The Heart of Hope is a companion story to Josephine Blake’s debut novel, Dianna. It tells the story of Parker Jameson, a ranch hand with an uncommon devotion to his employer, Greyson Crowley.
Parker is floundering. After a disastrous confrontation with the son of his current employer, he has been ousted out of every position he has applied for. Angry, and more than a little desperate, Parker hastily accepts an offer of work from Phillip Crowley, unaware of the dangers he will be faced with on the Crowley Ranch.
His story unfolds in a heart-wrenching fashion. Friendships blossom and love wanders unexpectedly into Parker’s path.
Love, loss, faith and friendship. The Heart of Hope offers a glimpse into the life of a character whose story wasn’t ready to end.
Clara Cartwright is not beautiful. She is small of stature and childlike in appearance. She is also nearly eighteen years of age, a fact never fails to amaze the ladies of Firbranch, Montana, where she has lived for as long as she can remember.
Tucked in the foothills of hulking Mount Blackmore, Firbranch is home to an assortment of tradesmen and businessmen alike. Many of these men are set on marrying, but Clara is not the ideal candidate for a wife.
Resigned to the fact that her elder sister, Greta, can catch the eye of any man she fancies, while Clara herself is often still mistaken as a schoolgirl, she hides from the people of the town. Rarely venturing out for social functions and finding solace in the pages of her many books—Each beautifully bound edition, a gift from her father.
A tough and intelligent man, Clara’s father, Patrick Cartwright, works as a lapidary, collecting precious gems and selling them to the highest bidder. In Clara’s mind, however, her father is an adventurer.
He excels at his chosen profession, traveling far and wide across the country, but always home for Christmas.
Then comes the telegram. From far across the snow-covered Mount Blackmore, Clara’s father has sent word that the mountain pass has been snowed shut. He’s staying with a friend until the pass clears, but he will miss Christmas.
Heartbroken at the news, Clara resolves to do anything she can to help bring her father back home in time for the Holidays. Even if that means enlisting the help of the deplorable local fur-trapper, Charles Donahue.
Charles isn’t interested in guiding persistent little Clara over Mount Blackmore in the dead of winter, but when the stubborn young woman ventures out on her own, he is forced to follow.
Reckless, irritating, and sarcastic, Charles can understand why Clara Cartwright has not yet found a husband. She has a spark of defiance and stubbornness that most men would find off-putting. Charles, however, sees it as a challenge. An attractive little challenge indeed.
Due out this November, the second book in the series finds Dianna encumbered and irritable, but looking forward to the birth of their first child. Having been constantly on the watch for any signs of Tiponi’s vengeful tribesmen for over a year, both Shiye and Dianna are convinced of their safety.
I miss you. It’s been a long time since I left Manhattan, and I am anxious for news. Tell me what has happened in your lives. Spare no details in your response, and I will spare none as I tell you what has been happening in mine.
Dianna paused to run the tip of her fountain pen over her bottom lip as she thought. She sat at the scrub kitchen table. Her ankles crossed beneath her faded brown skirts.
She’d been out of touch with her family for the past year and could only imagine their anxiety for her. It wasn’t as though Dianna had had any choice. It wasn’t easy to mail regular correspondence when you were on the run from murderous natives.
Dianna exhaled violently, her blonde curls blowing away from her face as she did so, and looked around the tiny cabin. It was comprised of one room. The kitchen sat to the left of her. The bed: a few paces away on her right. Between the dining area— where Dianna now sat— and the bed, was a small stone fireplace. Within it sat a char black pot, hung from an iron peg.
It was a small space, but it was home, and it had been for nearly an entire year. The quilt on the bed was handmade and bore a embroidered pattern of leaves across its brown and gray surface.
Dianna heaved another sigh and then smiled as her eyes fell onto the cradle that sat at the end of the bed. It was comprised of sturdy wood and a deep red-brown in color. Shiye, Dianna’s husband, had carved intricate pictures on both the head and footboard. Two crossed feathers, surrounded by a twisting garland of oak leaves, decorated the head. A single feather surrounded by a garland of pine branches sat upon the foot.
“You see?” Shiye had told her, tracing his finger over one of the feathers. “One is for you, one is for me. The other is for our child.”
Her husband’s words seemed to echo to her for a moment, and Dianna sent up a silent prayer for his safe return. Shiye had gone on one of his frequent trips. Hunting and scouting the area for signs of danger. He was likely on his way home now; he’d been gone for several days.
Dianna laid a hand over her stomach to feel the reassuringly warm fumblings of her baby.
“You’ll be as warm blooded as your papa, sweetheart,” she whispered to her belly. Then she stood with a groan and strode over to the window to pull open the shutters. Sweat was beading on her forehead, though the spring night was relatively mild. Stars twinkled on the surface of the nearby river, making it look as though thousands of fireflies lay trapped beneath the rippling water.
She was on the point of turning back to her letter when a movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she stopped, staring hard at the shadows of the surrounding trees. Nothing moved, but Dianna’s spine itched with discomfort.
“Shiye?” she called hesitantly into the night. Her right hand wandered over the back of her waistband and she pulled a small throwing knife from its sheath there. “Who’s there?” she called again. A delicate fawn slipped out of the undergrowth a few feet away and Dianna let out a sigh of relief. Replacing the knife Shiye had given her in its leather scabbard, she turned away from the window and sat back down at the table to continue her letter. Greyson Crowley and I were not meant to be. I must confess that I was too blinded by the excitement of my journey to note that the man was an obvious drunkard, a liar and a scoundrel. Fortunately for me, we were unable to marry upon my arrival in Cheyenne, and I was still unattached to him upon my discovery of his true nature.
I spent some time recovering from a head injury inflicted upon me by the wretched man, and it was during this time that I met my new husband. His name is Shiye, and it was he who found me after Greyson Crowley’s drunken antics nearly ended my life. Shiye saved me and aided me in my recovery. Soon after, we were married in Cheyenne.
I cannot tell you where I am now, for fear of this letter falling into the wrong hands. For Shiye has been falsely accused of a terrible crime by his people and we are, to the best of my knowledge, still being pursued by them.
I will tell you that I am happy. For not only have I discovered a wonderful and loving husband, I am also with child. I hope someday soon, that we can arrange to meet, so that I might get to see you all. I miss you more than words can say. I am so sorry that I lost touch with you over the course of my ventures. I hope you will forgive me. I desire nothing more than to see your smiling faces, and I think of you always.
There. That sounded alright. Although there was no guarantee that her family would respond to her letter, Dianna was desperate to make contact with them. She felt horrible about leaving them without any information or means of reaching her, and could only hope that they would find it in their hearts to forgive her and write back quickly.
An ever-present feeling of guilt threatened to overwhelm Dianna for a moment. It swelled inside her like some noxious gas, making it hard to breathe. She flattened her palms against the table, fighting for control.
There came a steady crunch of footsteps outside the cabin and Dianna tensed again, reaching for her knife. The footsteps stopped and Dianna heard a grunt, followed by the thud of something large being tossed to the ground. She smiled, her body relaxed, and she stood quickly to open the front door.
