Read an Excerpt
By DENISE EAGAN
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Denise Eagan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBoston, Massachusetts, 1854
Shivering in the wind slicing across Long Wharf, Morgan Turner squinted up at Captain Montgomery's countingroom, which was, as promised, the last office in a long, tall brick building-last office, last hope.
A lump formed in her throat as she scanned the black windows. She took several short shallow breaths. Did she dare break in? If she was arrested, the police might connect her to the husband she'd left dead on her bedroom floor. A vision of a black-hooded hangman rose in front of Morgan, his eyes gleaming death as he pulled a rope over her head, gloved hands securing it tightly against her windpipe. Her throat clenched. No, she could not risk it-
Another icy gust penetrated her filthy cloak and once-pristine satin gown. The tangy ocean air mixing with the pungent smell of wet wood burned her lungs. Oh, but could she bear another night such as last, cowering in a damp alley, frightened by a roving gang of drunken men? If they found her-rape or hanging, which was worse?
The gang lived here, the hangman in Philadelphia.
Morgan slunk around to the back of the building where she found a shuttered window and an old, silvered board. She took a deep breath to stiffen her resolve. She could do this; how often had she and Amy laughed over similar escapades?
She shoved the board against the window. Wood splintered, glass tinkled, both sounds muffled by waves crashing against the wharf. Morgan stood on tiptoes and peered into the gaping hole. Silhouettes of furniture greeted her eyes, sleeping witnesses to the profitably employed. Respectable, honest people.
Wincing at the ugly comparison to her own character, Morgan wrapped her hands around the windowsill and pulled. Her feet fought for purchase against the rough stone. A minute later she slid through the window and fell to the floor with an undignified thump, thankful that the layers of stiff crinoline petticoats prevented shards of glass from cutting her. Pushing back her hood, Morgan rose and adjusted her itchy, blond wig. Her eyes fell upon a stove with a teapot and a box of coal. Heat!
In a trice, she lit an oil lamp and the stove. While warming her frozen fingers over the stove, she surveyed the well-appointed office. Captain Montgomery appeared to have prospered since she'd last seen him. Not surprising. During her disastrous voyage across the Atlantic two years earlier, he'd calmly sailed them through a hurricane and brought them into port ahead of schedule, master not only of his vessel, but of Poseidon himself. And still he'd found the time to offer her, a newly grieving widow, solace and assistance-rashly declined in favor of marriage to a man she scarcely knew.
Her heart lurched. A grieving widow then, she thought; the Wicked Widow of Philadelphia now. Her latest actions would surely revolt the soft-eyed, but ever-so-proper captain.
Her eyes passed over a globe and a gold-framed painting of Boston Harbor, hanging behind a flattop desk of black walnut. At the corner of the desk sat a jar of gumdrops. Gumdrops! Oh, oh, oh! Her hollow stomach jerked in excitement as she charged across the room.
She ripped off the top of the jar and shoved several in her mouth at once. Food, oh sweet, glorious food! Was there more? Sifting through the desk drawers, she discovered a tea box. A few minutes later, Morgan Turner, widow of Richard Turner, and of Charles Weatherly, and of Bart Drumlin, former Lady Morgan Reynolds of Westborough, sat down to a dinner of gumdrops and black tea.
Frowning, Ward Montgomery handed Rob his hat and cane, and stepped into his spanking new Piano Box buggy. "I'd rather have walked to the wharf, Rob."
Rob, Montgomery-tall and Byron-thin, merely shrugged, years of association having inoculated him against Ward's infamous scowl. "Your horses needed exercising, sir. Besides, what's the purpose of owning a buggy if you don't use it?"
"I purchased it because you insisted," Ward replied as he shifted several times in an attempt to fit his large body on the leather seats. Blasted things, he thought, were constructed for men on Byron's famous vinegar and potato diets. "Walking is good enough for Lowell and Cabot. It ought to be good enough for me."
"Surely not on such a raw day as this," Rob said, motioning to the leaden sky.
"Every day. It's a mere half mile to my countingroom, and I should have appreciated the exercise," he said. He settled his black-gloved hands in his lap.
"You took your customary row on the Charles this morning, did you not?" Rob asked with a small grimace, for Rob, twenty-two, and seven years Ward's junior, disdained all form of exercise other than the mundane, a sad reflection on the younger generation. Or more likely, Ward thought as he stretched his legs in an attempt to ease his restlessness, a reflection on his own too-often restrained energy.
"Aye, Rob. And I dislike the formal address when we're alone. You're my cousin, for God's sake."
"As your clerk, I owe you all signs of respect." With a flick of the reins, Rob started them down Beacon Street.
Ward shook his head and sat back to watch the passing brick homes of Boston's elite to his left, and the common to their right, gray in the morning gloom, the limbs of its naked trees rattling with each stiff wind. "I suppose I ought to count myself lucky," Ward said, "that you drop formality when we play cards."
Rob smirked. "And much money, also."
Ward flashed him a faint smile. "I've warned you about my second sight. You refuse to heed it."
