When John Mason discovers that his fiancée’s father has embezzled thousands of pounds from their mutual business, he’s furious. When his betrothed, Miss Mary Chartley, flees, taking the money and all the evidence with her, he’s outraged. He plans to bring the woman he once loved to account—and he’ll shed no tears when he does.
But when he finds Mary, she’s not living a life of luxury. Instead, she’s serving as a companion in exchange for a pittance. The more he attempts to untangle the truth, the more he remembers why he first loved Mary...and how much he wishes he could do so again.
“ I found the situation Mary escapes (or rather, situations) very well drawn. Each had that essential feeling of truth while allowing for the fictional solutions to play out.”
—Meoskop at It’s my Genre
“Courtney Milan is one of my favorite authors and she has yet again crafted a romance that is beautiful and deep with an eye for detail that I enjoy.”
—Rogues Under the Covers
Almost all of my books get code names as I write them. This book was code named… Okay, confession time. This novella sucked to write. This was a 3x novella--meaning that although it’s only 30,000 words long, I probably wrote 90,000 words total to get this puppy done.
Part of the reason for that is that I had a bunch of ideas that didn’t pan out. For instance, there was the version in which the heroine was a maid who set this dude’s hair on fire (no, really). I wrote about 10,000 extremely hate-filled words, before deciding there was no story there. Then there was the story I tried to write in which the husband and wife are both virgins on their wedding night and consequently, um, do it wrong. I think that would be a really fun story for someone else to write. It did not work for me.
There were three more false starts, and then this one. In the original version of this novella, the heroine was pretending to be a lady when in fact she was just the overly-educated cook’s daughter. That didn’t pan out, but there was enough good stuff in there that I could work with it.
So it wasn’t until I was halfway through with the book that I realized that it was really called “Variations on a Theme of Mary.”
February 1856, Southampton, England
“You there. Where do you think you’re off to? And where is your father?”
Miss Mary Chartley came to a stop in the hall, mere steps from escape. The servants’ door was only a few feet away. She silently cursed the board that had let out the telltale creak. Her shoulders ached. Her heart pounded. And behind her eyes, a headache had started, brought on by sleeplessness and unshed—
No. Not tears. She was done with crying.
She gathered her composure and her wits, and turned.
Her father’s one-time business partners had started to ransack the house early that morning. She had heard them come in; the constable who had accompanied them had even questioned her briefly. But they’d busied themselves downstairs, leaving her free to do what needed to be done. She had hoped to simply steal out the back door, with nobody aware of her departure.
“Mr. Lawson.” She gave the nearest man a quick curtsey. “Mr. Frost.” Another dip of her head. Only one of the partners was missing, and she couldn’t let herself think about Mr. John Mason. “Good morning.”
It was absurd to observe the forms of propriety at a time such as this, but she’d been steeped in proper manners for most of her life. Five years of a very expensive finishing school in Vienna had trained her to smile at these men in pleasant harmony even while they pawed through her father’s things.
Mr. Lawson and Mr. Frost had made a shambles of the office. Her father’s carefully sorted papers had been strewn about the room; books had been pulled from their shelves and left in uneven, teetering piles. They’d wrested the drawers from the desk and splintered the wooden boards into kindling.
Lawson raised his head from the wreckage to contemplate her. “Where is your father?” he asked again.
“She doesn’t know anything,” Frost said after giving her a brief, dismissive glance. He was methodically flipping through books, searching for some hidden secret within their pages. “Look at her—dressed for a stroll in the park, as if nothing had changed.”
How else she was to dress, Mary did not know. She had walking dresses and riding habits, dinner gowns and morning gowns. But nothing in her wardrobe was marked, “Wear me in the event of disaster.” Her hand clenched inside its glove.
Frost tossed the book he held to one side and picked up another. But Mr. Lawson was still looking at her. Staring, really, in a manner that was anything but polite.
Ignore it, and your better manners will soon embarrass him into behaving properly. That was what the etiquette instructor at her finishing school would have advised her.
Ha. The instructor hadn’t known Mr. Lawson. He set down his papers and stepped toward her.
Her heart pounded faster. His lips were compressed in anger, but his eyes… She didn’t like that unblinking reptilian look in his eyes, nor the slither in his step.
“Where is your father, Mary?”
“Miss Chartley,” she corrected gently. “I think we’ll all be happier if you call me Miss Chartley, and—”
He grabbed her wrist. “You really don’t understand. You stupid creature. ‘Miss Chartley’ is what I’d call a lady, and in case you haven’t discovered it, you no longer fit the description. The sooner you recognize that, the better it will go for you.”
Mary yanked her wrist away. She hadn’t had time for soul-searching. She certainly hadn’t had time to quietly contemplate her new position in the complicated taxonomy of womanhood. All her thoughts since three that morning had been consumed by one thing: getting her trunk and its contents miles away from these men before they discovered the truth.
