Saturday, June 28, 2014

Annie's Stories by Cindy Thomson, © 2014 ~*an Ellis Island novel*~

Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.~Jeremiah 6:16 NIV

Annie's Stories by Cindy Thomson is a thoughtfully written story of needs all generations have ~ to be accepted and protected, to be loved and cherished, and to find our way home.
And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the LORD, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.
    --Isaiah 45:3 KJV
Annie Gallagher has been rescued from a life of bondage and sent to America from Ireland, coming through Ellis Island. She becomes a housekeeper at Hawkins House, a boardinghouse for women in Lower Manhattan. Along with her memories, Annie brings handwritten tales her father wrote out for her when he was ill before passing, of the stories he told her as a little girl.

One of my favorite characters throughout was the postman, Stephen Adams. He has a good heart and is kind to the families on his mail route. One thing that surprised me was the post office was more like a messenger transit service, delivering mail more than once a day should parcels or letters come later in the day, rather than collecting and delivering it the next day. When Stephen would come to the Hawkins House, he especially hoped Annie Gallagher would answer his ring at the door. He is unsure of his acceptances by young lasses and it is comical to find what his approach is. He finds out Annie does like his neighbor's sugary dough delights he brings to her. Hoping to find Annie at the Irish dances, he instead comes away with Irish tunes he whistles as he approaches the boardinghouse.

Annie Gallagher longs for the days of storytelling by her da. Independent, to take care of herself, she wants to share these stories with other girls and boys. She is dismayed when she finds Stephen is interested too ~ in her, or solely in her da's stories? Guarded, Annie puts a line around her heart, as she determines direction she is to take in having her da's stories published for reading by others. Stephen lives above a publishing office, which doesn't help matters of the heart to distinguish Stephen's intent in a finder's fee or caring for her protection in their printings.
Interesting as you read Annie's Stories, you may pick up on characteristics of Mr. Baum's Oz roles within; Dorothy, Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Lion. Leaving oppression behind and realizing forgiveness; being released from bondage frees enabling the present and future to be lived beyond the past circumstances in life that no longer then can have a hold against God's intention for us.

As mysteries unfold for a new boarder and a parcel she receives, Stephen tries to track it down since it involves the United States Post Office Department and his mail route deliveries to the Lower Manhattan neighborhood. The Hawkins House has many visitors intent on discovering the whereabouts of the package too.

I liked how everyone in the house worked together despite their differences. They come to rely on each other and respect and trust develops. I am looking forward to the next novel by Cindy Thomson.

Cindy Thomson
***Thank you to author Cindy Thomson for inviting me to be a part of the release team for her novel Annie's Stories, and for having the review print copy of Annie's Stories sent to me from Tyndale House. Book 2 in her Ellis Island novels, following Grace's Pictures, I am fond of these especially because my ancestors came through Ellis Island. Come along as these immigrants settle in America in her stories, visiting some of the characters from Book 1. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***
Author Cindy Thomson

No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people
of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other
country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.

Enjoy Chapter 1 in this excerpt of Cindy Thomson's Annie's Stories ~



SOMETIMES THE SMALLEST THINGS ignited memories Annie Gallagher would sooner forget. This time all it took was a glimpse of a half-finished tapestry Mrs. Hawkins had left on her parlor chair: Home Sweet Home. Annie pressed her palm against her heart, trying to shut out the realization that she was far from home—and not just because she now lived in America.
   In a few days it would be her birthday, but she wanted to forget. Birthdays held no significance when your parents had gone to heaven.
   For most of her life Annie had traveled with her father, a seanchaí, a storyteller from the old Irish tradition. She had learned the age-old stories of the great warrior Cuchulain and the tragic tale of a cruel stepmother in “The Children of Lir.” She learned of kings and monks and lords and wild beasts. But when night came and he tucked her into whatever straw cot they had borrowed for the night, he told her tales that were just for her—Annie’s stories, he called them. Now that her father was gone, those stories were all she had, her only connection to a place, intangible as it might have been, that she called home.
   She held on to them, brought them out from time to time to remind her she’d once lived in someone’s heart. Without that, she feared she might plunge again into darkness.
   Annie approached the breakfront cabinet gracing the wall opposite a substantial parlor window that looked out to the street. She opened the door, revealing her special lap desk. Suddenly her father’s voice lived again in her mind.
   “Look here, Annie lass,” her da called one day from his mat by Uncle Neil’s hearth. Neil O’Shannon was her mother’s brother, and he hadn’t wanted Annie and her father in his home, but her father—who was just as dismayed to be there but had found no other open hearth in that sparsely populated countryside—had been too ill to move on.
   Annie had just come inside from gathering seaweed on the shore. She set her reed basket on the table and came closer. Da held a box of some sort.
   “See here. ’Tis a writing desk—pens and even paper inside.” He opened the box and showed her how the top folded into a writing surface.
   “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Annie rubbed her hand across the inlaid design on the edges. Swirls, flowers—so beautiful.
   “I should write down your tales for you.”
   “Which ones, Da?” She examined the ink pot. Full.
   “Why, Annie’s stories, darlin’. Those that are yours. I won’t be here forever to tell them to you.”    She shook her head. “Don’t talk like that, Da. And don’t you know, I won’t be forgetting them.”    “Don’t suppose you will. But I’ll write them just the same. I’ll add some drawings. You’d like that, so.”
   She had not thought he’d done it, not until after he’d passed on and Father Weldon helped her find those pages, those precious hand-scribed stories, the day he’d rescued her from that evil Magdalene Laundry, a prison-like place for young girls who had committed no crime except being homeless and unwanted.
   She sat down on the piano stool in Mrs. Hawkins’s parlor as the memories flooded her mind like a swarm of midsummer gnats. She heard Father Weldon’s voice. “Hold on to the good memories. The Magdalene Laundry you were in does not speak for the church, child. There are those who are compassionate, even within its walls, but they allow fear to overshadow what’s right. I implore you to focus on the good now, the good you have seen among my parishioners. And know that God will provide,” he had said.
   Perhaps Father Weldon had been right about the laundry. The church wasn’t evil. Sister Catherine and a couple of the other nuns seemed to care. But Annie was sure God had not been in that laundry. God couldn’t be bothered, she’d realized.
   “Don’t give Neil O’Shannon a second thought, child,” Father Weldon had told her, his eyes soft. “Your father was a remarkable man. You have your memories now, don’t you?”
   Painful memories she could not forget. Not so far.
   Her sorrow had begun on a day in January in the year nineteen hundred, the day they’d buried her father.
   “A wanderer is only at home in the hearts of those who love him.”
   Annie had heard her father say this, and now that he was gone, Annie had no place in the world. She had been born of a great love between two people separated by hatred, as tragic a tale as Romeo and Juliet.
   She had heard the story from her father many times. Annie’s parents had fallen in love, but the O’Shannons did not want their daughter to marry a Protestant, especially a seanchaí. But they’d done it anyway, run off to Dublin, where an Anglican minister married them. A month later, while her father and mother traveled on the road to Limerick, Annie’s mother’s family tracked her down, locked Annie’s father in a cowshed, and then stole her mother away. After some time, her father found her mother, but tragically she died in childbirth, and from then on, it had only been Annie and her father.
   Now, just Annie.
   “Marty Gallagher was a magnificent storyteller,” the priest had said to those gathered in the churchyard. “Not only could he recite entire Shakespearean plays by memory, but he told his own tales as well. Many of you gathered here were privileged to be entertained by him.”
   A man she didn’t know—but was told was Mr. Barrows from Dublin—had approached her after prayers were said. “My deepest sympathies, Miss Gallagher.”
   She thanked him, but his condolences seemed to slide right by. There was nothing anyone could have said to make that better.
   “The entire world will mourn his passing.” He extended his black umbrella over his dipped head and backed away.
   People say all kinds of odd things when someone dies. Paying respects at a funeral was fine and good for that man, whoever he had been. He’d gone back to Dublin and carried on. But Annie? She was only twenty years of age, and her life spread out before her now like a long, lonely highway spilling into distant hills beyond where the eye can see.
   It was what had happened after the funeral that had led to her imprisonment in that unspeakable place.
   She rose now, shut the door to the breakfront, and wiped it down, though she’d noted no dust. Glancing out the front window at the pedestrians populating Lower Manhattan’s sidewalks, she observed men carrying large black satchels. Businessmen. Not a seanchaí in the lot, she supposed. If she ever married, it would be to someone who appreciated the power of a story.
   Sighing, Annie brushed her feather duster along the windowsill and the glass globes of the oil lamps. How she’d come to be the housekeeper at Hawkins House was by chance, a stroke of incredible luck, to be sure. Father Weldon had sent her there.
   “I will arrange for a woman named Agnes Hawkins to take you in. She and her charity supporters are opening a home for girls in New York, and she needs a housekeeper to help her get started.”
   “Why would you do this for me, Father?”
   This man, a British priest in the west of Ireland, was such an oddity. Even Da in his storytelling could not have created such an unlikely rescuer.
   “I had great admiration for your father, Annie. He was a fine man, God rest his soul. Being a storyteller, he wandered, going from place to place to do his work. In a small way I’m like he was. I am in a foreign land. My sister, the woman who will take you in, is as well. But God directs our paths. We don’t always end up in the places we’d imagined. I’m to see you get away from here safely and begin life anew with hope.”
   Annie knew as well as winter follows autumn that God had not directed her. If he had, he never would have allowed her to end up in that horrible laundry. Without her father, without God, Annie was adrift on a dark, choppy sea. She’d hoped living in America at Hawkins House would lead her out of the nefarious hole she’d been plunged into since her father died, and it had been a fortuitous beginning. Mrs. Hawkins was nice, and Annie truly was grateful to her. But her father had said home is where the people who love you are, the people who truly want you. He had not said home was where people were just nice to you.
   Annie had been fortunate to come here, indeed. However, everyone knew luck ran out. There were many chapters of Annie’s life yet to be written. No one in Ireland had believed Annie capable of directing her own destiny. But now? Now she needed to make her own way without Da . . . and without even God’s help.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Four Weddings and a Kiss: A Western Bride Collection © 2014 by Mary Connealy, Robin Lee Hatcher, Debra Clopton, and Margaret Brownley

