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Miss Atherton’s Misfortune and Sad Entanglements

A letter from Miss Lucretia Atherton to Mr. Henry Atherton, steward of Viscount Saybrook’s Lincolnshire estate. Brighton, May 1821.

My dear nephew:

If the physician be correct in his prognostications, by the time you read this letter I will be dead. Rejoicing, I trust, along with my Maker, if our Lord can find it in his heart to forgive the mistakes of a woman whose sins lie far in the past. I flatter myself that my keeping of your daughter for all these years—more than ten, now, since the passing of my own dear niece, your wife!—will stand me in good stead as I face my day of judgment.

But now I must return poor Harriot to your care, as it has been her misfortune not to secure herself a husband during these years she has lived with me as my companion. Although the primary purpose in removing her from Lincolnshire was to prevent any unfortunate entanglements with the sons of Lord Saybrook, I did advise you that she would have a far better chance of securing herself a suitable husband if she came to me, rather than stayed with your widowed self. But she has not. Why this should be so, I cannot begin to fathom. She has been taught how to run a small household, and how to best keep its accounts; she has a kind, selfless sort of temperament; and, though not a diamond of the first water, she can be pleasing when she makes a proper effort with her toilette. Surely the demands I placed upon her as my companion could not have so occupied her mind as to it leave it no room for wooing.

Misfortune

Brighton, 1883, complements of Antiquemapsandprints.com

I cannot account it my fault. My political work here in Brighton has often brought us into company with gentlemen of the proper social standing, but Harriot would have none of them. Nor did the sons of any of the local gentry seem to catch her eye, nor she theirs. At least we may be thankful her head was not turned by any in the Prince Regent’s dissolute set, who parade about the town in their ridiculous fashions and dandified airs, preening as if they were peacocks wooing a hen. I do not look kindly on our current King for bringing such a dissolute set to my poor Brighton, even if their patronage has contributed to the economy of the town.

I did think at one time Harriot might harbor a tendre for a young officer whose regiment had been stationed in the town. But despite my continual urging, she failed to bring him to the point, and his regiment left town without his having made the expected declaration. Miss Terpent, Brighton’s most determined gossip, dared to put it about that Harriot had allowed Lieutenant Chamberlayne liberties that no lady ought, but for my part, I cannot believe it of my niece. You can be certain I squashed such ill-bred, groundless rumors as soon as they came to my ears, and no word of such things should follow her home.

I understand from Harriot that you have seen little of the new Lord Saybrook at the estate since the passing of his father. I do hope he continues to spend the bulk of his time in London; it would be a pity to send Harriot away for a decade to avoid an inappropriate entanglement with a boy above her station, only to have the grown man persuade her into a dalliance upon her return. I understand from my friends in the city that your new lord is of a low, dissolute character, particularly in his relations with the gentler sex, and have warned your daughter accordingly.

Although I did think from some remarks Harriot let drop that it was not the heir, but his brother, whom she recalled with some fondness—

Be that as it may. I am at peace, knowing I have done all I could for your child.

I will recommend your soul to your wife when we meet in Heaven, and pray it will be many years before you join us there.

I remain, your dutiful Aunt,

Lucretia Atherton

MisfortuneAbout the Book:  A Lady without a Lord

Book #3 in The Penningtons series

A viscount convinced he’s a failure

For years, Theodosius Pennington has tried to forget his myriad shortcomings by indulging in wine, women, and witty bonhomie. But now that he’s inherited the title of Viscount Saybrook, it’s time to stop ignoring his responsibilities. Finding the perfect husband for his headstrong younger sister seems a good first step. Until, that is, his sister’s dowry goes missing . . .

A lady determined to succeed

Harriot Atherton has a secret: it is she, not her steward father, who maintains the Saybrook account books. But Harry’s precarious balancing act begins to totter when the irresponsible new viscount unexpectedly returns to Lincolnshire, the painfully awkward boy of her childhood now a charming yet vulnerable man. Unfortunately, Theo is also claiming financial malfeasance. Can her father’s wandering wits be responsible for the lost funds? Or is she?

As unlikely attraction flairs between dutiful Harry and playful Theo, each learns there is far more to the other than devoted daughter and happy-go-lucky lord. But if Harry succeeds at protecting her father, discovering the missing money, and keeping all her secrets, will she be in danger of failing at something equally important—finding love?

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An excerpt in which Theo offers Harry a long-overdue apology

“I know it’s not much,” he said, gesturing to the flowers. “But rue is supposed to symbolize regret, is it not?”

“Yes. But how could I ever regret receiving my first bouquet from a gentleman?”

“What? No flowers, ever? Why, those fops down in Brighton must be slow tops, indeed.”

“Slower than you, certainly,” she answered, a smile in her voice.

An even worse thought entered his head. Theo clasped his hands in front of his heart in exaggerated entreaty. “Please tell me the boys of Lincolnshire weren’t as dilatory. An entire field full of meadow rue wouldn’t come close to conveying my regrets if your very first kiss came from my bumbling adolescent self.”

“Best start gathering ye rue while ye may, then, sir,” she teased. “And your sin was even more reprehensible than that. For I’d been nursing the most painful case of calf-love for your brother Benedict at the time.”

Theo groaned. “And instead you got me, the careless, foolish brother. How utterly demoralizing, both for you and myself. But only say the word and I’ll dash off a missive this moment, inviting Benedict back to the family manse so you can exert your feminine wiles on the boy.”

