramped back side by side with Tess running ahead, but Christopher was aware at every moment of Miss Stewart, trailing behind like a malevolent cloud. It was strange. Messalina had grown into one of the loveliest ladies that Christopher had ever met. Her conversation was amusing and he knew her to be intelligent. She was, in fact, a beguiling lady.

But it was the silent termagant behind him who made him want to shove her up against a tree and taste her mouth.

It made no sense, and he found his mood turning black. Why should he be so viscerally attracted to a woman who couldn’t stand him?

And why did she refuse to soften to him?

By the time they made it back to Lovejoy House the sun was well into the sky and Christopher was using all his determination not to turn and confront Miss Stewart again—even with Messalina as witness. He glanced up as they turned the corner of the house and saw a rather old-fashioned carriage enter the drive in front.

“Oh, who do you suppose that is?” Messalina asked. “It seems a strange time to arrive to a house party, doesn’t it?”

A man in a rumpled bottle-green suit descended. He turned, and Christopher couldn’t stop his upper lip from curling. For a moment all thought of Miss Stewart fled his mind.

Thomas Plimpton had finally arrived.

 

Chapter Five

 

Marigold was strangely changed. She was no longer shy, but stood tall and looked others in the eye, a secretive smile about her lips.

Rowan began to think that Marigold was no longer the same girl.

That she wasn’t Marigold at all.

But the strangest thing of all was that no one else seemed to notice.…

—From The Grey Court Changeling

# # #

 

I do hope you all won’t consider it too rustical, but I thought we’d take a stroll into Newbridge today,” Lady Lovejoy announced at breakfast an hour later. “There’s a rather lovely Norman church and today is market day. Nothing like London, of course, but quite quaint.”

Freya spread a slice of bread with fresh butter—sweet and lovely—and wondered if she might gather more rumors about Lady Randolph in Newbridge.

“Oh, let’s!” Regina exclaimed, leaning forward eagerly and imperiling her teacup.

“A country market can be so interesting sometimes,” Lucretia Greycourt observed. “I once was offered what I was assured was a potion to arouse lust in gentlemen by a wrinkled old woman with quite a staggering amount of moles on her chin. The kind that sprout hairs. I do believe she thought herself a witch.”

Lord Lovejoy cleared his throat portentously. “One oughtn’t discount the evil of witches in this part of England.”

Freya found herself glancing at Harlowe and caught him staring back, a smoldering intensity in his eyes.

She swiftly averted her gaze, realizing as she did so that she was holding her breath. He’d threatened to expose her. At the time she’d felt only rage, but now cold fear made her back prickle. She hadn’t completed her mission.

She needed more time.

Real witches?” Messalina asked with polite skepticism. “The sort who dance about fires naked at midnight?”

Young Mr. Lovejoy chuckled, but he sounded a tad nervous.

Lady Holland frowned—probably at the mention of nude cavorting.

But Lord Lovejoy was quite grave. “Nearly every year a woman is brought before me as the local magistrate and charged with witchcraft.”

The Earl of Rookewoode arched a black eyebrow. It made a stark contrast to his snowy wig. He wore an elegantly cut dark-blue suit today and looked exceedingly handsome and urbane. “But Parliament has made witch-hunting no longer legal.”

“Oh, indeed, my lord,” Lord Lovejoy replied. “But these are provincial people who adhere to the old ways. They care not for London’s laws.”

“London’s laws will soon change,” Lord Stanhope said importantly. “A new Witch Act is to be put before Parliament in the autumn, making witch-hunting once again both legal and encouraged.”

There was a short silence as everyone at the table digested that.

Freya’s hands were clenched in her lap, where no one could see them. She only hoped her expression didn’t give away her unease at this discussion.

“And thus we descend back into the superstitious Dark Ages,” Rookewoode drawled.

The viscount pursed his lips together as if cutting off a nasty reply.

Lord Lovejoy looked troubled. “Hunting witches is no step back in these parts. Not when nearly everyone believes in them.”

The earl’s lips twitched as if he were amused by the discussion, but he asked gravely, “What do you do when you’re presented with such a supposed witch, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Naturally I have to dismiss the cases, but that doesn’t keep the people from believing most sincerely in witchcraft,” Lord Lovejoy replied. “You have to understand that these people blame witches for sickened sheep, blighted crops, and miscarriages. Even if I can’t convict them, often the accused witch’s house is burned or they meet with some other misadventure.” He shrugged. “It’s a sort of rough justice, I suppose.”

“But surely these women are innocent, my lord?” Messalina objected, looking quite appalled.

“One shouldn’t discount the strength of the devil or his subjects,” Lord Stanhope muttered. “No doubt these people have reasons for chasing away these ungodly women.”

Freya glared at him from under her eyelashes. What a horrible man. She’d met his sort before, and though she should be wary of him, what she truly felt was indignant anger.

The door opened and a pleasant-faced gentleman entered.

“Ah,” Lord Lovejoy exclaimed. “Our newest guest. May I present Mr. Thomas Plimpton?”

Mr. Plimpton smiled and bowed and then took a seat next to Arabella, saying something to her as he sat that made her blush.

Once again Freya glanced at Harlowe without conscious thought. This time, though, she was not the center of his attention. Now he was staring malevolently at Mr. Plimpton.

Freya took a sip of tea. Whatever had the rather nondescript Mr. Plimpton done to offend the duke? She was almost piqued that his attention was divided.

“We had just made plans to visit Newbridge today,” Lady Lovejoy said after an awkward pause. “Would you care to join us, Mr. Plimpton? We have a lovely Norman church and other country sights.”

“Of course,” that gentleman replied.

Which was how, half an hour later, they all set off to the little town nearby.

Freya walked behind Arabella and Lucretia Greycourt. The two girls hadn’t met until the day before, but had somehow already found a close bond.

She was aware of Messalina in quiet conversation with Lady Lovejoy, slightly ahead and to the side. Messalina wore an elegant walking dress, the rose-pink overskirts pulled back and bunched in deceptively casual disarray in the back. Her yellow underskirt was revealed, scattered with tiny knots of embroidered roses.

It was a beautiful dress, although with her olive complexion and black hair Freya privately thought Messalina would do better in richer colors. But yes, she was beautiful.

She could admit that.

Her childhood friend had grown into a strikingly handsome lady only a little taller than Freya.

In another life they might be walking arm in arm down this country road.

“I hadn’t taken you for a thief,” Harlowe growled in her ear, and Freya was hard-pressed not to jump.

She took a deep breath, trying to slow the wild beat of her heart. Stupid to have lost track of where he was in their little party. “I’m not a thief.”

He waved his hand in front of her nose, and it took her a moment to realize it was the hand he’d worn Ran’s ring on.

She could feel heat enter her cheeks, which only made her defensive. There was no reason for her to feel guilty. “I’m not.”

“Then you won’t mind returning to me myring.” He faced forward, his aristocratic profile cold and heartless.

“It’s not yourring,” she replied, her voice calm. They trailed the rest of the house party, but she didn’t want to draw anyone’s attention.

Harlowe stalked along beside her, a dark cloud on an otherwise beautiful day. The sun was out, not too hot, not too cold, and with a gentle breeze. The hedges along the road were full of wild roses, exuberantly in bloom, and the sky was blue and wide.

She’d grown up in the country. In the Scottish Lowlands just across the border. She and Messalina had loved to walk or ride through the Scottish hills, and for a moment longing filled her breast—whether for Scotland or the innocent days of her childhood she wasn’t entirely certain.

Beside her, Harlowe cleared his throat. “I can lend you money if you’re in need of it.”

Her brows rose. “I don’t need your money.”

“Don’t you?” He glanced at her quickly. “Then why steal my ring?”

“I don’t intend to sellit,” she snapped.

“You are the most irritating woman,” he said softly, his expression not changing at all. “Admit you need my help and I’ll give it to you.”

“Even if I didneed your help,” she replied through gritted teeth, “I would never ask you for it.”

Darling,” he rumbled, his deep purr raising the hairs on the back of her neck. “Don’t press—”

He was interrupted by his dog bursting from beneath a hedge and running straight into his legs.

Freya couldn’t help it; she laughed.

“Get down, Tess,” Harlowe muttered, but his hands were gentle as he scrubbed her ears.

The dog shook herself happily, then shoved her nose into Freya’s skirts.

“Tess,” Harlowe growled.

“She’s all right,” Freya murmured. She might dislike the master, but she had nothing against the dog.

She scratched Tess beneath the chin.

Tess wagged her tail.

“She’s dirty,” Harlowe said gruffly.

“Dogs like being dirty,” Freya replied, scratching Tess’s ears now.

Harlowe looked at her oddly.

Tess’s ears perked, and then she wheeled and went running off into the shrubbery again.

“What sort of dog is she?” Freya asked impulsively, wiping her hands on a handkerchief. The dog had been rather muddy.

“Indian.”

Freya’s brows rose. “You brought her all the way back from India?”

He shrugged. “She’s my dog. I couldn’t leave her there.”

She stared at him. Of coursehe could’ve left Tess across the sea when he’d returned home to England. Gentlemen did it all the time. “Is she a special sort of dog? An Indian dog of aristocratic breed?”

He turned his head and grinned at her, two dimples incised into his cheeks.

Freya blinked, feeling as if she’d been hit in the chest. Harlowe was absolutely devastating when he smiled.

But he didn’t seem to notice her reaction. “She’s a street dog, quite common in India. Her dam whelped in the fort three years ago. Tess was the sole survivor of the puppies. She was only two months old when her mother disappeared—too young to survive on her own—so I brought her into the house and a year later to England.”

She stared at him. “Didn’t your wife object? Many ladies prefer small lapdogs to larger animals, let alone a stray dog.”

A muscle in his jaw flexed. “Sophy died a year before Tess was born.”

“Oh.” It was obviously a topic he didn’t want to talk about. His voice held sadness when he said his wife’s name.

Which shouldn’t bother her at all.

Up ahead someone laughed loudly. Mr. Plimpton had angled himself between Arabella and Lucretia.

Harlowe cursed beneath his breath.

Freya threw him a startled glance. “I collect you don’t like Mr. Plimpton.”

“He shouldn’t be allowed near ladies,” the duke replied, not bothering to lower his voice. “You should warn Lady Holland.”

Freya’s brows drew together. Arabella was well dowered and Freya had no doubt that Lucretia, as the niece of a duke, was as well.

In fact both girls were heiresses and thus prime pluckings for a fortune hunter.

“Why do you say that?” Freya asked worriedly. “What do you know of him?”

He shook his head. “He once dallied with the heart of a lady I knew.”

Freya frowned. “I’ve never heard anything against him. Why isn’t this common knowledge if what you say is true?”

“You needn’t take my word for it, madam.” He glanced at her, his eyes no longer friendly. “I’m losing patience. Give me back my ring by midnight tonight or I’ll tell Lady Holland how I first met you.”

And with that he lengthened his stride, drawing ahead of her.

Freya stared after him, angry, frightened, and a bit disappointed that he so obviously didn’t care to walk with her anymore.

Silly.

The last thing she wanted was to become further involved with His Grace the Duke of Harlowe. He was her enemy. And now she must find a way to put him off without giving him Ran’s ring.

Messalina happened to look over her shoulder at that moment and caught Freya’s eye. She smiled tentatively.

