It is March of 1902, and Francesca Cahill-Fifth Avenue heiress, undaunted political activist and intrepid amateur sleuth-has just learned of a grave new danger haunting the streets of New York. A beautiful teenage girl named Emily O'Hare is missing and Francesca fears that the girl has been abducted. Only one person can help her learn the child's fate-but Police Commissioner Rick Bragg may not want to get involved because Francesca has just stunned Rick by accepting a proposal of marriage...from none other than his own rival.
Francesca still questions her decision to marry the powerful and notorious Calder Hart. But Rick Bragg is wed to another...and his dazzling wife has just returned after four years abroad to reclaim their marriage. Francesca remains torn between the two very different men-but she desperately tries to set aside the affairs of her heart when she discovers that Emily isn't the first girl to vanish in recent weeks. And when Francesca discovers a trail of deception and lies, when someone very close to her investigation is murdered, Francesca realizes that the evil force behind the girls' abductions may try to find a way to silence her too-if she dares to uncover the truth...
About the Author
Brenda Joyce is the author of 26 novels. She lives in Colorado.
Brenda Joyce is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than two dozen novels, including Deadly Pleasure and Deadly Affairs. She lives in southern Arizona with her significant other, her son, and her dogs, Arabian horses, and cat.
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Thursday, March 27, 1902 — New York City
Francesca Cahill may have been born into society, in fact, she was an heiress of a very marriageable age, but recently she had become the city's most famous (and infamous) amateur sleuth. Having spent her entire life flouting both the spoken and unspoken rules of convention, being well-read, highly educated and an active reformer, she was already considered both unmarriageable and an eccentric. Her behavior of the past three months had not aided her flailing personal reputation. For she had helped the police commissioner, Rick Bragg, solve several ghastly crimes — even making the headlines of some of the city's most reputable dailies. All this while further scandalizing a good portion of society — not to mention her own family.
Her reputation was currently in shreds, not that she cared. However, it might very well take a stunning turn for the better. For Francesca had somehow become secretly engaged to one of the city's wealthiest and most notorious bachelors, Calder Hart. She still did not know whether to regret it or not. But if their engagement survived all that she had thus far done — and she winced thinking about it — a public announcement would take her from ugly duckling to swan.
But she seriously doubted Hart would even speak with her now — much less continue their engagement.
There was relief and there was regret.
"Francesca Cahill! You disappeared for an entire month! And I am dying to know why!" the former Connie Cahill, now Lady Montrose, cried. She had just barged into Francesca's bedroom.
Francesca cringed, but only inwardly, as she faced her always fashionably and terribly elegant older sister. It was ironic that much of the city thought of her as a hero, she mused. It wasn't true. She was, in fact, a coward, never mind the many dangerous and murdering hooks and crooks she had single-handedly faced and apprehended. She was a coward, because only a coward ran away from the man she was supposed to marry. She was a coward when it came to the darkly disturbing Calder Hart.
Connie faced her after closing the door to Francesca's beautifully appointed bedroom — a room she had had no say in decorating, as the decor had been chosen by her mother, Julia, and sister. Francesca hadn't cared then, just as she did not care now. Decor — and fashion, shopping, and teas — was hardly important to her. She forced a smile and hurried forward clad only in her corset and drawers and embraced her sister. "It's so nice to see you, too," she whispered, but she meant it. Connie was not just her sister; she was also her very best friend.
"Do not think to dissemble with me," Connie said, her hands on her slim hips. She was clad in a gorgeous dark blue evening gown, with sapphires around her throat and wrists, atop the white sateen gloves that ended at her elbows. "I know why you disappeared!" Her blue eyes flashed.
Francesca tensed. Connie could not know. Before leaving town to visit an old and ailing and very fictitious school chum, she had left Hart a brief note, one that hardly explained anything but did request that their engagement remain a private affair until she returned to New York City. Wisely, Francesca hadn't left a forwarding address; she had left the city to think about her life and her impulsive decision to accept Hart's proposal. "What is it that you think you know?" Connie sighed then. "There is no Elizabeth Jane Seymour, Fran. I would recall a best friend by that name! You chose to leave the city because you could no longer handle the little predicament you have found yourself to be in." Connie, who was a platinum blonde generally considered to be a great beauty, eyed Francesca with some smug satisfaction now.
Francesca sighed in return. She hated deceiving anyone, much less her sister. And Connie was right. Marriage had never been a part of her agenda! What was she doing? Her agenda had been to become a journalist, to expose the world's ills to society, so those with means could engender badly needed reforms and humanitarian aid. That agenda had included a higher education at a renowned women's institution, Barnard College. However, her agenda — and her life — had begun to unravel some time ago: last January, to be exact. She had fallen in love while solving a terrible crime, and nothing had been — or would ever be — the same again.
And to make matters worse, it hadn't been Calder Hart whom she had fallen in love with.
Perhaps Connie hadn't learned about her engagement — which meant that neither had her mother. And it was Julia Van Wyck Cahill's dearest desire to see Francesca suitably wed — immediately, before she solved another crime and garnered another headline. Julia was a very powerful woman who always got her way. "Yes, I found the heat too much to bear," she said warily.
