The Debt of Tamar: A Novel

The Debt of Tamar: A Novel

by Nicole Dweck

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Overview

A USA TODAY Best seller!

Bestselling author Nicole Dweck brings to life one of history's greatest yet overlooked stories of love and resilience.

In 2002, thirty-two-year-old Selim Osman, the last descendant of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, flees Istanbul for New York. In a twist of fate, he meets Hannah, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and an artist striving to understand the father she barely knows. Unaware that the connection they share goes back centuries, the two feel an immediate pull to one another. But as their story intertwines with that of their ancestors, the heroic but ultimately tragic decision that bound two families centuries ago ripples into the future, threatening to tear Hannah and Selim apart.

From a sixteenth-century harem to a seaside village in the Holy Land, from Nazi-occupied Paris to modern-day Manhattan, Nicole Dweck's The Debt of Tamar weaves a spellbinding tapestry of love, history, and fate that will enchant readers from the very first page.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250065681
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/08/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

NICOLE DWECK holds a BA in Journalism and a Master's Degree in Global Affairs from NYU. When The Debt of Tamar, her debut novel, was self-published, it became a USA Today bestseller and received honorable mention in Writer's Digest's Self-Published Book Awards. She lives in New York City with her husband and their son.

Read an Excerpt

The Debt of Tamar

A Novel


By Nicole Dweck

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Nicole Dweck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-06568-1


CHAPTER 1

1544

PORTUGAL

José observed his aunt Dona Antonia, an aging aristocrat who'd taken him in as her own. Sitting across from him at the center of a long bronze table, Dona Antonia Mendez held her chin slightly raised over the stiff fabric of her modest ruff. A smattering of fine lines stemmed outward from the corners of her bright eyes, and her oval face, still pleasant in her age, was framed by a dangling cluster of sapphire and pearl drop earrings. She had raised him alongside her daughter Reyna since infancy. In his twenty years of life, she was the only mother he'd ever known.

As she looked out at Lisbon from the covered terrace of the royal compound, Dona Antonia's expression was drawn, her eyes narrowed and lips stitched into a neat line.

"Your daughter would make a fine wife to my cousin, Alfonso of Aragon," the queen said from her high-back chair at the head of the table. "I thought we would discuss the matter."

Patting her brow with the edge of her handkerchief, Dona Antonia appeared nervous. "I am honored." She glanced toward José, her blue eyes flashing alarmingly in his direction.

"Yes. The match was thought up by the emperor. It's an honor that he should have involved himself in such a trivial matter." The queen turned her attention to the dwarf spaniels prancing at her heels, tossing bits of cheese in their direction.

"Reyna is very young for marriage," Dona Antonia replied. "I know my nephew agrees." She swept a gray tendril from cheek to temple, then eyed him directly from across the table.

José nodded, although he knew very well that his opinion was meaningless. He was brought along on this day for a show of male guardianship. His brilliant, widowed aunt would make her own decisions. He was simply there to lend a touch of masculine determination that her husband would have provided had he been alive.

Glancing over his shoulder, José let his gaze wander beyond the tasseled red and gold canopy edges toward the manicured grounds beyond. He spotted Reyna standing by a tall hedge, her fingers grazing the trim bushes in the garden. She had just turned seventeen, old enough to marry by anyone's standards.

"I'm afraid she is too young." Dona Antonia fumbled with the diamond cross around her neck. "Just a skinny little thing, hardly a woman." Her voice faded with each breath.

"Speak up!" The queen raised a hand to one of the braided muffs fastened over her ears.

A servant appeared with a basket of bread, and José chuckled to himself, envisioning an updated version of the queen's coif featuring two of the olive rolls atop his plate.

"It's just that you may want to consider someone older ..." Antonia continued.

"She will be older." The queen was clearly losing her patience. "Next year she'll be turning eighteen, then nineteen. I'd wager the year after that, twenty. I've yet to meet anyone who grew younger by the year."

Dona Antonia said nothing.

