Deadly Vows (Francesca Cahill Series #9)

Deadly Vows (Francesca Cahill Series #9)

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by Brenda Joyce

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On the morning of her wedding to Calder Hart, amateur sleuth Francesca Cahill is lured away to a private viewing of a portrait that could destroy her entire family: the nude Hart commissioned of her. Her desperate quest to recover the scandalous portrait leads her into a dangerous trap with no way to escape—until it's too late. And when Francesca finally… See more details below


On the morning of her wedding to Calder Hart, amateur sleuth Francesca Cahill is lured away to a private viewing of a portrait that could destroy her entire family: the nude Hart commissioned of her. Her desperate quest to recover the scandalous portrait leads her into a dangerous trap with no way to escape—until it's too late. And when Francesca finally arrives at the church, it's vacant. She has unintentionally jilted Hart at the altar.

When Hart tells her their estrangement is for the best, Francesca is devastated. With a blackmailer intent on destroying her reputation, Francesca turns to Rick Bragg, the city's powerful police commissioner. Together they scour the sordid streets of lower Manhattan, following a deliberately laid trail of clues in a race against the clock. And once it becomes clear that Bragg's marriage is failing, Francesca must war with her feelings for him, battle Hart's jealousy and escape a killer—all as she fights to win Hart back. But sometimes, passion just cannot be denied….

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A Francesca Cahill Novel , #9
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New York City Saturday, June 28, 1902 10:00 a.m.

It was her wedding day.

Francesca Cahill was nearly in disbelief. Three weeks ago, her fiancé had been in prison, under arrest for the murder of the woman who had briefly been his mistress. Three weeks ago, her father had been dead set against Calder Hart in every possible way, and especially against Calder's engagement to his daughter. Three weeks ago, New York society had been thrilled over the apparent downfall of one of its most wealthy and powerful denizens.

Francesca stared at her flushed reflection in the mirror. Hart was notorious, and his reputation had been established long before his mistress was found murdered. He openly flaunted the accepted conventions and mores of the day. His behavior was self-indulgent and often scandalous, his propensity for divorcees and married women was well-known and his art collection was so avant-garde it was shocking to most. He delighted in saying and doing as he damn well pleased; he was so wealthy, he could get away with it.

But that had been three weeks ago, and Hart hadn't fallen. Instead, the city's elites would attend their wedding this afternoon. Soon, they would lift their flutes to toast Hart and herself….

The hypocrisy hardly surprised her. After all, she had been whispered about her entire life. While her older sister, Connie, was properly married to Lord Neil Montrose, Francesca was an eccentric, a highly educated and outspoken bluestocking, an actively radical reformer—and recently, a professional sleuth. In fact, she had helped the police investigate eight shocking crimes since the beginning of the year, and her efforts had been so significant that the police commissioner had admitted that the crimes would not have been solved without her. The press had even begun to cover her activities on a daily basis. She had become one of the city's leading, if infamous, celebrities.

Francesca hardly cared about fame. What she did care about—and had since she was a small child—was helping those far less fortunate than she was. Reform remained as important to her as breathing. Since discovering her innate abilities as a sleuth, she had dedicated herself to helping the innocent victims of dastardly crimes.

Francesca had to pinch herself. She was deeply in love; no woman could resist Hart's dark allure and neither could she. He was the most difficult, unpredictable man she knew. She would gladly help him battle the ghosts of his past—she couldn't wait to marry Hart—but she was also afraid.

Despite his reputation, Calder Hart was wealthy, and that meant he was a catch. Society's reigning matrons had tried their very best to interest Calder in their perfectly groomed, perfectly mannered debutante daughters. He had scoffed openly at their efforts. Then she had begun to investigate the murder of Paul Randall—Hart's biological father. From the moment their paths had crossed, his complicated, dangerously dark nature—coupled with his seductive charisma—had been impossible to resist. He had become a powerful ally, a protector and defender, and even a friend. And while he had never tried to seduce her, very swiftly their friendship had become charged with desire.

Somehow, Calder Hart had come to the conclusion that he wished to marry her, the most eccentric and independent of women. How could she not be afraid that he would eventually change his mind about her?

Calder had been involved with the most beautiful women in the world. She was hardly the kind of sultry seductress he was renowned to associate with. She was romantic, naive and somewhat inexperienced still. Mostly, she was far too clever, far too outspoken and opinionated, and far too ambitious for her gender. Women were not supposed to have high intellect, professional aspirations and vociferous opinions. Nor were they supposed to covet independence, as she did.