Four Weddings and a Kiss
In 1885 five western preachers sit around a campfire talking about unlikely couples they've seen God bring together.
Brownley, Hatcher, Connealy, Clopton :
Prologue Spitfire Sweetheart ~*~ By Mary Connealy A Love Letter to the Editor ~*~ By Robin Lee Hatcher A Cowboy for Katie ~*~ By Debra Clopton Courting Trouble ~*~ By Margaret Brownley Epilogue

Author Mary Connealy is married to a Nebraska rancher. She has shared real life adventures of calving in the snow as her Cowboy braves the elements to save his herd. Bottle-feeding new calves, housing them in the basement upon arrival in a blizzard; Mary knows of what she speaks.

Saurita, New Mexico, 1879. In her novella, Spitfire Sweetheart, neighbor Maizy MacGregor is warned to stay off of Rylan Carstens' land among his Angus cattle. He is trying to protect her. She is venturing to her favorite rocky ledge just across the river dividing their properties. After all, she has been coming to her special place long before he bought the bordering spread. All of a sudden, in her solitude, she hears gunshots ~ mighty close, and... aimed just above her head! Goodness. What measures he uses to keep trespassers off his land.

Amid all the clamor, as he is saving her from a grizzly!, he falls and hits his head. Additionally with a broken leg, he requires care and Maizy's pa sends her over during the day ~ with the stipulation she will wear a dress and practice being a proper lady. Join them as they both decide whether wearing a dress is the sum of who she is. A romantically funny tale of outward appearance or the heart.