Yes, a sensible plan, that, masterminding a match between his brother and the daughter of his steward. Why, then, did the idea of Harry kissing Benedict make him so ill at ease? And not only, he feared, because he worried Ben’s attentions were fixed on someone else entirely.

“Please, do not trouble yourself,” Harry said with a laugh. “As an old Friesian general of my great aunt’s acquaintance used to say, ‘calf-love, half-love, old love, cold love.’”

Theo leaned an arm against a hay bale. “Ah, found a better swain in Brighton than old Ben, did you? One who gave you no flowers, the dunderhead. But perhaps a few kisses, to erase the memory of mine?”

A small, secret smile lit her face. “No need to worry, sir. Yours is not the only kiss I’ve ever received.”

“Ah, you did have a love in Brighton,” Theo said, struggling to make his tone as light as his words. “So why did you leave?”

Harry bent over his drab little bouquet as if she expected to find some hidden scent amongst its wilting blooms. When she raised her head, that private smile was gone, replaced by one wider, but far more brittle. “Not every kiss leads to lasting love, sir. As I’m certain you are well aware, if even a tiny portion of the tales of your London escapades are true.”

The false cheer in her voice, the way she turned the subject away from herself and back on to him—was not it just like her, to insist her own feelings were of no matter? But she had been hurt by her faithless swain, of that he was certain. Damn the perfidious cur to hell and back.

“Of course not,” he said. “Some kisses are simply for pleasure. And some are to dissipate tension, or anger. Some can even offer comfort. Like this.”

Cupping her nape in his hand, he set his lips against hers, pressing all the solace he could into the simple touch.

He had meant it to ease her cares, but the warmth and stillness of her beneath him seemed to calm him, too. Almost as if the tranquility of the lavender about which she’d sung resided somehow within her.

After a long, quiet moment, he raised his head. Stroking a thumb over her cheek, he gazed into her wide, wide eyes.

“Whoever he is, Harry, he is not worth your regrets. Not if he let you go without a fight.”

Then, before impetuosity and rising lust drove him to demand more, he scrambled down the ladder and out into the starless night.

About the Author

Misfortune

Bliss Bennet writes smart, edgy novels for readers who love history as much as they love romance. Her Regency-set series The Penningtons has been praised by the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Reviews as “a series well worth following”; its books have been described by USA Today as “savvy, sensual, and engrossing”; by Heroes and Heartbreakers as “captivating,” and by The Reading Wench as having “everything you want in a great historical romance.” The latest book in the series is A Lady without a Lord.

Gossip makes the march go faster

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, soldiers’ wives were the army support crew, scavenging for food, mending and washing clothes, nursing the wounded, and even working alongside the men.

“Thought you’d be with the wounded, Maggie,” Becky Watson said, trying but failing to keep the glee from her tone. Maggie Palmer had been lauding her extra income and increased status over the other women since she’d won the coveted nursing position, and Becky was not the only one to rejoice in her downfall.

Maggie glared at the girl who rode her donkey twenty yards in front of them. Fifteen years old, newly married, and taking up the duties of the real doctor, her father, who had collapsed with an apoplexy on the day she married Melville.

Lady Melville didn’t notice Maggie. All her attention was on the cart carrying those fit enough to be dragged along with the regiment to their winter quarters, her father among them. For the moment, she was the closest the regiment had to a regimental surgeon. 

“Wash, wash, wash. And every bucket needing to be carried from the river and heated over the fire. I washed this morning, I told her, and I’ll be damned if I wash again. And changing the sheets every day, and all that rubbish. Thinks she’s so much better than us just because she managed to snare a baronet.”

“Captain Brownlie always makes the nurses wash,” Becky pointed out. She’d been appointed nurse herself until little Freddie was born, but Captain Brownlie wouldn’t have women with children in the hospital quarters.

She hoisted the toddler higher onto her hip and kept trudging. The women had left camp as soon as possible after first light, and had been walking for an hour. They’d be another seven on the road. Becky could do with Lady Melville’s donkey, and that was a fact.

Maggie hadn’t finished complaining. “She isn’t her father. She’s not an officer, or even a proper doctor. She has no right to order me around.”

This charming painting purports to record a moment in history, when a child with a French regiment was put on the tomb of a knight to sleep, out of the way of a fight, covered by his father’s jacket.

Maggie was a fool. As long as the Colonel backed Lady Melville’s commands—as he had when Maggie went bleating to him with her complaints—the lady had every right to order the nurses about.

But all the wives knew Maggie was bitter because her former services to Lieutenant Sir Gervase Melville had stopped when he suddenly up and married. And Becky would bet her best iron pot that Maggie did a lot more for him than cooking and cleaning. Mind you, Lieutenant Melville didn’t confine himself to regimental widows like Maggie. He had dipped his toes in a lot of other soldiers’ bedrolls, as well as the local bits of fluff who came out to serve the regiment wherever it camped.

Swiving locals would be frowned on, but tupping the wives of his soldiers was worse. Mind you, it would be the woman who paid if anyone spoke out of turn. She’d be drummed out of the regiment and lucky if she was given the passage home. And the Lieutenant would get a rap on the knuckles.

“I’m going to tell the Lieutenant,” Maggie declared. “He’ll make her take me back.”

Becky stopped to move Freddie to the other hip, then hurried to catch up. “Don’t make trouble for her, Maggie. She has it hard enough. You know what he’s like.”

None of the wives believed the poor girl had suddenly started tripping over tent pegs and bumping into corners. Melville had been horrified when forced to marry the doctor’s daughter, and Melville in a temper was a nasty man.

