Monica Danes always wanted more than the village of Biddlestone had to offer. After a failed courtship to a man of her parents' choosing, she fled for the city of Bath and never looked back. Today, Monica is the undisputed queen of the theater-a wealthy, independent woman. But when she is called home in the wake of tragedy, Monica returns-intending to leave again as soon as possible.
Thomas Ashby has been a groom at the Danes estate since he was a boy-and has been enamored with Monica for almost as long. He knows he isn't a suitable match for his master's daughter, despite the special bond he and Monica have always shared-and their undeniable attraction. But now that she's returned, Thomas has one last chance to prove himself worthy-and to show Monica a life, and a love, she won't want to give up...
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What a Woman Desires
By Rachel Brimble
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Rachel Brimble
All rights reserved.
Bath, England, 1897
Monica Danes closed her eyes, clasped the hands of the fellow actors on either side of her, and bowed low. The audience's thunderous applause joined the stomp of their boots on the hardwood floor and matched the beat of her racing heart. She grinned as triumph soared through her. She would be happy for the rest of her life with nothing else but a million moments like this one.
Her name shone beneath lamplight outside Bath's Theater Royal and was emblazoned across every society page. She'd made it. After five long years, she was an undisputed queen of the stage—nothing and no one could topple her from her pedestal.
The heavy curtain fell and the cast erupted into congratulations. Handshakes were offered and accepted, backs were slapped with boisterous appreciation, and willing cheeks were chastely kissed. With adrenaline sweeping through her, Monica lifted onto her toes and looked around for the writer of the play but couldn't see Adam anywhere above the bobbing, laughing faces of her fellow actors. No doubt she would see him later and have the opportunity to give him her heartfelt congratulations on another night's success.
Lifting her skirts, she congratulated her theater family as she laughed and whooped her way to the wings. She skipped down the steps as though they were wisps of summer cloud beneath her feet, her heart fit to bursting. Backstage, the corridor bustled with the raucousness of the stage staff as they hurried to get their work done in order to ensure they joined everyone else at the tavern for a celebratory drink ... or three.
Monica's smile stretched to a grin. The sooner she got out of her costume and dressed, the sooner she'd join them. She reached her dressing room and pushed open the door.
Stephanie, her dear friend and dresser, spun around from the wardrobe where she was about to hang the ruby-red dress from Monica's previous scene. She smiled. "Here she is. How was it?"
Monica plucked at the fingers of her gloves and tossed them onto her dressing table. "Well, nothing went amiss and for that, as always, I'm grateful. The audience's applause inferred they loved the play, so I'm more than happy."
"So you should be. The performances are going from strength to strength. It will be the West End next for you. Mark my words."
Monica sat at her dressing table and allowed her friend's fantasy to seep into her heart and soul. London. The lights. The music. The opportunity. She breathed deep. Sometimes it felt in touching distance....
"Did you see the letter I put on your makeup box?" Stephanie stood behind her and met Monica's eyes in the mirror. "One of the girls brought it backstage earlier. I assumed it was from another gentleman hankering for a half hour of your time, but as this one's in an envelope ..."
Monica frowned and moved her gloves to the side. The familiar handwriting snatched the breath from her lungs. "It ... can't be."
"What is it?"
She glanced at Stephanie in the mirror's reflection and picked up the envelope. She swiveled around and held it out. "It's from my sister. You open it."
Stephanie paled. "Something must be wrong."
"Exactly." Monica rose from her chair and lifted her chin. "Open it. I can't do it."
Their eyes locked as Stephanie broke the seal and extracted the letter. She lowered her eyes, her gaze scanning the page for a second or two before she looked again at Monica. "Do you want me to read it aloud?"
Monica nodded, words catching in her throat.
Stephanie exhaled a long breath.
I hope this letter finds you well. As much as I would have loved to have paid you a visit, Mama and Papa strictly forbade it and so, until now, I have been confined to stay at home as told. Friends have informed me you are quite the star of the city, and the dresses you wear are something us country folk can only imagine. I, of course, would have no idea of such things as I spend day after day being the dutiful daughter.
Stephanie held out the letter. "Here, you read it. Her tone is making me feel as though I'm snooping."
Monica stared, her body trembling. "Please, carry on. You know Jane as well as me. She can say nothing that I wouldn't want you to know."
Her friend briefly closed her eyes, her chest rising as she inhaled. Stephanie looked back to the letter and continued to read.
It saddens my heart that the first contact I have with you in three years is to tell you such grievous news. It is Papa. He is ...
Stephanie looked up a second time. "Monica, please, this isn't my place."
Monica slumped her shoulders and went to her friend, stealing her arm around Stephanie's waist, seeking the support she instinctively guessed she would need in a matter of seconds. Slipping the letter from Stephanie's fingers, Monica scanned the lines of script. Here and there, words were blurred as though her sister's tears had dripped onto the parchment. Finding the last line Stephanie had read, Monica exhaled.