Here’s a peek at Mary’s Story: 
Spitfire Sweetheart 

Saurita, New Mexico, 1879

MAIZY MACGREGOR LEANED HER HEAD BACK AGAINST the rocks, accidentally knocking her Stetson off. She grabbed it as it fell, then tossed it aside in disgust. She had on men’s clothes–the hat, britches, shirt, boots, even a six-gun she wore on her hip. It had never bothered her before Rylan Carstens.
   She wiped her eyes. It was sure enough bothering her now.
   The water roared beside her, cascading down in a rush. She came here when she needed to be alone. And she really needed that now.
   Tossing aside her buckskin gloves, she pulled her red handkerchief out of her hip pocket—no lace kerchief tucked up her sleeve for Maizy—and wiped her eyes again, then blew her nose in a completely unladylike way.
   How had she let herself get this upset? And over a man, of all things.
   Over the neighbor who she’d long ago accepted would never see her as anything but a child, and an unattractive, annoying child at that.
   She was used to it, and she ignored it mostly, but today it stung. He’d found her walking among his Angus cattle.
   Maizy looked to her left and watched the sleek black herd spread out along the downhill slope. Usually she didn't go near them. Instead, she’d just slipped into this spot. She’d been using it for a getaway since childhood. But this morning, not for the first time, she’d walked among his herd. They were gentle cattle, not a horn on a single one of them. They weren’t tame enough to touch—they gave way if she got too close. But they didn’t run for the hills one day, then attack the next like longhorns tended to do.
   She’d heard they were gentle, even the bulls. And she was savvy about cattle. She knew how to judge their tempers and stay clear of them when necessary. Her eyes rested on one especially young calf that might have been born just today, long after cows usually threw their calves.
   Maizy knew better than to go near a new mama, no matter how easygoing she’d been before her calf was born.
   She’d told Rylan all that and tried to make him see she was in no danger. He’d thrown her off his land anyway and even followed her home to complain to Pa, like she was a misbehaving child. He’d forbidden her to trespass ever again.
   But the minute she could get away, she came here, to her special place. The river was the border between his property and her pa’s, and it was true she was, right this minute, on the trespassing side. She barely had a toe over the line, and she was completely safe from his placid, fat cattle, so surely he wouldn’t complain about that.
   She took a little pleasure in defying him. And it was a harmless defiance, especially if he didn’t know she was here.
   Her horse was tied well across the river, on MacGregor land, cropping grass. She couldn’t see the brown-and-white pinto from here and neither could her neighbor.
   Hoping to get control of her hurt, she let herself soak in the peace of stone and water and air, loving the way this rocky ledge cut off the world. She couldn’t hear anything other than the rushing water. Her spot was curved into the rocks, and she could only see straight ahead and to the left. Water cascaded down from the mountain peaks on the right. Her almost-cave hid her from behind and overhead.
   She was in her own world, alone with her thoughts.
   Then a gunshot cut through the air, and she sat up straight and banged her head.
   Looking for the source of that gun, she turned and saw him.
   Rylan Carstens.
   And he was coming straight for her, galloping on his big chestnut stallion. Even at this distance she could tell he was looking right at her. How had he known she was in here?
   Another gunshot echoed from his Winchester.
   Rylan bent low over his horse, coming as fast as he could on the rocky ground that rose to this bluff along the river. Was he trying to kill her? If so, he was doing a poor job of it. The bullets were missing, going way over her head. But even on her worst day, she'd never done anything to make the man killing mad.
   And Maizy knew, even though Rylan seemed like a mighty cranky man, that he wasn't the type to shoot a young woman, especially not for just being annoying.
   He fired again and again, working the levered handle on his Winchester, and she finally realized he was firing warning shots. But warning who—about what?
   She scrambled out of the little overhang and took a few running steps to make sure he saw her and wouldn't fire in her direction.
   That's when she heard the growl ... and the bellow.
   Spinning around, she looked up. On the ledge that formed the roof of her little cave, standing on its hind legs, was the biggest grizzly she'd ever seen.
   Movement to her side forced her to look, though it was madness to turn away. The huge Angus bull that lorded over this part of Carstens's herd pawed the ground, and like all bulls, guarded his herd fiercely. There were only two things between that huge bear and that angry bull.
   The shining black calf, born out of season, still wobbly.
   And Maizy.
   The bull might be threatening the bear, but the bear only had eyes for Maizy. The rest of the cow herd, save the frantic mama, turned and stampeded away.
   The bull charged.
   The bear dropped to all fours and crouched to attack.
   Pound for pound there was no meaner animal on the face of the earth than a grizzly. Maizy had a Colt in her holster, but a bullet wasn't enough to bring one of these huge beasts down. Maybe a perfect shot right into the heart or brain would do it ... but mostly ... getting shot just made 'em mad.
   The bear's beady, bloodshot eyes were riveted on Maizy.
   The bull bellowed and turned the grizzly's attention.
   Maizy saw her chance and ran.
   A shout and another blast of gunfire sent Maizy running straight down the grassy slope for Rylan. Her eyes locked with his and she saw horror. She thought he'd seen her, but she could tell he'd been out here riding herd and seen the grizzly.
   A thud from behind told her the bear was off the ledge. Another growl seemed to blow hot breath on the back of Maizy's neck. Or maybe that was just the hair on the back of her neck standing up in pure terror.
   The bull charged, putting itself between the bear and the calf, then stopped to paw the earth with its front feet.
   Rylan fired again and again.
   Sprinting to get out of the middle, Maizy heard the thundering hooves ahead, the scratching claws of the grizzly right behind, and the deep-throated threats from the bull.
   The calf bawled piteously. The anxious mama cow rushed to her baby and began leading it away as fast as its unsteady legs would carry it.
   Judging from the growling behind her, Maizy knew the grizzly was more interested in her than a belligerent Angus.
   Running, hoping the bear would give up, she raced straight for Rylan.
   She saw his eyes take in the danger, then go to his bull, then come back to her. He kept firing and racing forward.
   Sprinting flat out, her boots thumped out a desperate beat.
   He jammed his rifle back into its scabbard on the saddle and drew his six-gun. He couldn't shoot the bear—Maizy was right in the way—but he kept up the gunfire, probably hoping he'd scare the grizzly into breaking off the attack.
   It wasn't working worth a hoot.
   "Maizy," Rylan shouted as they closed the gap, "grab my hand."
   He kicked his foot out of one stirrup to give Maizy a place to land. He holstered his pistol and took a firm hold of his pommel. Their eyes locked. He nodded at her. She tightened her jaw in grim determination and nodded back.
   His hand extended. She slapped her hand into his and he caught her. The grip slid. He clamped onto her wrist with the other hand, leaving the horse without a hand on the reins. He swung her up and she aimed to end up behind him. In the rush, she didn't get a good swing, and Rylan made a desperate heave to keep her from falling to the ground. She landed facedown in front of him, her belly right on the pommel of his saddle. She was glad to be wearing britches.
   Rylan pulled hard to bring his horse to a stop, and he unloaded his gun on the bear. The horse tried to rear and tossed its head in fear. The iron bit jingled as the horse fought Rylan's control.
   Maizy turned to her left to watch the bear wheel to face the bull. The bull must've thought better of fighting now that his herd was out of the way. He turned and ran.
   The bullets were little more than stinging wasps to the bear and only served to turn its attention back to Rylan.
   The powerful red horse pivoted, and on its first stride leapt into a full gallop.
   Grizzly bears, huge as they were, were mighty fast. Maizy knew that from growing up in the mountains of New Mexico and meeting up with a few, though never this close. But their speed was short-lived—or so she'd heard.
   She sure as shootin' hoped that proved to be true. If the horse could outrun the monster for a few yards, they'd make it.
   Maizy, head down, clung to Rylan's right leg. The pommel cut into her gut, and her own legs dangled off the other side. She wanted to search for that empty stirrup but was mindful not to jar Rylan or distract him from getting the most out of his thoroughbred.
   Those thundering front hooves kicked up nearly to Maizy's face. She lifted her head enough to peek around Rylan's boot and saw the bear gaining on them. Its jaws gaped open. It closed in on the horse even with the stallion going at full speed.
   "Hang on." Rylan kicked his horse and the valiant chestnut, already wild with fear, dug deep and found more speed. The bear lunged forward and a huge paw, claws bared, took a swipe and snagged the horse's tail. That swipe broke the bear's charge.
   Finally they were stretching out the distance between them as the bear slowed. It dropped to a trot, then a walk, then stood up on two legs, front paws extended in the air, and sent them on their way with an ugly chain of growling threats.
   Maizy's belly was being stabbed good and hard. She hadn't paid it much mind until now. The horse was safely away, and Maizy saw the grizzly turn and jog back the way it'd come. "It's stopped," Maizy shouted.
   "Hang on!" Rylan's ordered shout brought Maizy's head around, and she saw that the ground was broken ahead. This was Rylan's land, but Maizy had lived here all her life. She knew this was a bad stretch, littered with boulders and cut by water running off the mountain to the river.
   The horse was running away, terrorized. Rylan was easing the horse up, but they weren't going slow enough to navigate the dangerous patch. No horse racing full speed could hope to get through it unharmed.
   The horse tossed its head and fought the reins, but finally began to respond. Maizy recognized the expert handling of the reins as Rylan tried to gain control of the panicked horse.
   They reached the first line of scattered rocks.
   Rylan picked his moment and yelled, "Whoa!"
   He pulled back hard and the horse skidded until it nearly sat down on its haunches. As they came to a stop, the horse neighed and reared, straight up, higher and higher. Maizy felt the stallion going over backward.
   Rylan shoved her so she fell off feetfirst and he dove to the other side. Maizy rolled over and over, afraid of where the horse might land, until she came up hard against a massive stone. She whirled to see Rylan being dragged, one foot stuck in the stirrup. Leaping to her feet, Maizy drew her gun to shoot the horse that had saved their lives, just as Rylan fell free and rolled hard against a boulder.
   Maizy heard the crack as Rylan's head struck stone.
   She raced on shaking legs to where he lay flat on his back. Out cold. His face white as ash.
   Maizy crawled to his side, terrified that he was dead. His chest rose and fell steadily. He was alive! Looking around, she saw that his horse was nowhere in sight. A lump was already rising on his forehead, and seconds later she saw blood soaking through his tattered pants. Drawing her knife, she slit the leg of his britches. His knee was bleeding and his leg already showed some swelling.
   It had to be broken.
   Maizy looked around. She was miles from anywhere. His horse was long gone. Rylan was too heavy to lift.
   A wild cry far overhead drew her eyes up to a soaring eagle. The isolation of this place tightened like a vise around her throat.
   Praying frantically for wisdom, she remembered her pinto on the far side of the river. There was a ford. She could get the mare here ... if the grizzly hadn't scared her into breaking her reins and racing for home.
   Maizy would have to go for the horse. Besides that grizzly, there were rattlesnakes. Buzzards might scent blood, with Rylan unconscious—Maizy shuddered to think of that. There were even wolves and cougars in the area. To get the mare, Maizy would have to leave Rylan utterly defenseless.
   She looked at his handsome face. He'd risked his life to save her. He'd abandoned a bull that cost a fortune and used every ounce of his strength to get her to safety.
   And now she needed to do as much for him. And to do that, she had to leave him lying here.
   No alternative came to her, so she jumped to her feet and ran.
* * *
Maizy hurried to her mare in double time. She had worked with her pa plenty, and she knew how to treat a beat-up cowboy, although she'd never seen one quite this beaten before.
   When she got back to his side, Rylan lay still as death. His leg was almost certainly broken. Should she cut the boot off? The swelling had gotten so bad she was afraid he had no circulation, yet how much damage might she do removing the boot? Praying for wisdom beyond what she possessed, she decided to leave it, at least for now.
   She'd been thinking the whole time she fetched her horse. Now she tethered her horse and rushed toward the nearest slope, covered with quaking aspens.
   Feeling the minutes tick by and knowing that boot was strangling Rylan's leg, she hacked down slender saplings with her sturdy, razor-sharp knife and returned to make a travois. Pa had taught her the way of it years before.
   She used the lasso on her pommel to weave a triangular net between two trees. Once she was satisfied it would hold, she moved the contraption so the ends of the young trees were on either side of his head. Then, with a remaining stretch of rope, she tied a loop under Rylan's arms, hooked him to her horse, and hoping he stayed unconscious, she pulled Rylan up the length of the travois with aching slowness. He was slim but tall with broad shoulders, made of solid muscle that made him heavy. It took some finagling to get him in place, but finally he lay fully on top of the makeshift travois.
   Then she lifted each side of the front ends of the travois and used a pigging string to hitch the ends to her stirrups.
   As she lashed the second aspen pole in place, Rylan groaned.
   Maizy rushed to his side.
   His blue eyes flickered open, but he stared through her, still dazed. She rested one hand on his shoulder.
   "Lie very still. I'm taking you home."
   "Maizy." Rylan spoke that one word, then passed out again.
   Because she was praying so hard when she felt a twist of fear about his leg, she decided it was God putting the notion in her head. She'd get the boot off while Rylan was unconscious.
   She slit the tough leather to the ankle until it was loose enough to be safe. She left it on to act as a splint. She swung astride her pinto and clucked to the well-trained horse. They set out slowly, crossing the boulder-strewn ground, trying to avoid bumps. Maizy turned on her saddle and watched Rylan nearly every second, only glancing ahead to check the terrain.
   He never stirred.
   Rylan had come to Pa's house several times in the year since he moved in. There were no other ranches for miles and even their places were far apart. He'd never been friendly—to her. Though she had caught him looking at her a few times when he'd come by.
   Except for those occasional looks, she'd always had the impression he was avoiding her. And the fact that he was so attractive pinched hard.
   She'd done her best to ignore him, but she'd taken a liking to his herd of shining black Angus cattle. In fact she liked them a whole lot more than him.
   When he'd followed her home earlier that day and told her pa the bulls were dangerous, Rylan had looked at her in the eyes for the first time, forbidding Maizy from riding on his land. He'd also said a few words about a woman dressing in britches and running around the country alone. Said it was dangerous. But Maizy had worked hard alongside her pa on the ranch since she could sit a saddle. She could take care of herself.
   She was tough, but the handsome cowboy made her doubt herself. She liked not wearing dresses and fussing with her hair. She could cook well enough and she did chores in the house. But they rarely went to town since they lived over an hour away. When they did, she wore a dress, but she grumbled the whole time.
Excerpted from Four Weddings and a Kiss by Margaret Brownley, Robin Lee Hatcher, Mary Connealy, Debra Clopton. Copyright © 2014 Mary Connealy, Robin Lee Hatcher, Debra Clopton, and Margaret Brownley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. 
Robin Lee Hatcher
Robin Lee Hatcher has penned another winner in her Love Letter to the Editor novella.