But Maggie was obdurant. “Serves her right. She made her bed when she seduced him. She’ll just have to lie in it.”

Becky shook her head. No point in arguing. Maggie had her mind made up, but Becky didn’t believe Lady Melville seduced the baronet. Not her. As nice and as ladylike as the Colonel’s wife, who Becky had served as maid back when she first married Watson, while the regiment was still in England.

In any case, anyone with eyes would know it hadn’t been Melville that the doctor’s daughter wanted.

Becky sighed. She was a happily married woman, and a mother. But even she could see the appeal of Captain Alexander Redepenning. It was over now, of course. Lady Melville had made her choice and was stuck with it.

And how it happened, Becky couldn’t fathom.

“Yes. That’ll do. Gervase will help me.” Maggie slid her eyes sideways to see the effect of her use of the baronet’s personal name.

Suddenly sick of the other woman’s nastiness, Becky decided to take a stand. “Watson says the Colonel’s wife has come over to join him in winter quarters. Used to be her maid, I did, and she still has a fondness for me.”

“Not as fond as the Lieutenant is of me,” Maggie smirked.

“Yes, well, that’s the point, isn’t it. The Colonel will want her to check that the camp followers are,” Becky quoted the oft-repeated demand of the regimental regulations: “sober, industrious, and of good character. Don’t worry about it, Maggie Palmer. If they find out what you’ve done with the Lieutenant, you’d likely get your passage home. If the Colonel is in a good mood.”

Maggie frowned. “Are you threatening me?”

Becky shrugged. “Take it how you will. But leave Lady Melville alone.”

 

Their marriage is a fiction. Their enemies are all too real.

Ella survived an abusive and philandering husband, in-laws who hate her, and public scorn. But she’s not sure she will survive love. It is too late to guard her heart from the man forced to pretend he has married such a disreputable widow, but at least she will not burden him with feelings he can never return.

Alex understands his supposed wife never wishes to remarry. And if she had chosen to wed, it would not have been to him. He should have wooed her when he was whole, when he could have had her love, not her pity. But it is too late now. She looks at him and sees a broken man. Perhaps she will learn to bear him.

In their masquerade of a marriage, Ella and Alex soon discover they are more well-matched than they expected. But then the couple’s blossoming trust is ripped apart by a malicious enemy. Two lost souls must together face the demons of their past to save their lives and give their love a future.

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Tea at the Reverend’s House

Stantreath is a den of gossips! Poor Sophia and her sister Lucy came here to escape whispers of scandal as Sophia sought to raise her younger sister’s son without a cloud of ignominy following the boy through his life, but it did not take long for the round of gossip to begin again. And now that the boy’s uncle, Lord Haughton has arrived to make himself known to Sophia…

The assembled ladies waited patiently as Mrs. Fenton picked up the teapot, a smile small gracing her mouth as she poured the dark, steaming liquid into the four cups set out before her.

“The cakes are fresh,” she announced, jutting out her chin towards a tray decorated with an array of cream cakes and tarts. “I believe our cook has outdone herself this morning.”

Mrs. Kirkland glanced at Mrs. Runyon, but said nothing. The gall of the woman, to boast about the efforts of a cook, when they both knew very well that she’d never been able to keep on more than a housekeeper and that rheumy fellow who looked after their straggly lawn and horses.

“Lovely!” Mrs. Miller took two cakes for herself and prompted Mrs. Fenton to add a touch more milk to her tea. “And how is Mr. Fenton this morning? Already hard at work on next week’s sermon, no doubt?”

The reverend’s wife pushed her shoulders back, the lace lining the collar of her gown shifting slightly with the movement. “He does take such great care over his work. But, no. Today he has elected to call on Lord Haughton, who has recently arrived here in Stantreath.”

The pronouncement trembled in the air. All of the women present had already been apprised of the news at least a day before, yet to hear of an interaction with a member of the peerage, and with someone so closely connected to themselves… Well, the cream cakes sat forgotten as the ladies waited for Mrs. Fenton to continue.

“Does anyone know what has brought this Lord Haughton here?” Mrs. Miller finally ventured to ask when the silence had continued for a few seconds longer than her patience could stand.

Mrs. Kirkland cleared her throat as she picked imaginary crumbs from the napkin spread across her lap. “His carriage was seen outside of Lady Rutledge’s cottage,” she said, delivering the news with the elocution of a governess.

“Mrs. Brixton?” Mrs. Miller paused with her cup an inch from her lips, the milky tea nearly spilling over the delicate rim. “Does he know her?”

“‘Mrs.’ indeed!” Mrs. Kirkland sniffed. “There’s always been something… untoward about Mrs. Sophia Brixton, if indeed she ever possessed a husband. And I wasn’t at all surprised to hear of her younger sister’s disappearance. Such a forward, flighty girl. I must say, I’m pleased to see her gone from Stantreath and away from the eyes of our impressionable young men.”

The other women nodded their agreement, lace and ribbons bouncing around caps and fussy fichus.

“Though…” Mrs. Runyon spoke up for the first time, her already florid cheeks gaining more color as she peered over the edge of her wire-rimmed spectacles at their host. “I had witnessed some special attention paid to Mrs. Brixton by your own son. Unless, that is, I was mistaken in his behavior towards her.”

The tips of Mrs. Fenton’s fingers turned from pink to white as she returned her cup to the tray. “I’m not sure I know to what you’re insinuating,” she said, her lips barely moving as she spoke. “Josiah can sometimes overstep the boundaries of decorum in his efforts to appear… helpful and welcoming to others. But it does not signify as he’ll be leaving for London at the end of the summer, in order to prepare himself for taking on a post such as his father’s before him.”