Shiye was bent double, his hands busy in a small bag of supplies at his feet. Next to him, bloody and gutted, lay a string of rabbits, a few featherless birds, his hunting knife and his bow. At the sound of the door opening, he straightened and opened his arms just in time. For Dianna had flown at him with enough force to nearly knock him flat. Without giving him a moment to catch his breath, she kissed him.
Shiye chuckled beneath her lips and his arms encircled her. “I have missed you as well,” he said pleasantly. Dianna clung to him fiercely. Feeling such a powerful wave of happiness that, for a moment, she couldn’t speak. Shiye’s welcome heat radiated into her skin, warming parts of her soul that always grew cold in his absence. Before her pregnancy, Dianna had always gone on these short expeditions with him. Now though, the idea was quite out of the question.
“I expected you back days ago,” she said angrily, pulling away from her husband to confront him with a furious stare. “What happened?” He was only thirty and two to Dianna’s twenty-nine years, but his dark eyes were ringed with an age that only terrible trials can bring. Over the last year or so, this look had lessened slightly. He had grown content and —Dianna hoped— he had begun to forgive himself for the terrifying events in his past that had truly been out of his control.
Shiye’s high brow fell in a look of irritation. “I found signs of passing and tracked them over the mountains. It was likely only a traveler, but I needed to be certain. They were close to us, but they seem to have left the area.”
Dianna felt a distinct sense of unease grow in her belly. The baby squirmed. She lay a protective hand over the wiggling in her stomach and bit her lip. “Are you sure? We haven’t had anyone come this way for a long time, should we…?”
“We’re safe,” Shiye cut her off. His hands came to rest over her’s, and he smiled down at her. “I tracked them a long time, whoever it was headed East, away from Cheyenne. If it were a tracker, they would have headed back to the village to bring the others. Not East.”
Dianna felt her shoulders relax, and she smiled up at Shiye as the baby gave another firm kick to their joined hands. Shiye crouched down in the dirt to press a kiss to Dianna’s belly. “I missed you both,” he whispered, wrapping his hands around Dianna’s lower back and pressing his ear to her stomach. Dianna giggled as she felt the baby jolt once more, pressing against Shiye’s cheek.
“Welcome home,” she whispered.
I met Linda at the Historical Romance Retreat in Spokane, WA this year. I was a little starstruck, a little nervous and crazy excited to be in the presence of such a fantastic pillar of Western Romance. I mean, she has written and published over one hundred historical and contemporary novels, she’s phenomenal. And here I am, this awkward little blonde chick swimming through the sea of authors and readers, just trying to poke my head out and catch her attention. I bobbed along for a bit and finally, it was my turn.
I think I might have cried a little.
(Sorry, Linda! 😉
Linda Lael Miller is just as warm and friendly in person as you would imagine from reading her amazing work. She was full of advice, energy and pizzazz!
I fumbled, I stumbled and, to no one’s surprise, I blushed but I finally managed to ask her if she wouldn’t mind taking a moment to answer a few questions for my blog. I couldn’t believe she agreed!!
So, let’s get right down to it and learn a little something extra about a woman who is, for many of us, a heroine herself.
The first thing I did when I sat down to write an interview was ask a fantastic group of individuals (Pioneer Hearts. You read Westerns? Join us.) whose opinions I deeply respect, what sort of questions they would ask Linda if they had the chance.
The first couple questions are from them.
Q #1: With such an extensive list of books, do you ever re-read any of your books from days gone by and wonder where that story came from or wish you could retell the story knowing what you know now? If so, have you ever done so or ever considered it?
Linda said: I never have time to re-read old books, though I sometimes listen on audio—Jack Garrett reads all my Recorded Book versions, and he does such a great job as a narrator! Sounds a lot like Sam Elliott. 🙂 I’d like to think I’ve grown as a writer over these many years at the keyboard, but I’m all about the book I’m writing now, and the ones I’m planning in the future.
Q #2: Will your books every be on Kindle Unlimited?
Linda said: I don’t know. These decisions are made by the Amazon people in the case of Kindle, and the process is probably similar with Nook, etc.
Q #3: Where does your inspiration come from? Each one of your books is distinctly different, and I know that is hard to do.
Linda said: My writing is organic, by which I mean, it grows from the characters, situation and setting, but especially the characters. I see the stories in my mind as I write them, and really get involved. Often, they show me things I hadn’t expected, which is one of the many reasons I love this job.
Q #4: Will you ever do another vampire series?
Linda said: Probably not. Publishing, alas, is a business, and the vampire books were embraced by a much smaller audience, however loyal. My publishers aren’t willing to go there because of lower sales. I did enjoy writing those stories enormously, but there’s no getting around the economics. Also, I think there have been so many wonderful books in that genre since that I would have a very hard time coming up with anything original.
Q #5: When will Kate Mckittrick get her story?
Linda said: At this point, I have no plans to write another Mckittrick book, but you never know when inspiration will strike!
The following questions were to satisfy my own curiosity!
Q #6: I think it’s absolutely wonderful that you established the Linda Lael Miller Scholarships for Women Foundation. What inspired you to do that?
Linda said: Well, thank you. I helped over 50 women while the scholarships were in force. They are on hiatus at the moment, unfortunately, though I do hope to bring them up. Again, the problem was economic. The administration costs were 3 times what the scholarship recipients received, and that just doesn’t make sense. I looked into forming a foundation, but that involved so many rules, which would negate my purpose of giving women the help they needed—a lap top, gas money, child-care in addition to tuition and books.
Q #7: Tell us about your father. He was a town marshal. Did he inspire any of the characters from your books?
Linda said: My dad will always be my favorite cowboy! I did draw on his courage, his integrity and his willingness to work hard.
Q #8: Why do you think the West is such a fantastic setting for Romances? What qualities about that setting make it so wonderfully exciting to read?
Linda said: I love the West, partly because I’ve lived in it all my life, except for brief stints in London, Florence and Venice. I believe it appeals to many readers because of the wide open spaces, the breathtaking scenery, and the courage of those who settled it back in the day.
Q #9: What are some of your favorite reviews from your readers?
Linda said: The truth? I rarely read my own reviews. The really good ones might give me a swelled head, and the bad ones hurt my feelings.
(Linda, that answer inspired me!)
Q #10: What is the very first book you ever published? Where can we get ahold of a copy?
Linda said: My first published book was “Fletcher’s Woman”, and I’m sure it’s in print, therefore available wherever books are sold.
Q #11: Can you tell us your favorite author?
Linda said: I have so MANY favorite authors: Dorothy Dunnett, Taylor Caldwell, and others who wrote big historical sagas I could sink my teeth into. I also love suspense—I will buy a book by Joy Fielding or Linwood Barclay, to name just two, without even reading the blurb. 🙂 I also read an enormous amount of nonfiction—especially the American Civil War, since I’m in the process of writing a series set in that era. I love all of David McCullough’s books. I read a lot of psychology, too, being a student of human nature—what writer isn’t?—and at the moment I’m particularly fascinated by the Enneagram.