Killdeer, Wyoming, 1879. Molly Everton's father owns the local newspaper. A college graduate and right~hand~woman, she is bypassed as the new editor, her father says because she is too outspoken and he needs unbiased input with his advertisers. The new editor of the Sentinel is arriving this afternoon? Unknown that he is coming into a set aside dream, Molly sets out to displace Jack Ludgrove before he gets a good start. Not to be hindered, Jack sets out to place Molly in clear view and matters of the heart. 

Here’s a peek at Robin’s Story:
A Love Letter to the Editor  ~ A Novella from FOUR WEDDINGS AND A KISS

Dear Editor:
      Do you think there are men in this world who
can value a well-educated woman with a mind of her
own and the courage to speak it? Is it possible for a
man and a woman to have an equal partnership in
marriage, seeing each other as God intended them to
be? After thirty-five years on this earth, I have begun
to doubt it.
                                              Wishful in Wyoming


Killdeer, Wyoming, August 1879

MOLLY EVERTON FLUNG OPEN THE DOOR TO HER FATHER'S office in the Killdeer Sentinel, not caring that it hit the wall with a loud crack. "Is it true, Father?"
   Roland Everton looked up from the papers on his desk. "Is what true?"
   "You know good and well what I mean. Have you hired someone else as editor of the paper?"
   Her father removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. A familiar delaying tactic. She'd seen it many times in her thirty-five years.
   Molly closed the door and then stepped closer to his desk, trying to check her temper. "It isn't fair. You know it isn't fair."
   "My dear, you should know by now that many things in life are not fair. Far from it."
   "Why did you send me to college if you didn't want me to put the knowledge I gained to good use? I have all of the qualifications needed to serve as the paper's editor. I have worked beside you. I know what needs done."
   Her father released a sigh. "Oh, Molly. Speaking your mind freely has its consequences. We must do business with the merchants here in town. We can't afford to offend them or their wives. I need someone in charge of the paper who understands the delicate balance required."
   Molly's anger evaporated, leaving behind a desire to weep.
   "Sit down, Molly."
   She obeyed.
   "I was wrong not to tell you sooner," her father said, his voice gentle. "I suppose it was this precise scene I was hoping to avoid. It seems all I did was delay it a little."
   Molly stared at her hands, clasped tightly in her lap. "What is his name?"
   "The new editor? Jack Ludgrove."
   "Where is he from?"
   "And when does he arrive?"
   Her father didn't answer at once.
   Molly lifted her gaze to meet his.
   "This afternoon. I expect him on today's stagecoach."
   She sat a little straighter. "He'll be here today?"
   There was no hope then. No hope of changing her father's mind. No hope of helping him see that this was her turn, her right.
   "No. Don't say anything more, Father. Not now." She rose to her feet. "You have made your decision." She moved to the door and opened it, slowly this time. "I will see you at supper." She left her father's office and moved toward the front door of the newspaper, holding her head high.
   She stopped on the boardwalk and looked to her right, down Main Street toward the Wells, Fargo office. The stagecoach from Green River usually came through Killdeer at about four o'clock in the afternoon. That was a good two hours from now.
   Molly turned in the opposite direction and walked toward home. She nodded to a couple of women she passed on the boardwalk outside of the mercantile. She waved at Reverend Lynch, standing at the top of the church steps at the corner of Main and Elm.
   Offend the advertisers, her father had said. Whom had she offended? It wasn't fair of Father to say that without giving her any specifics.
   Fair. There was that word again. And her father was right about life not being fair. Especially for a woman. Especially for a woman who valued independence and learning above men and marriage.
   Not that she had any objection to the institution of marriage itself. There were numerous examples of good marriages right here in her own town. Her parents, for one. But few men seemed to want a wife with the courage to speak her mind openly. At least, no men she'd met. Even her father preferred that she keep most of her opinions to herself.
   When she'd turned thirty-five earlier this year, she'd accepted that she was––and would remain––an old maid. Being unmarried wasn't the worst fate in the world. But she did want to be useful. She would like to feel as if the work she did was valued by others.
   What would she do when her father sold the newspaper? Something he'd begun to talk about more and more often. Would a new owner employ a woman reporter? Or a female editor? Her father wouldn't even make her the editor. Why would someone else?
   But if she was already the editor when her father chose to sell the Sentinel, that might make a difference to the new owner. If she could prove herself capable. More than capable, invaluable. If she could do that, then she might be able to stay on.
   Only Mr. Ludgrove stood in her way.
   She stopped walking. Mr. Ludgrove might not like living in Killdeer. He might not stay. And if he didn't…
   I'll make him want to leave. A smile played across her lips. It can't be that hard to make him want to go back to where he came from.
   "True hope is swift and flies with swallow's wings," she whispered, quoting Shakespeare. "Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings."
   Feeling a great deal better than she had moments before, Molly hurried on toward home.
 Jack Ludgrove stepped down from the coach. After moving aside for two other passengers to disembark, he stopped and looked down the main street of Killdeer, Wyoming.
   By George! Wyoming Territory! He was here at last.
   Ever since he was a boy, Jack had longed for adventures in the West. Stories of fur trappers. Tales of the Oregon Trail. Accounts of the California gold rush. They'd all fueled his childhood imagination.
   He might have come west right out of college, if not for four bloody years of civil war. He'd joined the Union Army at the age of twenty-one, soon after the hostilities began. He fought for his country and survived unscathed to the bitter end. But those years exacted a heavy toll on his family. His two brothers died in the conflict. Then his father seemed to give out from the grief. Jack was needed to stay in Iowa to care for him, so that was what he did. But his heart had never stopped yearning for the West of his dreams, and with his father's passing had come his freedom.
   Jack Ludgrove, managing editor of the Killdeer Sentinel, Killdeer, Wyoming. Sounded good to him.
   He took up his bags that had been removed from the rear of the coach, then started walking.
   Killdeer was laid out in a square on the high desert land. Beyond it to the north rose the rugged Rocky Mountains. As soon as he owned a horse and had the time, he meant to ride up closer to those mountains and do some exploring.
   Roland Everton, the owner and publisher of the Sentinel, had written in his letter that their offices were in the center of town on Main Street. It couldn't be hard to find. Killdeer was not exactly a thriving metropolis. However, it looked exactly as Jack had hoped it would. Whitewashed buildings. False storefronts. At least one church. A large livery stables. Wide, dusty streets. Horses hitched to posts. Cowboys in wide-brimmed hats standing in the shade.
   He could smell the adventure.
   At his age, he supposed he shouldn't find it all as exciting as he did. By thirtynine, most men were settled. Job. Home. Wife. Children. Most men knew what their future looked like. The same as their pasts.
   Jack saw the newspaper then. Killdeer Sentinel was painted across the large plate glass window. The name was also on a sign up high on the storefront. He crossed the street and opened the front door. Newspaper smells greeted him.
   A man appeared from the back of the building. He had a bad leg and leaned heavily on the cane in his left hand as he approached. "Mr. Ludgrove?"
   Jack nodded. "Yes, sir."
   "Welcome to Killdeer. I'm Mr. Everton."
   "Pleased to meet you, sir."
   They shook hands.
   Roland Everton motioned toward a door off to the right. "Let's go into my office." He moved in that direction. "I apologize for not meeting the stage, but as you can see, walking is a bit difficult for me. Especially the constant on and off of the boardwalks."
   "Don't give it a thought. I liked getting a look at the town."
   The publisher's office was small––and made smaller by the books and stacks of paper and newsprint on every available surface. Roland Everton went around to sit in his own chair. Jack took the one opposite him.
   "Mr. Ludgrove, I have arranged for a room for you at Mrs. Simpson's boardinghouse. It's clean and reasonably priced, and I'm told she is a very fine cook."
   "Sounds good. I imagine I'll spend much of my time at the newspaper, so I don't need anything fancy."
   "I thought you should have a few days to get your bearings. You can begin work here on Monday."
  "That's very generous of you, sir, but I am willing to begin at once if I am needed."
   Roland waved away the comment. "Not necessary, Mr. Ludgrove. Monday will be soon enough."
   Jack nodded.
   "As I'm sure I told you in my letters, the running of the Sentinel has been mostly a family affair these past ten years. My daughter, Molly, writes a regular column, and she usually chooses what letters to the editor are published, depending upon topic and what space is available. She's a capable reporter as well."
   Oh, great. Jack hadn't known about the daughter. That was the last thing he needed to deal with. Nepotism in the newspaper business seldom served the best interests of the readership. That must be as true for a small town's weekly as it was for a city's daily.
   "And, of course," Roland continued, "I have served as the managing editor from the beginning. Hank Morrison is our typesetter. He's fast and efficient. You will see that for yourself."
   Jack nodded, thinking it best not to say much about the staff until he'd met them. He would judge their qualifications by his own standards.
   Roland got to his feet. "If you'll come with me, I will take you to the boardinghouse. Though my wife is expecting you to be our guest for supper your first night in Killdeer."
   "I wouldn't want to put her out, Mr. Everton." Jack stood.
   "Nonsense. She would never forgive me if we didn't show you the proper hospitality. First impressions are important, and we want your impression of Killdeer to be a positive one. Now come along."