Donning a blue skirt and shirtwaist, Francesca turned away from the mirror, shoving all fear aside. The past two weeks had been a frenzy of activity, frantically preparing for a society wedding. Her mother, Julia Van Wyck Cahill—who was not a relation to the crooked former city mayor—would not have it any other way. Julia had railroaded her husband into agreeing to the marriage—Francesca had witnessed moments of the powerful persuasion—and she and Connie had immediately set about the task of organizing the wedding. The ceremony would take place at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and then they would go downtown to the Waldorf Astoria hotel for the reception. Francesca had been shown guest lists, floral arrangements, color schemes, seating plans, dress designs and fabrics. She had simply agreed to whatever her mother and sister thought best. There had been a whirlwind of evening engagements, too, which she had reluctantly attended. Hart had gone to Chicago to take care of as many of his affairs as possible, as he had no wish to attend to business while they were on their honeymoon in Paris, and had only returned a few days ago.

Francesca was pinning up her hair when a knock sounded on her door. She was expecting her sister, who intended to spend the day with her and later help her dress, but it was one of the housemaids. "Who is it, Bette?"

"It is the police commissioner, miss. He says he is sorry to bother you, but he was hoping for a word." The pretty French maid smiled at her.

She was not expecting callers on her wedding day, not even Bragg. Her heart leaped. What had happened?

She hesitated. She had worked closely with Rick Bragg these past months. They had become a formidable team, indeed. He was her dear friend. In fact, before she met Hart—before she had learned that Rick was married, although separated—she had had very strong romantic feelings for him. He had been the first man she had ever kissed.

And he was Calder Hart's half brother.

She refused to think about that ancient romantic attachment now.

Instead, she thought about the fact that a holiday weekend loomed. Many in high society were already gone for the summer, but the city was hardly deserted. While Coney Island and its beaches were a popular destination for merchants and their families, most of New York City would remain occupied over the Fourth. The city's slums were teeming and crime never took a holiday.

Bragg must need her help on another investigation, she thought. But she could hardly help him now!

Francesca stuck another pin into her hair and hurried down the wide, winding carpeted staircase of the Cahill mansion. Bragg was standing in a smaller salon off the large marble-floored reception hall, staring out a window. Bright June sunlight poured into the salon. Outside, beautifully manicured lawns surrounded the house. Francesca could glimpse several hansoms and a small gig on Fifth Avenue, while a few ladies with their parasols strolled on the sidewalk. Across the avenue, dotted with black iron gas lamps, Central Park was clearly visible, the trees behind its dark stone outer walls shady, lush and green. It was a beautiful summer day—the perfect day for a wedding.

For one moment, she had the chance to watch Rick before he saw her, and warmth stole through her. She would always care deeply about him. He was tall, golden and very striking in appearance, but it was so much more than that. He was even more committed to reform than she was; he had spent the past decade in Washington, D.C., as a lawyer, representing the indigent, the mentally incompetent and the poor. He had turned down a partnership in a prestigious law firm to do so. In January, he had been appointed by New York City's new reform mayor, Seth Low, to clean up the police department, which was notoriously corrupt. A recent study estimated that the police took in four million dollars every year from gambling, prostitution and other vices—all from illegal payoffs. Even small merchants like grocers and shoemakers gave their local roundsman a dollar or two a week for protection.

In the six months since Bragg's appointment, he had done his best to break the stranglehold of graft and corruption in the department, mostly by reassigning, demoting and promoting the force's officers. But he was caught between the warring forces of politics and progressiv-ism. Mayor Low had begun to back away from Bragg's reform policies, afraid of losing the next election. The city's progressive elites and clergy had begun to howl for even greater efforts from Bragg. The German Reform Movement, allied with Tammany Hall, kept pushing back. Bragg remained on a terrible seesaw. But he was determined to clean up his police force. Consequently, he'd made far more enemies than friends in a very short time.

She doubted there was a man alive whom she admired and respected more. Except, of course, for her fiancé.

Bragg turned and smiled, coming forward with long strides to greet her. "Francesca, am I intruding?" He kissed her cheek as she took his hand. "I know this is your wedding day."

Releasing his hand, she smiled into his eyes. He hadn't forgotten. "I hope so, as you are on the guest list. I would be crushed if you were not present."

He studied her, his smile fading.

She realized he looked very tired. "You could never intrude. What is wrong?"

"Thank you for meaning that. You seem very happy, Francesca."

She became wary. Bragg had not hidden the fact that he disapproved of Hart entirely. "I'm a bride. Of course I am happy, although I am also nervous." Suddenly she knew why he was there. "You haven't come to share the details of a new case with me, have you?"

