“You must lock away your heart at all costs.”
Falling in love was the darkest moment of Garrett Wollstonecraft’s privileged youth, even as he and Abigail Hughes shared a blissful summer of passionate promise. Sworn to keep Abigail safe from the curse plaguing generations of Wollstonecraft men, Garrett sacrificed his future happiness. Now, fourteen years after he lost his heart, Abigail reenters his life. But the woman who arrives unannounced at his ancestral manor is very different from the sheltered girl Garrett once knew.
The widow of a country doctor, Abigail can’t forgive Garrett for his cruel rejection. Yet she can no longer keep the truth from him—a secret that could have resulted in her ruin. But as the embers of desire reignite, and Abigail and Garrett slowly rebuild trust, a malicious enemy plots against them. Is their love strong enough to break free from the sins of the past—and to end the tragic cycle that consigns Garrett to a life of loneliness?
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“Karyn Gerrard writes very enjoyable, richly textured historical romances.” —Kate Pearce, New York Times bestselling author
“Looking for a swoon-worthy read? You can’t go wrong with the lovely and emotional romances from Karyn Gerrard.” —Vanessa Kelly, USA Today bestselling author
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Two days later Whitechapel, London
A curse could be a damnable weight to carry, but Garrett reasoned he had shoulders broad enough to handle the burden. How does a curse come about? Did a medieval witch cast it on the ancient Wollstonecrafts for an imagined slight, or was the sixteenth century Earl of Carnstone born under a black moon, passing the curse down through the generations?
Every man born through this particular bloodline of Wollstonecrafts suffered incredible tragedies. Women in the family, either born or wedded into it, did not live long. Didn't matter how many times the man remarried.
Why such darkness hung over his family remained a complete conundrum. After all, they had dedicated their lives to progressive causes and the plight of the poor, especially his father and brother in parliament. It should count for something. Yet sitting here in Edwin Seward's office in Whitechapel, Garrett wondered if the curse moved beyond romantic attachments to include other aspects of the Wollstonecraft men's lives. There was no better example than his brother Julian's oldest, Aidan.
His nephew had been missing for close to four months, as if he'd fallen off the edge of the earth. Since he was only six years older than his paternal twin nephews, Aidan and Riordan, they all were more like brothers. They shared a close bond, as did all the men in the family, but none like the one he shared with the twins.
Riordan was happily settled, and though Garrett had tried to make him see sense regarding the curse, he would have none of it. He was deeply in love. No talk of an ancient curse had deterred him from Sabrina. Well, it was his decision. Garrett could only wish them the best.
He turned his attention back to Aidan, the main reason he'd remained in London. The reason he hadn't had a decent night's sleep in weeks. For more than a year, Aidan had been wallowing in the seamy underbellies of London and Bath by sinking into even darker, more debauched depths. Despite his vices, he'd kept in touch. Returned home every month without fail. Well, until last September, that was. Shortly thereafter, the contact ended.
Garrett had hired an ex-Bow Street Runner, Edwin Seward, and finally the investigation bore fruit. Garrett decided to keep the information to himself until he had a chance to probe into the particulars.
At that moment, Edwin strode into the room, a thick folder clutched in his beefy hand. The man was nearly as tall as Garrett's own imposing six-foot- five frame. An aura of danger followed Seward, and the jagged scar running down the left side of his face added to the implied menace.
"Garrett." He sat with a huff, slamming the folder in front of him. "Where would you like me to start?"
"Where is Aidan?"
Edwin opened the folder. "As of last night, he is living in a rookery in St. Giles, a doss-house on Petticoat Lane."
"Jesus." St. Giles was one of the worst slums in London. Even the coppers loathed to enter it because of its maze of hovels and alleyways. Overcrowding, squalor, and the resultant stench, along with a generous helping of disease, completed the bleak picture.
"We're friends, correct?" Edwin asked.