He is dead. I am so sorry to tell you this way, but I cannot possibly leave Mama and come to Bath in person. There was an awful downpour last week and Papa went out alone on the gig, despite Thomas's pleading with him not to go, or at least allow Thomas to accompany him. The gig overturned and Papa was thrown asunder, hitting his head on a rock, as well as irreparably breaking his pelvis. Even though a doctor was the first at the dreadful scene, nothing could be done and he is certain Papa would have died instantly.
You must return home to us, dear sister. I need you more than words can say. Mama is ill. Her words are nonsensical the majority of the time, and the staff need constant supervision. I am twenty years old and feel fifty. I need you. Please write back and tell me when I can expect you home.
All my love, Jane
Monica blinked against the tears gathering in her eyes and stared at Stephanie. The brief mention of Thomas lingered in her mind, but she pushed it aside. She had no right to think of him now. Not when she'd purposely allowed herself no thoughts of him in years.
She swallowed. "He's dead. Papa is dead. How can it be so? Why would he drive out alone without Thomas?" She shook her head. "I ... I ... can't go back there. I can't allow Mama to strip me down once more. But what am I to do? I can't leave Jane alone to cope with everything. Her soul will be ripped from her quicker than mine without Papa by her side."
Stephanie pulled her into a comforting embrace. "Everything will be all right. We can go back for a little while and then return. You have to go. You have to bury your father."
Dread pressed down like a lead weight on Monica's chest. She lowered her head to her friend's shoulder and pondered the loss of the man who'd raised her, yet never truly loved her. As much as their father favored Jane and her obedience, the lack of a son continually riled him. With just two daughters, he'd grown bitter and resentful toward his children, no matter how much they endeavored to please him.
Tears burned as shame curled and bit inside Monica's heart. She'd tried her best to be what her father wanted, but the backlash of a failed love affair with a man who promised her the world had hardened her parents' hearts against her. Monica's tears broke as she questioned whether she wept due to the death of her father or the reality she would have to return home to her family's country house in the small village of Biddestone.
The walls closed in around her and the laughter outside her dressing room door morphed into cruel jeering, rather than the joviality she'd enjoyed only minutes before. She closed her eyes and her mind filled with images of her father's face, contorted in rage when Monica left their family's summer home in Bath for the final time over five years before. The Season had come to an end and her family planned to return to their country estate for the autumn. This was the time Monica had announced she intended to stay in the city to pursue her acting career.
The proclamation and her failed courtship to a man her family deemed not just suitable, but an asset, had enraged her father and disgusted her mother. Her spat words of Monica's selfish disobedience had dashed her daughter's face like scarlet letters, clouding Monica in a shame that had taken years to dissipate.
She couldn't go back. She couldn't go home to have her family drag her back down into the mud that had taken so very long to clean away. Easing from Stephanie's embrace, Monica strode to her dressing table and tossed her sister's letter into the wastebasket before ripping the pins from her hair with trembling hands.
"I have commitments here. I cannot just up and leave at Jane's bidding. The play doesn't finish for another week. I won't let Adam down. I can't let him down. He's done too much for me to walk away before we are done."
Stephanie stood to her side. "It's entirely your choice, but won't you regret not going home in the long term?"
Monica shook her head. "If my family needed me, they would've at least sent the occasional letter in the passing years. They didn't. Their silence makes me all the more certain I won't regret not being there to see Papa buried." She swallowed further tears that clogged her throat. "I don't have to do anything they say anymore. I'm my own woman."
Stephanie sighed and met Monica's eyes in the mirror. "It isn't in you to ignore anyone in their time of need. You are better than that. You care about everything and everyone around you. You will be no more able to ignore your family than you would me."
As much as her friend's words scored wounds in her heart, Monica lifted her chin, her heart beating fast. "The play needs me."
"The play will go on. You know how good your understudy is, and as much as you have succeeded this year, there will be other plays, other opportunities. The sooner we go, the sooner you can see what needs to be done and come back. Who knows? Maybe with your father passed, your mother will want to sell the house and come to live in Bath permanently."
Monica snatched her hand from Stephanie's and leaped to her feet. "Do not say that. Never say that."
Their eyes locked. Monica couldn't deny the tone of her sister's letter screamed of Jane's desperation. Their mother was hard and aloof. If Jane needed help ...
With a curse that befitted neither lad nor lady, Monica paced the length and breadth of the room. She fisted her hands on her hips, her strides long and encumbered by her stupid costume. "Fine." She drew to an abrupt stop and swiped at her cheeks. "We'll go, but the moment I know things are as regimented as they always were at that godforsaken estate, we tumble Jane into the carriage and return with her to Bath. Mama has never needed me before and I'm sure she won't now. I'll bury my father and then return back to the place I belong. Nothing or no one will keep me in Biddestone for any longer than absolutely necessary."
