Trial by Desire: Enhanced Content

The enhanced content in Trial by Desire is Q&A, audio clips, and some pictures.


Q. Why does Ned leave on a ship named Peerless?

A. I used to be a law professor. I taught contracts. There is a very famous case involving a ship named Peerless coming from Bombay, which turned on the fact that there were multiple ships named Peerless. The contract was declared void because the parties to the contract had imagined they were contracting for shipments on different ships Peerless. In short, Ned’s ship’s called Peerless because I am a dork.

For those who want more dorky details about the Peerless, the case is Raffles v. Wichelhouse. It’s not actually famous. It was only made famous by law professors. Why? Because over a century ago, someone decided it was important to make law students read cases from the 1860s. I’m really not clear on why this is still considered sound pedagogy. Apparently, it’s important in some bizarro version of the world where it’s more important to teach our students how to parse old English case law than to teach them how to be a lawyer today. (That bizarro version of the world is this world. Sorry, law students. This is why I’m not a law professor any longer. I write historical romances, where it’s socially acceptable for me to get ridiculously excited about cases from the 1860s.)

Q. Were there any special challenges or joys to writing a remarriage plotline? What made you pick that instead of, say, focusing on the marriage of convenience/shotgun marriage elements of Kate and Ned’s relationship?

A. I’m going to issue a warning. In order for me to answer some of these questions, I will have to talk frankly about how I wrote this book. It was not all love and roses. There was substantially less love in writing this book than any other book that I’ve written, and absolutely no roses. I thought about trying to pretend otherwise…but decided against it. So you’re forewarned.

Now on to the question. I am extremely unlikely to write a book where the characters start off married again, and it is because of this book. I actually tried to write a version of this book in which Ned did not leave instantly for China, and we had a chance to explore the shotgun marriage elements. It did not work.

See, the thing is, I tend to write people who are fundamentally reasonable, and the truth is, if you’re married to someone in a historical era and that person isn’t horribly objectionable (to the point where I couldn’t make them a hero or a heroine), you don’t really have a choice about staying married to them. That’s it; there’s no real divorce, and while separation is possible, it’s not separation with the possibility of more unless you really throw everything over the edge and cut yourself off from polite society.

You might as well try to make a go of it, and if you’re not going to try to make a go of it, you need to have a darned good reason. There are some authors who can write that plotline extremely well—Mary Balogh comes to mind, for instance; Sherry Thomas does it deliciously perfectly.

I do not. I work much, much better with people who can walk away from each other.

A three-story house of gray stone, with a round drive in front of it for carriages, and large glass windows in front.
This is how I envision Berkswift.

Q. What is happening with Ned? Why does he describe his feelings like this?

A. Ned is bipolar. It was difficult to try to capture his experience because in the nineteenth century, they had no idea about mental health or mental illness. Not even an inkling. So it posed challenges to try to explain what was happening to him a historically accurate fashion while still making his feelings accessible to the modern reader.

Q. Would you say that Kate uses a façade of traditional femininity to keep people from finding out her secrets or does she simply go along with people’s assumptions about her intelligence based on her actual interests?

A. Oh, Kate absolutely uses people’s assumptions about what a small, petite pretty woman is and should do in order to misdirect how they see her.

But this is kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. She’s probably been underestimated her entire life. I imagine that when she was very young, she glowered about it and complained, but that eventually she figured she might as well use it, and started playing up to society’s expectations. I don’t imagine this was uncommon at all.

Q. Did you construct Harcroft’s misogyny directly in response to Kate’s hiding her abilities, or were they just two elements that ended up working well together?

Q. Harcroft’s misogyny is sadly par for the course in that era. They had some very strange ideas about what women could and could not do back then. Fun reading (and by “fun” I mean “horrible”) is to look at some of the debates surrounding female education. There were people honestly worried about whether teaching women Greek would give them a brain disorder.

Never mind that half of the people who speak Greek from birth were, in fact, women. It was a matter of legitimate debate: Can we educate women and not have them all go bonkers from the strain of using their feminine minds in such a masculine way?

But in any event, for Harcroft to be the person he was—a clandestine abuser of women—he would have to have a healthy dose of misogyny. Of course he doesn’t think that women are fully realized human beings.