Freya glanced away and felt a shard of pain through her breast.

It was so tiring. So useless and fraught, and it would never end, would it?

What had happened at Greycourt fifteen years ago would reverberate forever in their lives.

The thought was a weight on her shoulders. If only she could put it down. Forget.

But there was no forgetting, was there?

Aurelia was murdered.

Ranulf maimed.

And Papa dead from a broken heart.

The world could not go back from that one point in their history.

Freya inhaled and straightened, looking up. Messalina was no longer glancing back, and she saw that they were at the outskirts of the town.

There were wagons on the road, laden with goods to be sold at the market, and a boy driving a half dozen geese in the same direction.

Their little group moved off the road and onto a walking path, and in the shuffle Freya found herself beside Lady Holland.

Freya leaned close. “I’ve heard that Mr. Plimpton is not a suitable gentleman.”

Lady Holland’s dark eyebrows shot up at the news. “Good gracious. I can’t believe Lady Lovejoy would invite the man if she knew of such a thing.”

“Perhaps she doesn’t, my lady.”

Lady Holland frowned at Mr. Plimpton’s back. He was whispering something to Lucretia now. “She dashed well should. Drat. That reduces the eligible gentlemen to only four.”

Freya murmured, “I’m not sure Lord Stanhope is…”

Lady Holland waved a hand. “I know. I know. The man’s a toad. I shouldn’t count him and that makes only threenow and with the Misses Greycourt in attendance hardly a level playing field for my Arabella.”

“Arabella has much to recommend her,” Freya said.

“Not least her dowry,” the older woman murmured. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, Miss Stewart. I love my daughter, but I’m also a practical mother. Arabella doesn’t shine in company—particularly vivacious company.” She shot another look at the trio ahead of them. Mr. Plimpton was laughing at something Lucretia had said while Arabella looked on with a faint smile. “I want her happyand with a gentleman who will care for her.”

Freya cleared her throat delicately. “Have you thought what you will do if we cannot find a gentleman good enough for her?”

“I can’t let myself do that, Miss Stewart.” Lady Holland said. “A lady of Arabella’s rank without a husband lives but a half life—at least I’m sure that’s what Lord Holland would say.”

“She’d have to live with Regina eventually, wouldn’t she?”

“Quite. And that, I’m afraid, is a recipe for discord.”

Freya frowned. There was another option for Arabella, of course. Freya could offer her sanctuary with the Wise Women in Dornoch. Arabella could learn their ways, perhaps find a calling in silversmithing, weaving, beekeeping, or any of the many other traditional Wise Women occupations. She could even find something entirely unique to do—all were welcome as long as they contributed to the community. But in exchange Arabella would have to give up her present life. Live in faraway Scotland and never, ever tell her family or friends about the Wise Women.

Lady Holland looked up as they entered the crowded town square. “Oh, here we are at last.”

Ahead of them, Arabella and Lucretia had stopped by a woman selling hot buns while Mr. Plimpton had moved on to charming Messalina and Lady Lovejoy. The man was a menace, and Freya felt grudgingly thankful to Harlowe for warning her. She knew that Lady Holland would have a quiet word not only with her own daughters, but also with Messalina and Lucretia tonight.

“Would you like one?” Arabella smiled, indicating the currant buns, as Freya came abreast of them.

“Thank you,” Freya replied. She met Lucretia’s curious gaze and looked away. Lucretia had been only eight when the Greycourt tragedy happened—a mischievous girl who had often tagged along with Freya and Messalina, determined not to miss any excitement. They’d sometimes hid from little Lucretia in that cruel way older children had, but there had been other days when Freya had spent whole afternoons teaching Lucretia to look for bird’s nests in the heather.

The stab of melancholy? longing? regret? was sudden and overwhelming.

Freya turned to survey the market.

On one side of the square was an inn with a painted sign proclaiming it the Swan. In the center of the square was an ancient fountain. And on the other side was the Norman church. Stalls and carts were crowded all the way around the fountain, the owners bawling their wares. Here was a woman selling onions and leeks, there a man with a string of fresh sausages, and farther on a man sharpening knives, his foot furiously working his grindstone. People crowded the little town square, no doubt come from several miles around.

Someonemust have information about Lady Randolph here.

Freya trailed behind Arabella and Lucretia, eyeing the various stalls. She decided on an elderly woman hawking vegetables, berries, and small bunches of flowers.

“Fine strawberries I have,” the woman cried as Freya stopped before her.

Freya smiled as she looked at the berries, temptingly displayed. “You must be the strawberry woman my friend Lady Randolph told me about. She spoke highly of you.”

The old woman’s toothless smile faltered before she rallied. “Aye, I have the sweetest strawberries of any in a day’s ride.”

Freya glanced up, meeting her eyes. “That’s exactly what Lady Randolph said. But I’m thinking of buying one of your posies today.”

The woman had been eyeing her nervously but perked up at the prospect of a sale. “Pick the one you like, mistress, only a halfpenny a bunch.”

“Well, then I’ll have three,” Freya replied, opening her purse. She held out a shilling. “Someone told me that my friend died of a strange disease. Do you know aught of it, mother?”

The old woman eyed her hand for a second. Then with a quick look right and left she snatched the shilling. “Weren’t disease what killed her, my lady.”

“Witchcraft, then?” Freya murmured to test her.

The old woman surprised her with a derisive snort. “No, nor witchcraft, either. ’Twas the sins of a man that laid her low. And now you must move away, mistress.” She tilted her head in the direction of the stall next to hers. A young man was openly staring at them. “This talk is dangerous.”

Freya nodded and took her posies, sticking one in the top of her fichu where the ends crossed over her chest. Then she wandered away from the old woman’s stall, handing the other two posies to a couple of small girls who giggled at the gift.

Sins of a man. Had Lady Randolph taken a lover before she died? If so, it would give Lord Randolph one of the oldest reasons for murder.

She glanced at the crowd, looking for the best person to approach next, and glimpsed Arabella’s bright gold hair. She was standing next to Lord Rookewoode, her face tilted up, her expression painfully open. The earl was handing her some sort of pastry from the stall in front of them, his smile framed by devilish dimples.

The man was dangerous.

Freya bit her lip. No doubt Lady Holland would be pleased if that resulted in a match.

Freya was less certain.

She turned away and saw Harlowe, standing at the edge of the market crowd, his hand on Tess’s head. He was looking around the marketplace as well, and even from across the square Freya thought he looked tense.

How strange.

She started in his direction and then heard a particular cry.

“Ribbons and trim! Pretty ribbons and trim I have!”

She glanced at the crier.

It was a woman dressed in a ragged black cloak with a gray hood. She stood beside a cart drawn by an enormous dog, a shaggy gray-and-white lurcher. The cart was filled with her wares. The woman looked up, and Freya recognized the Crow.

What was she doing here? Freya had had no notice of a meeting.

She strolled over.

“Will ye have a pretty blue ribbon, mistress?” the Crow called loudly, her black eyes glinting. “I have sky blue and sea blue and robin’s-egg blue.”

Freya peered in the cart. She fingered one of the ribbons tied loosely to a pole. “Have you green? A nice grass green?”

The woman met Freya’s eyes. “O’ course.”

She bent over her cart to rummage in a box and Freya leaned closer, taking care that her expression remain the same when the Crow whispered, “I’ve news that someone at the house party is a Dunkelder.”

“Who?” Freya murmured as she held up a ribbon, squinting at it.

“I don’t know,” the Crow said, and then louder, “Only two a penny, mistress. An’ if you buy four I’ll give you the fifth free.”

“Does the Dunkelder know who I am?” Freya asked, ducking her head as her breath came faster.

The Crow murmured, “I don’t think so. But should he find that you’re a de Moray he’ll know all.” Her black eyes flicked up. “And this is Dunkelder territory. There’ll be others. Walk softly.”

Freya stared blindly at the colorful ribbons in her hand.

“Lady Macha,” the Crow whispered. “I cannot stay here. I’ve other business to see to. You’re on your own.”

Freya met the other woman’s worried gaze. “I’ll be fine.”

She fumbled for a coin from her purse and took the ribbons.

“Be careful,” the other woman warned as Freya turned to go. “If the Dunkelder finds out who you are, he’ll kill you.”

# # #

 

Christopher watched as the members of the house party scattered about the town market. He followed, winding through the crowd, keeping an eye on Plimpton and trying to ignore the press of all the bodies around him. Plimpton was ushering Lady Lovejoy about as if he had not a care in the world, damn him.

Someone jostled his elbow.

Christopher turned, his upper lip pulled back in a snarl, and the youth who had run into him stepped back. “Beg your pardon, m’lord.”

The boy hurried off.

Christopher closed his eyes and took a deep breath, smelling the stink of too many bodies, feeling the pounding of a headache start.

When he opened them again, he saw Miss Stewart across the square staring at him. Damn her.

He turned away, shame making his neck hot. Why must it be she to see his weakness?

Tess whimpered and pressed against his leg.

He dropped his hand to her head, letting her soft fur calm him. This was England. The crowd wasn’t pressed together here. There was no danger of suffocation. And he shouldn’t care one whit what the bloody little thief thought of him.

Still. Coming along on this outing hadn’t been a good plan.

He blew out his breath and searched for Plimpton. Lady Lovejoy was walking ahead, arm in arm with Messalina now, while Plimpton had fallen behind as he peered at a stall selling penknives.

Christopher pushed his way through the crowd to get to Plimpton.

“Do you have them?” he asked when he reached the other man’s side.

Plimpton started as if a gun had gone off beside him.

He turned, wincing delicately as if Christopher had made a particularly egregious faux pas. “I think we need privacy for this discussion, don’t you, Your Grace?”

“I think I want this done with as soon as possible,” Christopher retorted. “When we return to the house, for example.”

He saw Plimpton swallow. Evidently the man hadn’t expected Christopher to demand the letters immediately.

“Erm…b-but that won’t do.”

“Why not? Do you have the letters or don’t you?” Christopher’s upper lip curled.

Plimpton’s gaze slid away. “A-as a matter of fact, I shan’t have them until another few days, when the post delivers them to me.”

“What game are you playing?” Christopher snarled quietly.

“No game!” Plimpton licked his lips nervously. “Truly! I thought it safest to travel separately from the letters, that’s all. I’ll have them very soon and then I’ll send you a note to meet.”

It sounded like a load of balderdash, but then Plimpton had never struck Christopher as very bright. Perhaps he hadchosen such a convoluted way to bring the letters to Lovejoy House.

“Take care you don’t forget,” Christopher said through gritted teeth. “Else I’ll take matters into my own hands.”

“Is that a threat?” Plimpton’s face had gone white. “Are you threatening me?”

He leaned forward and flicked a nonexistent speck off Plimpton’s coat front, murmuring, “If I’ve left you in any doubt, I do apologize.”

Christopher pivoted to make his way through the mass of people and saw, not half a dozen feet away, Miss Stewart hastily turning away.

Had she overheard their conversation?

It was the last straw in a trying morning. He wasn’t about to let Miss Stewart’s curiosity mar Sophy’s name.

He strode to Miss Stewart and pointedly offered his arm. “Will you walk with me?”

She opened her mouth, looking mulish.