* * *
Thomas dismounted and led his horse to the hitching rail outside Biddestone's hardware store. He tied Jake securely and looked along the street toward the village pond. Children played at the water's edge as their mothers chattered in groups alongside, enjoying the late July sunshine. He shifted his gaze to the left and narrowed his eyes when he recognized two men who'd given him trouble at The White Horse a few nights before.
He clenched his jaw. The last thing he wanted was to repeat the lesson he'd been forced to bestow on the newcomers when he'd ejected them none too gently from the tavern.
One of the men looked in Thomas's direction.
Thomas stepped away from Jake and touched his finger to the brim of his hat in cold, clear acknowledgment. The man stilled for a heartbeat before he gave a curt dip of his head. The other man turned and his arrogant, cocksure gaze met Thomas's. Thomas pulled back his shoulders and waited....
Clearly of more intelligent thinking than they'd been the previous night, the men exchanged a glance, tossed Thomas a wry smile, and walked away. Satisfied there would be no further trouble, Thomas smiled softly and walked up the wooden steps in front of the hardware store. He pushed open the door and a bell above him announced his arrival. Leaning down, he roughed Duke's ears. The owner's collie remained nonplussed as he lay in his habitual spot, sitting sentry at the threshold.
Thomas removed his hat and approached the counter.
Cecil Carpenter, the storeowner, leaned his hands on the counter and smiled broadly. "Thomas, what can I do for you?"
"I need a new ax, for starters." Thomas roamed his gaze over the boxes of ammunition behind Cecil. "And a box of my usual bullets."
"Coming right up." Cecil turned, moved a wooden ladder to the shelving, and climbed the rungs. "So how are things at the house? I still can't believe Mr. Danes is gone."
Thomas drew in a long breath and spoke to Cecil's turned back. "Everything's as expected. Miss Jane is doing her best to keep going. Even though relations between her and her father were becoming strained before he died, now he's gone"—he shook his head—"the girl looks lost. She has no friends to speak of, what with Mrs. Danes having kept her on such a tight leash her entire life. God only knows what will happen next."
Cecil climbed down the ladder and placed a box of bullets on the counter. He frowned. "Isn't there another daughter who hightailed it off to Bath? Can't think of her name right now...."
Thomas's stomach knotted with irritation as his mind filled with the woman Cecil spoke of. "Monica."
Cecil smiled. "That's it. Monica. How could I forget? Pretty as a picture that one. Heard she found her fortune onstage. She must have matured into a fine woman."
Thomas glared. "You know what these theaters are like, they'll employ anyone willing to make a fool of themselves for a taste of the limelight. It doesn't take beauty to do that, it takes single-minded selfishness."
"That's what you think, is it?"
Cecil lifted his eyebrow. "You were always keen on her as I remember."
"The hell I was."
Cecil tipped his head back and boomed a burst of hearty laughter before moving away and disappearing through a door at the back of the shop where the axes were kept. Thomas turned and leaned his backside against the counter, focusing his glare at the window. Monica Danes. Beautiful didn't come close to describing the mesmerizing creature he remembered so well.
He closed his eyes. Thick, dark chocolate-brown hair that shone in the sun or moonlight; striking bright blue eyes that lit with laughter or darkened with anger. The woman had held his heart in her hand for half his life, and it would surely only be a matter of time before she returned now that Miss Jane had written her.
He opened his eyes. Maybe she wouldn't come. It wouldn't surprise him, considering she had no sense of obligation to anyone but herself. Hadn't she stayed in Bath despite her parents' clear need for her at the house?
"Will this do you?"
Cecil's question cut through Thomas's deliberation and he turned, forcing all thoughts of his employer's eldest daughter from his mind. He took the ax from Cecil and bounced it in his palms, feeling the weight before he clutched it in both hands, hefted it over his shoulder, and slowly lowered it again.
Thomas nodded. "That will do just grand. Add it to the account, would you? I'll be back at the end of the week to settle up."
Cecil reached beneath the counter and brought out a leather-bound ledger and pencil. He noted down the purchases and met Thomas's eyes once more. "So what you going to do if Miss Monica does come back?"
Thomas stilled. "What do you mean?"
Cecil grinned. "You can stand there glaring and spitting sawdust as much as you want. You were sweet on her from the moment you started working for the Danes family until the day she left. I remember you skulking and scowling about the village when that beau of hers started calling, all puffed up like he had the right to court any woman he saw fit."
Thomas shook his head and snatched the bullets from the counter. "I've no idea who you're talking about."
"Surprised she didn't marry him, the way Mrs. Danes used to boast about their nuptials. What went wrong there? Do you know?"
Excerpted from What a Woman Desires by Rachel Brimble. Copyright © 2014 Rachel Brimble. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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