"No, I haven't." He was somber.

Her smile vanished and he caught both her hands. "My feelings about this wedding have not changed," he said with urgency. "I am so worried about you."

She tried to tug her hands free and then gave up, as he wouldn't let her go. "I am marrying Calder this afternoon."

"Three weeks ago, Hart was in jail, at the top of our list of suspects."

She pulled free. "No, he was at the top of your list. I never doubted his innocence."

"He has you mesmerized."

Hart and Bragg were bitter rivals in every possible way. No two brothers could be more different. They had been raised in the poverty of the city's worst tenements—until Rathe Bragg, Rick's father, had taken them both in. Now, Rick sacrificed the pursuit of the finer things in life in order to help others; his life was dedicated to the reform of society and government. As police commissioner, he lived on a very modest income—and did not care. Hart had taken away an entirely different lesson from his childhood. He was a millionaire, and he displayed his wealth with shocking arrogance. While Hart gave lavishly to several charities and the arts, his ambition had been to acquire power and never suffer poverty and powerlessness again. He had amassed a fortune through hard work and superior intelligence, mostly in shipping, insurance and the railroads. An objective observer would label the one brother the epitome of selfless virtue, the other, selfish and self-serving.

Francesca knew it wasn't true. Hart had his noble side, and she knew that firsthand. With her, he had been nothing but selfless and good. She had come to believe that his arrogance was a facade.

None of that mattered now. She hated the animosity between them. Unfortunately, she knew that a great deal of that rivalry was fueled by her past with Rick and her current relationship with Hart. And that was hardly fair, as Rick had been separated from his wife and since had reconciled with Leigh Anne. "I am far more than mesmerized, Rick. I am in love."

"You have no doubts?"

"I cannot wait to become Hart's wife."

"And that is what worries me so much." Dismay was reflected in his unwavering amber gaze.

"A woman of the world—someone as jaded as Hart—could manage him. But you are as romantic as you are intellectual. And in spite of his courtship, you remain so naive. I shudder when I think of how you trust him, and worse, of your expectations!"

He was echoing the sentiment she had overheard in the past few weeks. "I am hardly going to expect the worst of our marriage. I believe my expectations are fairly realistic," she said. A knock sounded on the open salon door, interrupting them. She gave him a dark look, turning away. Did he have to do this now?

One of the doormen entered, holding a small box wrapped in white paper with a pretty blue ribbon. Fran-cesca knew it was a gift from Hart. She glanced at Bragg.

Rick scowled, shoving his hands in the pockets of his tan trousers as she thanked Jonathon. She went to a desk and unwrapped the gift. The traditional jeweler's velvet box a bride might expect was not within, but she hadn't expected tradition—not from Hart. Instead, she withdrew an antique penknife with a two-inch blade and an ivory handle. The card lying below was scrawled with the initials CH.

"My God, he sent you a knife," Bragg said.

"Something old, something new." She laughed. She loved the gift! It was perfect for her. The small knife fit perfectly in the palm of her hand, the better for hiding it when in dire circumstances.

Francesca replaced the knife in the box. This was one of the reasons she loved Hart so. Another man would have sent her jewelry, but not Hart. He understood her so well.

"You are most definitely under his spell."

She nodded. "Yes, I am. And I hope to be under his spell for a long, long time."

He returned quickly, "In the short time you have known him, he has hurt you so much—I have witnessed your pain firsthand."

She wanted to deny it, but she could not. "Please, Rick, not today. Simply wish me well."

But he barreled on. "You must know that Hart is in the newspapers on a nearly daily basis, Francesca. The city's newsmen continue to exploit the details of his sordid affair with Daisy Jones."

She tensed. "I know that gossip still rages about her murder. And I know what they are saying about him—that, regardless of the killer's confession, some in town have decided to believe Hart guilty. These past two weeks, I have been out and about almost every night, at my mother's insistence. I have heard the ugly whispers—as I was meant to. They even say he will tire of me." She managed a shrug, as if she did not care, but she could not smile.

He was silent for a moment, and she knew that he thought, as those matrons did, that Hart would wander, sooner or later. "I was at the Wannamaker affair," he finally said. "You were not. I heard the horrid gossip myself. They want to hang him, Francesca, and by association, they will hang you, too."

She knew Rick was here, causing conflict, because he cared so much about her. "It is payback for all the years he has defied and mocked society and everyone in it."

"He is despised. When they whisper about him, they will also whisper about you."

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