He stretched his lips in a parody of a smile, all his teeth bared. “I won’t ask again.”

She snapped her mouth shut and placed her hand on his arm. “How boorish.”

“Am I?” He guided her to the edge of the crowd, Tess close by his side. “Were you spying on me?”

“No!” She looked so indignant he considered believing her. Then her expression turned to one of speculation. “Were you and Mr. Plimpton discussing something you didn’t want heard?”

“That’s my own business.” He felt his temples begin to throb. He needed a reprieve from this crowd. “As it happens I don’t particularly enjoy self-righteous spinsters listening in on my private conversations.”

A quick glance around showed that no one was paying attention to them. He steered her in the direction of the church, away from the marketplace stalls and the gathered people.

Miss Stewart huffed, saying rather breathlessly, “I don’t particularly enjoy being accused of nefarious doings by a man so stupid he’d conduct private business in a crowd.”

“What a little witch you are,” he said absently—and felt her stiffen. He glanced down at her and saw that her green-gold eyes had widened in something that looked almost like fear. “What is it?”

“You threatened poor Mr. Plimpton,” she said.

Christopher snorted and pulled open the door to the Norman church. Tess darted in with them. “He’s only poor in pocket, I assure you.”

Inside, the church was cool and dim, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine outside. It was a pretty little church. The inverted U-shaped arch of the door was repeated in the arch between the nave and chancel, and both were decorated with a chevron pattern.

He glanced down at Miss Stewart and saw that her face was upturned as she studied the windows. Less than an inch of her hairline peeked beneath her cap. Her hair might be dark blond or dusty brown—impossible to tell—and he had the wild urge to rip the cap from her head.

“Do you think they were smashed during the Reformation?” she mused.

The windows were all clear glass. If there had once been stained glass in the church it was all gone. “Probably. Or by Cromwell’s Roundheads.”

“Men do seem to enjoy smashing things—even beautiful things.”

“Not all men, surely.” He watched her with her prim little mouth, her sad eyes, and said gently, “Besides. Women can be just as destructive, I find.”

He felt her stiffen and was glad. Here was a proper opponent to take his ire out on. She might be a virago, but she was also strong and strongly opinionated. He needn’t fear that she would collapse into a weeping heap at the slightest comment.

She made a scoffing sound. “Do you really think so? When the destruction that men wield results in wars? Death and maiming?”

“You don’t count women such as Helen of Troy?” he murmured, watching her. She couldn’t speak this way with every man she met—otherwise she’d be without a job. What made her so confrontational with him?

“Helen of Troy is a myth,” she said with scorn. “Butcher Cumberland isn’t.”

He raised his eyebrows. The Duke of Cumberland had been the English commander at the bloody slaughter of the Scots at Culloden only fourteen years before. “You’re a Jacobite.”

“No, of course not. They were idealistic fools fighting a war they had no hope of winning.” She blew out an impatient breath. “I just don’t approve of wholesale butchery.”

“And you hate men,” he said slowly.

“Don’t be silly.” She walked away from him, up the little nave, her heels echoing on the flagstones. “I don’t hate everyman.”

Him. She hated him.

He intended to find out why. He felt heat rising in his chest as the pain in his head returned full blast. “What have I ever done to you, madam?”

She threw a mocking glance over her shoulder. “You still don’t know?”

Suddenly his patience was at an end.

He took two strides and grasped her arm, halting her. Swinging her around to face him. “No. I can only imagine that your brain is inflamed and you’ve dreamed up some injury. You’ve been waspish to me since the moment I laid eyes on you—despite the fact that I helped you.”

“I didn’t need your help.”

“No? You and the lass and baby would’ve been fine against those bullies had I tossed you from my carriage?”

Her lip curled. “I can’t think how an animal like you is allowed into polite society.”

The heat, the weeping, the stink of sweaty bodies. Did she know somehow? How once he’d been reduced to the nearly subhuman?

He gritted his teeth. “Can’t you?” He bent over her, breathing in the scent of honeysuckle, of home, enraged beyond what the circumstance required. “I’m a duke, while you, madam, are merely a thief.”

“I’m not—”

Give me back my ring,” he growled. “I’ll no longer wait for tonight. Give it to me now or I’ll tell them all.”

“Never,” she hissed.

Something within him snapped. Perhaps it was the scent of honeysuckle, perhaps it was the way her soft lips curled in a sneer.

He took both her upper arms, drawing her so close he could feel the heat of her skin. “You will give me back that ring.”

“If I were a man, I’d call you out,” Miss Stewart said with complete earnestness. “I’d meet you with swords and gut you.”

“What a bloodthirsty little thing you are,” he drawled, knowing his indifference would provoke her the more. He was aware that his cock was half-hard.This is madness. “As if you could best me at swords—or any combat, armed or not. You’ve the inflated pride of a child in the nursery.”

“I’m not a child.” Her glare was full of scorn.

He let his gaze drop pointedly to her bosom, heaving beneath her fichu and a silly little bouquet of flowers. He cocked his head, slowly appraising her figure. “No, I suppose you’re not.”

For a moment he thought she might explode, like a dueling piece poorly primed.

Then she said, low and deadly, “Tomorrow morning. Five of the clock. Name the place.”

He hauled her against his chest, so close he felt her breath brush his lips. “You want an assignation with me, madam?”

She ignored his double entendre. Her gaze was direct and fiery. “I want your blood.”

“For God’s sake.” He sneered.

“If you can best me at swords, I’ll give you the ring,” she said softly, her voice shaking—though he knew it wasn’t from fear. “If I win, you’ll not ask for it again and you’ll not tell anyone of what happened in London.”

“Do you really think I’d take up a sword against a woman?”

“Coward.”

He let her go, stepping back so suddenly she staggered. He’d wanted to shake her—or fuck her, he wasn’t entirely sure which.

For a moment they stood there, chests heaving, glaring at each other.

He should ignore her and her ridiculous goading. Should turn and simply walk away. But he was tired of her insults. She needed to be put in her place.

And he needed his ring.

“Very well. But when I win, you will hand over my ring without further ado.” He pulled his lips back in a grin. “I accept your challenge, Miss Stewart.”

 

Chapter Six

Rowan made up her mind to return to the grotto in the forest to see if there was something to explain the change in Marigold.

But when she arrived it was exactly the same, green and mysterious, with the sound of water dripping and apparently leading nowhere.

She turned away in disappointment and only then saw a man standing watching her.…

—From The Grey Court Changeling

# # #

 

Late that night Messalina drew on her wrapper to answer a tap at her bedroom door.

Jane Lovejoy, wearing a gold silk wrapper with butterfly embroidery that Messalina was notat all envious of, slipped into her room.

Messalina shut the door and turned to see Jane watching her, arms akimbo. “Now what is so secret you couldn’t tell me on the walk to the village today? And why must we meet in the dead of night to talk? You’re quite lucky that Daniel drank so much brandy after dinner—he’s snoring like a fleet of drunken sailors.”

Messalina winced. “I do apologize—I hadn’t considered how you would explain your absence to Lord Lovejoy.”

Jane let her militant stance slip. “Yes, well, as it happens it doesn’t matter, so please tell me what is so urgent.”

“It’s Eleanor Randolph,” Messalina said. “I want to know what happened to her.”

Jane frowned, slowly sinking into one of the chairs grouped by the fireplace. “What do you mean? Eleanor died last spring.”

“Yes, I know,” Messalina said, beginning to pace. “But the thing is, how did she die?”

“I think it was a fever—or at least some illness that took her suddenly.” Jane watched as Messalina turned at the door and walked back across the room. “Why are you so interested now?”

“I’m not entirely sure.” Messalina glanced quickly at Jane and away. “You know that Eleanor and I were friends? We met when we were eighteen and newly out, you see.”

For two years she and Eleanor had giggled together and discussed gentlemen and their relative assets until Eleanor had inevitably married Randolph. Inevitablybecause Eleanor was kind and intelligent, the niece of an earl, and had a very nice dowry. Randolph was a big handsome man, a little older at five and thirty, but very powerful in the House of Lords.

Since Messalina was the niece of a duke, one might think she’d be married by now as well. But Messalina had been…picky.

She still was, in fact.

But that was neither here nor there.

Messalina drew a breath. “We used to send each other regular letters, Eleanor and I, but it had been several years since I’d actually seen her in London. She wrote that she liked the countryside and found London too wearying.”

She stopped and looked at Jane’s reaction.

Jane shrugged and shook her head.

Messalina grimaced. “I know! It doesn’t seem like much, but the thing you have to know about Eleanor was that she loved to dance. And to go to balls. And shop. When I thought about it, this sudden urge to rusticate seemed…odd.”

“Well, people do change,” Jane said practically. “When I first married Lord Lovejoy he was the most dreadful prig.” She looked thoughtful. “Actually, he still is. But you wouldn’t believe how much better he’s become—or perhaps I’m more tolerant of his foibles—which is the point. One changes when one marries. In a good marriage, you no longer make decisions on your own—you do it as a partnership. If Lord Randolph liked rusticating, perhaps Eleanor found out how much she enjoyed the country as well—particularly once she had her own house to manage.”

“Perhaps,” Messalina said reluctantly. “But there’s another thing.” She dropped into the chair next to Jane’s. “You mustn’t tell anyone because I might be simply mad.”

Jane nodded encouragingly.

Messalina took a deep breath. “In the last letter she wrote me, Eleanor said she was going to leave Lord Randolph.”

Jane blinked. “Leave as in…?”

“Leave as in cause a huge scandal. She asked if she could seek refuge with me and I replied that of course she could, but I wasn’t sure for how long. It’s Uncle Augustus, you see. We might not live with him, Lucretia and I, but we’re rather beholden to him.” Messalina delicately chose each word to describe her relationship to the man she knew to be the devil. “If he took a dislike to Eleanor, or-or disapproved of her running away from her husband, he could make things very difficult for all concerned.”

Which of course was a great understatement. Dear Uncle Augustus was capable of much worse than merely causing difficulty.

Fortunately Jane didn’t seem to notice Messalina’s unease in regard to Uncle Augustus. She merely asked, “What did Eleanor reply?”

“She didn’t,” Messalina said. “She died a fortnight later.”

“Oh, my dear,” Jane said with awful gentleness, “I realize her death was a shock to you, but might your worry that her death was unnatural simply be, well, guilt that you weren’t able to offer her permanent refuge?”

Messalina’s eyes welled up all of a sudden, which was most annoying and really not at all helpful. Of course she’d considered that her disquiet over Eleanor’s fate was merely her own guilty conscience. She’d even—horribly—thought it was possible that her own letter informing Eleanor that she had no place to run to permanently might’ve led her to take her own life.

“The thing is,” she told Jane now, resuming her pacing, “I didthink about that. I thought about it for months, and I eventually decided that it was all my imagination. That Eleanor was dead and I merely felt grief and guilt about her passing.”

“Then why are you here?” Jane asked.

Messalina halted at the far end of the room and turned. “Last month I saw Elliot Randolph at a ball. I hadn’t seen him since the news of Eleanor’s death, so I went to him to offer my condolences.” She inhaled, remembering that cold face, emotionless, inhuman—or nearly so. “He looked at me and smiled. I knew in that instant. I knew without doubt.”

“Knew what?” Jane asked.

