In New York Times–bestselling author Jennifer Wilde’s spellbinding tale of romantic suspense, an ominous horoscope proves eerily accurate for a woman visiting a quaint English town
“You will make a sudden journey and meet a dark stranger . . .”
Author Jane Martin doesn’t believe in fate, so when she stumbles across her horoscope in the newspaper one day, she decides to disregard it. But then her widowed brother calls, asking her to take care of his children while he’s away at a science conference. He’s even booked her a first-class train ticket.
En route to her brother’s house, Jane is accosted by one stranger only to be rescued by another. One of these handsome men is destined to come back into her life, because peaceful, centuries-old Abbotstown has been rocked by a string of bizarre burglaries—and a murder. There are no leads or suspects, but Jane’s precocious niece Rebecca insists she knows things the police aren’t aware of. After someone tries to break in to the house, Jane finds herself surrounded by too many men who say they want to protect her and the children. Suddenly she fears she is a pawn in a sinister intrigue in which she will not be able to distinguish hero from villain.
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About the Author
Jennifer Wilde is the pseudonym under which Tom E. Huff (1938–1990) wrote his groundbreaking New York Times–bestselling historical romance novels, including the Marietta Danver Trilogy (Love’s Tender Fury, Love Me, Marietta, and When Love Commands). Huff also wrote classic Gothic romances as Edwina Marlow, Beatrice Parker, Katherine St. Clair, and T. E. Huff. A native of Texas who taught high school English before pursuing a career as a novelist, Huff was honored with a Career Achievement Award from Romantic Times in 1988.
Read an Excerpt
Meet a Dark Stranger
By Jennifer Wilde
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 T. E. Huff
All rights reserved.
It was a long lazy Sunday afternoon, and there was nothing in particular to do. I had half planned to take the underground to the Victoria and Albert and browse about the antique furniture displays, but it was really too much trouble. I'd seen them all a dozen times, and I didn't feel up to it today. Perhaps I would go to the cinema later on, I thought, curled up on the sofa, idly leafing through the paper. Cass, my roommate, was polishing her nails, a task she found totally absorbing. Eddie was going to pick her up at seven and she firmly expected to get an engagement ring tonight. I was very happy for her. She and Eddie were ideally suited, and, at twenty-six, she had begun to feel a bit paranoid about being a spinster.
"Totally absurd," I said.
"Hmmm?" she murmured, not bothering to look up.
"My horoscope for next week. Listen to this: 'You will make a sudden journey and meet a dark stranger. Romance will enter your life, accompanied by danger from an unexpected source. Tread very cautiously.' I wonder who makes these things up?"
"Don't knock it, ducky," Cass replied, waving one hand and blowing on the newly lacquered nails. "My horoscope predicted I would find romance in May and, as you well know, I met Eddie May the fifth."
I sighed, shaking my head. Cass and I had been rooming together ever since I had come to London five years ago, and I was still discovering new things about her. A plump, pleasant blonde with dreamy blue eyes, her vague, rather distracted manner was completely deceiving. She was actually formidably intelligent, the last word in efficiency. When I first met her she had been a reader for one of London's oldest publishing firms. Now she was a full-fledged editor, with her own office and secretary. I found it incongruous that she could put any faith in newspaper horoscopes.
I let the newspaper drop to the floor and, yawning, folded my legs under me. "It's too trite for words. Sybil, whoever she is, needs a course in English composition."
"'Sybil Says' is one of the most popular columns in the paper," Cass retorted. "She's generally right on the nose, ducky. I wonder where you will go?"
"Nowhere," I said glumly. "I couldn't afford a trip. The last royalty check was most disappointing, and the new book won't be out for months and months."
"It's scheduled for October," she said, all business, "and you'll get another advance, a fat one, as soon as you turn in your new manuscript. What I can't understand is why it isn't finished. You've been working on it for months."
"I'm a perfectionist."
"That's no excuse. You haven't even looked at the manuscript for days and days, and those new watercolors are so charming. If only you'd finish it, you could—"
"I'm rather bored with Benny, if you want to know the truth."
"That may be so, ducky, but thousands of children find him utterly enchanting. You're lazy, Jane, in corrigibly. If it weren't for Benny you'd probably starve to death. I've never met a less ambitious person. With your talent you could be making tons of money—"
"One book a year brings in enough," I replied. "I don't want to be rich, Cass. I just want to be happy."
"Talk about trite! You're twenty-five, bright, intelligent, talented, absolutely ravishing to look at, and what do you do? You drift along in an amiable stupor, going to museums and picture galleries, doing an occasional watercolor, writing an occasional chapter, making no effort to meet any new men."
"I'm not interested."
"That's a lie, luv. When you meet the right man you'll be interested enough. I rather thought you and Philip Gardner would hit it off. He's divinely handsome, one of the most fascinating writers on our list. I go to all that trouble to introduce you to him, and what happens? You go out with him one time and then refuse to see him again.
"He's not my type," I said primly.
"I wish I knew what your type is."