"I keep hoping that someday you'll be blinded."
"You know, sir, if you ever wished to make your fortune at cards, it would be considerably less work," Rob said with a grin.
"And would send my grandmother to a premature grave. No, thank you. I prefer an honest living."
"There are days I think you'd prefer your grandmother in a grave."
Ward grimaced. "Occasionally. Most days, however, I enjoy her much more alive. She's a hard taskmaster, but she did her best to bring me up."
"She was a controlling harridan who refused to allow you to attend a decent school."
Ward flinched. Outwardly Grandmother Montgomery was a rigid, harsh woman, but inside she possessed a heart soft enough to understand the misery of a boy endlessly taunted by his schoolmates. "She thought it best for me. I liked my tutors well enough."
"Had you attended school, you might have gone to Harvard College."
"I still might have, Rob, but the sea called me, not Harvard. In that I disappointed her, which I regret to this day. She's had too many disappointments in her life."
"What disappointments? She has you at her beck and call!"
"Would you welcome a son like my father, Rob?"
Rob hesitated. The clip clop of the horses' hooves on cobblestones echoed along the empty streets. "No, sir," he finally answered. "Perhaps you're right. After all, she did a fine job with you."
Rob fell silent as Ward's mind wandered over his boyhood. For as far back as memory served, Ward had summered with his grandmother in Newport; from the age of twelve he'd lived permanently with her in New York. No doubt the prospect of rearing a child at her age had been daunting, but she'd never wavered in her commitment. Smiling a little, Ward remembered her occasional warm embrace and gumdrops silently slipped into his hand for work well done. He ought to take some time to visit her soon. Because of Rob's absence, he'd missed spending the past Thanksgiving with her.
"How was your trip to Worcester, Rob? Is your brother now duly married?"
"Yes, sir," he said. "Your presence was missed."
"You conveyed my apologies, correct? You told them I needed to attend business during your absence?"
Rob nodded. "It was understood."
Of course they understood. They all had Montgomery blood-Boston blood-running through their veins. There wasn't a born Bostonian who didn't understand the maxim "business before pleasure."
As they neared the wharf, the soft, tangy scent of the ocean filled Ward's nose. Another corner and there it lay, white-capped and gray, reflecting the sky. Ward took several deep breaths. As always, the salt air stirred his blood, the water sloshing against the wharf sang to his heart. Waves of yearning washed over him. Two years had passed since he'd swallowed the anchor, but he still missed sailing as much as when he'd stepped off the Sea Gypsy for the last time.
Rob pulled the horses to a halt in front of Ward's countingroom. As Ward took up his hat and cane, anticipation tingled in his blood, temporarily easing his heartache. "Make her fast there, Rob, if you please, then follow me. If I'm not mistaken, you'll want to see this."
A few minutes later they walked past the stairway to the storeroom, through Rob's office, and into Ward's. Ward's eyes flickered over the room. It was as expected.
"It's cold. Shall I star-" Rob's gaze fell on the small window in the back. "Sir! Your window's broken! You've been robbed!"
Ward nodded. "But if it follows the pattern of the past break-ins, not of much. A scoop of coal, some tea, and you see my jar is empty." He nodded to where he kept his supply of gumdrops. "I left a box of fudge on the desk last night. That also seems to be missing, although," he said, glancing into the wastebasket, "there's the box, along with what's left of my windowpane."
"You don't like fudge." Rob's eyes widened. "Your windowpane, sir? In the trash?"
"He appears to be a very tidy thief," Ward answered slowly, for the neatness disturbed him.
"A tidy thief?"
"Aye. I've had that window repaired three times in five days. Every time it's the same. He breaks the window, lights a fire, eats my gumdrops, and drinks a couple of cups of tea. At some point before leaving, he sweeps up the glass, cleans the teacup, and replaces the tea caddy. I believe he's living here."
"I'll inform the police immediately," Rob said, grimly.
Ward shook his head. Doubtless the thief was no more than a homeless boy, and not, he told his overactive imagination, a woman. "Not yet, Rob. For all his vagrancy, he's relatively honest."
"Honest! He's a thief!"
"Of food and coal only. I keep a hundred dollars in that drawer, and it's not locked. He's never touched it, nor the frame with my grandmother's picture, nor that gold paperweight. As desperate as he appears, he takes nothing but what he needs."
"All right," Rob said. "Instead of arresting him, we shall install a locking shutter and drop the key outside the window. At least it will save you the cost of replacing the pane."
"A fine notion, but I've decided to catch him," he answered and his stomach did a merry little jig. It had been months, perhaps years, since he'd indulged in anything half so exciting. "I suspect he's no more than a homeless waif; God knows Boston has enough of them. Captain Arnold needs a cabin boy. We'll put the waif to work and collect payment for the glass. I haven't the heart to charge him for the candy."
"You left the fudge for him, didn't you?"
"The lad needs something more substantial to survive on than gumdrops."
"Sir, you cannot save all the homeless waifs in Boston. Not even you have those means."