“Lord Randolph murdered Eleanor.” She met Jane’s wide eyes. “I have no evidence—he said nothing at all suspicious—but the look he gave me was…was…monstrous, Jane. He was gleeful, I could tell. What’s more, I’m sure he let me know. He thinks that there’s nothing I can do about her death. That Eleanor is dead and he’s won.”

“But even if your suspicion is true—and you must know it’s very far-fetched, my dear—what can you do?” Jane asked, her brows knit. “It’s been a year. Eleanor is buried.”

“I know.” Messalina came and knelt before her friend, grasping her hands. “I know it will be difficult, but I want to know what really happened to Eleanor. And I need your help to do it. I’m a stranger in these parts, but youaren’t. People will talk to you as they might not to me. Will you help me find out if Eleanor was murdered by her husband?”

“Yes.” Jane straightened her shoulders. “Yes, I will.”

# # #

 

They’d decided on the well house clearing. Even as Christopher made his way through the gloomy woods to their rendezvous the next morning he knew that this was a mistake. There was no way that Miss Stewart—short, delicate, and female—could best him in a sword fight. The very fact that she thought she could was evidence that she was mad.

She was a woman ruled by her emotions—as all women were supposed to be. Many men thought women little more than children who must be guided and guarded.

Except that he didn’t believe women were such base creatures. Certainly Miss Stewart wasn’t. She seemed perfectly intelligent and not particularly emotional—except when it came to him.

Were he a simple man he might think her explosive anger merely a symptom of sexual attraction to a man she didn’t like.

He wasn’t a simple man, though.

He was a man who had lived among strangers in a strange land for nearly half his life. He’d long ago learned not to believe what was only on the surface.

The best he could hope for was that he’d beat her quickly and regain his ring. If he did so she’d merely hate him even more than she did already.

The worst possibility was that she’d somehow hurt herself during their so-called duel.

He was scowling over that thought when he walked around the last turn and saw her already waiting for him.

Tess took off galloping toward Miss Stewart as if the woman were the dog’s long-lost friend.

Stupid animal.

She looked down at Tess and smiled.

A bright, beautiful, easy smile, and he was struck with jealousy.

For his own dog.

She glanced over the dog’s head—she was fondling Tess’s ears—and the smile disappeared at the sight of him.

He refused to be disappointed.

“Do you still mean to go through with this, madam?” he asked, unwrapping the swords he’d brought with him.

“Yes,” she said without hesitation.

Of course. Christopher decided he would beat her as swiftly as possible so as not to prolong her humiliation.

Were she not so stubborn, he’d let her decline gracefully and find another way to retrieve his ring. But he knew her well enough by now to know she would not back down.

Therefore, best to get it over with.

He placed both swords over his forearm, the hilts toward her, so she could choose her weapon.

She stepped forward and examined them carefully before picking the slightly shorter one. The one a smaller, weaker swordsman—or woman—would be better able to handle.

That was his first hint.

She swept the sword through the air and then brought it before her and looked at him. “Ready?”

He nodded. “Call it.”

“En garde!”

His second hint was when her sword nearly took his nose off.

Jesus.

He leaped back. Thrust his sword before him to block her next attack. He watched how she moved as he defended.

Perhaps Miss Stewart wasn’t insane after all.

She fought like someone familiar with a sword.

She fought like a woman who might very well best him.

Her sword sang as it scraped along his. She disengaged before their swords could catch.

Pivoted.

Bared her teeth and went for his belly.

Christopher wheeled back, barely bringing his own sword up in time.

Her face was set and determined—too determined. She truly wanted to beat him.

Perhaps kill him.

Why?

He had no intention of wounding her. He’d meant to simply disarm her. Teach her a lesson about better reach and stronger muscle.

But agility and better skill also came into play—unfortunately.

He was a fool to ever have agreed to this.

She darted at him, her sword flashing, her eyes intent and furious.

He turned away a stab meant for his shoulder. Stepped into her next attack.

And was rewarded with a pink to his left arm.

“Bloody hell!”

She flashed him a triumphant grin.

He blinked.

There was something familiar in that grin.

She lunged for him.

Forcing him to dodge.

He circled her.

She whirled to follow, and her cap fell from her head.

“Stop this,” he commanded.

“Not good enough?” she mocked, trying to impale him, the wildcat. “Perhaps you prefer to stand aside and let others do your gory work.”

He stared, confused. Aroused.What?

Her gaze was nearly feverish. Her hair coming down about her shoulders. “You’re a coward who orders others to beat a man nearly to death.”

She lunged again, past his guard, the tip of her sword at his throat. He felt the needle prick of pain.

She stood, panting, her hair wild about her shoulders. Her redhair—not dusty brown at all. Red, fiery curls, waving in the breeze as if they had a life of their own, and he saw her as if for the first time.

“Yield,” she demanded, an avenging fury.

His world tipped upside down. “Freya?

Her eyes widened.

He knocked her sword tip away from his throat. Caught her wrist and twisted.

She yelped and dropped her sword.

Her lips parted—most likely to curse him.

He didn’t care anymore. He yanked her into his arms and kissed her.

She opened her mouth to him. Teeth clashing, lips snarling together. Anything but yielding.

Freya.

How could this be? That slim girl, running wild over hills so long ago, her flaming hair a banner. This woman, voluptuous and furious, her hair still a flaming banner.

He thrust his tongue into her mouth, confused and angry. How had this happened? Why was she here?

But those thoughts melted away as he explored her hot mouth, felt her hands clench in his hair, pulling him closer.

Freya.

Her passion was exhilarating. He wanted to strip this drab gown from her body. Find out how plush her breasts really were. If her sweet hips would cradle him.

He caught her glorious hair and held her, taunting her tongue. Licking at her teeth.

Drinking her—Freya—memory and reality.

He felt a change in her body, a stiffening of her shoulders as her hands left his hair, and he broke the kiss just in time. Her teeth clicked together on the bite she’d meant for his lip.

“Why are you here?” he rasped. He was still hard, despite her effort to bloody him more.

“Why shouldn’t I be here, Kester?” she mocked.

No one had called him that in…

Fifteen years.

It had been a nickname—a shortening of Christopher—that Ran and Julian had given him. Kester had meant friendship, warmth, Scotland. A place where he could relax from the constant pressure to be correct that his father put on him.

Where he could be himselfwithout apology.

He was almost brought to his knees by longing.

But he wouldn’t let himself show weakness. “You know what I’m asking. Why are you working as a chaperone? You’re the daughter of a duke.”

“And the sister of one,” she growled, low. “Have you completely forgotten Ran?”

He inhaled, letting her go. “I could never forget Ran.”

“No?” She bent for her sword where he’d dropped it at their feet.

He stepped on the blade.

She straightened, glaring. “He lost his hand, did you know that? Gangrene set into the wounds and they had to amputate.”

“I…” He swallowed, remembering when he’d heard that ghastly fact. A stranger in a tavern had mentioned it. He’d had to walk outside to cast up his accounts. “I didn’t know until I returned to England.”

“He’s crippled,” she whispered as harshly as a shout. “It was his righthand. He can’t draw, can’t write. Can you imagine that? Ran unable to draw?”

He felt ill. Ran, tall, whip-thin Ran, laughing as he sketched comic faces. Frowning as he drew glorious trees and mountains. “Oh God.”

He felt her blow against his chest, but didn’t register the physical pain.

His soul was shattering.

“I wanted to punish you,” she whispered. “You deserve it for what you did to him.”

He closed his eyes. “Freya.

“He doesn’t go out anymore,” she hissed, tears glittering in her eyes. “Not for years and years. We used to try and corner him in his town house in Edinburgh. Try to draw him out, or simply talk. He refuses to converse with anyone. Lachlan spent a year, screaming at him, pleading with him, begging—”

She choked and he opened his eyes.

Freya was weeping, her green-gold eyes wide open even as the tears leaked out. Her face ruddy with her wrath.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

She slapped him.

His head jerked back as his jaw began to burn. He pulled her into his arms even as she hit him open handed, pummeling him.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He didn’t know what else to say.

Knew at the same time that there was nothing he couldsay to make this right.

It would never be right again.

Ran was gone—destroyed—and it was his fault.

He waited, holding her, as she sobbed and struggled and gasped. Clutching at his chest when she gave up hitting him.

After a bit he sank to the cold, damp ground, still holding her. He stroked her hair, letting her weep on his chest, and continued to murmur his sorrow.

His regret.

At last she heaved a great breath and grew silent.

The sun was all the way up now, shining in the sky. Tess had come to lie beside them, her head on Christopher’s knee. They’d have to return to the house soon or risk being found to be missing.

He took a breath. “Did Ran tell you what happened?”

She shook her head. “He was brought home by Julian’s uncle the Duke of Windemere’s men. They said he’d tried to elope with Aurelia but had murdered her instead in a fit of insanity—”

“But did he tellyou?” he asked.

She frowned, a small crimping of her red lips. “He was too injured. He caught a fever almost at once.”

He nodded. “Then please listen.”

He felt her tense and prepared himself to hold her, but she did nothing.

She was listening.

He watched as Tess got up to dig at the foundation of the well house. “We were young. That is the most important thing. We were too young.”

She scoffed, but didn’t interrupt.

“Ran came to Julian and me and said he needed to marry Aurelia.”

Needed?”

He shook his head. “Apparently her uncle was against the union for some reason. Ran was determined to marry Aurelia before her uncle could make another match for her.”

She hadn’t known that—he could tell by the frown incised between her brows. “That’s why he was going to elope.”

“Yes.” He carefully stroked her hair. The last time he’d seen Freya she’d been eleven or twelve. A sweet younger sister.

She was no longer sweet.

And he didn’t feel at all brotherly now.

“Wasn’t Julian upset?” she asked. “After all, Aurelia was his sister and only sixteen.”

“No.” Christopher considered. “He was irritated that Ran was so insistent that they elope right away, but I don’t think he was angry. If anything he wanted to make Aurelia happy. You were young. Perhaps you don’t remember how…vitalshe was. How charming. We all adored her.”

“I remember,” she said in a stiff little voice.

He hugged her closer. “Then you know that once Aurelia had made up her mind to elope with Ran nothing would’ve dissuaded her. No onewould’ve stopped her. She was beautiful and spoiled and young.”

She moved to look at him, and he saw that her eyes were swollen and red.

The sight struck a chord within him—an urge to protect and shelter, though she was the last woman to need protection. An urge to lay his mouth against hers again, though she would surely bite him if he did.

“How did she end up dead? Murdered?” she demanded.

Christopher shook his head. He could feel sweat running down his back. It might’ve been from the duel, but he thought it more likely it was the memories.

The awful memories. “I don’t know exactly.”

Her lip curled. “How can you not know?”

He took a breath, knowing that whatever he might say, it would never be enough for her. “You have to remember that we were all only eighteen. All of us beside Aurelia, but she was probably the most certain of us. We thought it was a lark. A grand adventure. We made plans to meet at Greycourt House, by the stables at midnight, and ride away, over the border to Scotland, so they could wed. But…”

She frowned. “What happened? What changed?”

“Aurelia,” he said and swallowed. “Something happened to Aurelia and she was killed.”

Freya sat up straight. “You don’t know how she was murdered?”