They'd known each other for years, originally met in Scotland one summer. Both were half Scottish and visiting relatives, so they gravitated toward each other and kept up a correspondence through the years. When Garrett ventured to London, they would meet and share a pint. "Absolutely."
"Why are you taking this burden on yourself? Why haven't you told your brother, Julian? Your father, the earl? Or Aidan's brother, Riordan? Wasn't he here in London with you? If I've overstepped the bounds, tell me."
A fair question. "No, not overstepping. Guilt perhaps? Aidan's decline was slow, over a period of years, and instead of reaching out and trying to discover why he behaved in such a manner, I became disgusted and ignored him. We all did. I turned away when he needed me most, and because of it, didn't hear his cry for help under all the arrogance." Garrett exhaled a shaky breath. "I also want to protect Julian and the rest from the worst of this."
"I just met your brother a couple of months ago, but I have the distinct feeling he will be livid when he finds out that you didn't inform him of his son's discovery right away," Edwin said.
"No doubt, but one drama at a time. Aidan means the world to me, both the twins do. They are much like brothers instead of nephews, and when we were younger, they often followed me about like eager puppies." He paused, as speaking of this caused a lump of emotion to lodge in his throat. "I love them. Aidan especially. Though always in one type of trouble or another, he possessed a good-natured charm, which meant that I couldn't stay annoyed at him for long. There is goodness in him. He's worth rescuing. I aim to be the one to do it."
"Fair enough. I'll do all I can to assist you in your quest."
"I appreciate it, Edwin."
"To continue. As your brother suggested, we've been watching your family's bank for close to two months. Last week, a man approached the building, hesitating, as if deciding whether to proceed inside. He fit the description, and resembled the small portrait that you gave us, so we instigated a surveillance. I thought it best not to contact Julian until we were sure of his identity." Edwin flipped a page over. "The subject did not enter the bank, and my man followed him to the aforementioned doss-house on Petticoat Lane. He's not alone. There are at least four or five others, with many more coming and going at all hours of the day and night."
After clearing his throat, Edwin continued. "I had my man blend in with the great unwashed, and he got close enough to observe that the place is used for deviant pursuits. Opium. Orgies. From what my man reported, financed by thievery and prostitution. There are two women in there with the men. Probably prostitutes."
Garrett rubbed the bridge of his nose. Aidan had hit rock bottom, sunk to the lowest depths. Hearing this, he was glad that he'd decided to keep the discovery from Julian. "They're living in total filth," Edwin stated. "I'm not sure if you have ever been to St. Giles ... "
Garrett stood. "Let us head there with all due haste. Extract him immediately."
Edwin shook his head, motioning Garrett to take his seat. "One does not casually wander into St. Giles. This will take planning and a number of men, more than I employ. Also, when we snatch him up, what do we do with him?"
Garrett arched an eyebrow. "What is your meaning?"
"Aidan is in no fit state to return home. Let me read you this: 'Aidan Wollstonecraft is emaciated, wearing dirty, ragged clothes, hair long and unwashed. Appears glassy-eyed, stumbling when he walks. When he speaks, his words are slurred. The subject is suffering from acute addiction.'" Edwin looked up and caught Garrett's worried gaze.
"Your nephew will need medical attention, long-term care for his withdrawal. I have taken the liberty of contacting a private sanatorium. It is north of here, in Hertfordshire, outside the village of Standon. It is run by a Welsh physician and the cost is expensive. But he has done miraculous work with those addicted to opium. It's becoming a rising problem in all classes. The place is confidential and clean; I have inspected it myself."
"Aidan is in such poor condition, then?" Garrett whispered.
"Aye. He's extremely ill, physically and otherwise. I'm sorry it has taken us this long to track him, but apparently the group of hooligans that he's running with move about often. We may have never found him. It's only by chance we spotted him when he approached the bank." Edwin paused. "If he continues down the path he is on, Aidan will be dead in a matter of months. When the dragon gets its claws in you ... well, it's a sorry state indeed."