“No railway receipt, no record of a hired cab,” Frost was saying, shaking his head. “It’s as if Chartley simply vanished. And when I find him—”
No question about it. Mary had to get her trunk away from here, and quickly.
But Lawson took hold of her wrist once more, wrenching her arm around her back as if she were a scullery maid caught stealing the silver. “Where is your bleeding father?”
That twisting motion really hurt, sending stars floating across her vision. Aside from the rap of a ruler across her knuckles, nobody had ever touched her in violence.
But it wasn’t the pinched face of her etiquette instructor that came to mind. It was the round, frowning visage of her piano master.
Weep later, he would have said in a heavy German accent. Play now.
She jutted out her chin. “I don’t know.” True in at least one respect. She wanted to believe that Papa, whom she’d loved so dearly, was in heaven. But if there was any truth to what the curate said, he was likely in hell.
“And what message did he leave you?” His grip tightened on her wrist.
“Nothing.” Lying came easier, the more she did it. Her father might have been a cheat and a thief, but he’d loved her and she’d loved him. She would save him this final indignity.
“You’re getting tiresome, Mary.” Lawson yanked her wrist. She took two stumbling steps toward him before she found her balance. “I don’t think you understand what it means that he’s abandoned you. If he’s gone for good, you’re nothing.”
Her skin crawled, but she suppressed all hint of a shiver. “I still don’t know—”
He wrenched her elbow. “You really don’t understand. Why, as your father’s closest associate, I’m practically your guardian. And do you know what I do with wayward girls who won’t speak to me?”
There was nothing he could do to her anymore. She’d been the one to discover her father’s note. She’d found his body. The physical pain was nothing to that. But every second she remained here being manhandled by them was another moment where someone might find the trunk she’d lowered out her window.
Her father was an embezzler and a suicide. Nobody would help her—nobody except herself. She shut her mouth and tried once again to free her arm.
Lawson pulled his arm back, made a fist—
“Lawson,” a new voice said, “what do you think you’re doing?”
Lawson straightened, moving away from Mary so quickly that she gasped in relief.
“Aw,” Lawson said, “I didn’t mean any harm. I was just going to—”
“I have a good idea what you were going to do.” With those words, John Mason stepped into her father’s office. Mary shut her eyes. She hadn’t cried, not even when she’d realized that her father had left her alone with nothing. Not when she’d realized that the future she’d dreamed of was gone forever. It had been easy to bury her fear, her despair, her mourning. Those emotions were too big to believe, her loss too large to comprehend.
Why, then, did the sight of John Mason make her want to weep?
She opened her eyes wide, willing that stupid moisture to evaporate into nothingness.
Across the room, John met her gaze briefly and then looked away.
He didn’t belong with these men; he never had. The other men were both grandfathers; John was scarcely twenty-five. They were dressed in sober, respectable browns and grays, every white starched to points; John’s cravat was a bare pretense of a neckcloth, well-laundered but soft. Most of all, the other men were thin and pale from hunching over desks, while John’s hours out of doors had left him golden skinned and broad shouldered.
He hadn’t been part of their initial investment scheme. His father and his brother-in-law had been involved. But he’d taken over when his relatives had passed away.
That was how she had met him.
She had always believed his eyes were sweet—large and liquid brown. There had been nothing sweet about them last night when he’d confronted her father, proof in hand, finger pointing directly at his chest. There was nothing sweet about them now, either. Mary’s stomach churned, and she looked away.
“Don’t be difficult, boy,” Lawson said. “It’s your money at stake, too. She knows something. I swear it’s so.”
“I don’t truck with hitting ladies,” John responded.
“She’s no lady.”
John’s eyes flicked to Mary, touching her without really seeing her. But he didn’t contradict the older man. He simply shrugged. “I don’t truck with hitting women, either,” he said in a low growl, then spat on the ground.
Don’t spit on Papa’s carpet, some stupid part of her wanted to say. As if the Turkey carpet mattered. Just one more possession to be sold to make up for his wrongdoings. One more thing for her to leave behind. Still, that disrespect hurt more than John’s casual acceptance of her new status.
“Come now,” Lawson said. “Given what her father owes us, she’s practically a servant. It’s not wrong to slap—”
John shoved the other man into the wall of the office. “I mean it, Lawson. That’s enough.”
She forced herself to concentrate on the hard lines of John’s face, so different from the confident smile that he usually gave her when their paths crossed. He made her think of a rocky cliff: impossibly hard, with an unforgiving drop to the crags below.
“Very well,” Lawson finally muttered with a sullen sneer. “But one day, you’ll regret letting her go. Useless bitch.” That last was directed at her.
Mary wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her affected by that epithet. She simply nodded to the two men, as if this were the last round of an exchange of pleasantries, and turned to go.