“That’s my mistake,” he said, watching her. “I got there after Ran. There was shouting and I almost turned away, but I saw Ran being beaten in the courtyard and I went to him. Julian came forward and held me back. His face was so white it was near gray and he said, “Don’t.” Just that. Don’t.He told me that Aurelia was dead. That her bloodied body was in the stables and that Ran had killed her.”

“He didn’t,” Freya said fiercely. “Ran wouldn’t kill anyone, let alone Aurelia. He worshipped her.”

“I know,” Christopher said, his heart leaden with old, old grief. “I knew that then. But in the night, with Julian telling me that Ran was a murderer, with the Duke of Windemere bellowing and his men beating Ran…”

She shook her head wearily. “Ran was your friend. How could you betray him so?”

“I was weak.” He looked at her and told her his shame without any hope of sympathy. “I failed him that night. That’s why I wore his ring: to remind me of my failure. To remind me to do what is rightno matter the personal cost. To remind me to never retreat when I can and should take action to help another.”

She pulled away and he let her, watching as she stood and shook out her skirts.

Freya looked at him, beautiful and stern. “Your regret can’t restore Ran’s severed hand. It won’t give him the ability to draw again or to forget what happened. He’s spent fifteen years entombed just as surely as if he’d died that night.”

“Freya,” he whispered, and bowed his head, feeling the weight of her censure.

But still she wasn’t done. “I cannot forgive you.”

Her footsteps were quiet as she left him.

 

###

 

When Home is the Polar Bear Capital of the World


 

“I like to go out for walks, but it’s a little awkward to push the baby stroller and carry a shotgun at the same time.”—a housewife from Churchill, Manitoba

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That’s right, welcome to Churchill, Manitoba! Year-round human population: 943. Yet despite the isolation and the searing cold here at the Arctic’s edge, visitors from around the globe flock to the town every fall, driven by a single purpose: to see polar bears in the wild. And for a brief time, one family from Oakland, Californa called it their home. And this is a tiny glimpse of author Zac Unger’s wild adventure, where polar bears stroll across coffee shops and can be seen checking out garbage cans.


 

Walking around outside in Churchill took a little getting used to. A number of people told me that if I was ever about to have an encounter with a polar bear, I would be forwarned by a distinctive tingling along the length of my spine. But I had been feeling that tingle since the minute I landed, and it reappeared every single time I tied my boots and stepped outside. Either my every move was being followed, or my bear detector was seriously on the fritz.

“Is your spine tingling?” I asked Mac.

“What’s my spine?”

“It’s the bone in your back.”

“My spine’s OK,” he said. “But my nose is cold.”

I stepped down off the wall and scooped up little Zeke, who was eating pebbles. His coat was misbuttoned, his hat was askew, and his scarf was tied in a fashion that was more noose-like than warmth-giving. A two-year-old California boy has difficulty understanding the direct relationship how he dresses and how comfortable he will be. I’m quite sure that he would have happily frozen to death rather than submit willingly to having a down coat put on him. He always fought valiantly as we headed out the door, but I outweighed him by a solid 150 pounds, so I usually won.

Holding Percy’s hand tightly, Shona looked as nervous as I felt. “Should we really be up here?” she asked, nodding at the Polar Bear Alert signs.

“We’ll probably be fine,” I said. “I saw some kids playing around here yesterday.” It occurred to me that all of the bear warnings were as much about the Churchill brand as about any actual danger. The unofficial town motto could be Scre hem and They Will Come.

“We’d feel pretty stupid if we got eaten by a bear, though,” Shona said. True enough. As if to agree with his mother, Zeke squirmed and whimpered, bait-like in my arms. In the end, we decided that Mac and I would say and explore, just a few minutes, and Shona and the others would go back. In my quick and stupid calculus of risk, I figured that I could grab Mac and run with him, but that Shona and the others would have more trouble. Besides, this was a four-year-old boy we were talking about, with a long-standing interest in the construction projects, rocks, and ruination in general. Showing him a crumbling castle might be worth a minor mauling.

After Shona and the other two kids left, Mac rambled without fear while I peered around corners and tried to keep him close. It was easy to imagine a sleeping bear nestled down in a roofless bedroom or prowling around possessively like an impotent emperor surveying the trappings of a nobility that had long since eroded.

“We should go, Mac,” I said. “It’s not really safe here.”

He considered my statement for a minute. Even back home I was constantly telling him that he was on the verge of killing himself, and he’d long since decided to be selective in regard to the advice he was willing to take. “It’s not really a person place anymore,” he responded at last, giving a respectful nod to my paranoia. “It’s kind of like he built a castle and gave it to the polars. And polars don’t need roofs.”

I wished I could share Mac’s calm, but I was glad to be going. I lifted him over the last wall and watched as he trundled off, zigzagging out of his way in order to smash the ice on top of every puddle. “Heeeere polars,” he sang as he ran. “Come on out big bad beary-bears… You can have my little broooooother.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

A magical debut with a fairy tale feel that will break your heart . . . Perfect for fans of The Night Circus, The Bear and the Nightingale and Uprooted.

 

 

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1

Liba

If you want to know the history of a town, read the gravestones in its cemetery. That’s what my Tati always says. Instead of praying in the synagogue like all the other men of our town, my father goes to the cemetery to pray. I like to go there with him every morning.

The oldest gravestone in our cemetery dates back to 1666. It’s the grave I like to visit most. The names on the stone have long since been eroded by time. It is said in our shtetl that it marks the final resting place of a bride and a groom who died together on their wedding day. We don’t know anything else about them, but we know that they were buried, arms embracing, in one grave. I like to put a stone on their grave when I go there, to make sure their souls stay down where they belong, and when I do, I say a prayer that I too will someday find a love like that.

That grave is the reason we know that there were Jews in Dubossary as far back as 1666. Mami always said that this town was founded in love and that’s why my parents chose to live here. I think it means something else—that our town was founded in tragedy. The death of those young lovers has been a pall hanging over Dubossary since its inception. Death lives here. Death will always live here.

2

Laya

I see Liba going
to the cemetery with Tati.
I don’t know
what she sees
in all those cold stones.
But I watch,
and wonder,
why he never takes me.

When we were little,
Liba and I went to
the Talmud Torah.
For Liba, the black letters
were like something
only she could decipher.
I never understood
what she searched for,
in those black
scratches of ink.
I would watch
the window,
study the forest
and the sky.

When we walked home,
Liba would watch the boys
come out of the cheder
down the road.
I know that when she looked
at Dovid, Lazer and Nachman,
she wondered
what was taught
behind the walls
the girls were not
allowed to enter.

After her Bat Mitzvah,
Tati taught her Torah.
He tried to teach me too,
when my turn came,
but all I felt was
distraction,
disinterest.
Chanoch l’naar al pi darko,
Tati would say,
teach every child
in his own way,
and sigh,
and get up
and open the door.
Gey, gezinte heit—
I accept that you’re different, go.

And while I was grateful,
I always wondered
why he gave up
without a fight.

3

Liba

As I follow the large steps my father’s boots make in the snow, I revel in the solitude. This is why I cherish our morning walks. They give me time to talk to Tati, but also time to think. “In silence you can hear God,” Tati says to me as we walk. But I don’t hear God in the silence—I hear myself. I come here to get away from the noises of the town and the chatter of the townsfolk. It’s where I can be fully me.

“What does God sound like?” I ask him. When I walk with Tati, I feel like I’m supposed to think about important things, like prayer and faith.

“Sometimes the voice of God is referred to as a bat kol,” he says. I translate the Hebrew out loud: “The daughter of a voice? That doesn’t make any sense.”

He chuckles. “Some say that bat kol means an echo, but others say it means a hum or a reverberation, something you sense in the air that’s caused by the motion of the universe—part of the human voice, but also part of every other sound in the world, even the sounds that our ears can’t hear. It means that sometimes even the smallest voice can have a big opinion.” He grins, and I know that he means me, his daughter; that my opinion matters. I wish it were true. Not everybody in our town sees things the way my father does. Most women and girls do not study Torah; they don’t learn or ask questions like I do. For the most part, our voices don’t matter. I know I’m lucky that Tati is my father.

Although I love Tati’s stories and his answers, I wonder why a small voice is a daughter’s voice. Sometimes I wish my voice could be loud—like a roar. But that is not a modest way to think. The older I get, the more immodest my thoughts become.

I feel my cheeks flush as my mind wanders to all the things I shouldn’t be thinking about—what it would feel like to hold the hand of a man, what it might feel like to kiss someone, what it’s like when you finally find the man you’re meant to marry and you get to be alone together, in bed . . . I swallow and shake my head to clear my thoughts.

If I shared the fact that this is all I think about lately, Mami and Tati would say it means it’s time for me to get married. But I’m not sure I want to get married yet. I want to marry for love, not convenience. These thoughts feel like sacrilege. I know that I will marry a man my father chooses. That’s the way it’s done in our town and among Tati’s people. Mami and Tati married for love, and it has not been an easy path for them.

I take a deep breath and shake my head from all my thoughts. This morning, everything looks clean from the snow that fell last night and I imagine the icy frost coating the insides of my lungs and mind, making my thoughts white and pure. I love being outside in our forest more than anything at times like these, because the white feels like it hides all our flaws.

Perhaps that’s why I often see Tati in the dark forest that surrounds our home praying to God or—as he would say—the Ribbono Shel Oylam, the Master of the Universe, by himself, eyes shut, arms outstretched to the sky. Maybe he comes out here to feel new again too.

Tati comes from the town of Kupel, a few days’ walk from here. He came here and joined a small group of Chassidim in the town—the followers of the late Reb Mendele, who was a disciple of the great and holy Ba’al Shem Tov. There is a small shtiebl where the men pray, in what used to be the home of Urka the Coachman. It is said that the Ba’al Shem Tov himself used to sit under the tree in Urka’s courtyard. The Chassidim here accepted my father with open arms, but nobody accepted my mother.

Sometimes I wonder if Reb Mendele and the Ba’al Shem Tov (zichrono livracha) were still with us, would the community treat Mami differently? Would they see how hard she tries to be a good Jew, and how wrong the other Jews in town are for not treating her with love and respect. It makes me angry how quickly rumors spread, that Mami’s kitchen isn’t kosher (it is!) just because she doesn’t cover her hair like the other married Jewish women in our town.

That’s why Tati built our home, sturdy and warm like he is, outside our town in the forest. It’s what Mami wanted: not to be under constant scrutiny, and to have plenty of room to plant fruit trees and make honey and keep chickens and goats. We have a small barn with a cow and a goat, and a bee glade out back and an orchard that leads all the way down to the river. Tati works in town as a builder and a laborer in the fields. But he is also a scholar, worthy of the title Rebbe, though none of the men in town call him that.

Sometimes I think my father knows more than the other Chassidim in our town, even more than Rabbi Borowitz who leads our tiny kehilla, and the bare bones prayer minyan of ten men that Tati sometimes helps complete. There are many things my father likes to keep secret, like his morning dips in the Dniester River that I never see, but know about, his prayer at the graveside of Reb Mendele, and our library. Our walls are covered in holy books—his sforim, and I often fall asleep to the sound of him reading from the Talmud, the Midrash, and the many mystical books of the Chassidim. The stories he reads sound like fairy tales to me, about magical places like Babel and Jerusalem.