Another glance passed between a few of the ladies as Mrs. Fenton bustled with the tea things, her agitation at the turn the conversation had taken showing in the tightness of her jaw, along with the clatter of the fine porcelain against the silver tea service.

“But what of this Lord Haughton?” Mrs. Miller pressed. “Does he intend to stay? Perhaps he’s looking to acquire one of the larger houses, or—”

“The only estate around here is Lady Rutledge’s crumbling pile of stones,” Mrs. Kirkland put in sharply. “And he’d do better to raze it to the ground before attempting to live in that dreary heap.”

One of the women tittered behind her hand, while Mrs. Fenton regained some measure of her former composure as she refilled cups and offered a second helping of cakes to her guests. “My husband will make his introductions to Lord Haughton, and also advise him to keep clear of some of the less savory inhabitants of our village. I’m sure Lord Haughton will see what true quality is once he makes Mr. Fenton’s acquaintance, and I promise each and every one of you an invitation to my table once Lord Haughton accepts my request to join us here for dinner.”

The other three ladies oohed and aahed over their cups and dabbed crumbs from their lips. Mrs. Fenton raised her chin an inch and surveyed the scene before her as she thought of an evening with Lord Haughton as one of her guests, and how differently everyone would treat her once word had spread that a member of the peerage had supped at her table.

“Now,” Mrs. Kirkland began, her spoon tinkling quietly against the inside of her cup as she stirred an extra bit of sugar into her tea. “Did you see Miss Wing’s bonnet yesterday? Such a garish creation! I’m surprised her mother let her wear it outside the house!”

***

Meet Quenby Olsen

Quenby Olson lives in Central Pennsylvania where she writes, homeschools, glares at baskets of unfolded laundry, and chases the cat off the kitchen counters. After training to be a ballet dancer, she turned towards her love of fiction, penning everything from romance to fantasy, historical to mystery. She spends her days with her husband and children, who do nothing to dampen her love of the outdoors, immersing herself in historical minutiae, and staying up late to watch old episodes of Doctor Who.

***

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Word from Southwark, Suspicions Confirmed

Theodoor Verstraete, High Tide

May 13th, 1679

The Hague

It was late afternoon and dark as dusk, with rain pelting the window again. It was unseasonably cold for May and the rain had barely stopped since March. As each dreary day rolled in off the sea, Alice’s dread deepened. It had been months since she’d had word of her family, and the local tea merchant who had last reported her sister missing had proved maddeningly difficult to find.

They had never gone so long without a letter from home before. By her estimation, Jane should have given birth again in late January, and Mark had never let such an occasion pass without writing. She filled the silence with an endless procession of nightmare scenarios, each of them ending in the death or injury of someone she loved.

Was Jane alive?

Where was Meg Henshawe?

How had a Jewish prizefighter come to own her childhood home and her family’s business?

This last question tied her mind in knots. Jack’s tailor was Jewish with family in London, and he had informed her that although his people had been formally readmitted to England, they were still not permitted to own property there.

How had he managed it? Was there a chance the tea merchant could be mistaken?

Alice’s heart leapt as the door slammed on the ground level. The noise was followed by heavy steps as someone thundered up the stairs.

“Your father’s home,” she whispered to her infant son, sleeping with his angelic face pressed into her shoulder. He had begun to fall asleep on her following his afternoon feeding, but Alice never had the heart to put him in his bed. He would be grown soon enough. Instead, she relaxed into her chair by the window and let him sleep.

Jack rarely made a sound as he returned home every day, light as the thief he had once been. Some things never changed. That she could hear him at all troubled her. Either something had happened, or he was being chased.

He flung open the door, out of breath. Immediately, he noticed Achilles in her arms. He flung up his hands in contrition, an opened letter clutched in one. “Sorry,” he whispered and closed the door behind himself.

“What is it?” she asked, her voice low.

Achilles yawned and slept on.

Jack’s face lit up. “A letter from Mark!”

Relief warred with excitement in her chest. Achilles felt it and shifted. “Is Jane well? What of my sisters?”

“Everyone’s well, by the sound of things. He had sent the letter to Paris and Achille had it forwarded to us when he returned from Versailles, that’s what’s caused the delay.”

He sat in the chair across from hers and passed her the letter. She shifted the baby’s weight more fully onto her shoulder and flipped it open with her left hand.

He leaned forward on his knees, watching her reaction. “You were right.”

Dear Jack,

Happy Christmas! I hope you and Alice and your little soldier are enjoying a nice quiet one. I have given up on ever having a good night’s sleep again and I find I am happier for it. There’s no use in wishing for the impossible, now more than ever. Jane gave birth to a healthy boy on Christmas Eve. We’re calling him John. He’s thriving and does not often cry, but the rest of the children make such a fuss over him it’s noisy as a lark’s nest. I nodded off at work on Meg’s kitchen this week and woke to her foot between my ribs. Married life has made her sweeter, but her toes are still sharp as anything.

I don’t expect she’s written, so I’ll be the first to tell you. Meg’s married Jake Cohen and now she refuses to make pork pies. The notion had my full support until she told me in no uncertain terms my pies are gone for good. I won’t half miss them, I can tell you! I suppose it’s worth it to see her so happy. Happiness on Meg is the strangest thing — she’s unrecognizable these days. More beautiful, if you can believe it. She wears her hair differently and when folks come looking for Meg Henshawe, she tells them she’s dead. I couldn’t be gladder for the both of them, but the whole ordeal has been rather humbling. If this is what happy looks like on Meg, I don’t recall seeing it before this month. Jake’s a right decent sort, but it would seem he’s a magician as well.