A moment passed with only the sound of the queen's quiet, steady breaths as she toyed with a strand of carnelian beads. Having heard rumors of their embarrassingly tenuous financial situation — apparently expensive wars and expeditions had not been as lucrative as the emperor had hoped — José was not at all surprised that the royal family saw it within their interests to align themselves with the widow and her fortune. The daughter of Spanish merchants who, having fallen on hard times, had emigrated from Spain to Portugal toward the turn of the century, Dona Antonia had married a prominent Lisbonian whose family boasted social ties with all the great houses of Europe, as well as a lucrative trade empire that was the envy of all who knew them.

Dona Antonia's daughter, Reyna, was now the heiress to that great fortune. By marrying her off to a cousin under their command, the royal family could easily come to control her vast inheritance and alleviate much of their burden. What surprised José was his aunt's reluctance to accept such a mutually advantageous union. Any other mother would be thrilled.

The appearance of a dark-skinned beauty in a straw hat put an end to his musings. The girl kept her eyes to the ground, fanning the queen for a few moments before slipping away behind the boughs of an exotic potted plant from the new world. The plump red fruits dangling from its branches were known as tomatoes, or so he'd been told. Drumming her fingernails on the table's surface, the queen continued: "The emperor has made up his mind. He hasn't been known to accept no for an answer." She pursed her lips and her gaze bored into Dona Antonia. "With that in mind, do take some time to consider it. I'm sure you'll come to the right decision on your own and there will be no more unpleasantness."

"Yes, Your Highness."

"You'll go ahead and sort out any financial considerations, such as your late husband's fortune, your daughter's inheritance, and what other trifling matters might need to be sorted. Within the next two months, we expect to officially receive word of your acceptance of the match. That should give you ample time to get your affairs in order."

"Then it's settled," José said and lifted his goblet just as the cupbearer approached to replenish it. He nodded, as though nodding one for all, then took a sip of the spicy red wine. "I should go find Reyna." He stood and found himself crouching beneath the low roof of the canopy. He kissed the queen's outstretched hand, then looked up and held his boyish stare a little too long, so her wrinkled countenance turned noticeably red. The same devilish grin he had offered up to the queen was met with his aunt's scowl before he headed off along a red gravel path to the royal gardens.

"Reyna!" he called out from the maze of shrubbery that concealed him. "Cousin, where are you?" As he strolled in the shadows cast by tall, flowering hedges, he was suddenly jolted by two hands fastened tight upon his shoulders. He turned about quickly and wrestled his assailant to the ground.

"I frightened you!" Reyna's eyes sparkled with mischief. She struggled to get up as he pinned her shoulders down.

"Frightened me?" His heart was pounding in his chest. "That would be like a lamb frightening a lion."

Her long hair fell away from her tilted face, spreading over the green moss. She laughed fiendishly.

"Your mother's right!" he continued as he tossed back a few wisps of his long, dark hair. "You're not ready to marry. I pity the fool they've chosen for you!"

"What are you talking about?" she said, her body suddenly still.

"The prince can barely mount his horse! I've no idea how he'll be able to tame the likes of you."

"Cousin, tell me!" She struggled once more to free herself from his hold.

"Get up." He grabbed her by the wrist and lifted her from the ground. "Before they see you and change their minds completely."

She turned serious. "What's happened?"

He smiled mischievously, then dropped his voice. "Just moments ago, the queen proposed a match."

"And?"

"Naturally, your mother is being difficult."

With hands clasped toward the sky she mumbled under her breath: "Heavenly Father, give me the strength to overcome the seven-headed beast whose womb you chose to send me out —"

"Reyna!" He glared down at her.

"I'm not really surprised." She shrugged casually. "She doesn't want me to marry. Not now, not ever. She'd prefer I grow old alone and die bitter. That's the route she's heading for."

"No." José took his cousin by the arms and quieted her with his eyes. "That won't happen to you."

"Will you be arranging my marriage, then? You're worse than she is."

"Cousin, stop."

"Well, you did turn her against my last two suitors, did you not?"