John set his hand in the curve of her spine and guided her away, down the dark hallway, to the back of the house. He wrenched the servants’ door open and then glanced outside, verifying that nobody was about. Then, and only then, did he turn to her.
“Mary…” He ran one hand through the dark brown of his hair. She’d never heard his voice like this—dark and rumbling like thunder on the horizon. She’d never seen his eyes like this, either. There was a tension in them, worry lines gathering at the corners. He wasn’t quiet because he intended to be gentle with her. It was the quiet of a pot on the verge of boiling over.
“John.” She shut her eyes.
“Swear to me that you don’t know where he is.”
Like everyone else, he was thinking only of her father. But unlike the others, at least he believed her. For now. Mary’s thoughts went to her trunk, to the ache in her arms.
“If I had to guess,” she told him gravely, “I would say that he went straight to hell. He left me—” All that angry fury raged within her for a moment, startling in its heat. No place to put it now; she had too much to do.
“Did he tell you where the money was?”
“Not a word.”
“What are your plans? Is that your trunk over there?” His tone was curiously flat as he spoke to her—not devoid of emotion, but withdrawn, as if he’d turned away from his own feelings.
She hadn’t dared to look at the massive steamer trunk where it lay. It had followed her from Southampton to Vienna, and then back for more holidays than she could count. It was large enough to fit all the many components of a lady’s wardrobe, and that made it very large indeed. The rope she’d used to lower it was still fastened to one handle, the brass fittings dented where it had banged against the ground when it had gotten away from her. She glanced over, bit her lip, and nodded.
He didn’t rush over and open it. Thank God.
“Do you have anywhere to go?”
“My father’s second cousin lives in Basingstoke. He’ll take me in.” The lies came easier now.
“And you have a plan.” He nodded. “I wish…” His voice was still flat, but his lips pressed together.
She turned away. “Don’t wish. You’ll only say something that we’ll both regret. After last night, anything more is impossible.”
And yet the possibility of that more kept intruding on her. Was it so little, then, that they’d had between them? She had liked the look of him, the way that he laughed. He’d liked the look of her. That was all. A few months’ acquaintance.
A few kisses, a few conversations—not much, but enough to spark a lifetime of hope. Enough that she’d chosen the possibility of him and family over…
No. She couldn’t let herself think that way any longer. Those memories belonged to another woman entirely—Miss Mary Chartley, the daughter of a respected member of the community. She wasn’t sure who she was in this skin any longer, but she’d ceased to be that person. No matter what she and John might once have been to one another, it wasn’t enough to survive the cataclysm of discovering that her father had taken thousands of pounds from their partnership.
She took off one glove, removed the ring from her finger, and held it out to him.
His flat façade finally cracked. His hand slapped against his trousers, and he turned his head from her. “God damn it.”
“Set it against my father’s debt.”
His jaw worked. It took him a few breaths to regain his composure, but when he turned back, he didn’t take the ring from her. “You’ll need help getting to the station.” Before she knew what was happening, he was reaching for the handle of her trunk.
She couldn’t let him touch that. If he tried to lift it, he might wonder what made her luggage so heavy.
“Really, John,” she said sharply, stepping in front of him. “I should think you’ve done enough.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Doesn’t it? Say you love me, that you would marry me without any fortune, with my father in disgrace. Say your sister would welcome me into the family, knowing that my father stole her son’s future.”
He met her eyes. She wasn’t sure what she saw reflected there. Regret? Anger? “You’re right,” he finally said. “I can’t say anything of the sort. But—”
“I don’t love you, either. If I did…” She slipped the ring into his hand. “If I did, surely I could not give you this with my head held high.”
If he’d put her in mind of thunder before, that flashing look in his eyes was the lightning, spearing her through in one instant. For one second, she thought he was actually going to grab hold of her. But he didn’t move. He didn’t even frown. He simply took a deep breath and shoved the ring into his pocket.
“Well, then.” Another breath, and he looked away. “Good riddance.” His voice dropped low on that last.
It was a good thing her heart had turned to stone, or it might be breaking now. She hadn’t loved him. She couldn’t have. If she’d loved him, she would be weeping now, and she refused to weep. But they would have had a home all of their own. Children. Happiness. Warmth. She would have had John himself, so sweet, so strong, and yet so utterly implacable when betrayed…
He leaned down to her. He didn’t put his hands on her and draw her close, as he might once have done. Still, she felt the echo of those prior intimacies on her skin. On her lips, tingling with his nearness.
He was going to kiss her one last time. She’d yearned for his kisses before, but she didn’t want one now. She wanted her memories of him to remain unsullied by the last twenty-four hours.
But close as he came, his lips didn’t touch hers.
“Mary,” he said softly. “My nephew’s future depends on the income from this partnership. If I find out that you have lied to me, that you know where your father is and where he hid what he stole…” He raised his eyes to hers. “I will escort you to the gates of hell myself.”
Content notes coming eventually-ish.