We’re on better terms with Meg now. Jane had some trouble with this last birth and Meg was able to help her, to my everlasting gratitude. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say Jane would not be alive if not for Meg, and I’ll never forget it.

Everyone else is alive and well. Alice’s sisters are selling cosmetics out of the inn and business appears to be picking up. Nothing like a pretty face to sell complexion tonic, except perhaps four of them. When you return you will find things roughly where you left them, but improved, as so few things are, with time.

Give my love to Alice and your boy.

Affectionately,

Mark Virtue

P.S. No word yet from Harry. He was last seen in the Carolinas, and I sent another letter there this week. Hugo is well and very excited to have another boy to play with at last.

Alice took a moment to catch her breath. “I was right,” she whispered. “Meg’s married Jake Cohen.”

Jack nodded. “I barely remember him. Was he the one with the unusual fighting style?”

Alice shrugged. “I never saw him fight, all I remember is Meg’s description.”

“And?”

“He’s built like a coach and four and handsome as the devil himself,” she mimicked her sister’s voice. “Those eyes, that punch…that back. God’s teeth, Bel, I could stare at him all night.”

Jack’s laugh was pure glee. “Sounds like she gets to now. Never thought I’d see the day.”

“You’re not the only one,” Alice sighed, feeling as though a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. “Meg. Married.”

Jack kneeled before her and took her hands in his. “You must be so relieved. I know you’ve been worried about your sisters.”

She nodded. “I’m sorry about Harry.”

His face fell almost imperceptibly, but she noticed.

“We’ll find him,” she assured him with more certainty that she had. “Or he’ll find his way back, just you see.”

Broken Things

Out Now

Content notes: contains profanity, violence, graphic sex, and references to domestic violence.

Rival. Sister. Barmaid. Whore.

Meg Henshawe has been a lot of things in her life, and few of them good. As proprietress of The Rose and Crown in Restoration Southwark, she has squandered her life catering to the comfort of workmen and thieves. Famous for her beauty as much as her reputation for rage, Meg has been coveted, abused, and discarded more than once. She is resigned to fighting alone until a passing boxer offers a helping hand.

Jake Cohen needs a job. When an injury forces him out of the ring for good, all he’s left with is a pair of smashed hands and a bad leg. Keeping the peace at The Rose is easy, especially with a boss as beautiful—and wickedly funny—as Meg Henshawe. In her way, she’s as much of an outcast as Jake, and she offers him three things he thought he’d never see again: a home, family, and love.

After Meg’s estranged cousin turns up and seizes the inn, Meg and Jake must work together to protect their jobs and keep The Rose running. The future is uncertain at best, and their pasts won’t stay buried. Faced with one setback after another, they must decide if what they have is worth the fight to keep it. Can broken things ever really be fixed?

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Death in Dallas

Some Juicy Gossip From Vikki McGlory Ward in Dallas

DallasSpring 1964

The day President Kennedy was assassinated, my husband Jack also died mysteriously. They ruled it a drowning—in a Dallas bathtub. But he wasn’t supposed to be in Dallas that day, and he never took baths. Determined to find out who killed Jack, because I wouldn’t accept the Dallas Police’s lame drowning ruling and shutting his case, I went from grieving widow to sleuth—and along the way, fell in love with the bodyguard my godfather hired to protect me. His name is Aldobrandi Po, a Sicilian who looks like Michelangelo chiseled him out of Carrera marble.

My journey as a sleuth brought me to a wide range of venues, from the Dallas County Jail to speak with Jack Ruby to a Plaza Hotel suite to confront a reptile by the name of Gio Bati, a lowlife gangster who just might have murdered my Jack.

I went to his suite with Al and my friend Polly, Bati’s ex. But I couldn’t meet him as Vikki Ward. Because we’d gone there on the pretense of offering him a business venture, I had to take on an assumed name and play a role. I’m no actress, and I could have been the next victim to drown in a bathtub if I blew this, but I did it for Jack.

We approached the double doors of Bati’s suite. Polly rang the doorbell, and I held my breath for the six seconds it took him to answer it. The door opened and there he stood—the bastard who’d plunged me into the agony of grief and changed my life.

He didn’t flaunt a greasy gangster look. His eyes weren’t shifty or beady; his lips weren’t fixed into a sneer. He was clean shaven, his shirt was crisp, his pants creased, his tie silk. Everything about his appearance reflected respectability and breeding. He stepped aside and swept his hand through the air in a welcome gesture.

I tried to keep my hatred in check. It wasn’t easy. This was an acting role in more ways than one.

“Hiya, mon cher,” Polly greeted him and Bati gave her a swat on the ass like an old married couple.

“You’re lookin’ good, vamp.” After a quick scan of Polly’s upper anatomy, he turned to me. “And this is Miz Daisy?” His eyes lingered on my décolletage. I tried not to let it repulse me.

“Right you are, but just plain Daisy to you.” Getting into character, I gracefully placed a cigarette in a diamond-inlaid holder and waited for him to light it. He plucked a lighter from his monogrammed shirt pocket. “Allow me. Hey, you’re one right purty filly, dawlin’.”

Al stepped between us and stuck out his hand. I expected his fist. “Aldobrandi Po. I’ll be a silent partner in our venture.”

Polly stood to leave and I knew we had to get down to business. As I fought down nausea, I silently vowed, I’m doing this for you, Jack.