Q #12: What is the top item on your grocery list this week?
Linda said: 🙂 Dog and cat food! I’m a MAJOR animal lover.
Q #13: What is your ideal birthday gift?
Linda said: To receive? Send over Rob Lowe, please. 🙂
Q #14: What are you working on now? Can we have a sneak peek???
Linda said: I’m working on “NORTH OF EDEN”, a sprawling story set in the Gettysburg, PA area (mostly) and centering around the famous battle of July 1, 2, and 3, of 1863. There are some battle scenes, but my story is mostly about the way the ordinary people coped with having a war fought just down the road, or even in their front yard. In other words, while some of the characters are soldiers, the novel is mainly about women like my heroine, Caroline Hammond, who helped take care of the wounded in the aftermath of the battle.
Q #15: (We’ll round off with this real hard-hitting question. One that everyone is dying to know, I’m sure 😉 Linda, can you tell us what breakfast you would have if you could have anything in the world? And where would you eat it if you could eat it anywhere you wanted to?
Linda said: I’m so boring! My favorite breakfast is crisp bacon, hash brown potatoes and eggs over-medium, with wheat toast. I guess if I could choose the place too, I’d pick the White House dining room. 🙂 (Doesn’t matter who’s President.)
That concludes our interview with Linda Lael Miller.
I’d like to personally thank Linda for joining us today and tell her, yet again, what an absolute delight it was to meet her at the HRR. I hope to see you there next year as well!
The daughter of a town marshal, Linda Lael Miller is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than 100 historical and contemporary novels, most of which reflect her love of the West. The “First Lady of the West” lives outside Spokane, Washington, where her rescued horses, dogs and cats live the high life.
Published since 1983, Linda was awarded the prestigious Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 by the Romance Writers of America. She was recently inducted into the Wild West Heritage Foundation’s Walk of Fame for her dedication to preserving the heritage of the Wild West.
Hallmark Channel is developing a series based on Miller’s Big Sky Country novels published by HQN Books. In addition to writing more contemporary cowboy romances, she is working furiously on a big book Civil War series for Harlequin. When not writing, Linda loves to focus her creativity on a wide variety of art projects.
Isabel gave a most unladylike snort of disgust, then glanced around warily, hoping that no one had heard. She was sitting alone at the farthest table possible from the dance floor, watching irritably as one of her previous suitors made a rather forward advancement on her cousin. Undoubtedly, Edward Buchanan had heard the news of Emily’s father’s financial success and chosen his new suit with almost as much grace as he had the last. She observed them for a few moments, hoping Emily would not be so foolhardy so as to fall for his scheme.
It turned out she was. Isabel tried not to let her brow crease with disapproval as the dandy succeeded in capturing Emily’s next dance. The rather shamelessly expensive tails of his coat waggled enthusiastically as he spun in time to the music, laughing and obviously charming the young miss with practiced ease. For a moment, Isabel had to hold in a bizarre desire to laugh as she envisioned Edward dancing with the pile of money that he so clearly thought Emily would be to him if they were to marry.
Ah, well, thought Isabel, at least it’ll keep him warm as he burns it at the tables of his club. She really should warn Emily, but then again, she really wanted another glass of punch. Perhaps afterward…
Isabel made to stand up, and in doing so, caught the eye of her lady’s maid who bustled over from her position along the far wall.
“Accompany me to the banquet hall, won’t you, Denise?”
Denise smiled sweetly as she took her mistress’s arm. She was a pretty little thing in a light blue gown of fine muslin that she had borrowed from Isabel. Her blonde hair was pulled up into a loose bun at the top of her head, and a few escaped tendrils framed her pleasantly pale countenance.
“Lord Darensby looks a treat, doesn’t he?” giggled Denise into Isabel’s ear as she led her across the room. “He’s been eyeing you this evening.”
“The only thing that man has been eyeing is my father’s accounts,” said Isabel matter-of-factly. Her foot slipped a little, and Isabel stumbled. She clung tightly to Denise’s supporting arm in a vain hope that no one had seen. Unfortunately, that was not the way things worked in the upper crust of England. One slip, one blush, one wrong slip of the tongue and you were under scrutiny for a week or more.
It had been the latter for Isabel. Since her feet had gone numb and her knees had grown weak she had been under the constant eye of the London society. It had even been in the papers the first time she had fallen. The local gossip column had put up a week’s worth of headlines speculating on her ill health.
Well, that was all tosh. She was fit as a fiddle. Alright, her knees sometimes gave way and her vision blurred more easily than usual as of late, but Isabel was sure it was due to nothing more than her stays being too tight. Possibly not eating enough. At any rate, she could not show weakness. As the only child and heir to the Vanderton Estate, she was under constant pressure to marry and marry well.
“Would you like to sit down, Miss? Before we go to the tables?” Denise was clearly concerned about her momentary lapse in stability. Her round blue eyes caught Isabel’s as she steadied herself and began to move forward once more.
“Don’t talk rubbish,” growled Isabel, practically charging out of the ballroom and into the large hallway that led to the banquet hall. The bell-shaped cage around her midriff impeded her chosen speed and she nearly stumbled again, although, thankfully, there was no one around to see this time.
“You must rest, Miss,” said Denise, rushing after her in a nervous flutter. “Your father said that if you were to be allowed to attend the gathering, that you must refrain from exerting yourself in any way.”
Isabel could hear the slight note of hysteria in her lady’s voice. For, if Isabel did not heed her, the woman would likely lose her position, something neither of them wanted.
Isabel’s father seemed to think that her ladies were more in the order of governesses than friends, and expected them to keep a firm hold on Isabel throughout the very dangerous business of attending balls and parties. This put Denise in a difficult position, as she didn’t like to order her mistress around for fear of seeming disrespectful, but could not disobey a direct order from her father.
“I’m quite alright, quit circling me like a mother hen,” Isabel said, waving off her friend’s concerned expression and looking around for the doorway to the next room.
Denise sighed. “I think it’s this way,” she muttered, and she took Isabel’s arm once more. The hallway was dark, the many lit gas lamps that adorned the walls did not entirely illuminate the shadowing crevices. Framed paintings were scattered here and there between the lights, and they could hear the sounds of bubbling laughter and talk coming from the ballroom just behind them.
Isabel could feel eyes on the back of her neck and was sure people were craning their heads through the doorway to keep her in view. She turned back as they walked away, planning to give the onlookers a reprovingly dazzling smile that would put them in their proper place, but there was no one there. Puzzled, Isabel felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end as she allowed Denise to lead her down the hallway. She turned back once more before they entered the banquet hall and was sure she saw the shadows in the dark hallway shift. Repressing a shudder, she hurried inside the shaft of light streaming from the next room, telling herself firmly that she was imagining things. Which would have been an altogether reassuring remonstration, if it hadn’t been for the whisper she had heard in the shadows.
“Isssaabelll,” it had said in a voice of sultry velvet, “Issaaabelll.”