"There's no hurry," I said lazily. "I don't have your fixation about a home and husband and kids. You and Eddie are going to be blissfully happy. I still have plenty of time."
"I worry about you, Jane. What's going to happen to you when I marry Eddie and leave? Some one has to look after you. You're far too fuzzy-headed and indolent to cope on your own."
"I resent that."
"It's true, nevertheless. You can't even cook." She waved her other hand, examined the nails, and fastened the lid on the bottle of polish. "What will you do, eat at Wimpey's every day?"
"Probably. They make wonderful salads."
Cass shook her head in disgust and stood up. She was wearing a pair of salmon-pink satin lounging pajamas and fluffy pink mules. Her short blonde curls were clustered about her head like a shiny cap, and her plump cheeks were rosy with health. She was a dear, and I would miss her, but, really, I wasn't all that inept and hopeless. Because she was so marvelously self-sufficient herself, Cass thought everyone should be able to do everything. She was a wonderful cook, she made her own clothes, she organized things, paid all her bills on time, kept records, never misplaced anything. She was a shrewd, perceptive editor, too, already making a name for herself in publishing circles. While I might be envious, I knew I could never hope to emulate her. Some of us simply weren't made that way.
"Well," she said, "I should have just about enough time to read the manuscript of that new thriller before I have to dress for Eddie. What are you going to do for the rest of the afternoon?"
"Nothing in particular. I may take a walk."
"You might get back to work on the book, ducky. You've finished all of the illustrations—they're the best you've done—and if you'd just finish those last three chapters—"
"I'll get it done. Be patient."
Cass made a face and went on to her bedroom. I knew she found my work habits frustrating, and I really should try to finish the book. The Benny the Bear books were among the most successful Cass handled, and I owed her everything. I had come to London to study art, determined to become a successful painter and was making absolutely no headway. After leaving Abbotstown, I had missed my nieces and nephew dreadfully. At that time Becky had just turned four, Liz was eight, and Keith eleven. I wrote to them once a week, and, soon running short of suitable news, I had invented a chubby, troublesome bear, Benny, who was fresh from the country and had all sorts of adventures in London. The children adored him, and I supplied a new installment of his adventures each week, eventually illustrating the letters with brightly hued watercolors of Benny and his friends.
One afternoon, four years ago, Cass happened to pick up one of the letters I'd just completed and, immediately, grew terribly excited. Her boss was introducing a new line of children's books and this was exactly what he was looking for. I thought she was out of her mind and told her so, but Cass insisted that I write to my brother and ask him to return all the letters, which, I knew, the children had kept. A short time later she was editing her first Benny the Bear book. It had been an immediate success. Four more had appeared since then. Cass had been promoted several times, and I had long since given up any illusions of becoming a great painter, perfectly content with my accidently-arrived-at profession. Writing and illustrating children's books was pleasant, and the income enabled me to live a comfortable life.
My brother's brood was five years older now, much too sophisticated to be interested in Benny. Precocious, all three of them, they sniffed disdainfully at such nonsense, perferring bloodier fare. I often worried about them. Their mother had died giving birth to Becky, and while Ian was a wonderful human being, the best brother a girl could have, he was deplorably unsuitable as a father. Ten years my senior and frightfully brilliant, he had been a chemistry professor at the local university for several years, publishing a series of articles that, though Greek to me, had eventually won him a certain renown and had brought him to the attention of Her Majesty's Government. Ian gave only occasional lectures now, devoting most of his time to independent experiments and making quite a number of rather mysterious trips abroad on government business. Lost in his own world of chemistry and lectures and experiments and such, he frequently seemed to forget he was a father, totally bewildered by the three young strangers who lived in his house. The children were bright, intelligent, amusing, alert—but they were rapidly becoming as eccentric as their father.
Sighing, I got up off the sofa and surveyed the typical Sunday afternoon litter of empty teacups, half-eaten buns on saucers, fashion magazines, needlepoint, crossword puzzles, sheets of newspaper strewn everywhere. Shaking off my lethargy, I began to straighten up the room, wondering how I was going to fill the rest of the day. I seemed to have reached a standstill in my life. There was nothing I particularly wanted, nothing I particularly wanted to do, and that, I knew, wasn't good. I was in a rut, and although it wasn't unpleasant, neither was it rewarding. There was a certain truth in what Cass had said. I did drift amiably from day to day, and I realized something must be done.
I carried the dishes into our small kitchen and returned to the living room, stacking up the magazines, putting away the needlepoint, picking up the newspapers. In her room, Cass groaned mournfully. The thriller must be exceptionally bad, I thought, folding up newspapers. As I did so, my eyes happened to fall on the horoscope column. I frowned. I wasn't likely to make a sudden journey, not on my limited budget.
In a thoughtful mood, I stepped over to the window and looked out. Our third-story flat, spacious and charming, if somewhat the worse for age, was directly across from Clapham Common. Standing at the window, I could see a group of husky, robust lads in shorts and sweaters playing cricket on the green, while others, less energetic, sat on the benches around the small pond with the huge, spreading willow tree on an island in its center. Near the street a flock of blue-gray pigeons huddled together patiently, waiting for the old woman in the green coat who came by every day with a sackful of crumbs. As it was Sunday, and a relatively warm summer day, the common was littered with bodies, near-nude sunbathers stretched out with eyes closed, lovers unashamedly entwined on the grass, oblivious to the noise and the dogs who raced about with frisky abandon.