“So—Ben—I hope this venture will be profitable for all of us. I purchased the personal telephone directory of a retiring Park Avenue madam. I caught some high-powered names in there. If this pans out, I’d like to start a male escort service, too.” Stay in character! I silently urged.

DallasWe clinked glasses and I made a sipping gesture but didn’t drink. He sank into an easy chair and took a sip of his drink, running his tongue over his lips. “Sounds like a noble way to make a living. But I’m hoping to make a hefty profit on this venture without having to do much physical labor.”

“You will,” I assured him. “That’s why Polly looked you up for this venture. Said you’d be a great asset to the business.”

“Well, I always steered business Polly’s way and never asked for a finder’s fee.” He stretched his legs out.

“You’re very generous.”

He looked down. “It’s just the way I’m sitting.”

“No, I mean—not wanting to be compensated.” I took another bogus sip. Al stood within shooting range of Bati’s head.

“So—take a seat, Al, and Daisy, was it? Cute.” He snickered. “Not too original, but cute. So drop the curtain and tell me your real name.”

I swept off the hat, making sure the wig stayed on. “My real name’s Cynthia Van Meegeren.”

Bati stood, reached for my hand, and brought me to my feet. “You’re a living doll.”

Al patted the pistol under his jacket.

I told myself to stay in character! “I wouldn’t kick you out of the boudoir, either, Ben.” I felt around until I touched the reassuring coolness of my .22. “You’d make a good male escort, too, if you’re, uh—up to it.”

“So, what brought you to this field of endeavor?” He refilled his glass.

“Well, I don’t know if Polly told you, but I was a call girl a while back, in Washington, D.C.” I recited my rehearsed lines. “I still maintain some contacts in Washington and entertain them when they come this way. Never did get to meet the Kennedy brothers, though. Isn’t it one of the blackest marks on our country’s history the way Kennedy was killed, right there in the open, with his wife right next to him?” I forced nonchalance into my tone, when in reality the memories tore my heart apart.

“Depends on who you’re askin’.” Bati dropped ice cubes into his glass with tongs.

This segue into Jack’s murder was easier than I’d rehearsed it. I pushed the excruciating memories away. Stay in character! “Jack Ward was far better than that youngster at the anchor desk now. Isn’t it terrible how he drowned?” I sallied forth, in agony reciting these lines. But it’s all for you, Jack.

Bati didn’t respond, just unlaced his spit-shined shoes and slid out of them. Like a snake, I kept thinking. A cold-blooded reptile.

“Did you know Jack Ward at all, Ben?” I ventured, going for broke now.

“How would I know him?” Bati glanced at his watch.

“I thought you might’ve traveled in the same circles.”

“They’re pretty big circles. If you ask me, Ward was a nosy sumbitch. Did the world a favor by croaking.” His tone remained detached, like he was talking about some historical figure he’d read about in American Heritage.

I wanted to choke him. Staying in character like this pushed me to the limit of human endurance. “I ask because Ward was one of my best clients. He told me he was onto the JFK plot.”

Bati shot me a quizzical glance. Now he looked interested.

I ventured on, “Ward was on the inside of the whole thing. Do you think he was silenced because of what he knew? Like Dorothy Kilgallen and all those other poor victims?”

“Yeah, so were a few whores with big mouths. I knew a few of ’em personally: Kandi Kane from N’awlins, who threatened to write a book about it, and Theresa Norton, one of Ruby’s gals.” His answer tore through me like a bullet.

On one level, I reveled in self-satisfaction at how well I was pulling this off. On a deeper level, I shuddered in revulsion at who this man actually was. Goosebumps sprouted on my arms. The hairs stood on the back of my neck. Dear God, how did actors do it? Stay in character!

Bati strode up to me and stood so close, I could smell the booze on his breath. “I hope you’re not always all business, Cyn, or sis, or whoever you are.” He bent his head over mine to kiss me. I couldn’t stop him. I tried to push him away, but it was like trying to move a rock.

Al yanked him off me, spun him around, and slugged him in the jaw. Knuckle cracked against bone.

Bati held his jaw with one hand, reaching inside his jacket with the other. Faster than she could blink, he whipped out a gun and aimed it at Al’s heart.

“No, don’t shoot him, please!” I pleaded.

“All right, let’s have it.” His voice grated like steel on concrete. “You might be a whore, but now I know—” He pointed at Al, “—he’s no goddamn pimp. You two and Polly are up to somethin’ no good, and I wanna know what it is.”

The jig is up. “Put the gun down, and I’ll tell you.”

His mirthless laugh made my skin crawl. “Nothin’ doin’. I know you’re both packin’, Bonnie and Clyde. Now tell me what’s goin’ on, and if I don’t believe it, he gets it first, then you.”

“Tell him everything, Vikki,” Al said as Bati raised his gun and aimed it at Al’s heart.

“All right, I’ll tell you!” I shook so hard my jewelry rattled. “Just please don’t shoot him!”

Bati kept a steady aim on Al as I trembled. “Having us followed, shooting at us in New Orleans…” I gulped air. “You killed the detective I hired and you drowned my husband. I had a lot of brushes with death finding out what happened. I want you to spare Al—please—he’s just my bodyguard. But you know what? Right now I don’t give a damn if I die, because I’ll be with Jack again. But first just tell me why you killed him. Tell me!” Hands outstretched, I grasped Bati’s lapels and shook him.

He didn’t make a move to push me away. I opened my palm and smacked him across the face. “You heartless, murdering bastard!”