She jolted as Denise made to tug her across the threshold. A chill crept down her spine.
“Did you hear that?”
Denise paused and frowned. “Hear what?”
“That voice,” she said, her spine still tingling.
Denise was looking quite alarmed now. “What voice, Miss?”
“It said- Didn’t you hear it?”
Isabel was gazing into the deepest shadows, her eyes combing the area where she had thought she had seen movement.
Denise was examining her quizzically, and she registered how odd she must look, standing in the pool of light, staring into the shadows and hearing voices no one else could hear.
She spun on her heel abruptly and caught many an eye turning away from her as she sashayed casually across the room to gather herself a plate of food and something to drink.
In all honesty, Isabel hadn’t forgotten the incident, the only change that had come over her since was that she was now questioning her own sanity. She smiled and laughed at the juicy gossip Mrs. Fairweather bludgeoned her with as soon as she entered the room, chatted amicably with an old acquaintance of her father’s, and pretended to eye the available bachelor’s in the room with a practiced gaze.
She saw no visible change in her lady either, apart from sensing Denise’s eyes on her a little more often than was strictly necessary. Several times Isabel caught her eye and grinned sheepishly.
Mrs. Fairweather had found her once more. She droned on and on, first about her nephew, and what a delightful match he and Isabel would make.
“Really, dear, I must introduce him to you.” Then it was about which girl’s dresses were too low cut. “Honestly, I am quite sure Abraham Hardy could see straight down the front of her bodice when he was dancing with her.”
This was the point Isabel excused herself, feigning a headache, which was a mistake. Mrs. Fairweather raised a suspicious eyebrow at her. “Really, dear. We’re all surprised you even managed to attend. I’d hoped your health had improved. You really shouldn’t have come, you know. Not when you were so fragile to begin with.” She gave Isabel’s hand a pat that was plainly supposed to be sympathetic rather than mocking.
Isabel did not take it as such. “There is nothing out of the ordinary about this headache, madam, I assure you. It is common for me around this time of the month.”
“Ah,” said Mrs. Fairweather, giving Isabel a scandalized look, but she looked mollified all the same. “You best get on home and rest then, dear.”
Isabel nodded and glanced around for Denise. She felt a hand on her shoulder. It was warm, heavy and decidedly masculine. She turned, expecting to see her father, for no other man would touch her so familiarly.
There was no one there.
Isabel spun all around, causing Mrs. Fairweather to grasp her elbow. “What are you doing, child?”
“Did you just touch me? Did you take hold of my shoulder, just now?”
Mrs. Fairweather’s wrinkled, watery eyes widened to the size of saucers. “No one touched you, dear. No one at all.”
Isabel felt the numbness in her feet creep up her ankles and into her knees. She began to shake.
Don’t fall apart. Not here, not in front of all these people. They can’t see you like this. The vultures will be on you before the night is out if you let them see.
She stood up straight, inhaling deeply into her chest; feeling her lungs expand. She caught sight of herself in the huge gilded mirror across the room.
Tall for a woman, her normally olive-toned skin was pale and clammy. She looked in danger of passing out. Her dark hair and eyes made the change in her complexion all the more noticeable. Normally admired for her full form, tonight she looked slight and sickly beneath the light of the large, crystal chandeliers that dangled from the vaulted ceiling.
Denise was there in a flash. As she took hold of Isabel’s elbow and steered her towards the nearest chair, as she forced her away from the reflection in the mirror, that was when she saw him.
He stood so close to her in the crowded room that, at first, she had mistaken him as one of the many prestigious guests invited there by their host of the evening. But no. He was tall and lithe, and an impossible, incomprehensible shock to her senses. He was beautiful, like jarringly unfamiliar notes in a childhood song. He looked inhuman, supple and toned and otherworldly.
He was laughing at her, his lips spreading in a wide, capricious smile and she could tell he knew what she had felt. Knew her confusion, because it was he who had caused it.
Isabel let Denise tug her this way and that, let her lady support her. For, it was very clear to her now that she was losing her mind. Because when she had spun around to confront the laughing man in the mirror, when she had turned to accuse him of his all-too-familiar touch, he had not been there.
The tall, impossibly handsome man she had seen standing just behind her…existed only in the mirror.
She said nothing as Denise fussed over her in the carriage on their ride home. Her mind was whirring. There had been a voice. There had been a touch. And now there was a man. Something she was experiencing that no one else was. She glanced up from her deep contemplation of her gloved fingers and shuddered. She could feel the numbness creeping farther still up her legs. She doubted she would be able to stand.
An oddity on the dark, rain-washed landscape outside the carriage window caught her eye, and she bent forward, half curious, half terrified of what she might see.
The shadows swirled blackly and then there was a shape. Isabel gasped and squashed herself quickly back into her seat. She did not look either right nor left as the carriage trundled up the sloping drive to her family’s estate.
When she went to get out of the carriage, she found she had been right to suspect that she would not be able to stand, let alone walk up the steep steps to the front door. Her legs refused to move, no matter how she tried. Denise began to cry.
“Oh, Miss! We never should have gone.”
“Oh, posh, Denise. Quit sniffling and call Michael to assist me inside.”
She waited for a few moments in the cold September air, the rain pattering on the canvas roof of the carriage. The shadows inched closer to her, and at the corners of her vision, she could see a tall figure watching her patiently out of the darkness. Panic settled in her chest. She couldn’t breathe. But rather than turning away from the shadowy figure, she spun in her seat and glared at him. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw his insolent smile widen.
Michael, her father’s right-hand man, came galumphing down the front steps of the manor five minutes later.
“Mistress, what is it?”
“Nothing to fuss about,” said Isabel immediately, trying to dispel her own fear as well as his. Denise hovered anxiously just behind him.
“She says her legs aren’t working properly,” she hissed at Michael, and his eyes widened. Isabel sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Oh, just carry me up to my room, won’t you?”
Michael looked obscenely uncomfortable as he slid his arms around his mistress and lifted her slight form as easily as if she were nothing more than a porcelain doll. He took each step gingerly, as though he was frightened of jolting her, and all the while, the handsome stranger smiled at the edges of her vision.
Denise ran ahead to open the wide, double front doors, and Michael walked straight through to the entrance hall, never minding the muddy footprints he left behind in his wake. He turned left and began to climb the winding staircase that lead to the upper floors of Kingsley Manor, and after a few moments, he sat Isabel down carefully on the side of her bed.
He looked winded and his full cheeks were ruddy with exertion. It had been dreadfully uncomfortable to be in such close proximity with a man of his girth, but Isabel was thankful for his efforts.
“Michael?” she said as Denise side-stepped around him and began unlacing her boots, “Not a word to Father.”
He looked doubtful.
“Not until tomorrow. Let him have his fun. He hasn’t played cards for so long. We can only hope he doesn’t lose the estate to Mr. Pinsworth.” She smiled half-heartedly. Neither Michael nor Denise responded. They both looked worried; on the edge of panic. Isabel let her face fall into her customary stern expression. “Not a word,” she repeated.