Q. Where did the idea for Kate’s work with battered women come from?

A. Heh. The idea came from…desperation. The first version I sent to my publisher didn’t fly and I had to completely rewrite the book. As it happens, the first version I sent to my publisher wasn’t the first version of the book. There were two versions before that, neither of which had Kate working with battered women. Those were abandoned relatively early.

By the time I got around to putting together the version that got published, I needed some excuse for Kate to be poking around ballrooms in Proof by Seduction, and she needed some kind of secret from Ned, and this was the best I could come up with.

I must have tried ten billion things to fit the facts established in Proof. Here are some of them:

• Kate has a sister that she remembers, who was hidden away for some reason, and is still looking for her sister.

• Trigger warning for child abuse: Kate was molested by a member of the ton and she is planning to kill him.

• Kate is acting as a spy in order to enable her father’s political activities.

• Kate is trying to prove herself worthy of her mother’s love.

• Kate was swapped at birth with another child and is trying to figure out where she is from. [There are elements of this version hidden in Proof by Seduction: Kate is described very explicitly as looking nothing like either of her parents, and the comment that Jenny makes in the first scene of Proof about Ned ending up with a street thief was supposed to be foreshadowing. Didn’t work so well.]

The reason Kate was working with battered women? Well, one of the other directives from my publisher (and they were 100% right about this) was that I needed to make sure that Jenny and Gareth from Proof played a role in Trial by Desire.

In the second version of this story that I sent to my publisher, the woman in question wasn’t Louisa, the wife of Harcourt. It was Laura, Gareth’s sister. That version also had way too many problems—like the fact that Gareth would have been far more involved in matters, since his sister’s safety was on the line. I needed Ned and Kate to take point as hero and heroine, and so in the final version, I severed that family relationship.

Q. How did you come up with Ned’s method of managing his illness given his lack of treatment options?

A. There are two things that occur in the book:

1. Things that Ned does that he thinks manage his illness, and

2. Things that Ned does that actually manage his illness.

The thing is, depression lies—and if you don’t know what depression is and that you have it, you’re going to come up with ways of managing it, and yourself, that are not necessarily helpful. A number of the things that Ned does—sleeping in the cold, keeping people at bay, trying to be completely in control of himself—are not, in fact, helpful for treating depression. Ned is lying to himself. Ned does not have the advantage that we have today—of studies run with large populations and control groups.

Some of the things he does—exercise, for instance—have been shown to help some (but by no means all) people with depression. But this is almost by happenstance. Do enough things, something’s bound to make a difference.

I think the big thing for Ned was coming to an understanding that this thing is happening to him, and recognizing that while his experience is atypical, he can prepare for it and map out it’s phases. Knowing that he has depressive spells, and that they go away; having a support group that understands what is happening to him and knows how to reach him—all these things are things that I believe will actually help him.

Ned would undoubtedly be better off with a modern health professional who understood mental illness. I wish that had been an option.

Q. Where did you get the idea for the scene with Ned in the forest?

A. The dedication for this book is:

For Teej. Because when I had to make Ned a hero, I gave him a little bit of you.

“Teej” is my elder brother, and that scene with Ned is one of three scenes in all my books that were inspired by real-life events. Here’s a lengthier explanation.

Audio Transcript

So, there’s this ridiculous endurance race out there in the work – it covers a desert; you cross from one end to the other. It covers, in fact, most of the major deserts – they run it over a lot of them. It’s 155 miles long, over the course of six days, where you are carrying all the things that you need to survive on your back. You cross it in stages. Just to make things interesting, they don’t make you do the same mileage every day, so it’s not like you do 20 miles a day plus a little bit 7 days in a row. No, they have to shake it up. On the second-to-last day, you do 50 miles. My older brother decided he was going to do this race. So when he did it, he was running along on the second-to-last day, and suddenly he felt an intense pain in his leg, after which he couldn’t stand anymore. His leg would not support his weight. So he said “Well, I spent all this time training for this race, I’m going to finish.” So he crawled the rest of the way to the finish line.

When I wrote the scene with Ned breaking his leg in the forest, and then finding his way home thereafter, I made it a matter of life and death for his wife, instead of just stubbornness. I left him able to stand, and I reduced the mileage by about a third. This is still the least believable scene in my book.