Bati stared me down without a blink. “What in the holy name of hell are you babbling about, woman?” His voice stayed calm and even.

“My husband, Jack Ward.” I gritted my teeth. “Tell me what happened. For once, just find a shred of decency in that sick mind of yours and tell me why you had to drown Jack!” I raised my fists to pound at him. This time he caught them in one hand and threw them to my sides.

“I didn’t drown your husband, you fruitcake.” His tone was as calm as if he were telling the time.

“Stop denying it, you damn liar!” My breaths came in gasps. “I took a long time to track you down. You followed my husband to Dallas and drowned him in that bathtub. Now, if you kill me, I can accept that. But just tell me why you killed Jack. Why?” So desperate for the truth, I was willing to die for it.

“I don’t know what you’re yip-yappin’ about, and I didn’t drown your husband in no bathtub.” He looked down at me as if I were insane. “I never even met your husband.”

For a crazed instant, I almost believed him. His voice said it all.

“Okay, I’ll tell you.” His voice gentled, but his hand didn’t waver. “Your husband started showing up at JFK rallies and things, and following me and my associates around. I figgered he was onto us. He was a nosy, like I said. Typical vulture reporter. I work for whoever’ll hire me. For the Kennedy hit it was a branch of the CIA in cahoots with the New Orleans mob. I never met your husband, don’t know how the hell he got into a bathtub and drowned or what happened to him, I swear it.” He raised his right hand as if taking an oath on the witness stand.

“Look. Look at me!” Struggling to keep the trembling out of my voice, I tried to get him to take his attention off Al and onto me. Now I shook with fury, not fear. “Don’t you know me? You’ve never seen me before?”

“Nope.”

I yanked off the wig and my hair tumbled to my shoulders. “Now do you recognize me, Jack Ward’s widow? You’ve never seen my picture?”

“You ever pose for Playboy?” He leered, his eyes on my cleavage again.

“Certainly not!”

A wild, brash idea hit me like lightning. “Then maybe you’ll recognize me from the photo you took out of Jack’s wallet.” With one fluid motion, I ripped my blouse open and thrust out my bared breasts. Buttons flew across the room. “Now do you recognize me?”

He blinked, startled. His eyes bugged out. His mouth fell open.

Al lunged for him and knocked him off his feet with a karate kick. As Al grabbed Bati’s gun, I pulled out my .22, aimed, and fired. The silenced gunshot pierced Bati’s chest. He gurgled and gasped. Blood gushed from the wound. The metallic odor stung my nose and throat.

His lifeless body pitched forward. As he crumpled to the floor, I jumped aside and reached for Al.

“My God, Vikki, you saved my life.” His voice cracked.

“I’m glad you kept your wits about you when I yanked my dress open.” I swept my bra off the floor.

“I’m more of an ass man, myself.”

To this day, I don’t know what made me think to whip off my blouse and bare my breasts to distract that monster. I thought he’d seen a topless photo of me in Jack’s wallet. But I was in such a daze, I don’t think I remembered that, at that instant. We never told a soul, and his murder remains unsolved. But all these years later, as I’m in my 80s now, I told my grandkids about it. They trawl the internet for juicy gossip, and now they’ve heard the most salacious gossip of all, from their own Nana. And they promised not to Tweet about it or post it on Facebook.

By the way, I finally found Jack’s killer and he went to prison for life. But that’s juicy gossip for another day.

An Interview with Our Source, Vikki Ward

Vikki, what is your family like?

A bit crazier than others, mainly because my father was in the rackets in the 1930s and he’s a composer of Broadway show tunes. I had an unforgettable childhood. My father took me to every Broadway musical that came out. We had famous people to the house all the time for dinner and cocktails, and to me, they were just folks, I didn’t care how famous they were, or if their albums played in the background. Dad gave me piano lessons, although it wasn’t my calling the way it was his—I preferred painting, sewing and designing fashions as a creative outlet. I never knew my mom, she died tragically and suddenly when I was an infant. But my father’s second wife Greta treated me like her own daughter. We went everywhere together, museums, hair salons, shopping, for long strolls through Central Park. But in school nobody cared whose kid I was. It was a strict Catholic school and I was in a uniform like everybody else. My family is Roman Catholic and we still have all the saints’ statues in the hallways and backyards

Do you have any hobbies? What do you enjoy doing?

Designing costumes, going for bicycle rides with my husband and kids. I love to sing opera arias, although I’m not trained, and I make sure I’m alone when I do it. Fortunately, Al and I share a lot of interests – opera, painting, fashion—and one that most couples don’t share—guns. We have contests at the shooting range to see who’s the best shot. He also likes to hunt, which I don’t. But I’m good at cooking the venison he brings home

What is your greatest dream?

To write my father’s memoirs with the notes he won’t let me see until, as he says, “I’m planted.”

What kind of person do you wish you could be? What is stopping you?

I want to be more introspective, to look within and find my spiritual path. But I’m always out there doing something with the kids—it never ends. I’m too exhausted at night to meditate or do any soul-searching.

DallasAbout The Book   

The third in the New York Saga, The End of Camelot centers on Billy McGlory’s daughter Vikki, whose husband is murdered trying to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Vikki uses her detective skills to trace the conspiracy, from New York to New Orleans to Dallas, and at the same time, tricks her husband’s murderer into a confession. A romance with her bodyguard makes her life complete.

November 22, 1963: The assassination of a president devastates America. But a phone call brings even more tragic news to Vikki Ward—her TV reporter husband was found dead in his Dallas hotel room that morning.