Michael exhaled, looking indignant. “He’d want to know.”
“He’ll find out in the morning.” Isabel’s tone had gone snappish. She was used to giving orders. And quite used to having those orders obeyed.
Michael shook his head and went to fetch her a cup of tea.
Isabel struggled to relax through the pain in her legs. She reached blindly for the necklace at her throat. The thin gold chain rarely left her neck. She looked down at the charm, dangling there. A heart-shaped locket that never opened. She’d had it so long that she couldn’t even remember where it had come from. She remembered having it just after her mother had passed. It had been a source of absolute comfort to her ever since.
Denise was now attempting to slide Isabel’s boots off feet that looked and felt as though they had been encased in a thick rubber. She was still crying slightly.
“Denise,” said Isabel consolingly. “I’ll make quite certain you are not the butt of Father’s fury, don’t fret.”
“I’m not scared about being punished, silly!” sniffed Denise, finally succeeding in removing the first boot and moving on to the second. “I’m worried for you.”
“Don’t be!” said Isabel, tilting her friend’s chin up so that she could look into her face. “I’ll be just fine by tomorrow. In fact, I believe I would feel much better if you could just loosen my stays for me.”
Denise nodded and gave the second boot a swift yank. It slid off Isabel’s awkwardly stiff foot and fell onto the floor with a thud. “Can you turn to the side, Miss?”
Isabel used her arms to spin herself obligingly and faced the back of the room. She had to stifle a gasp. He was there, in the dressing table mirror. Inches away from her. Sitting on the opposite side of the bed. If she moved her hand an inch, she would touch him.
“What is it, Miss? Are you in pain? Did it hurt to turn round?” Denise was circling around the bed to examine Isabel’s expression. As she moved, The Man in the Mirror moved too, he slid away from her and out of Denise’s path. Isabel stared into the mirror, he lifted a long finger to his perfect lips and winked.
Isabel looked up at Denise. Her lips were trembling. She couldn’t seem to calm her shaking.
“A hot bath, Miss? Something? What can I do?”
Isabel gestured feebly to the back of her dress. “The stays, Denise, please?”
“Yes, of course.”
Isabel could feel Denise’s fingers shaking too. Slowly, button by button, the bodice of the gown slid from her shoulders. The Man in the Mirror had vanished, but Isabel felt his presence. Was he watching her undress? Enjoying her absolute discomfort and knowing she couldn’t say a word to Denise.
She had cracked but she needn’t make more a fool of herself than she already had. She was having trouble breathing again. He isn’t real. He’s all in your mad mind. He isn’t there. So what did it matter if he watched her undress? He isn’t real.
Isabel squared her shoulders as she felt Denise began loosening her stays. Blessedly, finally, she could breathe. She drew in great lungfuls of air, her heart beat slowing, and looked back into the mirror.
He was not reflected in it. He wasn’t watching her. At least he has some sense of propriety, she thought. Then she chastised herself. He is merely a product of your illness.
She breathed in and out for several minutes, Denise’s hand on her shoulder.
“A hot bath would be good, Denise,” she said, nodding slowly. My legs feel a bit better already. I should very much like to soak. Perhaps with my tea.”
“I’ll draw you a bath.”
A half hour later, with no sight of The Man in the Mirror, Isabel allowed Denise to help her strip and then sunk to her shoulders in the hot water. Her legs were still very weak but the numbness seemed to have receded slightly, enough so that she could stagger across the room with Denise’s help. She hoped a bath would get her blood moving, perhaps wake her sleeping limbs.
Denise brought her a cup a tea and then left her alone, shutting the door quietly behind her. Isabel sighed and let herself sink back into the water, her eyes closed, trying to calm her mind.
Her left leg twitched of its own accord. The ripples caused water to lap at her chin. She opened her eyes and glared down at her bare lower body, ensconced in bubbles. She drew her knees up to her chin and held them there. “You are not allowed to just cease your duties,” she grumbled at them. “If I’m not giving up then neither are you.”
Fear cascaded over her, and she let her tingling legs slide back down the length of the tub. The scent of roses filled her nostrils.
“There is nothing wrong with me,” she said quietly. “It’s an illness, nothing more.”
“That is where you are wrong, my dear.” The voice spoke from the shadows, causing Isabel to jump and shrink into the thick foam of bubbles. Her gaze darted around the room, but she saw nothing and no one. Anger and fury welled up inside her.
“Where are you?” she hissed, “Where are you hiding?”
“I’m right here, beautiful.”
A hand caressed the length of her long, dark hair and she shrieked.
Denise came running into the bathroom, clearly half-way through undressing, one sleeve of her blue gown dangling off her shoulder.
Isabel had grabbed at the nearest towel and sent a lit candle flying in her haste, it went out as it drenched the bathroom floor in hot wax. Denise stared around the room looking terrified. “What is it, Miss?”
Isabel couldn’t catch her breath.
“Get me out, Denise. Help me dress.”
Madness. She didn’t think there was any other way to describe her experiences. She had gone mad, just as she feared from the first whisper of her name in that darkened hallway. She had cracked.
Denise combed out her wet hair, and the Stranger smiled at her in the mirror. He continued to touch her. A hand on her shoulder, a brush of his ice-cold fingers over her heated neck, once she even felt his lips as he whispered in her ear.
She tried not to flinch, or to show any sign of discomfort, but even so, as Denise helped her ready for bed, she could see the terror growing in her friend’s eyes. After all, her mistress was hearing voices no one else could hear. Seeing things. Feeling things. Isabel shuddered as Denise tucked her into bed.
“If you need anything in the night, Miss, ring for me. Don’t hesitate.”
“Of course. Thank you, Denise.”
Her pretty lady gave her hand a squeeze and then moved out of the room, shutting the door softly behind her. Isabel sat up as soon as the door closed and held out her lamp from the bedside table. It illuminated the shadows and flickered into the corners.
“At last, we are alone.”
Isabel jumped and nearly dropped the lamp. The man was sitting right beside her, his black booted ankles crossed on the bed nonchalantly. And what a man he was. Swathed in a long, black traveling coat over a suit of plum velvet, he was eyeing her with the air of a snake deciding whether to swallow its prey whole or bit by bit.
His hair was black, as was the scruff on his cheek and the color of his eyes. It was disturbing, that his pupils had no end. It was like gazing into the depths of the blackness between the stars. His jaw was strong, and his body was lithe, long and toned. Handsome wasn’t the right word. If Isabel could have conjured up her idea of a perfect male specimen, he would be it. His velvet waistcoat was relieved by a froth of fine, white silk at his throat, and he wore a gold pocket watch. This last item, he was examining interestedly.
“It’s getting quite late,” he said, not looking up from his preoccupation with his watch. Isabel stared at him. She could see him sitting there. Feel the pressure of the mattress as it slanted towards his weight, but he could not be there. She reached out a trembling finger, and at last, he looked up. He smiled at her. A smile so capricious it should have frozen her soul, instead, Isabel slapped him. The man tumbled off the bed in shock.