Q. Ned’s arc is not really about recovery so much as it is about allowing Kate in so that they can better navigate their respective needs. Often, people would want to see the hero “freed” from such a severe illness as that from which Ned suffers. Was it a hard decision to treat it more realistically?

A. It wasn’t a hard decision. I don’t want to write books where people get magically healed from their disabilities. That sends the message that people with that disability are not worthy of love, and cannot have happily ever afters unless they stop being disabled.

I could talk for hours about problems I have with this book, but the one thing I was sure about, and that I insisted on, was that Ned’s manic-depression would not ever magically go away.

Q. Trial by Desire is the end of your first series. If you had to name one thing that you learned from the process, what would it be?

A. One of the things I learned from this is that I need to plan out a series from the very beginning—that is, I need to know who the characters are and what their books will be about.

I also learned that planning is no substitute for writing, and so I need to leave myself enough wiggle room for the next book that I can change elements substantially, if necessary. I think the series I have written since the Carhart series have all hung together just a little better.

Q. Though heroes suffering from various forms of mental illness are not unheard of, Ned, who is presumably bipolar, is a rather severe case. It has a huge effect on just about everything he does. Did you ever balk at approaching it in such an unflinching manner and, since it was traditionally published, was there any resistance to your portrayal?

A. Sigh. This book. This book. This is the hardest book I have ever written, and the one that I feel (and I know others don’t agree, but this is my personal feeling) is my least successful book.

So let me quibble with that premise. I don’t approach Ned’s bipolar disorder in an unflinching manner, and yes, I did get pushback—a lot of pushback.

The original version of Trial by Desire that I turned into my publisher was absolutely nothing like the final version. I mean that literally: I lifted about five hundred words of a sex scene from that first version for the version you just read. Kate was not helping abused women; she was working in tandem with her father on political questions.

The Ned of the first book that I wrote was bipolar, and very much in the depressive state when the book started. This was that Ned:

If he realized she’d thrown his words back at him, he took no notice. He shook his head impatiently. “You didn’t want a husband. You wanted me to be a bloody hero, who worshipped chastely at your feet without the slightest physical importunity. Pardon me for misunderstanding.”

It was bad enough that he’d laughed at her best prose. But to have him stand here in accusation because she’d dared to make something of her life—to have him demand with the bulk of the shadow he cast across her, that she back down from him—was too much.

Kate raised her chin, took one step forward, and snatched the letter from his hands.

“No,” she said. “I wouldn’t expect any kind of heroism from you. You abandoned me the day after we returned from our wedding trip. You made me the laughing stock of all London. I had no power, no influence—and I received nothing but scorn and pity. When you left me, I didn’t want a hero. I needed one.”

“I married you,” he said with a frown. “Your reputation—”

Men were such colossal idiots, thinking a marriage license would serve as a universal panacea for all a woman’s woes.

“Not all marriages are equal. I didn’t just need a marriage.” She glared up at him. “I needed a husband. Everyone knew we’d been married hastily, a patched-over affair that came after we were caught together sharing what looked like a kiss. And we had but two weeks together before you ran off to the other side of the world. My father has powerful enemies. They didn’t hesitate to hurt me, just to see if they could shut his mouth. To my face, they suggested my skills in bed were so poor that you escaped in horror. Can you imagine what they said when I was not present?”

He took a step towards her. He now stood so close that she could feel the power of his presence, a bubble that enclosed him. She felt as if she ought to move, as if there were no air for anyone’s lungs but his for a yard around his bulk. He radiated distance unconsciously. But Kate was done retreating. He’d pushed her out of her own life once—he’d made it so that she could trust almost no one of her acquaintance. He was not going to shove her another inch.

She was half a foot shorter than he, and many stone lighter. He’d run away once. Well, he had best retreat again, because she was not going to step back any longer. She clenched her fists and stood tall.

“I suppose you can’t imagine what was said. Let me give you a choice tale.” She straightened her spine, as if that extra half-inch of height could intimidate him. “You left in disgust, upon discovering I was not a virgin. That condition being apparent upon initial inspection, because I was afflicted with an obvious illness of a venereal nature.”

He winced.

“Of course, not everyone believed those stories. Still, they pitied me. They laughed at me.” She stood on her tiptoes, the better to glare into his eyes. “So, yes, I invented a husband who loved me by letter. I invented a man who left England to do his duty to his country. Had you been the recipient of a thousand meaningful glances—if you’d been shoved aside and treated as a puny, pitiful thing—you would have needed a hero, too.”