One couple across the way strolled hand in hand, the girl in a pretty pink dress, her blonde hair streaming in the breeze, the boy, tall, built like a Rugby star, in faded jeans and brown suede jacket. He stopped, pulled her to him, cupped his hands around her throat and kissed her with a tenderness I found moving. The girl melted against him. They broke apart, smiling, and then he slung his arm around her shoulders and they continued on across the common, happiness visible on both young faces. I envied them, and I wondered if I would ever feel such poignant emotion.
The telephone rang, jangling loudly. I answered it, finding the line filled with static. Over the shrill buzzing I thought I heard my brother's voice, although I couldn't be sure.
"Jane? Is that you ?"
"What is it? Is something wrong? Has one of the children—"
The line buzzed, alive with distant screeching, and he said something I couldn't hear, his voice urgent. My heart seemed to stop beating. Ian and I were very close, had been ever since my parents had been killed in a motor accident when I was fifteen years old, but he rarely wrote, and he never called unless there was an emergency of some sort. I gripped the receiver tightly, hearing only static, and then, abruptly, it disappeared and his voice rang loud and clear.
"—simply have to help me out," he said.
"What? What's happened? The children—"
"That's why I called. Haven't you been listening ? You've got to come down and stay with them. It's urgent. I—"
"Are they ill? Ian, I wish you would—"
"The children are perfectly all right. Driving me berserk, if you want to know the truth. I have to leave for New York tomorrow afternoon. Important conference. Can't possibly miss it. I'll be gone two weeks. No one will stay with them. No one! I thought Mrs. Rawlins would pitch in and help out, but after the last time she flatly refuses. She says they're impossible. Says she almost had a nervous break down."
"What about your housekeeper?"
"She left three months ago, right after Becky put the grass snake in her bed. I simply can't keep servants, not with those three young hellions underfoot. I'm going to send them all away to boarding school, I swear I am."
"You want me to come to Abbotstown?"
"That's what I've been trying to tell you, dammit!"
"There's no need to get excited."
"That's what you think. Look, Jane, you've got to come. After all, you're not really doing anything. It isn't as though I were asking you to give up a steady job or—"
"I happen to be in the middle of a new book," I said irritably. Ian considered my work totally frivolous and insubstantial, and he couldn't believe I was actually paid good money for turning out such nonsense. His attitude never failed to infuriate me.
"That," he said. "You can bring it with you. Look, this is terribly important. Urgent, in fact. The children are longing to see you, and I know you're longing to see them, too. It'll just be for two weeks. You'll come?"
"I don't know. I have—"
"A train leaves from Waterloo Station at twelve-thirty tonight. I've already checked it out, already made your reservation. They're holding your ticket at the counter."
"You've already—" I paused, seething. "It seems to me you're taking a lot for granted, brother dear. How do you know I—"
"I've reserved the very best accommodations," he said smoothly. "You'll have your own compartment. First class all the way. You're a love. I knew you'd understand. The train arrives in Abbotstown at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. I'll meet you at the station."
"Just a minute! This is—"
"See you in the morning, luv."
He had already hung up.
I could almost see him, chuckling to himself, his vivid blue eyes full of amusement. Brilliant, temperamental, witty, distracted, always engaging, Ian combined all the qualities of the brusque, rugged male and the adorable little boy, a combination thoroughly delightful, however confusing to those who didn't know him well. He could be positively infuriating, but it was impossible to stay angry with him. I would have walked through fire for my brother and, knowing this, he took outrageous advantage of me. No matter how we quarreled, no matter how heated my protests, I always ended up doing precisely what he wanted me to do. I found this weakness of mine extremely vexing and I wished I were able to be strong-willed and adamant, but I couldn't. Not with Ian.
Heaving a deep sigh, I went into my bedroom and began to pack.
And so, at twelve-fifteen that night, I found myself at Waterloo Station, under the great domed glass ceiling. Cass and Eddie had come to see me off, and Eddie had gone to pick up my tickets. We waited for him near the underground entrance with my luggage piled at our feet, and gusts of cold air sweeping up from below. The atmosphere was as frantic as ever, with people hurrying hither and yon, checking baggage, claiming tickets, snacking at counters, and buying books and magazines at the numerous stalls. Cass looked resplendent in a dark red suit, a sparkling engagement ring on her finger.
"Have you set the date?" I asked.
"Not yet. Some time this summer, though."
"Well, at least I'm not going to be an old maid."
"You're very lucky. Men like Eddie aren't easy to find."
Cass thoughtfully examined the ring for perhaps the twentieth time. "I know," she said. "They're not easy to get either."
Excerpted from Meet a Dark Stranger by Jennifer Wilde. Copyright © 1974 T. E. Huff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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