“How dare you!” she breathed venomously, she raised her hand again, and this time he grabbed her wrist. He emanated power and fury in a tangible mass that flooded the room with darkness and Isabel knew instantly that this was not a man. He was something older, and sickly. Something that defied time and distance, and at the same moment would come as surely as a tax on the poor.
“I would suggest you do not raise a hand to me again, dear one. For I hold your very existence between my finger and my thumb.”
He released her wrist, and Isabel could feel heat where he had touched her. Warmth and chill at the same time. It was a terrifying sensation.
“I will not be frightened of you, sir. I request you to leave my room at once.” Isabel sat up straight and pointed a quivering finger at the door. The man laughed.
“You say you will not be frightened,” he chuckled, “but at the brush of my hand you will flee.”
“I shan’t!” Isabel set her two most basic instincts to war in that moment. Something within her told her this was not a being to trifle with, but a stronger voice said she would not be bullied by anything, no matter if it was a creature created by her insane mind or a man creeping into her room in the dead of night.
The man from the mirror chuckled once more, and sat himself back down on her bed with a flourish, despite Isabel’s squeak of protest. He leaned towards her, and Isabel stuck out her jaw in defiance as he brushed a finger that was both fire and ice down the length of her jaw.
“Sweet, brave girl. You have no idea with whom you are dealing.”
“Who are you then?” she snapped, and his eyes flashed at her rudeness.
“Tut, tut. Did your mother never teach you manners?” He waggled a finger reprovingly at her and Isabel glared at him. “I know she did, Isabel. Before I took her. She was a wonderfully pleasant companion.”
Isabel’s mouth had gone dry.
“What do you mean, ‘before you took her’?”
He smiled that smile again. It was nearly a taut leer. One corner of his mouth pulled up as though he were only moments away from consuming her.
“It was her time,” he said simply. “As it is nearly yours.”
It was Isabel’s turn to laugh, and the man looked rather shocked at her reaction. His black eyes grew wide, and he cocked his head to the side wonderingly, as though she was the most interesting thing he had ever seen. He looked rather owlish, peering at her as she continued to chuckle.
“You are not Death,” she choked at last. “Where is your scythe? Where is your cloak of darkness?” She continued to laugh.
Now he looked severely annoyed. “I abandoned them many hundreds of years ago,” he said irritably. “Why is it no one will paint me as I am anymore?”
“Do you leave anyone alive to do it?”
Death paused for a moment and then broke into a strangely sheepish grin. “No, I generally suppose I don’t. All work. No play,” he said. “I’ve no time to waste, you see.”
Isabel’s face fell. “If you are Death, I will go with you,” she said.
Apparently, she had shocked him again, for his dark eyebrows had crept up into his black hair. “Just like that?” he asked. “No begging? No pleading? No ‘just one more day’?”
“I am not one for prolonging the inevitable.” Her green eyes had gone dark. “I supposed it might come to this,” she said sadly. “I just didn’t want to admit it. I knew something was wrong with me from the first moment I stumbled. What is wrong with me?” she asked curiously.
“You have an illness that does not yet have a name,” he said. “It will take your legs, then your arms, and then the rest of you will follow suit.”
Isabel nodded stoically, displaying no more emotion than she would have if someone had just told her it looked as though it might rain the next day and ruin her morning ride.
“You are very beautiful,” he said suddenly, and Death moved nearer to her, his strangely decadent body sliding across the coverlet. “And you have a bravery in your heart that others lack.” He brushed his finger along her jaw once more, and Isabel shivered again at the sensation of his touch. His dark eyes were boring into hers, and she could not look away.
“Will you take me now?” she asked, expecting to feel herself beginning to slip away at any moment.
“No, my dear. Right now, I am going to kiss you.”
He leaned closer to her, but as he made to press his lips to hers, Isabel shoved him away, suddenly furious. She made to get out of the bed and stumbled on her numb legs. Before she had fallen, he was there, lifting her in his strong arms that left trails of fire and ice anywhere they touched.
Isabel kicked out, and when that didn’t help, she slapped him again. He dropped her back onto the bed in a heap, looking outraged. “Is this what you do?” she whispered furiously, scrambling away from him. “You prey on the ones you take? You tell them they are pretty and then do what you like with them? I have not sunk so low, sir. You will not have your way with me. I will not allow it.”
Death crossed his magnificent arms, observing her irritably.
“I did not mean to cause offense,” he grumbled, and his handsome face was suddenly looking discomforted. “I only meant to taste—” he trailed off looking frustrated and Isabel was seized by a sudden thought.
“Is it lonely, being Death?”
He frowned at her and strode to the other side of the room to sink down on the bench next to her vanity. She watched him lean back in his plum suit and observe her with keen interest, his arms folded across his chest and one leg propped over the top of the other.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he scoffed. “Death isn’t lonely, it’s an adventure.”
“For those that go with you,” said Isabel, pulling the coverlet around her cold body, she shivered as she imagined what death must be like for Death himself. “But for you, I would imagine it is always lonely to be left behind.” She paused, then said: “So do you kiss the girls often?”
He shrugged dismissively and shadows crawled over his face. Isabel had the distinct impression she had embarrassed him with her refusal, and with her prying questions. She tried not to think about what was happening. What she was doing, and who she was speaking with. She ignored what it meant for her, and for her father and her friends. There was no help to be had. She was going to die. I am going to die.
“Do they like to be kissed?” she asked. She saw him shrug again. “I can’t decide if it is an honor or a curse,” she said thoughtfully. “Brings a new meaning to the term ‘The Kiss of Death,’ doesn’t it?”
He smiled again. It was odd, the way he melded with the shadows. His white teeth stood out from the darkness as he grinned at her.
“I cannot vouch for the others,” he said, “because there have been no others.” He looked sheepish again.
“Shhh,” he said, chuckling, and Isabel realized her shout might have woken the entire house. They listened together for a moment, then hearing no response to her shout, Isabel ogled him.
“What do you mean there have been no others?”
“Well, I’m not sure that you’re aware how this usually works,” he said still smiling. “But most people don’t get to spend an evening conversing with me before I take them, let alone be kissed by me.”
Anger colored Isabel’s cheeks, now. “So I should just let you take advantage of me because of who you are? Because it’s a first—” she said this scathingly, disbelief bellying her tone. “— for you?”
Death bent forward in his seat, and it creaked as he shifted his weight. He eyed Isabel dangerously. “I don’t have to ask your permission, you know,” he said, and that strange sense of power that emanated from him filled the room once more. He stood and strode over to the bed, the shadows trailing after him like eager dogs waiting on their master. He stood in front of Isabel, who sat still, her arms folded over her night dress, refusing to be intimidated by his show of ferocity.
“I could do what I like to you. I could toy with your mind for decades and leave you shrieking in a corner of an asylum. I could take your life with one snap,” he demonstrated this beneath her nose, “of my fingers.”
“But you could not make me kiss you,” Isabel whispered. “You could not make me love you.”