Shaking his head, Garrett said sadly, "I never would have believed Aidan to be weak of character and sink to such depths."
"Society sees opium and its derivatives as merely a bad habit. Dr. Bevan and his predecessor, Dr. Hughes, see it as an addiction of which certain people are more susceptible than others. Not by weak character, but by a brain disorder. His treatment is humane, not like at the asylums. There Aidan could be diagnosed with moral insanity and never see the light of day again. You do not want your nephew to go to one of those places."
No. He didn't. Garrett had heard the stories. People were locked up in no better than a prison cell. Mechanical restraints were used, as well as inhumane treatments that involved dousing with water hoses and hours of endless prayer. "What is your strategy?"
"We head in at the break of dawn. There will be ten men all told. We seize your nephew, and the three of us will head straight to Standon. We will need a private carriage. Fresh water. A bucket in case he starts to vomit before we arrive. The journey will take several hours, and he'll begin to go through withdrawal, which includes nausea, vomiting, aches, cramps, body tremors. His bowels could let go."
Garrett grimaced. "You know a good deal about this, Edwin."
"Aye," he replied softly. "More than I care to. Dr. Bevan set me on the path of recovery. He'll do the same for your nephew."
Edwin? Succumbing to an addiction? The man stood for all that is tough and unyielding. If addiction could fell him, what chance did Aidan have?
"Then we shall make plans." How in hell could he explain all this to his father and brother? What will Riordan do? The twins were close, or had been up until Aidan disappeared. He rubbed his forehead, as a sharp ache had taken root.
No matter. Aidan was family, and Garrett would do anything to protect him. If cloistering him away in a small village clinic would assist in his recovery, then he would do it. The Wollstonecraft men stuck together. History had given them a hard hand, and their allegiance was the one constant they had, other than the curse.
* * *
The early dawn sun cast a disturbing illumination over the slums of St. Giles, where raw sewage ran in rivulets down the broken cobblestone streets. Gin cellars and distillers packed the overcrowded courts and narrow lanes, while men and women addled by gin staggered about or lay unconscious in filthy alleyways. As the group of formidable men crossed into Petticoat Lane, Garrett saw a prostitute being rutted against a brick wall in the alley, her tattered skirt pulled up to her waist showing a dirty leg covered with sores.
Bile rose in Garrett's throat, but he swallowed it down. The clash of rank odors was enough to bring up one's breakfast. Sweat, human waste, and rotting garbage in overflowing rubbish bins. Dead animal carcasses — could be dogs and cats, hard to tell — lay in some of the alleys. The building that they were heading toward had broken and boarded-up windows and a decaying foundation. Gloom and despair were clearly present in this section of London. It was worse than he could have ever imagined.
Garrett carried a club, as did many of the men. Edwin held a pistol, and kept it in plain sight to show that they were not to be approached.
"We'll have to make this quick, for our presence has no doubt been reported. The criminal in charge of this section of the rookery will send his men along sharpish," Edwin said.
One of Edwin's burly group kicked the door in with little effort, as the wood was rotten and splintered apart. Edwin ran up the dark, narrow stairway to the third floor, with Garrett right on his heels. The building was not quiet; shouting, swearing, and crying voices drifted in from all directions. Due to the boarded-up windows, the dour place lay in darkness. Luckily, one of the men carried a lighted lantern.
"In here?" Edwin indicated to one of his men.
Edwin gave the door a shove with his shoulder and it gave way. At least there was some light, as the one window had a tattered piece of sheer material hanging over it. Garrett scanned the room. Dirty mattresses and wooden pallets filled the floor space with unconscious people of both sexes sprawled across them in various states of undress.
The stink was enough to gag a horse. Rubbish lay across the floor, rotting food, empty gin bottles, dried vomit, and buckets overflowing with piss and worse. There had to be close to twenty people crammed into the crowded area.
"Do you see him?" Edwin yelled.