In these places, there are scholarly men. Father would be respected there, a king among men. And there are learned boys of marriageable age—the kind of boys Tati would like me to marry someday. In my daydreams, they line up at the door, waiting to get a glimpse of me—the learned, pious daughter of the Rebbe. And my Tati would only pick the wisest and kindest for me.

I shake my head. In my heart of hearts, that’s not really what I want. When Laya and I sleep in our loft, I look out the skylight above our heads and pretend that someone will someday find his way to our cabin, climb up onto the roof, and look in from above. He will see me and fall instantly in love.

Because lately I feel like time is running out. The older I get, the harder it will be to find someone. And when I think about that, I wonder why Tati insists that Laya and I wait until we are at least eighteen.

I would ask Mami, but she isn’t a scholar like Tati, and she doesn’t like to talk about these things. She worries about what people say and how they see us. It makes her angry, but she wrings dough instead of her hands. Tati says her hands are baker’s hands, that she makes magic with dough. Mami can make something out of nothing. She makes cheese and gathers honey; she mixes bits of bark and roots and leaves for tea. She bakes the tastiest challahs and cakes, rugelach and mandelbrot, but it’s her babka she’s famous for. She sells her baked goods in town.

When she’s not in the kitchen, Mami likes to go out through the skylight above our bed and onto the little deck on our roof to soak up the sun. Laya likes to sit up there with her. From the roof, you can see down to the village and the forest all around. I wonder if it’s not just the sun that Mami seeks up there. While Tati’s head is always in a book, Mami’s eyes are always looking at the sky. Laya says she dreams of somewhere other than here. Somewhere far away, like America.

4

Laya

I always thought
that if I worshipped God,
dressed modestly,
and walked in His path,
that nothing bad
would happen
to my family.
We would find
our path to Zion,
our own piece of heaven
on the banks
of the Dniester River.

But now that I’m fifteen
I see what a life
of pious devotion
has brought Mami,
who converted
to our faith—
disapproval.
The life we lead
out here is a life apart.

I wish I could go to Onyshkivtsi.
Mami always tells me stories
about her town
and Saint Anna of the Swans
who lived there.

Saint Anna
didn’t walk with God—
she knew she wasn’t made
for perfection;
she never tried
to fit a pattern
that didn’t fit her.
She didn’t waste her time
trying to smooth herself
into something
she wasn’t.
She was powerful
because she forged
her own path.

The Christians
in Onyshkivtsi
built a shrine
to honor her.
The shrine marks a spring
whose temperature
is forty- three degrees
all year,
rain or shine.
Even in the snow.

It is said
that it was once home
to hundreds of swans.
Righteous Anna used to
feed and care for them.
But Mami says the swans
don’t go there anymore.

There is rot
in the old growth—
the Kodari forest
senses these things.
I sense things too.
The rot in our community.
Sometimes it’s not enough
to be good,
if you treat others
with disdain.
Sometimes there’s nothing
you can do
but fly away,
like Anna did.

5

Liba

When we get back from our morning walk, Mami is in the kitchen making breakfast and starting the doughs for the day. Tati shakes the snow off his boots as he walks in. “Gut morgen,” he says gruffly as he pecks a kiss on Mami’s cheek. She pins her white- gold hair up and says, “Dubroho ranku. Liba, close the door quickly—you’re letting all the cold in.”

I let the hood of my coat drop down. “Where’s Laya?”

“Getting some eggs from the coop,” Mami sings. She and Laya love mornings, not like me, but I’d wake up early every morning if it meant I got time alone with Tati.

I shrug my coat off and hang it on a hook by the door as Mami pours tea at the table. “Nu? Come in, warm up,” she says to me.

I shake the chill off and start braiding my hair, which is the color of river rocks. Long and thick. I can’t pin it up at all. “Your hair is beautiful like moonstone, dochka,” Mami says. “Leave it down.”

“More like oil on fur,” I say, because it’s sleek and shiny and I never feel like I can tame it. It will never be white and light like hers and Laya’s.

“Do you want me to braid it for you?” Mami asks.

I shake my head.

“Come here, my zaftig one,” Tati says. “Your hair is fine; leave it be.”

I cringe: I don’t like it when he calls me plump, even though it’s a term of endearment, and anyway, I know what comes next. Laya walks in and he says, “Oh, the shayna meidel has decided to join us.” The pretty one. I concentrate on braiding my hair.

Laya grins. “Gut morgen. How was your walk?” She looks at me.

I shrug my shoulders and finish braiding my hair, then sit at the table and lift a cup of tea to my mouth. “Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech haolam, shehakol nih’ye bidvaro—Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, by whose word all things came to be.” I make sure to say every word of the blessing with meaning.

Oymen!” Tati says with a smile.

Instead of trying to be something I will never be, I do everything I can to be a good Jew.

6

Laya

When I was outside
gathering eggs,
I searched the sky,
hoping to see something—
anything.
One night I heard
feathers rustling
and turned around
and looked up—
a swan had landed
on our rooftop.
It was watching me.
I didn’t breathe
the whole time
it was there.
Until it spread
its wings
and took off
into the sky.

Every night I pray
that it will happen again
because if I ever see
another swan,
I won’t hold my breath—
I will open the window
and go outside.

That’s why I rake my gaze
over every flake of bark
and every teardrop leaf,
hoping. I see that
every finger- branch
is reaching for something.
I am reaching too.
Up up up.

At night I feel
the weight
of the house
upon my chest.
It’s warm
and safe inside,
but the wooden planks
above my head
are nothing like
the dark boughs
of the forest.
Sometimes I wish
I could sleep outside.
The Kodari is
the only place
I feel truly at home.

But this morning
I’m restless
and that usually means
something is about to change.
That’s what the forest
teaches you—
change can come
in the blink of an eye—
the fall of one spark
can mean total destruction.

There is a fever
that burns in me.
It prickles every pore.
I’m not happy with
the simple life we lead.
A life ruled
by prayer and holy days,
times for dusk and dawn,
the sacred and the profane.
A life of devotion,
Tati would say.
The glory
of a king’s daughter
is within.

But I long for what is
just outside my window.
Far beyond
the reaches of the Dniester,
and the boundaries
of our small shtetl.

It hurts,
this thing I feel,
how unsettled
I’ve become.
I want to fit
in this home,
in this town.
To be the daughter
that Tati wants me to be.
To be more
like Liba.
Prayer comes
so easily to her.

Mami understands
what I feel
but I also think
it scares her.
She is always sending me
outside, and I’m grateful
but I also wonder
why she doesn’t
teach me how to bake,
or how to pray.
It’s almost like she knows
that one day
I will leave her.

Sometimes I wish
she’d teach me
how to stay.

I close my eyes
and take deep breaths.
It helps me
resist the urge
to scratch my back.
I want to crawl out
of this skin I wear
when these thoughts come
and threaten to overwhelm
the little peace I have,
staring at the sky,
praying in my own way
for something else.

Something is definitely
inside me.
It is not glory,
or devotion.
It is something
that wants to burst free.

7

Liba

Night falls and Tati comes home from work. It’s well past eleven. Laya is already asleep beside me. She was restless all day, I could sense that—and I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but I never got the chance. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door.

And another.

The knocks are so loud, they feel as if they could wake the dead. I can’t imagine how Laya sleeps through it. I creep to the top rung of the ladder to our loft, where I can just barely see the door. Tati goes to open it. Mami baked all day and into the night—babka for matters of the heart—and I wonder if she knew that this was coming.

Is it the Tsar’s army? Have they come for Tati? So many men from our town have been conscripted recently. Their absence in the village is felt—lights in windows have gone out all over town.

I know, we all know, that something as small as a knock—the rap of knuckles on wood—could change our lives forever. If the Tsar’s army comes for you, they take you for twenty-five years. And we know it means some people might never return.

I wait for the world I’ve known to crumble, with the scent of chocolate in the air.

“Who is it?”

There’s a muffled answer and Tati unbars the door.

A man I’ve never seen before steps inside. He bows before my father and I see Tati put a hand over his mouth and cry out.

“Yankl?”

But the man doesn’t rise until Tati places his hands upon his head and blesses him.

Ye’varech’echa Adonai ve’yish’merecha—May God bless you and keep you . . . ” I don’t understand why my father says the priestly blessing. He normally only says it on Friday nights with his hands on Laya’s head and mine—just after we sing “Shalom Aleichem” inviting the angels into our home and before he blesses the wine.

The man lifts up his head and kisses my father’s knuckles.

“Yankl!” my father says again. The men embrace. “What brings you here?” Tati asks. “How did you . . . ?”

“It wasn’t easy to find you, Rebbe, I’ll tell you that much.”

Mami takes a step forward and bows her head in his direction. “Can I offer you something hot to drink? I just made babka.”

“This is Adel, my wife,” Tati says to the strange man. And to my surprise, the man looks at her and says, “I remember.”

He wears a large cloak that looks like a bearskin, and underneath it, a satin overcoat with white stockings that end in large black boots.

“Please—take a seat.” Mami beckons the men to the table as she goes to the kitchen. I can hear her fill the kettle and put it on the fire.

The man sits down at the table and stares at Tati. “It’s good to see you, Berman.”

Tati grunts. “What brings you all this way, my brother?”

Tati has a brother?

The man starts to sway back and forth at the table as if in prayer. “Oh-yoy oh-yo-yoy, oh-yoy,” he chants. “The Rebbe is sick, Reb Berman. He doesn’t have long to live.”

I see Tati’s face go slack, white almost, like he’s seen a ghost.

“Here, have a tipple of something.” Mami takes out the schnapps and offers both men a glassful.

The man—my uncle?—takes a healthy gulp, shudders, and continues. “We need you to come home. The Rebbe needs you, Berman . . . we all need you. Please come back before it’s too late.” He takes another gulp of schnapps, then picks up the mug of tea.

Tati shakes his head. “I have to speak to my wife.”

“There isn’t much time,” Yankl pleads. “It may be too late already.”

“Then what are you doing here? Leave,” Tati growls, and slams his glass on the table.

“Berman . . . ” Mami goes to put her arms on Tati’s shoulders.

“I said I’d never go back, Adel. You know that.”

“You can’t send Yankl back out into the cold.”

Tati grunts and says, “Will you stay the night?”

Yankl stands up. “No. You’re right. I should head back right away. I gave you the message.” He shrugs. “What you do with it is on your conscience.”

“Get out of my house!” Tati yells.

“Berman!” Mami scolds.

I hear Laya turn over in bed.

Tati grumbles, “Es tut mir bahng—sorry,” and looks up at his brother. “I’ll think about it, okay?”

Yankl walks to the door.

“Yankl, I didn’t mean it. You can stay the night. You are always welcome in our home,” Tati says.

“It’s all right,” Yankl says. “I’d best be going back.”

“I’ll pack you up some food,” Mami says, “and a thermos of tea.”

He hesitates, then nods.

Mami busies herself in the kitchen, but otherwise there is silence in the room. The brothers seem to look everywhere but at each other.

A bi gezunt,” Mami finally says, bringing him a packed basket. She adds in a low voice, “I’ll talk to him. He’ll come. Don’t worry.”

And just as quickly as he’d come, the man is gone.

“Why did you tell him that?” Tati growls when she closes the door.