The depth of these words seemed to have a powerful effect on him. He reeled back from her, and his eyes displayed a loneliness that was a millennium older than she. A sickness that was in his very existence.
“No,” he said quietly, “I cannot make you do that.”
He sat back down on the bed next to her, and Isabel thought of his terrible lot.
“What did you do to deserve such a fate?” she asked him.
He shrugged once more. “I was made for my duty, nothing more…” he wasn’t looking at her. “But for hundreds of thousands of years, I have watched human-kind. Is it so strange that a part of me has slipped?” He shook his head and then stood and faced her. He gave her an ironic bow and then spoke to the floor. “I owe you an apology, Madame,” he said, his voice very formal. “It did not occur to me that my attentions would be unwelcome.”
“That’s rather arrogant of you,” said Isabel bluntly, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. “Women don’t like to just be kissed out of nowhere, you know. We like to be courted.”
“Courted?” said Death in high astonishment, straightening up, “How am I supposed to accomplish that?”
“I’ll leave that up to you,” whispered Isabel through a wide yawn, and then she smiled at him and began to settle down into her bed. “However, if we won’t be going anywhere tonight, perhaps you would be so kind and dim the lights for me before you leave?”
Death smirked at her, reached across the bed, and turned out the light. Then he was gone.
Isabel felt his presence vanish and rolled over onto her back. Her legs ached, but if she wasn’t much mistaken, she had just had a brush with Death himself and lived to tell the tale. Not that she would. She chuckled, lying there in the dark, as she realized that she might indeed need to be committed to the asylum, for she had just issued Death with a formal invitation to court her at his convenience.
I just recently joined this wonderful group on Facebook called Pioneer Hearts. Although I have yet to introduce myself formally, by skulking in the corners and observing the hilarity projected by this delightful gang, I’ve come to know a few of the members.
Callie Hutton, author of The Elusive Wife (which made USA Today’s Best Seller’s list not only once, but two times) and whose novel: The Highlander’s Choice is a finalist in the National Reader’s Choice Awards, has kindly consented to do this little interview with me.
Check out the interview below and be sure to buzz on over to her webpage and give her a shout out for me!
You may also purchase any of Callie’s books by clicking on the corresponding images.
1.) How young were you when you first started writing?
Hmm. When I could hold a pencil.
2.) What made you first pursue becoming an author?
I entertained myself as a child with making up stories in my head. One day I decided to write them down.
3.) Could you tell us a bit about your latest heroine? What makes her unique?
The heroine I’m writing about now is Lady Eugenia Devon. She is married to a Marquess and is trying to shake her reputation as The Ice Queen.
4.) Out of all the books you’ve written, which one are you fondest of and why?
Probably A Run For Love because that was the first book I sold to a publisher. Plus I love the hero in that story, Jesse Cochran. He appears in most of the other books in that series.
5.) What are some of your favorite reviews that you have received from readers?
I don’t read my reviews. But I did receive an email from a reader one time who said my Oklahoma Lovers series got her through chemo. That one moved me.
6.) What made you recognize your talent as a writer?
The response I got from my family when they read my stuff.
7.) Out of the many things that inspire your creativity, what do you feel is the one thing that inspires you most of all?
8.) Do you recommend Traditional or Indie style publishing for new authors?
I do both. I write Regencies for Entangled Publishing and I self publish my western historical. I strongly recommend a new author go through a publisher to get the ‘feel’ of publishing. I learned much, much more from my publisher’s editors than I did anywhere else.
9.) Where do you see the publishing industry going in the future?
Ah, if only I had a crystal ball.
10.) Where do you see yourself five years from now?
And last but not least. A hard-hitting question that I’m sure everyone has been curious about for a long time… 😉
13.) If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
The ability to travel through time.
Callie Hutton is the Author of 24 books (with a 25th in progress). She enjoys a quiet life in Oklahoma with her daughter, (who just graduated college with a law enforcement degree- YAY!) her twin grandsons, and her loving husband. They also have two dogs: Daisy and Angel.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Callie!
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“Tell me right now, Dianna. This instant!” Sarah made a grab at the papers that her sister was holding behind her back and missed.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with you, Sarah Jane, now mind your own business.” Dianna smoothed her honeyed locks back from her face with one hand. It had come loose from its pins during the tussle.
“What are you up to?” grumbled Sarah, propping an irritated fist on her hip as she surveyed Dianna with a suspicious glare.
Dianna huffed and straightened the pinstriped gown she wore over her tightly laced corset. She turned from her sister, still holding the sheaf of parchment away from her body, expecting another attempt to wrest it from her fingers.
“I repeat,” she said, tucking the letter away into her nightstand and locking the drawer with a small key. “It is none of your business,” Dianna slid the tiny bronze key into the neck of her dress and strode past Sarah, who was looking mightily offended. She glanced back at her younger sister as she made her way out of her bedroom. “Come down for dinner, you. Mother will be in the foulest of moods if we’re both late.”
Sarah was still staring grumpily towards Dianna’s bedside table, as though she might be able to force it open with the sheer power of her will. Behind her, the bedroom window was closed firmly against the autumn chill. Orange and brown leaves, fallen from the aged oak tree in the front garden, swirled past the glass. An ancient rope and plank swing could be heard squawking over the rustling of the wind.
Dianna rolled her eyes and returned to her sister’s side. She took hold of Sarah’s arm and steered her from the room, through the hallway, and down the sweeping staircase of their Manhattan family home.
“You’ve never kept a secret from me before,” muttered Sarah, the most pitiful note of woe in her voice.
Dianna rolled her eyes again, although this was perfectly true. “You’ll know if anything comes of it,” she said, and she gave her sister’s hand a pat. This comment only seemed to cause further irritation. Sarah’s frown deepened and she opened her mouth. Dianna cut her off before she could start again: “You’ll know soon enough,” she repeated, giving her a quelling look. Sarah glared at her, but closed her mouth.
The sisters took steps in time with one another as they descended the wide stairs. They were very alike in facial features, but otherwise had little in common. Dianna’s hair was the color of watered down whiskey, and it flowed around her shoulders in thick waves when freed from its pins. Sarah’s was a deep, rich brown and it hung limply, stick-straight and unmanageable. Dianna was the only one who could coax Sarah’s hair into submission. For, though it grew from the top of Sarah’s head, it refused to do her bidding.
Dianna was tall and elegant, with long willowy limbs that would have been cumbersome on any other woman, but she wielded them with surprising grace. Her sisters often told her that she could have worn an old fisherman’s net and made it look lovely. Yet, somehow, Dianna had managed to gain the age of twenty-nine without having procured a husband. This hadn’t really bothered her until recently, when her younger sister had begun a courtship that was predisposed to end in an engagement.
As there were nearly ten years between the two of them, the knowledge brought Dianna up short, causing her to take stock of her life. She had concluded that her path was heading nowhere fast, and immediately resolved to make any changes that might encourage forward advancement.