He stood mere inches from her. Kate jammed her finger into his lapels. This close, she could smell him—smell the faintly sweet, but oh-so-masculine scent of bergamot that clung to his skin.

However long ago their one-time entanglements had been, he had been her husband in every sense of the word. What kind of a cruel joke was it, that now, with the bare skin of her hand pressed against his chest, she remembered their wedding night?

She’d felt his body on hers, over hers, in hers. She’d not appreciated that painful stretching the first time it had happened; and after that first time, she recalled a few weeks of mingled frustration and confusion. But after all this time, her treacherous and forgetful body dismissed that memory. He was a stupid, cruel brute. He also appeared to be a marvelous specimen of a man, so long as he didn’t open his mouth. And now, at this most inconvenient time, her flesh chose to leap up in recognition.

He hadn’t said a word. Instead, he stood over her. His eyes fell on her lips and held there.

It was an illusion, but she imagined she could sense his heart beating in time with her own. Her flesh burned, remembering the feel of those muscles atop hers. She set her hands on his chest. He didn’t move, not by so much as an inch. But beneath her palms, he tensed, like some giant creature preparing to pounce.

Of all the losses she’d suffered when her husband absconded to the other side of the world, that one particular loss—the loss of his lips against hers—had never counted a snap. But now she realized he had stolen more than her pride and her position when he left so abruptly. He’d taken from her eight years of tender, loving moments. And he’d left her so vulnerable that even now her body longed for the false intimacy of flesh.

She stood on her tiptoes, claiming the space he’d stolen from her. She was so close that she could see a raw, red spot on his chin, where he might have been nicked by an ill-placed razor. He leaned down to her on an inhale. Kate pressed her hands to his chest—he let out a long, lingering breath—and she shoved him with all her might. He stumbled backwards, unbalanced. He caught himself on a narrow table against the wall.

“What the devil—!”

“I needed a hero,” Kate said. “Instead, I got you. I won’t ask your forgiveness because I rescued myself instead.”

He stood there, clutching the polished cherry for long moments. Finally he straightened and righted himself. “I hadn’t any idea,” he finally said. “I suppose I imagined that your life would keep on…keeping on, much as it had been before we married. Only, I supposed you’d have the freedom of a married woman.”

“Ah, the freedom of a married woman.” She could not help but let the bitterness steep into her voice. “That would be the freedom to hold my head up high in London while my husband gallivanted around the globe? Or are you speaking of the freedom to pretend that your every childish whim is my dearest desire?”

He dropped his eyes at her words.

“Maybe you are referring to the freedom to smile at every unkind hint dropped about your absence. Some freedom, Ned. I thank you for it, but you’ll understand if I chose to replace that…that freedom with a liberty of my own choosing.”

He looked up, biting his lip. “God, Kate. I—”

“Don’t tell me you’re sorry,” Kate snapped. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, ever. I survived. I won.”

He let out a breath. That fierce light dimmed in his eyes. “Yes.”

“And you’re not going to take that away from me,” she said ferociously. “You will not leave me an object of pity. I won’t have it, Ned. I won’t. Not again. I’ve told everyone you adore me. Don’t you dare let them make a liar of me.”

I sent that first version in. My then-editor hated it. Absolutely hated it. My agent read it and said the book was very dark and completely relentless. After lengthy consultations with my editor, her boss, and my agent, we agreed on the following:

1. They hated everything about the book, and it needed to be completely rewritten.

2. They didn’t want Ned to be gone abroad for a long time—I had to argue them up from “some months” because, as I pointed out, back then you couldn’t really get anywhere in a matter of months.

3. They wanted me to make Ned not bipolar any longer. “Didn’t he get better after Proof by Seduction?” someone asked. I had to put my foot down and explain that no, you don’t just get better, and I refused to write a book where his depression just disappeared and was never, ever acknowledged again.

4. With that being off the table, the one absolute thing they insisted on was that Ned could not have a depressive episode in the book. He couldn’t have suicidal thoughts. Could not. It was not heroic, it wasn’t sexy, and readers wouldn’t want it.

The situation was bad enough (on multiple levels) that I ended up switching editors. (I had known for months at that point that my original editor was not a good editorial fit. Nothing against her; just stylistically, she and I were not meshing and it was causing both of us grief.)

