Trial by Desire
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Lady Kathleen Carhart knows all about imperfect marriages. For years, she has secretly helped women escape their violent husbands. She feels she owes it to womankind. After all, her husband is perfect: handsome, gentle, amusing…and best of all, he left the country three years ago. She isn’t even bitter about that anymore. Mostly.
When Ned Carhart returns in the middle of her most delicate operation to date, her life is thrown into turmoil. She’ll do anything to preserve her secrets…even if it means risking her heart to the man who abandoned her once.
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“Milan deftly incorporates realistic historical grit in her coverage of the Opium Wars, social candor in her treatment of domestic violence, and stunning emotional depth in the mesmerizing plot, and the result is an exquisitely sensual and unforgettable romance by one of the genre’s incandescent new stars.”
—Booklist, starred review
“This complex and emotionally wrought romance…demonstrates how with trust as well as love our protagonists will come home to each other.”
“This tender, thoughtful romance is a deep examination of what responsibility and trust really mean in a partnership when desire is a complication rather than the raison d’être.”
All of my books get code names while I am writing them. Trial by Desire was code-named Dragon Slayer from the very beginning. Originally, it was because the book was about slaying a particular dragon. But, as it turns out, the name became rather tongue-in-cheek, as the book went on:
“In the stories,” he said, his voice a dark rasp against her skin, “in the stories, the heroine always slays the dragon and lops off his head. The villagers rejoice and build a bonfire, and darkness never again falls on the land.”
She could feel his hands at her side, warm and powerful against the heat of her skin.
“But those,” Ned continued, “are only fairy stories. In reality...”
He smiled at her in the mirror, a lopsided smile. There was something faintly wicked about that expression, as if he were about to impart to her a great secret, one that had been closely-guarded by a centuries-old society. She swayed unwittingly against him.
“In reality,” he whispered, “the dragons never die, and the big sword-wielding buffoons in unwieldy armor cannot slay them. Real heroes tame their dragons.”
(note: not actually asked by anyone)
Q. Ned leaves on the ship Peerless. Which ship Peerless do you mean? And, by the way, what is chicken?
A. That’s a silly question. Ned was’t going to Bombay.
Q. Why do some reviews mention characters called Laura and Viscount Beeton, when no such characters appear in the book?
A. Some advanced reader copies were made with an early version of the book, but I felt that aspects of that draft didn't work as well as I would have liked, and so I changed that in revisions.
Q. This book is called Trial by Desire. Which definition of Trial do you mean?
A. Using the Merriam-Webster definition here: 1a, 1b, 2, 3, 4a, 5—pretty much all of them except 4b.
Q. What is Ned’s deal?
A. Ned has a mild case of manic-depression.
Q. Wait! Isn’t that a huge spoiler?
A. Not really. It’s never mentioned as such in the book, for one; it can’t be, as back then nobody would even have been able to diagnose it. The symptoms are divulged fairly early on in both Proof by Seduction and Trial by Desire.
Q. Why on earth did you want to write a book featuring depression?
A. Because when I first had the idea I had no notion of how hard it was going to be. By the time I knew how hard it was going to be, it was too late to turn back.
Lady Kathleen Carhart had a secret.
Truth be told, she had more than one—but the secret she had in mind as she sat across from her husband at breakfast had arrived only today. It was wrapped in paper and had been set carefully atop her chest of drawers. And if her husband knew what it was…
She suppressed a faint smile.
Across the table from her, he set the paper down and fixed his gaze on her. His eyes were a liquid brown, three shades beyond her breakfast chocolate. They stood out, uncannily dark against the sandy brown of his hair. He had no notion what it did to her when he looked at her like that. Her toes curled. Her hands clasped together. All he had to do was look at her, and she found herself wishing—wanting—no, desiring. And therein lay the root of her problem.
“I had a talk with my cousin a few days ago,” he said.
Around London, a thousand couples might have been having a similarly prosaic conversation. Kate’s mother had cautioned her to be practical about marriage, to accept that she and her husband would share a genteel, friendly politeness.
But then, Kate hadn’t married the average London gentleman. Mr. Edward Carhart did nothing properly or politely—nothing, that was, except his newly acquired wife.
“What did Blakely have to say?” Kate asked.
“You know that some of our holdings are in the East India Company?”
“Aren’t everyone’s? It’s a good investment. They trade in tea and silk and saltpetre….” Her voice trailed off into roughness.
If he’d known what flitted through her mind when she said the word silk, he’d not sit there so sanguine. Because she’d purchased a filmy night rail on Bond Street. It was made of imported silk and fastened together in front by means of lavender ribbons. Those scraps of opaque fabric were perhaps the garment’s only concession to modesty. It lay on her chest of drawers, simply beseeching Kate to wear it one evening.
“Silk,” Ned said, looking off into the distance without seeing her lean forward, “and other things. Like opium.”
“Opium was not on my shopping list.”
He didn’t smile. Instead he glanced away as if uncomfortable. “In any case, Blakely and I were talking about the recent events in China.” Ned shook his paper at her. “And we decided it would behoove someone to personally inquire into what was going on over there.”
For once, he sounded serious. Kate frowned at him. “By someone, you mean Mr. White, and by over there, you mean the office on—”
“By someone,” Ned said distinctly, “I mean me, and by over there, I mean China.”
He set the newspaper down and bit his lip. The morning sun suddenly seemed too bright. It blasted in from the window behind him, casting his features into shadow. She couldn’t make out his eyes. He had to be joking. At any moment, he was going to grin at her.
She gingerly relinquished her hold on her teacup and essayed a small smile. “Have a lovely journey. Will you be home in time for tea?”
“No. The Peerless is leaving St. Katharine’s at noon, and I intend to be on it.”
Not just the light was blinding. She raised her eyes to him, and his sincerity finally penetrated. “Oh, God. You really meant it. You’re leaving? But I thought—”
She’d thought she had time for that silk night rail, folded carefully in paper.
He shook his head. “Kate, we’ve been married three months. We both know that the only reason we wed was because people found us alone together and imagined more had happened. We married to stave off the scandal.”
Put so baldly, her impractical hopes sounded even more foolish than she’d supposed.
“The truth is,” he continued, “neither of us is ready to be married, not really.”
Neither of them?
He stood and pushed back his chair. “I’ve never had the chance to prove myself to anyone. And…” He trailed off, his hand scrubbing through his hair. “And I want to.”
He set his serviette atop his plate and turned around. The world swirled around Kate.
He was walking away, as if this had been normal breakfast conversation on a regular day.
“Ned!” Kate vaulted to her feet. The word seemed as like to hold back the breaking floodwaters of her marriage as the insubstantial silk gown waiting upstairs.
His shoulders tensed, two sharp blades beneath the wool of his coat. He stopped in the doorway on the verge of escape.
She didn’t have the words to capture the cold tremor that ran through her. She settled on “I wish you wouldn’t. I wish you would stay.”
He tilted his head, just enough to see her over his shoulder. For just that one second, he looked at her the way she’d dreamed about: with a deep hunger, an almost open yearning, as if she were more to him than a name written under his on their marriage license. He exhaled and shook his head.
“I wish,” he said quietly, “I could, too.” And then he turned and left.
She wanted to run after him, to say something, anything. But what rooted her in place was a realization. He was as restless as she’d once been.
And she knew well enough that she couldn’t fill that up, not with any number of silken gowns.
At least this way he could imagine her quiet and practical, not hurt in the slightest by his leaving. She’d kept the secret of her attraction all too well, wrapped up in paper.
She’d kept all her secrets, and it was too late to explain.