Connie met her gaze. "The heat? You sound like that little hoodlum you are so fond of. Joel Kennedy."
"I suppose his ways are rubbing off on me," Francesca murmured, as she had come to rely on the eleven-year-old heavily in her sleuthing. He knew the city's worst wards intimately. He was her guide, and more.
"Oh, Fran. They will both be at the Wainscot ball tonight." Connie's gaze moved to the bed behind Francesca, where a vivid and dark red ball gown lay. "Mama said you would attend. And I see you are wearing the red." A knowing look came to her eyes and she smiled.
"It's not what you think!" Francesca cried. Both Rick Bragg, the city's police commissioner, and his notorious and wealthy half brother, Calder Hart, would be at the Wainscot ball tonight. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, she thought. Oh, God, what should she do? Was she doing the right thing? And how could one marry a man one didn't love — even if that man's mere look could enflame her entire body? And could two half brothers be more unalike — and more bitterly jealous of each other? If only they weren't such rivals.
"Then tell me what to think," Connie said, moving to Francesca and placing her arm around her. Both sisters were considered almost as identical as twins, although Francesca's hair was the color of rich honey and her skin was tinged with tones of peach and gold. Francesca knew that was not true. Her sister was beautiful, while she, Francesca, was on the ordinary side of pretty. Connie always stood out in a crowd, but Francesca had been a wallflower (and a bookworm) for most of her life.
Francesca sat down beside her and they clasped hands. "I have been worried about me, too," she said softly.
"Oh, Fran, didn't a month away clear your head?" "Yes ... and no," Francesca whispered.
"You are still torn between Bragg and Hart?" Connie wasn't smiling now. She was concerned.
Francesca nodded, wishing she knew what to do — then slowly pulled a chain out of her bodice. On the end dangled a huge pear-shaped diamond ring, one worth quite the fortune. Her heart beat harder as she dangled the huge engagement ring.
Connie's eyes widened. "Oh my."
"Yes, oh my."
Connie blinked and met Fran's gaze. "You are engaged?"
"We were. Briefly. Secretly," she added. "I have no idea if we still are — and if we aren't, why, then it is for the best. Marriage is not for me and we both know it." But her words rang false and hollow.
Connie shot to her feet. "What nonsense is this? You fool! To run away and sabotage the best thing that could happen to you! I pray you are wrong and that you haven't single-handedly destroyed this opportunity, Fran."
Francesca swallowed. A part of her desperately wished that she had not run away — and that she had not sabotaged her secret engagement, too. "Can I ride over to the ball with you and Neil? I am really not in the mood for Mama's lectures tonight."
Connie nodded. "Of course." But she was staring intently now. "Still, you have been wearing his ring around your neck. Did you take it off even once?" She did not wait for Francesca to answer. "I daresay you did not. And you are wearing the dress. The dress he likes. I do think I am underestimating you."
"I am a fool, Connie, to think I am special, because every single woman he has had has thought the exact same thing!" Francesca cried. And it was the truth.
Connie gripped her shoulders. "But you are special! Good God, you are the bravest and most clever — and most stubborn — woman I know. You have spent your entire life since you were a child defending the rights of the poor and the helpless and fighting for those rights! You attend college, Fran, college; how many women do that? And need I add that you have become the city's most famous sleuth in the past three months? You have made the news, Fran. You have brought terrible criminals to justice."
Francesca blinked. "Well, when you say it that way, I do seem rather eccentric."
"No, not eccentric, original and brave and beautiful and special!" Connie cried.
Francesca hugged her hard. "You are the best sister a girl could ever have," she whispered.
"I wish you could see yourself the way that the rest of the world does — the way that I do."
Francesca smiled. "I'd better dress. I am quite late."
"Yes, you are late." Connie smiled back as warmly. "Do you need help? Should I call Bette?"
"I'm fine," Francesca said, turning to gather up the provocative red dress. But it was a lie. She wasn't fine.
She was terrified.
Francesca handed off her wrap. She was wearing the daring red, with black gloves that ended past her elbows, and she was clutching a ruby red beaded reticule — in which she carried the ring. Her hair had been tonged and swept up, and Connie had insisted she wear a delicate diamond necklace and small pearl-and-diamond earbobs. As Connie handed off her sable stole, Francesca glanced from the front hall into a large reception room with pale marble floors, a huge crystal chandelier, and white plaster walls. As they were very late, a crowd had gathered already, the ladies in glittering jewels and sleeveless silks and taffetas and chiffons, the men in black tuxedos. White-coated waiters were passing trays containing flutes of champagne. A band was playing in the adjoining ballroom. Francesca saw her brother, Evan, standing beside the flamboyantly beautiful countess, Bartolla Benevente, and then saw Rick Bragg.
Her heart skidded to a stop.
But he had already seen her, even from this distance, and he was staring, his eyes wide with surprise. He took a step toward her and Francesca tensed, now seeing the beautiful and petite woman at his side. Leigh Anne was tiny, her skin porcelain, her eyes emerald green, her hair raven black. She looked like a perfect little doll. Francesca's heart sank.