Along with writing, Debra Clopton helps her husband teach the youth at their local Cowboy Church of Leon County, Texas.

Attributes to draw from for her A Cowboy for Katie novella?

Debra Clopton Midway, Texas, 1871. Katie Pearl's pa was killed in a tornado that passed through three weeks earlier, leaving her on her own. Coming to town for supplies, she sees a cowboy set his saddle down and easy to tell that he had been walking a few days.

Treb Rayburn has arrived in town, sans horse, and needs a job to buy another one to continue his travels, or so he thinks. Entering Crandon's General Store, Katie overhears Treb asking the proprietor where he might find work. Given another ranch name, Katie tells him she will hire him to help rebuild her house recently lost in a tornado. She will include a horse? That's too good to be true... it usually is... ~*~ happenstance isn't always happenstance. 

Here’s a peek at Debra’s Story:
A Cowboy for Katie

SHE MIGHT BE AS CRAZY AS THEY SAID BUT KATIE Pearl had learned that most men were light between the ears. She wondered which one of them she was gonna have to shoot today.
   It wasn’t as if she wanted to, but if they came snoopin' around , she was willin’ to oblige them.
   “There ain’t no sense pretending you like this, Katie Pearl, no sense at all,” Katie told herself. From her perch on the wagon seat she could see the dusty buildings of town. And as Myrtle May pulled the wagon round the bend in the road Katie’s insides tensed up.
   “You’re a good horse, Myrtle May. Yes you are.” She was glad to have the comfort of her old horse with her as the fire in the pit of her stomach informed her trouble was near.
   Town was trouble and there was no getting around it.
   Most folks in town crossed the street and walked on the other side these days when they saw her. At least if they were smart they did.
   Especially if it was any of them sodbusters who’d recently come callin’ for her hand in marriage. “No siree, Katie Pearl,” she spoke aloud again, her words reassuring to her. “Them sorry no goods have seen your fingers itchin’ on the pearl handles of your Colt and some seen the end of the barrel pointing at them too.” It was true, fools. “You don’t take kindly to none of the hogwash they’ve been trying to sell you.”
   Sighing long and hard she shook her head. “No, I don’t. Ain’t that so, Myrtle May?”
   Myrtle didn’t answer, which didn’t surprise Katie. Her horse was a little on the quiet side. And that was okay. Katie didn’t mind the quiet—though she sure missed conversations with her pa.
   She just plain missed her pa. It was just her now. And though things were fuzzy in her head since the tornado, she was making it. If only she didn’t have to go to town for supplies.
   She tugged her pa’s hat low over her eyes and gritted her jaw down tight.
   “You can do this, Katie Pearl. Yes you can,” she assured herself, then mumbled, “Long as you don’t have to shoot somebody you’ll be just fine.”
Debra and Margaret

Margaret Brownley brings love and laughter in the Old West alive. Happily married to her real-life hero, Margaret and her husband live in Southern California. Her novella Courting Trouble, brings an interesting defense case to Brock Daniels, Esq. that appears open-and-shut case ... at first glance.

Lone Pine, Colorado, 1882. Brock Daniels has his work cut out for him. Newly ensconced in his two-room office in Lone Pine, the Rocky Mountains is far from his big-city Pennsylvania moorings. Asked to work on a highly publicized case will advance additional talking about his "sticking his nose in." The Lone Pine Herald paper would attest to that.

Billy-Joe Davenport, former saddle-shop owner/miner
Harry, former school teacher
Geoffrey Morris, former ?

The Black Widow trial began ~ held in the saloon since there was no courthouse in Lone Pine's jurisdiction. The accused? Grace Davenport, former wife ~ at separate times ~ of  Billy-Joe, Harry, and Geoffrey; three husbands and their untimely deaths.

Certain of her innocence, Grace's young son Jesse brings forth a testimony. It's the little things that matter; the inconspicuous, incidentals of life brought into the open.

Here’s a peek at Margaret’s Story:
Courting Trouble

Lone Pine, Colorado, 1882

BROCK DANIELS SCOWLED AT THE LEGAL BRIEF HE'D BEEN studying for more than an hour. Obstreperous conduct? It took thirty-two pages to list a complaint that added up to little more than one shop owner calling another a name generally reserved for crooked politicians and stubborn mules.
   Hardly a week went by that a similar freewheeling lawsuit didn’t cross his desk. No wonder Lone Pine was on litigation overload. They sure didn’t do things here in Colorado like they did back in Philadelphia.
   Tossing the brief down, he reached for his fountain pen. No sooner had he dipped the nib in the ink well and started to write than a slight sound made him lift his gaze. A boy about eleven or twelve stood in front of his desk, staring at him with big rounded eyes.
   It wasn’t the first time someone had sneaked up on him while he was working at his desk. The two-room office had been his for six months, and he still hadn’t gotten around to attaching a bell to the front door.
   Brock stuck the pen in its holder and reached into his vest pocket for his watch. The gold case opened with a flip of his thumb. It was nearly ten p.m. Too late for someone so young to be roaming the streets. He snapped the watch shut.
   “May I help you?”
   Instead of answering, the lad placed four coins on the desk with such care that the money had to have been hard earned. The coins added up to fifty-six cents.
   “I want to hire you,” the boy said.
   There wasn’t enough money there to hire a mule, but the boy’s youth demanded special consideration.
   Brock slid his watch back into his pocket. “What’s your name, son?”
   “Jesse Morris.”
   Brock was pretty sure he’d not seen the boy before. Certainly he’d never seen a more sorrowful pair of trousers. Innocent of anything resembling the original fabric, they were patched so thoroughly that they resembled shingles on a roof. The child’s shirt didn’t fare much better. The thin cotton was more suited to hot summer days than cool spring nights.
   “What kind of trouble you in?”
   “No trouble,” Jesse said. “It’s my ma.”
   Brock’s eyebrows shot up. “Your ma’s in trouble?”
   Jessed nodded. “She’s in jail.”
   Far as Brock knew, the only woman in jail was the one they called the Black Widow. From what little he’d heard, it sounded like an open-and-shut murder case. What he hadn’t known was that she had a son. More’s the pity.
   The boy twisted his porkpie hat in his hands. Reddish brown hair reached his shoulders and curled around his neck and ears. “The sheriff said she killed her husband and that ain’t true.”
   Husband, not father. Brock pinched his forehead. It was late and he was tired.
   “I’m sure the judge has appointed your mother’s legal counsel.”
   The boy nodded. “Her lawyer’s name is Mr. Spencer.”
   David Spencer was one of three lawyers in town. Far as Brock knew, the man had no formal education in law. But neither did the others, which explained why the Lone Pine legal system was such a mess and, in some cases, a joke. The closest any of them had been to “passing the bar,” which consisted of a simple oral exam, was to walk past a saloon.
   “If your mother has a lawyer, why do you want to hire me?”
   Jesse set his hat on the corner of the desk and pulled a piece of paper from his trouser pocket. With as much care as he’d afforded the coins, he unfolded it and straightened out the creases.
   “Mr. Spencer loses most of his cases,” he said. He placed the paper on the desk and pointed to the names carefully printed beneath a hand-drawn gallows. “Those are the men he let hang last year.”

I enjoyed the "...and a Kiss" story begun in the Prologue and melding the stories together in the Epilogue. A fun grouping of stories by these four authors! Their first compilation together was their novellas in A Bride for all Seasons: The Mail Order Bride Collection.

***Thank you to Litfuse Publicity Group for inviting me to be part of the blog tour for this novella collection ~*~ Four Weddings and a Kiss: A Western Bride Collection by authors Margaret Brownley, Debra Clopton, Mary Connealy, and Robin Lee Hatcher. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A KISS – Win an iPad Mini & rip-roarin’ Facebook Party!

Four best-­selling romance novelists bring tales of feisty heroines, stubborn heroes, and unlikely love in the Wild West in Four Weddings and a Kiss. Don't miss the latest from the Western Brides Collection from Margaret Brownley, Robin Lee Hatcher, Mary Connealy, and Debra Clopton.

The authors are celebrating with a "Sweet on Love" iPad Mini Giveaway and rip-roarin' Facebook party.
  One winner will receive:
  • An iPad Mini
  • A Bride for All Seasons and Four Weddings and a Kiss 
Enter today by clicking one of the icons below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on July 8th. Winner will be announced at the Four Weddings and a Kiss Facebook Author Chat Party. Connect with Western Brides Collection authors Margaret Brownley, Robin Lee Hatcher, Mary Connealy, and Debra Clopton for an evening of fun book chat, western-themed trivia, and prizes. The authors will also be answering audience questions and giving an exclusive look at the next book in the collection!