"Antonio Agostinho Lopez da Susa? He was practically a midget with wings for ears! He could have taken flight at any given moment. I should think you would have thanked me for intervening."

"I quite liked him."

"If he were standing just so and the winds picked up to just the right speed ..."

"He was a perfect gentleman."

"Perfectly dim-witted."

"I thought he was handsome."

"Uglier than a monkey's rear!"

"Lower your voice."

"Personally, I don't see why any of us must marry at all. I think we're doing just fine how things stand."

"The bachelor, the widow, and the spinster. What a fine household we three make!"

"Stop these theatrics, Reyna. If you want to marry, you'll marry. I'll make sure of it."

"And how will you make sure of it? You'll be spending the winter entertaining Prince William in the Netherlands, or have you forgotten?"

"Don't remind me. The boy is duller than dirt. I don't know how I got through it last year."

"Apparently you got through it quite splendidly!"

"Is that what they say?"

"Enjoyed yourself like a dancing dwarf, so they say."

"They say a lot, don't they?"

"Your reputation precedes you, dear cousin."

"Oh, enough about me!" He clapped his hands together. "I'll speak to your mother. I know I can talk some sense into her."

"You're so ugly when you lie." She turned and walked off through the tall hedges.

He watched as she strutted away, then called after her, "And you're lovely when you're angry!"

José stood in the garden and for the first time seriously questioned why his aunt had not yet accepted one of a number of proposals. There was no shortage of fine young men pursuing Reyna. They came to the villa often to request her hand in marriage. Some came from Lisbon, others from the fringes of the countryside. There were Spanish dukes and city aristocrats. German counts and French noblemen would boast of vast palaces and fortunes abroad. They persisted until Dona Antonia's tone turned nasty and she'd send them away with a tongue-lashing. A dozen men with wounded egos would recount to their peers that the widow Dona Antonia Mendez had simply gone mad.

* * *

The roads were steep and the carriage threatened to give way as it maneuvered down the winding trail home. José sat on the bench opposite the ladies, gazing east through the carriage window at a picturesque scene of tall leafy palms and city dwellings. "The emperor has proposed a match." Dona Antonia did not bother turning to her daughter as she spoke.

José and Reyna's eyes met momentarily before Reyna turned to address her mother from the edge of her seat. "What was your response?"

"I said nothing." The widow patted the moisture from her neck. It was a warm, windless day in May and the scent of musk filled the dark carriage. "But I am disinclined to accept the proposal." Reyna fell back into the plush burgundy bench cushion, shooting José a pleading look with her big brown eyes.

He coughed against his fist, then addressed his aunt sternly. "Tia, you should be very pleased. A royal prince will make a fine husband for Reyna."

Dona Antonia rolled her eyes.

"Tia! She wants to marry, and in case you've forgotten, you've not much choice in the matter. You're to give your approval in just two months' time."

"Is that so?"

"It seems to be the case."

"It was merely a request."

"It was merely a direct order handed down to you by your queen."

"Suddenly so serious?"

"Only idiots and jesters wouldn't take this seriously."

"I think I'd prefer the jester. Sounds like more fun."

"I'm sure it won't make a difference, dear aunt. Fools of all sorts have been known to end up with their heads rolling. And what a large head yours happens to be."

"Stop it. Both of you," Reyna interrupted. "I can't put up with one more minute of this."

They journeyed on quietly, the only sounds the trotting of hooves and the occasional whinny of the stallions as they made their way home beneath the midday sun. As they neared the neighborhood square, a low rumbling sounded. The noise grew louder until the carriage, having just turned a corner, became surrounded on three sides by a rowdy irate mob.

One side of the carriage was butted up against a brick wall, so José leaned out of the free window, wondering what all the commotion was about. The charioteer had dismounted from his perch and was elbowing his way through the crowd toward the carriage door. "Senhora!" He removed his hat and tilted his head. "We must wait for the crowd to disperse. It's impossible to move on."

"José, what do you see?" Reyna sat forward. "A revolt perhaps?" She beamed delightedly. Since she was just a girl, Reyna had always been partial to a bit of mischief.