His eyes lit on a familiar form. Aidan lay on a mattress, wearing nothing but frayed trousers, with a young man curled up to one side of him and an older woman curled up on the other. The young man stroked the front of Aidan's trousers, as the woman trailed her tongue across Aidan's nipple. An opium pipe lay on his nephew's chest. Aidan looked ghastly, hollow-cheeked, haggard, and near death's call from months of debauchery.
"Here," Garrett called out. Edwin rushed to his side, and together they brought Aidan to his feet. He mumbled incoherently, limp in their grasp.
"Move out," Edwin bellowed. They hurried toward the door, dragging Aidan, as he was semiconscious and not able to place one foot in front of the other. The stench of him made Garrett's nose twitch and his stomach roil.
The older woman screamed, "They're takin' our luverly Aidan! Stop 'em!"
Some of the people on the pallets stirred, but the men were out of the room and down the stairs before any of them could take action.
"Head to the carriage," Edwin commanded. Two men stepped in their path, as if to halt them, but Edwin's men felled them with clubs before Garrett could even blink. Thank God Edwin could navigate the twisting lanes. They made it to New Oxford Street, the main thoroughfare that ran through the middle of the rookery. Since it was under construction, confusion reigned, making escape easier to achieve. Here they parted, with Edwin and Garrett bundling a moaning Aidan into the carriage while the other men splintered off, running in different directions.
Edwin thumped the roof of the carriage. "Move!" he shouted. With a snap of the reins, the conveyance lurched forward.
Aidan lay across Garrett's lap, limp, with eyes closed.
Edwin grabbed a blanket. "We'd best wrap him in this; he no doubt has fleas and worse. Plus the cold chills will start soon enough."
"I hardly recognize him," Garrett whispered worriedly. "He's lost too much weight."
"Opium will do that. It leeches the good right out of you." Edwin sighed. "I'll not sugarcoat this: he's in a bad way."
Garrett nodded as he assisted in covering Aidan in the woolen blanket.
"I've sent word to Dr. Gethin Bevan, the physician that I told you about. I informed him to expect us later today. If we keep up a brisk pace, we should arrive just before the sun sets. He's offered us a room for the night. I gave the name Aidan Black. You said your other nephew used Black when he accepted the schoolmaster position?"
"Yes. It's their mother's maiden name. Smart to use an alias, wish I'd thought of it." He pulled Aidan close, and Garrett's eyes glazed with unshed tears. Damn it all, they should have found him sooner. Never should have allowed him to descend into the darkness alone. The family should have locked him in the attic until this wave of destructive behavior passed.
He could only hope that this Welsh doctor could work miracles.CHAPTER 2
As Abigail Wharton Hughes gathered her cloak, bonnet, and gloves, she mulled over her plans for the day. Very little happened in Standon, Hertfordshire, and she reveled in the serene quiet of the small country village. Living here the past fourteen years had brought contentment to Abbie.
She'd been a widow for more than two years, and seeing as her late husband, Dr. Elwyn Hughes, had been the local physician, she held a position of respect. Living in her tidy brick and wood bungalow on the outskirts of the village gave her the quiet privacy she needed. Since Elwyn had died, she spent her days toiling in her garden or volunteering at her late husband's clinic.
Mrs. Jones would be by later to clean the house, so she must return by four o'clock. It gave her ample opportunity to shop at the small bakery. Well, it was not much of a bakery; a woman sold goods out of her front parlor. Then Abbie would stop in to the medical clinic and assist Dr. Gethin Bevan and his daughter, Cristyn.
Gethin Bevan, a colleague of her late husband, was a friend but nothing more. Although he'd hinted more than once that they could marry, seeing as he was a widower and she a widow. At thirty-two, Abbie was young enough to find another husband, only she did not want one. She was not looking for companionship or a lover. Living a quiet, contented life meant she could avoid any messy dramas that often accompanied most relationships. She'd never find another amiable partner like Elwyn — they were all too rare.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Scandal With A Sinful Scot"
Copyright © 2018 Karyn Gerrard.
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