Mami sits down at the table and takes Tati’s hands in hers. “Calm yourself, Berman. You have no choice, and you know that. You must go back to Kupel. You have to pay your respects.”

“No choice is also a choice,” Tati grumbles. “They never had respect for you, or for me and my choices.”

“Maybe he wants to make amends . . . ”

“We haven’t had word in over a dozen years. They cast us out! I swore to you. I swore to myself that I would never go back. And now they want me back? Me, they said, not you. I won’t go.”

“Yankl didn’t say that,” Mami sighs. “You know how I feel about your family . . . but if your father goes to his oylam, chas v’shalom—God forbid—and you don’t make it back there, you’ll never forgive yourself.”

“And then they’ll never let me leave. I’m next in line. You know that. And if they won’t accept you, I want no part of it. What—I should leave my wife and daughters to go see a father who never approved of me?”

Mami’s long thin hands grip Tati’s large ones tightly, her knuckles white. “Yankl wouldn’t have come unless the situation was dire. I think you should leave now. Tonight. I’ll stay here with the girls.” She looks into his eyes and says, “I trust you. I know that you’ll come back for us.”

“It’s not about trust, Adel,” Tati says ruefully. “What would happen if you went back to your family?”

Mami shakes her head. “I could never.”

“So why is this any different?”

“Because the Rebbe is on his deathbed! Really, Berman?”

“And if Dmitry was dying?”

Who is Dmitry? I wish I understood half of what they are discussing. Everything feels both foreign and familiar all at once, as if these are someone else’s parents—but also, as if these are things I’ve heard them discuss in my dreams.

“It’s not the same and you know it. I’m sick of this life we lead,” Mami says. “A hovel at the edge of the forest? A shtetl full of nebbishers who talk behind our backs every chance they get. This town is a dead end. We are on the brink. Maybe this is your chance at salvation. To reclaim all you lost.”

“Maybe we should go to your family, then, eh? Reclaim them.”

“You know we can’t do that.”

Tati raises his voice. “So why is this any different?”

Mami starts to cry.

Tati gets up and goes to put his arms around her. “You chose this life. You chose me. Are you saying you regret that choice?”

“No, never!” Mami looks up. “But maybe you can have both. Them and me. You have a chance now. You know I never will.”

“Adel.” He hugs her tightly and sighs. “I will only go if you come with me.”

“What? And leave the girls?” Mami’s voice is shrill and I hear Laya turn over in bed again.

“If we get there and the Rebbe, my Tati, is willing to finally accept you,” he says in a voice that sounds cracked, “publicly, then we can come back here, get the girls, and move back to Kupel. But I won’t expose them to that kind of spectacle unless I know what my father’s answer will be. They must accept you first. That’s my condition.”

“We can’t leave the girls.”

“The kehilla will take care of them. And anyway, they don’t have travel permits. None of us do. I won’t take the girls on the road and expose them to that kind of danger. If we are caught, it will mean certain death.” Tati rubs his hand across his forehead. “For now, they’re safer here in Dubossary.”

“Are you meshugge? They’ll be prey to any man!”

“Liba won’t let that happen. She’s stronger than she knows.”

“Maybe we should tell them . . . ”

Tell us what?

“No! We said we’d wait until they got engaged and we’ll keep to that. No need to worry them before that. The townsfolk are mensches. They’ll take care of our girls and keep them safe.”

“No girls should be without parents,” Mami says.

“Liba will keep house until we return. She’s nearly eighteen.”

“Which is even more of a reason for us all to go back. What kind of future does she have here? You always say that no one from this town will marry our girls. Well, here’s your chance. Liba is almost of age. You can’t wait forever. It’s time, Berman.”

“When the time comes, I will find them worthy husbands. Don’t you worry about that.”

“When? How old does Liba have to be? You’ll wait until she’s too old for anyone to want her and then see what’s left? Let them come with us. Please?”

My skin suddenly feels cold, coated with pinpricks of ice.

“No!” Tati says. “My girls are more precious to me than rubies and pearls. I won’t risk their lives on the roads.”

I can tell that Mami’s crying in earnest now.

“Adel . . . ” Tati’s voice is instantly soft.

“No!” Mami cries. “I gave up everything I was—everything I had—for you. I did everything right, and it still wasn’t enough. Not here, not there, maybe not anywhere. There’s no love lost between me and your family. But it’s not like things are all that much better here. I hear what people say. I know how they talk. Please go alone. Do it for me. For us. Get his blessing. Then come back safe and sound and we’ll either stay here, or we’ll go.”

“And what if they don’t let me leave? What if I can’t come back? What if my father is on his deathbed for months? I can’t take that chance. I’ll be lost without you. You know how they get into my head. You are my life, gelibteh, I can’t go without you by my side.” He lowers his voice and suddenly sounds nothing like my father. “I don’t trust myself when I’m with them.”

Mami shakes her head and makes a fist. “And if someone murders the girls in the night, or ravages them, you could live? You’re a beast to think to leave them.”

“I am a beast,” he chuckles, “but I haven’t acted like one in many years, and you know that better than anyone.” Then he looks at her solemnly. “In times like these, people change. Maybe everything will be different. And if not . . . ” I can see my father swallow hard, his jaw working. “You’re right. I have a responsibility to my parents. At least to mourn, to say kaddish at my father’s grave if it comes to that.”

“You know . . . if things don’t work out . . . there are other places we could go. People speak of America.”

“America is a fairy tale.”

Mami throws her hands up in defeat. “You’re impossible.” She shakes her head and sighs. “Fine. I’ll come with you.”

Tati takes a deep breath and softens his tone. “The girls will be okay. We will come back for them, I promise. Adel . . . I know you think that I’m against you in this, but I’m not. It is honestly safer for Liba and Laya to stay here.”

Mami seems to make a decision. She gets up and walks across the room. She takes something out from the trunk beneath their bed.

“Adel . . . ” Tati whispers.

“Don’t stop me, Berman. I need to think. I have to get out of this cabin.”

Mami holds up something white that looks like a cloak, and drapes it over her shoulders. She rubs her arms as if goose pimples dot her skin. She begins to shiver and shake, then hunches down on the ground as if she’s in pain. Her arms arc up, graceful, yet contorted at odd angles. The air shimmers. I don’t understand what I’m seeing, only that I can’t look away. Little wisps of white start to coat her face, then her arms, and feathers, long and white, burst out of every pore. The dress she’s wearing falls to the floor in a pool of cloth, leaving her naked, except it’s not skin I see anymore, but soft white down that shines in the light. She curls into herself, like a white ball of cloud, except for her arms—they reach for the sky. I blink, and in that instant, her arms become ivory wings, feathered and majestic in the moonlight that streams down from the skylight above our heads. My mother is a swan.

My hand is over my mouth. I’m doing everything I can not to shout, not to make a sound. I’m so busy watching the swan in our kitchen that I don’t see my father reach into the trunk. When I notice, he’s taking out a brown fur cloak, one I thought I’d seen him wear before, but maybe not. This one looks different—the fur more lush and lifelike. Like the bear cloaks the townsfolk wear to celebrate the new year. Then I hear a noise that doesn’t sound very manlike and my heart skips a beat in my chest.

I look over, and in the space where my father had been, there’s a bear. This time I nearly do cry out—in fear! I’ve never seen a bear so large. It’s twice his size, like a mountain of rich dark earth. Its eyes are dark and shining, like orbs of obsidian stone, and its teeth, sharp and yellowish, terrifying, poke out of a long snout. The nose at the end of the snout is double the size of a human nose. The bear takes a step forward. His fur is so brown it looks black, like the bark of a birch tree, rippling in a sheen with every move he makes to reveal powerful muscles and paws with claws that look sharp as daggers and dig into the wooden floor. It’s a dream, I keep telling myself, it must be a dream. A fairy tale coming to life in my head, nothing more. I look over at Laya and see that she’s still sleeping. Maybe I’m sleeping too?

I’m trembling so hard I feel as if I might tumble down the ladder.

The bear nudges the front door latch open with his snout and looks back at the swan. The swan leaps onto his back as he lumbers out of the house, careful to close the door behind him. I let myself breathe hard once the door closes. I clasp and flex my fingers, trying to wake myself up, but my fingernails feel sharper and when I look down at them, they’ve grown black and dark, with fine points that almost look like claws. I cry out and reach for Laya, but when my hand hovers over her sleeping form, I see that the hair on my arm has nearly doubled in volume and thickness. I bring my arm back, afraid of what my own hands might do. I hold myself instead, trembling in fear. I close my eyes and let the tears that have gathered fall onto my nightgown, afraid to rub my own eyes and do them damage, and too scared to move lest Laya wake and see what’s happening to me. It’s a dream, Liba, just a dream, I keep telling myself. When you open your eyes everything will go back to normal.

I lie down in bed and try to steady my breathing. I wait, my heart thundering in my chest, until I hear the rustling of bedcovers and the sound of my father’s snores. I open my eyes and look at my still-shaking hands—they look completely normal. I take a deep breath and creep down the ladder, determined to see my parents as I’ve always seen them—human and whole.

Mami is awake, drinking tea at the table. I sit by her feet and put my head in her lap.

“I had a bad dream,” I say in a shaky voice.

“What did you dream?”

“I heard you and Tati speaking,” I confess.

“Oh, dochka. You heard?” She takes a deep breath. “And saw?”

I nod. “Everything,” I say, and my voice shakes.

It’s in that moment that all I’ve ever known changes. Mami always says that fairy tales are real. With my head in my swan-mother’s lap, I start to believe—and I wonder which tale is ours.

Mami leans down and embraces me.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” she says. “But it’s not everything.” She shakes her silky white-blonde hair and her tears fall on my cheeks. “There are things I need to tell you.”

But Mami doesn’t say anything more, and soon I get up and silently make my way up the ladder back to bed. All night I watch the windows and the doors. I can’t sleep. Yankl’s words about the Rebbe dying scare me because I don’t know what it will mean for our future. But the truth of what I’ve seen my parents become scares me even more.

Tati always says that every heart has its secrets, and it is not our role in life to try and uncover them. I’ve uncovered my parents’ secrets, and more terrifying than anything, I think that means I have a secret too.

As I watch Laya sleep, I see her scratch in places where only wings grow, and then I know. My body is thick and large-boned while my sister’s is lithe. We both eat fish, but I hunger for meat.

We both love the Dniester River, but I’m drawn to its dark places, while she loves the tall trees that line its banks and the open air above. My hair is coarse and black- brown, but hers is blonde like Mami’s . . . nearly white. Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.

There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.

Now I know we are a part of that unseen world.

Literary Wonderlands: The World of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

“God is a National Resource” in this remarkably powerful, feminist dystopian novel about a repressive American theocratic dictatorship.

In 1984, when Margaret Atwood began writing her dystopia set in a near-futureAmerica, she made the decision not to include technology that was not already available, nor anything human beings had not already done in some other time or place, so she could not be accused of, as she put it, “misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior.”

The transformation of the U.S. into a theocratic dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead has been brought about by true believers, religious fanatics driven by a determination to establish God’s kingdom on Earth, much as the Puritan settlers (who included some of Atwood’s ancestors) were determined to do in seventeenth-century New England.