So grab your copy of Four Weddings and a Kiss and join the authors on the evening of July 8th for a chance to connect and make some new friends. (If you haven't read the book, don't let that stop you from coming!)

Don't miss a moment of the fun; RSVP todayTell your friends via FACEBOOK or TWITTER and increase your chances of winning. Hope to see you on the 8th!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mark of Distinction by Jessica Dotta, © 2014

wild violetsPrice of Privilege Trilogy, Book 2

I remember the disdain I felt at the crushed violets with their purple velvet scorned and smashed onto the cobblestone by a small slipper foot. The pain of being discovered, I pushed it with my foot under the wooden stand so not to be found by those so immaculately putting the tiny bouquet together to give. The haughtiness and arrogance spurning this tenderly gathered offering being disposed and tread upon pierced my heart. Memories. I am old now, but they are fresh in my mind. Man's inhumanity to man. One incident of many brings it all back. 
Unraveling misgivings, rumor and truth, I want to leave my own words for those who follow after me in my lineage. For how could it be another way, misinterpreted by rumor and doubt?

Paperwhites have not been a favorite of mine, as my mother before me. How sad, but yet appropriate that flowers have such meaning in my life. An offered  warmth in the coldness of my first days of arrival at Maplecroft estate and Edward's departure somehow settles me. I am told my father is coming; is he aware it is my birthday? Eighteen years and the first year without my mother beckoning me for the appearance of dawn. How I miss her. Although my father has offered me sanctuary here at Maplecroft, he does not beckon me upon his arrival. He has brought Forester with him and I am in range to hear them arguing ~ or discussing as they might decide. Am I to be believed, or suspect?

So much turmoil and indignant expectations. There is a spy in our midst. Who am I to believe? The one who is so haughty with me, following along with my father's every whim? Or my proposed fiancé ~ selected for me, but not by me? My whole life has changed as I have become known as my father's child. Where was he all the years my mother and I struggled; the one I find now is so benevolent? His motives, not mine, nor desired to be. Am I truly being sheltered, or used for benefit of others; continually?

My dreams and desires remain with another. Pulled away and shredded beyond my remembrance. I flee to my youth with Edward, Elizabeth, my friend, and Henry, Edward's brother. Giggles and dreams shared together those long ago days. I wondered if they would ever come again; days of happiness with longings to return to my life as Miss Julia Elliston, not as the Emerald Heiress, being sequestered at Maplecroft.
 In Jessica Dotta's book 2 in the Price of Privilege Trilogy, Julia is carried forward from book 1, Born of Persuasion, the debut novel telling of her days at Am Meer and beyond, before her need for sanctuary at Maplecroft, leaving her prior world behind.

It would benefit to read book 1 so as to experience with her, what Julia has left out of necessity. This Victorian-era story portrays an upper class dependent on the wiles of society and governing politics of the times. The disdain of some of the staff in attendance to this perceived "interloper" is reflected from their earlier positions within the household.

Julia is expected to be schooled in deportment and social standings when she had none of these requirements prior to her arrival. She is to follow without rebuttal, the trappings and directions given, relying on others.
   The girls continued to intrigue me the most. They all seemed so adapted, content to be in my exact position—resigned to remaining under their fathers' rule, happy to rely on the gentlemen for their fate. It was as though they'd forgotten how to run through meadows barefoot with blades of grass stuck to their legs, or lie outdoors at night beneath a star-filled sky with a friend like Elizabeth. It dawned on me once, as I stopped dancing and stood still amidst a swirling ballroom, that maybe they hadn't forgotten—maybe they'd never known.
   --Mark of Distinction, 297
Book 3, Price of Privilege, releases in the Spring of 2015. It will be interesting to learn of the outcome of decisions made, for better or for worse.
Book 2, Price of Privilege Trilogy
Author Jessica Dotta
Book 1
Jessica Dotta has always been fascinated by the intricacies of society that existed in England from the Regency through the Edwardian era. She writes in a manner that blends past and modern fiction techniques. She lives in the Nashville area and works as a free lance media consultant and publicist. Her debut novel, Born of Persuasion, Book 1, released in September of 2013.

Overview of Mark of Distinction: London is said to be the glittering jewel of society, a world unto itself––but to Julia Elliston it is a city of shadows. Her life is swiftly dissolving into scandal. And in Victorian society, even a whisper of scandal––substantiated or not––can be the death of a young woman's reputation. Now under the watchful eye of Lord Roy Pierson, one of most influential men in England, Julia begrudgingly accepts his protection. But Chance Macy's power is far-reaching as well, and he is eager to assert his claim over her. Thrust into society as the Emerald Heiress, Julia is the toast of London, a celebrated curiosity. But in reality she's trapped between the clutches of two powerful men. Aided only by a gentleman whose intentions she prays she can trust, Julia must finally take control of her own fate––but outwitting one's foe rarely goes according to plan.

Book 3
***Thank you to Book Club Network and author Jessica Dotta for Book 2, Mark of Distinction, and to Tyndale House Publishers for sending me a print copy for review. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