Finding his notes, Vikki realizes her husband was embroiled in the plot to kill JFK—but his mission was to prevent it. When the Dallas police rule his death accidental, Vikki vows to find out who was behind the murders of JFK and her husband. With the help of her father and godfather, she sets out to uncover the truth.

Aldobrandi Po , the bodyguard hired to protect Vikki, falls in love with her almost as soon as he sets eyes on her. But he’s engaged to be married, and she’s still mourning her husband. Can they ever hope to find happiness in the wake of all this tragedy?

An excerpt from The End of Camelot

November 22, 1963

Larchmont, New York

Vikki entered her foyer and dropped her shopping bags on the floor. As she locked the door and kicked off her alligator pumps, the phone rang. She answered it in the kitchen, so she could raid the pastry box while she chatted.

“Vikki, it’s Linc Benjamin.” His ragged voice came over the line. “I have terrible news. Jack is dead.”

“What?” She couldn’t have heard right. “What did you say?”

“Jack was found in the bathtub of his hotel room this morning—”

She dropped the phone and slid down against the wall. Her glasses fell off her face. The room spun. Sunlight glared. She smelled the new coat of wax on the kitchen floor.

“Vikki? Vikki?” came faintly from the dangling receiver. She crawled over and grasped it. He would tell her it was a mistake, they had the wrong man, or it was another of Jack’s practical jokes.

“My Jack?” she whispered.

“Vikki, I’m so sorry,” he sobbed.

“Linc—no, please. Tell me it wasn’t Jack. Are you sure? There must be a mistake. Not Jack.” Her heart thudded like a hammer. A stabbing pain pierced her chest. She held the receiver away from her ear.

“Vikki, are you there?” His voice came through the earpiece. “If you want, I’ll be right over. I can tell you everything when I get there, or right now, whatever you want.”

“Now!” she demanded.

“The Dallas police found him drowned in his hotel bathtub—”

“Dallas? What was he doing in Dallas? He’s supposed to be in Chicago doing a story on the FBI!” she screeched, beyond rational thought. No, this had to be a mistake!

“I don’t know, Vikki. The maid found him. The Dallas police tried to call you all morning, but you weren’t home, so they called here, at the network. Do you want me to come over and—”

“Wait!” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Now—where is he now?”

“Parkland Hospital. They’re going to bring the bod—er, bring him back to New York after the autopsy.” His voice broke again. “God, Vikki, I’m so sorry. I feel like I lost my brother.”

She went blank, too stunned to think. Her hands shook so much she could hardly hold the phone.

“Vikki, do you want me to come over—”

“No.” She released the receiver. It swung away and banged against the wall. She curled up on the floor as the ticking clock echoed the thudding of her heart.

She wept in unbearable grief. Shutting her eyes tight, she cradled her head in her arms. A jumble of thoughts rendered her helpless.

“Please, God,” she prayed, “Let it be a mistake and Jack will come walking through the door.”

The doorbell rang. “Jack?” She forced her eyes open.

“Vikki!”

Her head throbbed with each pound on the door.

“Vikki! Are you okay? Can you hear me?”

The voice was her father’s, and as much as she wanted him with her, holding her, rocking her, the present was too much to bear. She wanted one last visit to the past with Jack, happy and alive and free from harm.

But the raw truth seared her soul: The past is gone, and so is your beloved Jack!

Too weak to walk, she crawled to the door, reached up, and unlocked it.

Her father rushed in and knelt beside her. “Vikki, honey?”

She collapsed into his arms, heaving gut-wrenching sobs.

“It’s okay, I’m here,” he crooned, like he was singing the songs he wrote for her.

“Dad—Jack…”

“I know.” He nodded. “JFK was shot in the head. The governor of Texas was shot, too.”

“No. My Jack! They found him—” Sobs burst from the depths of her soul.

“Huh? What…your Jack?”

Unable to speak any further, she nodded.

“Something happened to him?” He sat her down on the couch.

She drew in a ragged breath and he grasped her hands.

“Oh, God.” He held her and stroked her hair as she sobbed, her tears staining his scarf. “Okay, Dad’s here, I’ll stay with you. I’m sorry, I thought you were talking about President Kennedy. He just got shot.”

“President Kennedy?” She shook her head in disbelief. “No. Jack’s friend from the network called, and—” She couldn’t go on.

“Don’t talk. I’ll get you a brandy or something.” He glanced over at her liquor cabinet.

She didn’t even want him leaving her for a few seconds. He hung her phone up and it started ringing instantly. She heard spurts of conversation. His voice sounded like an echo in a marble tomb. He finally stopped talking and came back with a brandy bottle, a snifter, and her eyeglasses. “I found your glasses on the floor.” He took her into his arms and rocked her back and forth. “You’ll be okay, you’re strong, you’re my girl,” he murmured, and she wished he’d sing to her.

Instead he explained that President Kennedy had been shot on the motorcade route in Dallas.

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About the Author

Diana Rubino says, “My passion for history has taken me to every setting of my historicals. The “Yorkist Saga” and two time travels are set in England. My contemporary fantasy “Fakin’ It”, set in Manhattan, won a Romantic Times Top Pick award. My Italian vampire romance “A Bloody Good Cruise” is set on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean.

When I’m not writing, I’m running my engineering business, CostPro Inc., with my husband Chris. I’m a golfer, racquetballer, work out with weights, enjoy bicycling and playing my piano.

I spend as much time as possible just livin’ the dream on my beloved Cape Cod.

Visit Diana:

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