Prior to the beginning of the novel, fundamentalist Christian extremists assassinated the president and Congress, pinning the blame on Islamic terrorists and allowing their army to declare a state of emergency, in which the Constitution is “temporarily” suspended, news is censored, identity cards issued, and, with the new religious rulers in place, new rules imposed. Overnight, women lose the right to have jobs, or bank accounts, or to do anything except submit to the will of their husbands. And all are subject to the rule of the Commanders of the Faith, who claim biblical authority for every act, having abolished any distinction between church and state.

The narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale is a young woman known only as Offred—“Of Fred”—designated as the legal concubine of a high-ranking Commander whose first name is Fred. Only a few years before, she had a name and a job, a husband and a child, friends, and freedoms she took for granted. But the family left it too late to cross into Canada with fake passports, and now her husband is either dead or in detention, her daughter adopted by a childless couple. The only thing keeping Offred from being shipped off to perform slave labor in “the Colonies” is the possibility she might bear a baby for the Commander and his wife. For another major element driving this bleak vision of the future is that from a multitude of causes—including radiation, pollution, and untreated STDs—there has been a steep drop in human fertility, so women of child-bearing age and proven fertility are very valuable.

The biblical book of Genesis includes the story of Jacob, who married two sisters, Rachel and Leah. When Rachel produced no children, she told Jacob to impregnate her maid, Bilhah: “and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” Thus, under a regime that fears and mistrusts all science, preferring to find the answer to every problem through selective reading of an ancient book, the solution to childlessness, at least in the upper ranks, is to establish Rachel and Leah Centers for the indoctrination of “handmaids” to be assigned to the households of all childless Commanders. (Naturally, the centers are not named after the handmaidens who had Jacob’s children, but after his wives.)

In Gilead, society is rigidly hierarchical and divided by gender: Commanders of the Faith at the top; below them the Eyes (secret police), then Angels (soldiers), Guardians (low-level police duties), all male civilians, and all women. Women have no power of their own, and are valued only as wives and the producers of babies. Some unmarried women are assigned other roles by the state—the “Aunts” who indoctrinate and control those who have been selected as potential surrogate mothers and “Marthas” who work as cooks and cleaners. A few women survive by practicing the oldest profession—a brothel known as Jezebel’s is permitted to thrive, and the men in power take liberties forbidden to others.

If a handmaid fails to conceive after three different postings she is declared an “Unwoman” and sent off to “the Colonies.” This is a euphemism for forced labor camps, where lives are brutal and short. Women likewise become “unwomen” if they refuse to submit, or the men in power have no more use for them.

Women are not the only victims of this repressive, rigidly stratified, coercively heterosexual, white dictatorship. Enemies of the state regularly tortured and then executed include Catholic priests, Quakers, doctors (if they ever performed an abortion, prescribed contraception, or are accused of having done so), and “gender traitors.” African-Americans, called “Children of Ham,” have been resettled in distant, underpopulated areas such as North Dakota, now designated a “National Homeland,” and Jews were given a choice between conversion and emigration to Israel.

Offred’s life as a handmaid is relatively easy, but deeply boring. Most of her time is spent waiting. The occasions when the Commander must attempt to impregnate her are as de-sexualized as intercourse can possibly be (“This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty.”) and she wonders if it is worse for his wife, or for her. Her room is as bare as a prison cell, almost everything we would take for granted is classed as a luxury (hand cream) or a sin (reading). She is marked out by her red robes, as the wives are by their blue ones and the Marthas in green. Her daily walk is taken with another handmaid, and they are expected to police each other: If one tries to escape or does anything wrong, the other will be punished, too.

No one is allowed to suggest that a man could be sterile—infertility is always the woman’s fault. But of course it is known, and the Commander’s wife is desperate enough for a baby to arrange for Offred to spend time alone with Nick, their handsome young chauffeur. Their intimacy, after so much deprivation and misery, is almost enough to reconcile her to her situation. How little it takes, to make someone stop resisting. How easy it is to be distracted.

Although every aspect of this society is supposedly justified by the Word of God, as presented in the Bible, only the Commanders are allowed to read it, and they use it selectively, to say the least. A famous line from Karl Marx, changed to include the expected relationship between women and men, is attributed to St. Paul when repeated to the handmaids-in-training: “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.”

The city where Offred serves is never named, but it is evidently Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University. The university where Margaret Atwood once studied has become the seat of oppression, a detention center, and the site of mass executions. Atwood has said that one of the elements that inspired her to write The Handmaid’s Tale was a fascination with how dictatorships work (“not unusual in a person born in 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II”). She explained: “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. The deep foundation of the U.S.—so went my thinking—was not the comparatively recent eighteenth-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of seventeenth-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”

 

  • First published by McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
  • Margaret Atwood dedicated the book to Mary Webster and Perry Miller. Mary Webster, believed by Atwood to have been one of her ancestors, was hanged as a witch in Puritan New England, but survived.
  • A 2015 Public Policy Polling (PPP) national survey conducted on U.S. Republican voters found that fifty-seven percent wanted to establish Christianity as the official national religion, and only thirty percent were opposed to the idea, which is specifically prohibited by the Constitution.

 

An excerpt about The Handmaid’s Tale from Literary Wonderlands: A Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, general editor Laura Miller.  Copyright © Elwin Street Productions Limited 2016.  First Published in North America November 2016 by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, an imprint of Running Press, a division of Hachette Book Group. Used with permission.  All rights reserved.

Book Excerpt: A Little Piece of Light

A little piece of light “Say his name.”

I stand in front of the stainless-steel mirror in my cell in the solitary housing unit. My face is bare of any makeup—there is nothing covering this up, no making it any prettier. This is me, facing myself. Facing what I did. “Say his name,” I whisper at the mirror. “SAY HIS NAME!”

I brace myself to sit on the slab of metal that serves as my bed in my cell. “Thomas Vigliarolo,” I whimper. “His name is Thomas Vigliarolo!” The crescendo of sobs breaks me. “I’m sorry, Mr. V!” I call out. Weak from the years of carrying this weight, my voice drops again to a whisper as I beg for his forgiveness. “I am so sorry, Mr. V. I am so, so sorry that I didn’t help you.”

Cries echo throughout the unit—my own, and the cries of the women around me. In this place, our cries are our only release. We cry for ourselves, and we cry for each other. With each other.

For many of us here, imprisonment began long before the day we registered in prison. Feeling trapped and isolated began years before we found ourselves confined to a six-by-eight cinder block room with no clock to mark the time. A prison worse than any government facility is the feeling that nobody loves you. Nobody wants you. You belong nowhere. As the men in my life told me from the time I was a child: Donna, you are nobody, and nobody will ever love you. Years . . . decades . . . lives of abuse and neglect spurred many of us to make one desperate decision that finally, ultimately led us here. Too often, by the time a woman commits a crime, her only goal has been survival.

For that lapse in judgment, that poor decision—that mistake— it’s likely she will forever suffer the worst prison of all: the inability to forgive herself.

I’ll never forget waking up to my friend’s words: He’s not breath- ing. It was a turn of events that I could not fathom. Even now, half a decade after leaving prison, not a day goes by that I don’t think about Mr. Vigliarolo. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of his family, the fear they must have felt as they imagined him in fear, wondering where he was for eleven nights and worried for what he might have been experiencing.

Say his name.

I’m sorry, Mr. V.

I know what it’s like to fear for the safety of the person we love. Family is protection. I know this because on the day I gave birth, that was my fiercest vow to my daughter: I’m not going to let any- thing bad happen to you. And I know this because, beginning in my childhood, I lived a life of suffering and tough choices for two decades, until I finally found my family in the most unexpected place: prison. In spite of all the pain I’ve experienced in my life, I’ve never wanted anyone to die. But it is here, in this most unlikely place, that I found the protection and support I needed to turn my life around.

I am Donna—but here, for twenty-seven years, I was inmate.

This is my story.

Start Reading THE BRIDGE by Stuart Prebble

To him, she seemed perfect. But what is Alison hiding?

THE BRIDGE, Stuart Prebble’s “brilliantly executed” (Dayton Daily News) new thriller, goes on sale today. It’s a gripping novel (with a stunning cover, if we do say so ourselves!) that asks the terrifying question: what if the woman of your dreams is not what she seems? Get started into the mystery with this exclusive excerpt.

IT WAS A sunny Saturday afternoon, and sightseers and tourists from all parts of the world crowded onto the South Bank, streaming in both directions across Waterloo Bridge. Some were walking to or from Covent Garden or the theaters; others stopped to admire the spectacular London skyline. At first glance the Madman seemed harmless enough, just a little the worse for wear from alcohol perhaps, or maybe celebrating a victory by his football team. Dressed in blue jeans and a gray hoodie, he muttered to himself and danced light-footed as he progressed, lifting his legs high like a week-old pony. Once or twice he paused and bent his knees to speak at eye level to a child, but later no one could identify the accent or decipher the words. Parents kept a watchful eye, but there seemed to be no reason for alarm. Then, with no warning, in a single sweeping movement and before anyone could intervene, the Madman scooped up the first tiny child, a four-year-old boy apparently selected at random, and swept him over the barrier.

There was a momentary snapshot of paralysis. The boy had made no sound. Was it some trick? Had the man switched the real boy for a dummy in some bizarre and ill-judged entertainment? Before anyone could take a breath the Madman had run half a dozen steps farther towards the next child, a three-year old girl in a pink dress with birthday ribbons in her hair. Once again he gripped the child under the arms and swept her up and over the barrier, her legs suddenly pedaling through nothingness. Even now, shock and disbelief immobilized bystanders. He darted forward again and grabbed another, and yet another. Each child was seemingly as light as a wafer, flicked up to shoulder height and thrust out into emptiness. Four small people, infants and toddlers, lifted up in the space of twelve or fifteen seconds and thrown over the wall before the Madman took to his heels and vanished like a phantom into the holiday crowds.

A mother fell to her knees, cracking bones against pavement, and shuffled towards the wall as if drawn towards it like a magnet. It took more moments for the screams from the bridge to catch the attention of people below on the South Bank, and fuller realization of what had occurred spread through the crowds like waves of poison gas across a battlefield. Scores of people held their heads and covered their ears as if to prevent the news from penetrating. Eyes were turned upwards towards the sound of the cries and then followed the pointing arms into the water below. Desperate and still confused, one father jumped from the bridge and hit the surface with the slap of raw meat against concrete, but even as he submerged, already the bobbing heads which were still visible had traveled a hundred yards in the churning foam. Another brave man jumped into the water from the riverbank and struck out with an urgent stroke in the direction of the fast-moving shapes. Both were overwhelmed within moments by the strength of the swell.

The first police officers arrived on the bridge within two minutes and began trying to calm the hysteria sufficiently to understand what had happened, but it seemed that no two accounts from among the many were sufficiently similar to produce a consensus. He was variously described as eighteen years old at one extreme to about thirty-five at the other. He had brown hair or black hair or auburn hair. He was tall, medium, and short, and had an athletic build or was running to fat. The only clear agreement was about the jeans and the gray hoodie, which made him a match for about two hundred other young men in the vicinity that afternoon. CCTV recordings examined later lost track of him minutes before the incident and lost him again as a pinprick in the crowd within seconds after it.

Continue reading “Start Reading THE BRIDGE by Stuart Prebble”

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