"Most likely nothing quite that dramatic." José cleared his throat but instinctively felt for the dagger beneath the folds of his cloak. "What a vivid imagination you have, Cousin."

"Move away from the window." Dona Antonia's voice was stern from the far end of the carriage.

"Perhaps the commoners are protesting the queen's new coif," José said pointedly. "If ever there was a thing in need of protest ..." His carefree demeanor cracked upon hearing a scream among the rabble-rousers.

The carriage rocked as a foul-smelling throng of men shoved up against it, pushing it tighter to the wall.

"Away from here!" Dona Antonia grasped the tip of her lion-headed cane and, crouching toward the open window, began poking at the jumbled sea of heads bobbing up against it. "Roaches!" she muttered as she went to work with her stick, forcing the cluster of bodies away from the carriage and back against the crowd.

Reyna twisted her neck to catch a glimpse of the commotion. "José!" Reyna cried out as her anxious eyes came upon him.

José wriggled uncomfortably and tugged at the drawstrings of his collar as a layer of sweat formed beneath his shirt. "What is it, Cousin?" He brought his cheek beside hers and for a moment was unaware of just what he was looking at. "Satan's wretched city." Dante's words escaped his lips.

In the square beyond, chained dogs snarled at passersby. Wenches flapped about like screeching ravens, and stray cats sought refuge along the low rooftops. Mothers silenced their children with openhanded slaps and the threat of white-knuckled fists. Pyres burned at the center of the square, and the smell of ash began to infiltrate the carriage.

"Auto-da-fé," Reyna whispered. The tremor in her voice suggested this was not the sort of mischief she had anticipated.

José's neck stiffened, and he was suddenly incapable of pivoting any direction at all. Barely able to utter a response, he huffed, "Death by burning." The grotesque scene took shape before his eyes and had now been named for what it was: The Sixth Circle of Hell.

Hordes had gathered to witness a public execution by fire.

"Swine! Heretics!" a filthy man raged. When he happened to turn and face José directly through the window frame, his eyes blazed ferociously. Startled, José shrank back. "Kill the Jews!" The vein in his sweaty neck bulged as he spat out the words. "Kill the pigs!"

At the center of the square an execution of the city's unrepentant Jews was taking place. Tied to wooden beams, six condemned heretics wriggled while the flames of the Inquisition danced about their flesh. Inquisition guards stood smugly to one side with fresh-faced district officials.

Horrified, José blinked back tears. Another hot flash assaulted his body as his eyes froze upon one of the condemned. Black tresses fell about her face and dusted the length of her waist and hips. As they set her legs on fire, her body twisted like a caged beast. A jolt of agony ripped through him.

"Don't look at them!" Dona Antonia commanded. She grabbed José's collar and tore him from his paralysis. He sat stunned as she examined his pupils one at a time, pulling back his lids for closer inspection. "The damage is done," she whispered.

He pulled away and shook his head in disbelief. Was he supposed to believe that these helpless souls were the same beings his priest had once called roaches and vermin — pests that needed to be rooted out and exterminated from society? He'd not known a Jew in all his life, but in this moment, the wailing victims appeared more human than the monstrous hordes that stood cheering around them. Never before had José stopped to consider the secret Jews he'd only ever heard of. Then again, he'd never come face-to-face with such evil and suffering. "We are witnesses," José said after a long moment. "We cannot look away."

Reyna was rocking nervously now, her head buried in her arms and her hunched shoulders shaking.

He forced himself to turn back toward the lurid scene. The victims, all in tatttered, bloodstained clothes, were thrashing about in flames that rose from glowing bundles of dry wheat secured with hemp chords around their ankles. There was an elderly woman with powder-white hair, along with two red-haired men with beards who might have been brothers, or perhaps father and son. There was a raven-haired girl and two others whose faces he could not see because the flames had already risen above their heads. Old and young, men and women — it seemed none were spared.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Debt of Tamar by Nicole Dweck. Copyright © 2015 Nicole Dweck. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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