Enjoy this excerpt of Chapter 1, Mark of Distinction


THE EIGHT MONTHS following my arrival at Maplecroft have been called one of the greatest cozenages of our age. My father and I have endured endless speculation as to the number of hours poured into its plan and execution.
   Truth comprised of bare facts is rarely more flattering than legend. In reality, our sham was little more than a mad-dash scramble of one improvisation after another. Events kept unfolding, forcing us to take new action, making it impossible to steer from collision.
   I am an old woman now. Ancient some days. I had no idea my story would cause such an uproar. When I first penned it, my only intent was to address the rumors of how the entire affair started. I was weary of hearing how I seduced Mr. Macy. As if I, or anyone, could. The very idea is laughable. Long life has its advantages. Your perception grows clearer, even if your sight dims. How much better I now understand the shock Lady Foxmore must have felt during our presentation. Her pretension was unequalled. Yet there I stood, a pale, scrawny girl in rags, chosen by one of the most illustrious men in her circle to be wed to him. It is no wonder she thought it a grand jest. How could she, or anyone who knew Macy intimately, have guessed just how resolute he was upon marrying me?
   Since my story’s publication, I have been accused of besmirching the innocent by fabricating events to gain public sympathy. Some have pointed out that I unfairly suggest Mr. Macy is responsible for Churchill’s murder. They remind me that it is a documented fact that the culprit, an unstable man, was apprehended—and that it’s nothing more than coincidence Churchill’s death occurred on the same day Mr. Macy collected me.
   Others state that if I were truly innocent, then how is it that my story escalated to treason and then ended so tragically?
   It is this last challenge that causes me unrest. I cannot recount the mornings I’ve stood before my window, debating whether it is best to allow the matter to rest or to persevere and tell the tale in its entirety. I’ve wrestled with my conscience, wondering what good revealing all would do. Shall I so easily expose the sins of my father? Like Ham, shall I peel back the tent flap that covers his nakedness to the world? Will it bring back the dead?
   It was only this morning, as I turned to retreat to my favorite chair, that I was decided. I caught sight of my paternal grandmother, Lady Josephine, watching me. She is ageless, of course, forever capturing the bloom of our youth. As I paused and studied her painting, my great-grandchildren rushed past my window, tripping on their own merry shrieks. They fell in a muddle in the middle of the grounds and then, just for the glory of it, lay on their backs, spread their arms, and laughed.
   I chuckled, imagining their incredulousness were they to learn my frolics were once as madcap as theirs. Lady Josephine also watched with her ever-present, coy smile. For some reason it brought to mind how her portrait gave me strength during those long months with my father. Something about her smile used to assure me that her antics were equally mischievous. I regret that I will never learn about them.
   It is this thought that decides me.
   I will for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know me.
   Not the version they’ll find archived in the newspapers. Heaven forbid they search there! I care not to contemplate the opinions they’d form. No, I will write this wrong. Let them at least judge me by truth, though who can say whether it makes me less of a culprit. Let the world think what it will. I am far too old to care, anyway. I am past the point of cowing to opinions.
   It all began, of course, with my father.
   Not my stepfather, William Elliston, who I believed, until that devastating night I wed Mr. Macy, had begotten me.
   But Lord Pierson himself.
   The second time I laid eyes on him was on my eighteenth birthday.
   Mama had always made a secret celebration of that date, sneaking into my chamber before dawn. The scent of lilac clung to her rustling skirts as she’d motion me to make room for her to climb into my bed.
   “You were born at this very hour.” Her voice could soothe even the darkness as she settled into the down pillows.
   On every birthday, even until my seventeenth, I was wont to curl against her, resting my head against her collarbone, where I listened to her heart. Rare were the moments we were granted a respite. I have little doubt we both savored those mornings.
   “The sun had just peeked over the hillocks outside my window,” Mama would continue, intertwining our fingers. “I was exhausted, and by the looks the midwife and Sarah exchanged, I knew they believed it was hopeless.” Here, determination coated Mama’s voice as if she were reliving the moment. “I fastened my gaze on that tiny flush of light and swore by the time the sun was fully risen, you’d be born. You were the only family I had left, and I wasn’t about to allow either one of us to die.”
   I always held my breath, hoping she’d elaborate. Those birthday moments were the closest Mama ever came to speaking about her past.
   “You were born just as the sun crested the horizon. Your wail was the loudest the midwife had ever heard. She nearly dropped you in surprise. Here, she thought you’d be stillborn, but you came out kicking and screaming.”
   Next, she’d splay her hand against mine, palm against palm, measuring my growth. It seems odd now that on my seventeenth birthday—my last birthday with Mama—our hands were exactly the same size.
   “I counted your fingers and toes, over and over. You were so tiny and perfect.” Even as a child I noted how her chest would rise in a silent sigh before saying, “Your father came that night. He burst through the doors and looked wildly about the room for you. He, also, marveled over you. And he, too, counted your toes and fingers over and over, as if the number would change.”
   Though I never had a chance to tell her, those birthday mornings were the most treasured part of my splintered childhood.
   Thus for me to rise on my eighteenth birthday in order to watch the coming dawn was the most costly tribute I could pay her. It fractured me. Yet failing to honor Mama would have felt worse.
   Wind shook the windowpanes as I stumbled from the bed and groped in the semidark for matches. The odor of phosphorus filled the air as I lit candles along the mantel.
   During the night, the fire had burned into ashes, leaving my room so cold it hurt my throat to breathe the wintry air. I rubbed my hands over my arms as I went to my father’s late wife’s wardrobe and selected a thick shawl.
   I glanced at the fireplace as I passed it again, wondering why the servants had not kept the fires lit. Never having lived in a great house, it was impossible to tell if the fault was the staff’s or mine. It was just as likely I’d forgotten to give the necessary instruction as it was that some servant had neglected her duty.
   Regardless of the reason, the timing could not have been worse. The freezing temperature served to sharpen the harrowing sensation that Mama was truly gone.
   I turned my gaze toward the clock and estimated it to be about a half hour before sunrise. I knew that if I returned to the warmth of bed, I risked falling asleep and missing daybreak. Uncertain what else to do, I retreated to the window seat and brushed aside the heavy lace hanging before the window.
   Though it was early morning, pewter-grey clouds layered the sky. Only traces of the previous night’s snow remained on the ground, tucked amongst the roots of oak trees and glistening between the crags of rocks. A solitary snowflake floated down from the leaden sky. Like me, it didn’t seem to belong anywhere but drifted from one spot to another, never quite landing. With numb fingers, I clutched my shawl closer and rested my head against the window.
   “I’m here, Mama,” I whispered, hoping to feel her presence.
   But I felt nothing. All evidence of Mama had been successfully scrubbed from my life. Even the nightmares of her screaming warnings to me from across a chasm had stopped. My fingertips curled against the empty space near my collarbone. I hadn’t even managed to keep her locket a full year. Was it only last year that she’d given me the gold necklace containing her and William’s likeness? With a splurge of self-pity, I realized I still needed Mama. I wanted her to stroke and kiss my brow, telling me she hadn’t been murdered, and I hadn’t married her murderer. I wanted to be home, which no longer existed because Mr. Macy gave it away to prevent me from hiding from him there.
   I swallowed, but it was too late. I choked out a ragged gasp before I hastily wiped my wet eyes with the hem of the shawl.
   Refusing to cry further, I shifted position on the window seat and forced myself to find new occupation. Wind scattered the snow crusting the bare trees, creating a mist that waned the view where the sun worked to rise. I waited until it dissipated, then traced the grove of staggering hemlocks that filled the ravine separating my father’s Maplecroft estate and the adjoining property. As if drawn against my will, I followed the course all the way to Eastbourne.
   Smoke curled from the tall chimneys of Mr. Macy’s vast estate, spreading ash over snow-strewn roofs, where gargoyles hunched beneath snowy capes. It appeared serene, betraying nothing of the evil that lurked there. Everything familiar to me had been stripped away within those walls, where I’d spent a week of my life . . . and betrayed Edward by trusting Mr. Macy and marrying him instead. I touched the cold pane, my stomach hollowing as I wondered if he knew yet that I was hiding from him in plain view.
   As the sky grew pearlier, it became easier to see Macy’s servants scurrying over the grounds, shoveling snow and attending to their duties. It was impossible to imagine that only a fortnight ago I had been amongst them, my heart soaring with the intrigue.
   That period of time stood in stark contrast to the time I’d spent in my father’s house.
   For eight days I’d not encountered a soul, except for the timid maid who crept soundlessly into my chamber to kindle my fire and dress me. Heartsick after Edward’s departure, I’d wandered aimlessly through empty rooms and echoing marble halls. My first morning alone, I’d searched the estate looking for private nooks I could duck into to read or sew if I needed solitude. I wanted time to heal and to sort through my emotions. Yet as I took each meal alone and passed hours in silence, straining to catch the sound of another’s voice, I learned my search had been unwarranted. No one would disturb me. The entire estate seemed under a deep freeze, waiting for its thaw, and I’d been swallowed by its vastness.
   As if to combat the thought, a warm, glowing orb of light suddenly reflected in the window. I turned in time to see Mrs. Coleman, the housekeeper of Maplecroft, entering my chamber, carrying a whale-oil lamp. The white fabric that crisscrossed her bodice showed traces of ash, revealing she’d tended duties uncommon for a housekeeper. Her eyes widened in dismay when she noted me awake. Her next thought was apparent by the despairing look she gave my empty grate.
   She placed the lamp aside and straightened her shoulders. “I beg your pardon, Miss Pierson. Seven of my girls are down with a wicked chest cold. Not that it is a proper excuse, mind you.”
   The name Miss Pierson chafed me like carpenter’s paper and made me feel as twisted as the touchwood used to light the fire. I hated allowing the staff to believe I was Lord Pierson’s legitimate daughter, but until my father returned, I wasn’t certain how to conduct myself.
   The housekeeper cocked her eyebrows, waiting.
   I frowned, feeling as though I were committing a great social blunder. Yet for the life of me, I couldn’t think of how the mistress of an estate would handle such a matter. Several replies came to mind, but somehow they all felt wrong.
   Apparently silence was equally appalling, for Mrs. Coleman snapped her eyes shut and gave a quick shake of her head as if to ask what they were teaching young ladies these days. When she opened her eyes again, I had little doubt as to the true mistress of Maplecroft.
   “Naturally—” she stepped smartly into the chamber, the keys at her hip jangling sharply—“you wish to know whether I’ve summoned the apothecary and whether any of Eaton’s staff is down, as well. I’m assured that at least two of the girls will be on their feet tomorrow. William, our second, has the malady, but James is managing quite well by himself. Some of the grooms are starting to look feverish, but that shouldn’t inconvenience your father when he returns home tonight.”