Bragg walked toward Francesca, his strides lengthening, leaving his wife standing there with a group of people Francesca did not know.
"You had better come to your senses and soon, Fran," Connie whispered. "I have seen them out and about constantly since you were gone. She is on his arm every time I see him at a function. She is well liked. She has joined several organizations, including the Ladies Club of Fifty and the Committee of Fifteen," Connie said, referring to several political organizations dedicated to the good-government reform movement. "And the other day, she invited me to a luncheon."
Francesca froze. For a moment, it was impossible to breathe. Leigh Anne was taking up reform? It hardly seemed fair! "You declined."
Connie was grim. "I accepted. The luncheon is tomorrow. The agenda is public education. I do believe the merits of fund-raising for more schools will be discussed."
Public education in the city was a disaster. Thousands of children did not attend school because there were simply not enough schools and not enough teachers. The city's recently elected mayor, Seth Low, had been elected on a very progressive platform, which included good government — government to ultimately benefit the people. And that included education.
As Connie had said, Francesca had been a reformer since she was a child, first selling cookies to raise money for orphans. She belonged to six societies, including the Citizen's Union Ladies Club, and was active in them all. Education for everyone was at the top of her agenda — and Connie knew that. Now, Francesca was torn between anger and admiration for a woman she so wanted to despise. Leigh Anne was beyond beautiful — but surely she was not a reformer at heart. Surely it was a ploy to capture Rick Bragg's heart.
"Why don't you join me?" Connie asked. "She has invited thirty of the city's wealthiest women. She probably intends to ask each and every one of us for a handsome donation. These are ladies you should know, Fran."
Sourly Francesca said, "Private money cannot fix the public education system in this city." But Connie was right. She should go and meet these women, perhaps enlisting some of them to her causes. She would have to attend Leigh Anne's luncheon no matter how she dreaded doing so.
"You are a mule, Fran, an utter mule, at times like these." Connie almost stomped her foot. She watched Bragg approach, as did Francesca.
He was so handsome. He had the tawny complexion and sun-streaked hair that many of the Bragg men were renowned for. His eyes were topaz, his cheekbones very high, and he was broad-shouldered and small of hip. Francesca wished that things could be different somehow. Then she caught herself and closed her eyes.
Wishing for the impossible was frivolous and a waste of time. She had come to grips with the ugly reality of his being unhappily married some time ago.
"Neil and I will mingle. Good luck, Fran," Connie whispered, then sailed off on her husband's arm.
Fran's eyes flew open and she watched Bragg take the last few steps to her side. He seemed incredibly purposeful now. He paused, and she tried to smile and failed.
"Are you all right?" Her heart tightened. His first concern would always be her welfare. "Yes, I am fine. And you?" Her gaze crept past him and to Leigh Anne, who hadn't moved and who watched them very carefully now.
He shrugged. Then, "You left town without a word. You've been gone for four weeks. I heard something about an ailing friend. Francesca?" His gaze was serious and intent.
She swallowed and began to flush. "I had to get away. There was no ailing friend."
"I see." His jaw tightened and his golden eyes darkened. A silence reigned.
Francesca did not know what to say.
"I chased you away," he said darkly. "I am so sorry, Francesca."
"Do not blame yourself. I chose to leave," she said, omitting the real reason she had run away. She glanced again at Leigh Anne. In spite of her neutral expression, she was radiant and aglow. "How is your wife?" And after all of this time, it was still hard to utter those two terrible words that had ruined her life — your wife.
He stiffened visibly. "Nothing has changed," he ground out with a flash of anger. "Our agreement to divorce in six months remains."
Francesca smiled tightly, felt her heart break a little, and knew it would not be. Leigh Anne had left Bragg four years ago and had spent all of the ensuing time in Europe. Recently she had returned to reclaim her place at his side. Francesca felt certain that Leigh Anne would win her battle over their marriage. Bragg was too angry at his wife every time the subject even came up for him not to harbor intensely passionate feelings about her.
Francesca hadn't known he was married when they had first met — when she had fallen head over heels in love with him at first sight.
He said suddenly, lowering his voice, "I have missed you."
Francesca began to smile, because he was her best friend and she had missed him, too — and then she saw Calder Hart.
Her smile vanished; her heart lurched; her gaze slammed to a halt. He stood across the room with a group of five others, and a buxom blonde was hanging on to his arm. His back was toward her.
In fact, he was so engrossed with the blonde and his friends that he hadn't even noticed her — and did not look her way even once.
She began to tremble, unable to control it, as if the temperature in the room had violently dropped. He hadn't looked at her even once — and she was wearing the eyecatching red dress. She was ill. He no longer liked her; he no longer found her at all interesting or alluring; he had a new paramour — he no longer wished to marry her.
"What is it?" Bragg asked sharply, but she could not tear her stare from Hart and the voluptuous blonde. Bragg shifted and grimaced. "He has seduced you after all, hasn't he?" he asked bitterly.
Excerpted from "Deadly Promise"
Copyright © 2003 Brenda Joyce Dreams Unlimited, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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