"No, but I intend to save this one. I like him. He's persistent and," he said as he settled himself behind his desk for a long day's work, "loyal. He disturbs no office but mine, no matter how many times I fix the confounded window. I plan to catch him tonight. Are you with me, Rob? I could use the assistance."
"You have one of Papanti's assemblies tonight. The Cabot girl and Miss Curtis will be there. Miss it and you risk offending Papanti and Mrs. Otis. You might lose your subscription."
"Damnation." Ward sighed in disgust. "Sometimes I wonder if that subscription is worth the effort. I've felt Papanti's blasted fiddle bow on my back more than once. My grandfather lost the use of his arm fighting English tyranny and what does Boston do but seventy years later? We engage an Italian tyrant to run our social lives!"
Rob grinned. "You've learned the rules well enough, sir, that you don't feel the bow anymore. And to lose the subscription, especially when you're contemplating marriage, would be a severe disadvantage."
"Sometimes I wonder if marriage is a severe disadvantage," he grumbled.
"Not if you consider the family name."
The family name, Ward thought as the holystone of duty once again settled in his chest. The once-hallowed Montgomery name, blackened by his father, and the Montgomery fortune depleted by the same. Long ago Ward had made it his mission to restore both and had spent the best years of his youth as a sailor, then captain, learning the business of his forefathers. A landlubber these days, he managed the business by day and used charitable deeds and impeccable manners to court Boston society by night. Fortune restored, family accepted. All he needed now to set "Montgomery" back among Boston's elite names was to marry a woman of long Boston lineage. The sort who attended Papanti's assemblies.
"All right, all right, point taken, Rob. I shall attend the blasted ball tonight. And tomorrow's Sunday. We'll come for the waif on Monday," he finished as a nagging little voice continued, A proper Boston wife and a couple of sons-
"I'm promised to Teresa on Monday," Rob argued.
"This should prove more interesting."
-and my life's work will be done. At twenty-nine. If I die, I shall scarcely be mourned, having accomplished all. At twenty-nine.
"All right," Rob said with a sigh. "Ought you to leave something else for him to eat? As you said, sweets won't sustain a growing boy."
Does life not hold more for me than that?
"I want him hungry enough to keep returning. We'll feed the lad better when we capture him."
"Sir," Rob said into the pitch-black office. "I don't think he's coming."
"Pipe down," Ward rasped. "We don't want to be heard."
"It's past three."
Crouched in the opposite corner from Rob, Ward shifted his pistol to his left hand and pulled his collar tighter around his neck. The stove's fire had long since ebbed and the deepening chill of the ocean air penetrated the building, seeping through the wool of his black frock coat. Outside a wind had whipped up, rattling the windowpanes, an ominous sign to a seafaring man-and a danger to Ward's homeless waif. A nor'easter was brewing.
Frowning, he stared at the window across the room. Where was he? He'd come every night for the last seven. Had something happened to him?
The wind stopped crying for a moment. The sound of stamping hooves on wood and the jingle of reins filled the vacancy. His carriage. Stupid, damn fool, he'd bidden his driver to wait for them!
"Rob," he whispered, "send the carriage. First, though, enter through one door, then exit-quietly!-out the other. We want our intruder to believe we've left. Then hide yourself until I call you."
"The carriage! Of course! Why didn't I think of that?"
"Perhaps," Ward replied with a trace of humor, "because you weren't reared by a grandmother with a hawk's eye. Deception comes in handy."
Rob left. Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty. Twenty-five before Ward detected a slight scraping outside. A moment later a board broke the window far more quietly than Ward would have believed possible. He held his breath and watched as two small, gloved hands gripped the bottom window frame. The intruder grunted lightly and his feet slid along the brick. A minute later a figure pushed through the window, then fell to the ground with a thump, emitting a distinctly feminine, "Oh!"
Good God, it was a woman!
As she rose Ward did also, leveling his pistol. "Hold perfectly still, madam," he said calmly. "For I have my pistol aimed straight at your heart."
Chapter TwoHorror took Morgan's throat in a death grip, wrapping its long bony fingers around her cold flesh. Caught! She was caught! But that wasn't possible; he'd quit the office, quit the wharf altogether, she'd made certain of that. Oh but he hadn't, he'd tricked her somehow, and God help her, he'd send for the watch. She'd be facing the black-hooded executioner in no time.
"Rob!" The gun holder shouted in a devastatingly familiar voice, deep and masculine with a rasping edge-Captain Montgomery. Memory sent her pulses tripping as the man who'd climbed into the carriage strode through the door.
"Light the lantern, Rob, if you please. I warn you again, madam, I have a pistol," the captain said as Morgan stepped backward, wondering frantically if she might yet slip out the window. She heard the scratching of a match and the lantern came to life, creating a small halo in the middle of the darkness. Suddenly Morgan found herself staring straight at Captain Montgomery-and a large, shiny black gun. Good God, he wouldn't shoot, surely not? Her heart fluttered like a moth trapped in a young boy's hands.
Excerpted from Wicked Woman by DENISE EAGAN Copyright © 2007 by Denise Eagan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.