My new editor (who was and is amazing) got to work with me on the new book—and it was an entirely different book.

I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming my publisher for a difficult book. There were a lot of things that went wrong with this book. Second books are notoriously difficult to produce—it’s a combination of pressure and authorial hubris. I was taking on subject matter that I did not yet have the writing chops to accomplish. I’d also written myself into a corner in Proof by Seduction—not only was Ned bipolar, but I’d set the plot of his story in motion in a way that I couldn’t alter the beginning much at all.

Ned was already married. His wife had a secret that made her leave balls in the ton. I don’t know that there was any flawless way for me to fill in the gaps between what I wanted, what my publisher wanted, and what I’d committed myself to in Proof by Seduction. The only question was how flawed the final result would be.

I learned a lot about writing, and about writing series, while writing this book, mostly because I made every mistake that it was possible to make and had to work as hard as I’ve ever worked on anything just to make it come out…halfway acceptable. All my books have scenes that I love—all of them but one. Trial by Desire is the only book I’ve written where I never loved a single scene of the published version.

But there’s something else. In many ways, I think the entire Carhart series is not at the same level as my later work. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I don’t think I would write those books even remotely the same way today. But the failures in This Wicked Gift and Proof by Seduction were failures of questioning. I hadn’t yet started asking some of the questions I was asking myself in later books, questions about class and consent and relationships between women. My failure in Trial by Desire was a failure of execution. I had a vision of the book I wanted to write in my mind, and I fell totally, completely short.

The version I originally sent in had this as part of the Author’s Note at the end:

Somewhere between two and six percent of all people suffer from some form of bipolar disorder. Many more will suffer at least one major depressive episode that is biochemical in origin. Up until a handful of years ago, historically speaking, nobody even knew that biochemical depression was an illness.

Through the years, people who suffered from depression were no doubt frightened by what was happening in their heads. There were no drugs. There were no support groups. These people did not even have the comfort of a diagnosis, because until this last century, the illness did not have a name, and the people who suffered from it were too ashamed of their own feelings to ask for help. That’s why the list of people who have died because of what is essentially a fault of brain chemistry is painfully long.

But as long and painful as that list is, there’s another list you will never see.

Because the numbers don’t add up. Two percent of everyone that has ever lived is an awful lot of people. The number of people who have killed themselves is much, much smaller than the number of people who have lived with depression.

Those people—the ones who experienced an illness they could not name, one that attacked their mind and their sense of self-worth—those people who suffered through that and lived…well, they are perhaps some of the greatest unsung heroes we have.

I wanted to show you why.

I ended up deleting this from the final version of Trial. The final version was no longer anywhere close to that.

To this day, it’s hard for me to talk about Trial by Desire. I spent more time on this book than on any other book, and it doesn’t show.

Here’s Mr. Milan and I talking about how I really feel.

Audio Transcript

Mr. Milan: Hi, I’m Mr. Milan.
Courtney Milan: Mr. Milan, tell us – how many of my books have you read?
Mr. Milan: I think I’ve reviewed three of your books.
Courtney Milan: And tell me, which was the last book that you reviewed?
Mr. Milan: I think it was Trial by Desire.
Courtney Milan: And how did you feel about Trial by Desire?
Mr. Milan: As I recall, I gave it quite a few Sherman Tanks.
Courtney Milan: Now why did you do that?
Mr. Milan: As I recall, the hero and the heroine did some pretty ballsy things in that book.
Courtney Milan: Do you remember what those are?
Mr. Milan: No.
Courtney Milan: So they couldn’t have been that ballsy, could they?
Mr. Milan: Well, no. Well, I would think I would remember a whole lot better if they were significantly ballsy, yes.
Courtney Milan: Do you want to revise your Sherman Tank rating?
Mr. Milan: Given the passage of time, and the fact that I don’t remember details, yes, I will take away one or two of those Sherman Tanks right now please, thanks. You want to have a conversation where we trash your book in the enhanced edition. Like, here’s author and her husband trashing this book. To your reader: If you like this book, you stand alone, because the author and her husband really didn’t like it.
Courtney Milan: No, no, no, no. We don’t mock the reader, we only mock…
Mr. Milan: Ourselves? We’re mocking ourselves.