The girls stopped in the foyer before they entered the dining room, adjusting their appearances in the large gilded mirror that hung on the wall. Dianna wrinkled her nose at the small spattering of freckles across her high cheekbones and brushed away a final crease in her skirt. The sisters smiled at one another in the mirror and, without saying anything further, entered the dining room. Their parents and two younger sisters were already seated at the mahogany table that lay splayed beneath a large crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. The room was bathed in soft golden light, and an extravagant flower arrangement dominated the center of the table, making it impossible to converse with those at either end. Dianna recognized her mother’s distinctive taste.
Samantha Brittler frowned as her two eldest daughters joined the rest of the family, observing every minuscule flaw either of their appearances possessed.
Dianna’s mother was a thin woman. Her graying brown hair was pulled into a tight knot at the base of her neck, and she wore an expression that suggested she were contemplating a stubborn speck of dirt on the fine, antique rug beneath her feet.
“Good evening, ladies,” she stated crossly. “We’re ever so grateful that you have deigned to honor us with your presence.” Her sharp eyes darted between the girls, focusing for a fraction of a second longer upon her eldest daughter.
“Sorry, Mother,” mumbled Sarah as she took her place next to Charlotte. Dianna didn’t say anything but allowed the housemaid to pull out her chair and sat down at the table, wearing a frown remarkably similar to her mother’s as she did so. The centerpiece hid Samantha and Dianna from one another’s sight, which was perhaps lucky, as they were so often at loggerheads.
Mrs. Brittler’s bony fingers gestured to the household staff with a haughty finesse that spoke volumes. Dianna’s mother was a former Debutante. She had been born into money, raised in luxury, and married into wealth as soon as she had completed her first season in London.
Educated at Voltanary’s School For Girls, just as her mother before her had been, she emerged from her training with an overwhelming sense of what was proper and what was not. Samantha had done all she could to press her distinct sense of propriety on each of her daughters in turn. When this clashed with their willful personalities, she desisted. All the while continuing to lead by firm, unyielding example.
Dianna could hardly remember her mother ever displaying any form of affection towards her. In fact, she could count the number of times she had felt a connection with the woman on one hand.
Dianna had been eight years old when she had fallen from the family carriage and broken her wrist. She remembered her mother flinging herself from the door and landing beside her in a tangle of skirts. Scrambling about in a panic, Samantha had screamed for a doctor. While the footman had run to the nearest house, Mrs. Brittler had held her daughter to her chest, rocking gently from side to side. Out of nowhere, it seemed, she had begun to sing:
“Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly. Lavender’s green. When I am King, dilly dilly, you shall be queen.”
Dianna remembered looking up at her mother through streaming eyes and suddenly understanding something. Beneath the stubbornly cold exterior that was all she had ever known, her mother loved her very much.
When the doctor had arrived, Samantha had reverted to her usual stoic behavior, leaving her daughter to wonder if she had imagined the entire event.
The meal was served. Thomas Brittler, Samantha’s husband of thirty-seven years and father of their four daughters, said grace. The two youngest girls began to chatter rapidly as the family dished their plates.
“Di?” said her father from the head of the table, reaching over to give her hand a squeeze. “What’s troubling you?” Dianna smiled at the anxious expression on his face. She’d been too distracted to notice him staring at her and, as such, had no time to modify her countenance.
“Nothing, Father,” she said, returning the pressure of his fingers. “I’m quite well.”
“I don’t think you are, my dear,” he said affectionately, releasing her with a gentle pat and cutting into his steak. “It’s not like you to be so pensive.”
“I’m just a bit tired, is all,” said Dianna with a dismissive wave. She eyed her father’s graying hairline as he leaned forward to take a bite. He was a thick-boned man, with the appearance of high muscle mass gone slightly to cede. A hint of a rounded belly now peered from beneath his waistcoat. His mustache and beard were fashionably trimmed, and his shoes were highly polished. The chain of a gold pocket watch clinked pleasantly against the wood of the table as he ate.
“It’s all right to be upset, you know,” whispered Thomas around a small chunk of meat, leaning forward on his elbows so that the rest of the family wouldn’t catch his words.
“Upset about what, Father?” asked Dianna with genuine curiosity, echoing his low tone.
“About Sarah,” he said, keeping his head down and moving his lips little.
Dianna glanced over at her three sisters, who were jabbering to one another with such enthusiasm it was a wonder they could make out what the other was saying.
“Why would I be upset about her?”
“Because of her pending engagement, I assumed,” Thomas shifted his weight in his high-backed chair, looking at his daughter expectantly, his fork and knife held suspended over his meal. It was obvious he thought he had hit the metaphoric nail on the head. Dianna shook her head slowly, and a small smile spread over her lips.
“I am very happy for Sarah. Sir Williamson appears quite taken with her.”
Thomas nodded his head in acknowledgment of this observation, chewing his next mouthful. “Fredrick is a good man,” he said, solemnly, “but I was referring to the effect this development would have upon you.”
Dianna lifted her hand from where it had been lying negligently upon the tablecloth and began to slice through her own meal. Her movements were jerky as she tried to deflect her father’s prodding with a shrug of her slender shoulders. “Surely I will miss sharing my room with Sarah, but I fail to see that her marriage will have any more distinct effect upon me other than that.” A blonde hair tumbled into her eyes at that moment, and she brushed it aside impatiently.
“Come now, Dianna, who is it that you think you’re speaking with?” Thomas lifted a finger to his nose and tapped it knowingly, a crooked grin beginning to form at the corner of his lips. He laid his hand on Dianna’s once again. “There will soon be a man for you, don’t you fret.”
For a moment, Dianna’s composure slipped. She gazed up into her father’s eyes. “What have I done wrong? I’ve gone to every event. I’ve worn every supercilious contraption that mother has deemed appropriate. I have laughed and flirted…” Dianna lifted both of her hands to the crease her brow was making on her forehead and rubbed them firmly across it, as though she might be able to iron it flat.
Thomas’s smile widened further, but his eyes were kind. “You’ve turned several away, my dear. You could have had your pick of the gentlemen in town. Any one of them would have taken a quiet beauty such as yourself.” His expression twitched a bit on the word ‘quiet’ and he looked altogether too amused for Dianna’s taste. She had to struggle not to glare at him so as to remain respectful.
“I had a good reason for turning away every suitor that did not come up to scratch,” she replied huffily, returning her eyes to her fork.
“Why was it that you sent Gillian Tate away?” Thomas couldn’t conceal his amusement now as Dianna flushed to the roots of her hair.
“He had not read ‘Memoirs of The New World,’” she admitted, begrudgingly. “But, I could not even carry on a civilized conversation with the man. He was always asking me about sewing and food and the weather…” Dianna lifted her napkin to her lips and patted them lightly, slipping into—what she hoped— was a dignified silence. Thomas let out a loud chuckle that caused his wife to shoot him a furtive look from across the table. He nodded at her and then let his tone drift back down to a secretive whisper.
“You’re going to have to try to be less particular, my dear,” he said.
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The Heart of Hope is a companion tale to Josephine Blake’s, Dianna!