   Eaton’s name I recognized as the butler’s. I had only just worked out that William was a footman, because James was, when my mind seized upon Mrs. Coleman’s last statement. I rose to my feet. “Did you say that my father is expected tonight?”
   “That I did. ’Tis just like him too. Changing plans and returning home with a guest right in the middle of a grippe outbreak.”
   I gathered and pulled my hair over my shoulder as dread tingled through my body.
   “You don’t look well yourself.” Mrs. Coleman approached and touched my forehead with the back of her fingers. “Well, at least you’re cool to the touch. Nonetheless, you need to eat better. You’re thinner than is healthy. You had naught yesterday except that bite of porridge and biscuit.”
   I gawked, envisioning members of the staff spying on me through keyholes. I had been certain I was alone when I only managed one swallow of gruel. I’d pushed the entire tray away, missing Edward too keenly to eat. Had they watched while I cried too?
   “Here now, there’s no need to appear shocked.” Mrs. Coleman maneuvered to the hearth. “Since you arrived, the staff has been barmy with talk of you.” She paused to meet my eye. “Not that I’ve allowed it, mind you.”
   Her nonchalance gave me pause. I now couldn’t decide whether I had been spied upon, or if she generally meant I barely touched the tray that was delivered to my room.
   “I’ve been waiting for you to find your way to my room,” she said. “I warrant at your school they placed great emphasis on the importance of keeping a distinction between yourself and your staff. If you were to ask my opinion on it, I would tell you it was stuff and nonsense. Maplecroft, ’tis a lonely house to become acquainted with, to be sure. Your mother wasn’t above coming to my rooms and visiting me, let me tell you. You would find me grateful for the occasional visit.”
   Her speech awoke a myriad of reactions within me, so that each word spiralled my thoughts in a different direction. It stunned me to learn that the staff had interpreted my isolation as pretentiousness. Had they expected me to seek them out, to take interest and assign them their duties? I had no right to do so, not at least until I saw my father. For I wasn’t entirely certain he wouldn’t ship me off somewhere. I hadn’t forgotten that before the entire affair started, he’d planned to tuck me out of sight by sending me to Scotland as a servant. Lastly, the manner in which the housekeeper took it upon herself to lecture reminded me greatly of Nancy. My throat tightened, and my homesickness crested as I wondered what happened to my outspoken lady’s maid.
   Thankfully, Mrs. Coleman had her back to me and therefore didn’t witness my struggle to hold back emotions. She knelt over the grate, raking the ashes.
   “I always keep a cake in my shelf,” she continued. “If you like, you are invited to join me for tea in the late afternoons. You may sit in my overstuffed chair and confide all your little secrets to me. I should rather enjoy that.”
   I crossed my arms, wondering what she’d do if I actually took up her offer and confided all. I allowed myself a wry smile as I imagined her too shocked to speak.
   “You’ll find that Master Isaac doesn’t consider it below his station to come and visit me. I daresay you can trust him to determine what is right and proper, far above any nonsense your school taught you.” Using tongs, she lifted the half-burnt coals from the ash and deposited them into a nearby scuttle.
   I frowned, not certain who Master Isaac was, but then recalled Lord Dalry, the gentleman who’d greeted Edward and me the night we arrived.
   The dull chimes of a grandfather clock sounded, filling the chamber and reminding me of my mission. I retreated back to the window. The sun had nearly risen, giving the sky a rosy tincture. With dismay, I glanced at Mrs. Coleman as she started the fire, then cast my gaze outdoors. I desired to be alone, yet there was no polite way to dismiss her midtask.
   The sunrise was beautiful. Tones of gold highlighted the claret color, making the sky incarnadine. I ached, uncertain what to make of its beauty. How could the most resplendent sunrise of my life simultaneously be the most painful?
   Yet as I considered the complex layers of color and light, I better understood Mama’s determination that first morning. She, too, had lost her entire world. She had to fight and remain determined in order to give birth. To thrive after tragedy, one must find and draw from a pool of strength deep within oneself. Mama must have found hers that morning in me.
   I gave a deep sigh, resting my head against the window frame. A newborn daughter, however, was more likely to give someone an iron will than a powerful father. Something about that thought surfaced another part of the story, which Mama had mentioned only once. I was perhaps seven or eight. After she’d described my father counting my fingers and toes, she tacked on, “I never saw a grown man weep over his child before, but your father held you against his chest and expressed such raw emotion that Sarah feared he’d drop you in his remorse.”
   That year, I had wrinkled my nose. If William had been weeping at the end of a long night, then he was inebriated. Even at that tender age, I could well guess he’d hidden in a pub during Mama’s labor. It also stood to reason that he probably slept at the tavern, woke, and started drinking again. Knowing William’s temperament, I was displeased that Mama and Sarah had allowed him to handle an infant.
   But as I stood there, feeling the cold bleed through the window, I suddenly guessed the truth, and tingles spread over my body. Mama had not been speaking about William, but Lord Pierson.
   I held my breath. If my father came to see me on the morning of my birth, then I mattered to him. I raised my gaze, savoring the feeling of hope that surged through me. Perhaps it didn’t matter that our first meeting last month had been horrid, or why I was at Maplecroft pleading for sanctuary. All that counted was what happened next.
   “’Tis a grave view, that,” Mrs. Coleman said behind me, nearing me.
   I had been so deep in thought, I’d nearly forgotten I wasn’t alone.
   She joined me at the window and frowned, glancing toward Eastbourne. “There’s something evil about this, if you ask me. A bad omen, for certain.”
   I felt my mouth dry as I turned to look at her.
   She pulled the bundle of bedclothes in her arms tighter. “Mark my words: ’twill be the coldest winter yet. Snow in October! I’ve been in this shire for over twenty years, with nary a snowflake before January, much less a storm.”
   I released a shaky breath. “You . . . you meant the snow?”
   She glanced in my direction. “Whatever else could I have meant?”
   Without my permission, my eyes strayed to Eastbourne.
   “Humph,” she said, following my gaze, then set aside her linens. With the air of a prim nanny, she surveyed Eastbourne. “Mr. Chance Reginald Macy,” she finally said with distaste. “I take it you’ve followed his dreadful scandal in the paper, then?” She shook her head disapprovingly, the ruffles on her cap bobbing before she stalked to the wardrobe. “Best not let your father hear. He would not approve of your reading such trash. If you ask me, that girl ought to be horsewhipped within an inch of her life. Mind you, I’d like to be the first one who gives her a dressing-down. I can assure you, she’d know her duty when I finished with her.”
   Feeling my face grow hot, I turned my back to her. Since my arrival, I’d only glanced at the various newspapers delivered each day, never suspecting that Macy was keeping our scandal alive. I swallowed, realizing that he was still searching for me— or at least pretending to.
   The heavy scent of perfume coated the room as she dug through my father’s late wife’s dresses. “As for him, he ought to feel the fool for allowing someone half his age to seduce him. Had he enough self-pride, he would have better sense than to keep adding to the fire, pleading for her return. He’s the same age as your father, you know. Can you imagine your father making such a tomfool of himself over a girl your age? I remember a time when the two of them would ride and hunt together. The year before Mr. Macy left for Eton, he and your father were inseparable.”
   “They were?” Surprised by this information, I turned and studied her face. The crow’s-feet that lined her eyes suggested she was only a decade older than Mrs. Windham. She’d have been too young to be a housekeeper back then, which meant she’d have been an upper maid. “What happened?”
   She paused and a thoughtful expression crossed her face, as if she were reliving scenes from the past. Then all at once, she tsked. “There’s no sense asking me. I was never given knowledge of the affair. Your father spent that following summer in Bath, and we scarcely saw him. Something happened there that caused the pair to fall out.”
   Now this bit of news interested me. Mama’s past was a mysterious maze, of which I’d only learned one or two turns. One of those paths had come from Lady Foxmore. During our first tea, she stated that she’d chaperoned Mama in Bath the summer after Mama’s family perished in a fire. I bit my lip as Mrs. Coleman rifled through dresses. Was it possible it was the same summer that drove a wedge between my father and Mr. Macy?
   “Here. This ought to fit.” Mrs. Coleman withdrew a scarlet brocade gown. “It’s none of my business, mind you, but for your mother’s sake, I intend to give your father a piece of my tongue about the condition of your clothing when you arrived. I won’t argue the good of teaching someone of your rank humility, but to keep her dressed in rag—” She stopped short as if recalling whom she addressed.
   I pretended to view the grounds again, wanting to kick myself for showing interest in Mr. Macy. Though my common sense had been a bit woolly from the brandy, I still recalled Mr. Macy’s words: “More than one of your guardian’s servants is loyal to me. I’ve been intercepting all correspondence involving you since your mother’s death.”
   I crossed my arms, willing myself not to panic, either. Thus far nothing had happened.
   “What time does my father arrive?” I asked.
   “Likely as not, sometime after gloaming, but with him, there’s no telling,” was Mrs. Coleman’s stout reply as she unfolded and refolded petticoats, looking for one that would fit. “I’ll have to hire girls from the village to have things readied on time. It’s a blessing he didn’t surprise us, considering the state of the house.”
   Her statement was so curious, my mouth twisted in a queer smile. I’d never seen as much as a speck of dust in the entire estate.
   Aware my father could return any minute, I glanced at the clock. After Mrs. Coleman left my chambers, she wasn’t likely to have the time to assist me later. If I wanted to present my best, I needed to hasten.
   While Mrs. Coleman shook out the clothing she’d selected, I opened the small china boxes, looking for face powder to hide the crescents beneath my eyes. Scents of oil of tartar and almond rose from various creams, but I found no white powder. In my fumbling, one of the bottles of fragrance spilled, filling the air with rose water.
   Mrs. Coleman eyed the spill as she approached, her mouth tightening. “Never mind it; I’ll tend to it as you put these on.”
   While Mrs. Coleman pressed a linen towel against the spill, I shed the nightdress and donned petticoats too large for my frame. Shivering, I stepped into the satin gown that felt soaked in cold.
   When I finished, Mrs. Coleman smoothed my hair with pomade, parted it down the middle, and completed it with a simple braid.
   “With your permission, I’d like to take my leave now,” she said, setting the brush down.
   “Oh yes, yes,” I said. “Feel free.”
   Her eyebrows rose as though she was surprised by my unorthodox dismissal. Nonetheless, she dipped and left with the laundry bundled against her hip.
   Alone, I pulled out the pins from her hairstyle, changed my part and redistributed the pins into a more flattering style, then studied the girl in the looking glass. I heaved a sigh. I looked like a forlorn child in an oversized ruffled dress, and without Nancy, my hair lacked luster.
   Even so, I was determined to be the first to greet my father.
   Had I known who my father’s guest was, I doubt I should have bothered.