Monday, June 26, 2017

Week #26: Freedom's Price by Christine Johnson


When Englishwoman Catherine Haynes loses both her parents and her home in 1856, she decides to cross the Atlantic to find her American mother's family in Louisiana. She enlists the help of Tom Worthington, a dashing Key West man who makes his living salvaging wrecked ships, but whose real goal in life is to bring to justice the man who stole his father's ship and caused his untimely death.

When Catherine finally arrives at her family's plantation, she finds it in disarray and her family absent landowners. Torn between returning to Key West with Tom or beginning the hard work of restoring the plantation, Catherine soon finds herself snared in a plot to steal her inheritance. When an incredible secret comes to light, both she and Tom will face a choice. Can they relinquish the dreams that have been holding them captive in order to step forward in faith--even if it costs them everything?
Staffordshire, England
Early June 1856

“Miss Haynes!”

A rude masculine voice pulled Catherine from that long-ago memory. For months she’d dreamed of the stranger’s return and had romanticized him as a conquering knight. Ten years later, all such fantasies had come to a halt. Dreams were for children. She must deal with reality.

She set her jaw and returned her cousin’s glare. By very subtly lifting her gaze above his piercing gray eyes and fixing it on the portrait of her mother hanging behind Papa’s desk, she could maintain the illusion of control.

“Well?” Ugly red suffused Mr. Roger Whitmore’s neck. “I am waiting for an answer.”

In the months since he and his family first arrived at Deerford, she had learned one important trait about her cousin. He expected compliance. This time she would not bow. Nor could she find words of refusal.

The mantel clock ticked off the seconds.

Whitmore braced his hands on the desktop, leaning forward like a snarling lion eager to capture its prey. “Your reply.”

Not a question.

Catherine drew an imperceptible breath and imitated Maman’s calm. “I cannot.”

“You cannot?” The sentence exploded with unspoken threat.

He would force her into this marriage.

Again the ticking of the clock filled the silence.

What would Maman do? Faced with similar prospects upon her return from the grand tour all those years ago, Catherine’s mother had abandoned her chaperones in the dead of night and eloped. Catherine had no such escape available.

Whitmore’s smile menaced. “If you continue in this stubborn refusal, you will lose what is left of your family.”

Meaning him. She had no one else. Not here. Maman’s family was in faraway Louisiana, and the decision to elope had cost her all contact with them. No letters. No word of any kind. How the separation must have hurt, for Maman often regaled her with stories of plantation life, of balls and soirees and golden days running between the tall rows of sugarcane. Catherine had begged her mother to take her there, but Maman said it was not possible. Then she’d died.

Only the portrait remained. Maman’s rose-colored gown flowed from her waist like that of an empress. At her throat rested the ruby brooch Catherine had often run her finger across when she was very young. She had not found it with Maman’s jewels. Papa must have buried it with her.

Dear Papa. Catherine tugged at her heavy black sleeves to hide the welling of tears.

“I suggest a different answer,” Whitmore said.

Catherine brushed away the past. It could not solve this dilemma. She chose her words with care. “Mr. Kirby does not suit me.”

“Does not suit? You act as if you would bring an heiress’s fortune to your marriage. May I remind you that the terms of your father’s estate leave you but five hundred pounds?”

“And fifty pounds per year.” Eight months had not changed that fact. The passing of time had only increased her cousin’s urgency to be rid of her.

“Until you wed.”

That was the crux of it. Once she married, the annual payments would cease.

Whitmore settled into Papa’s chair.

She clenched her jaw against a wave of revulsion. Whitmore might have gained the estate through settlement, but he did not belong in her father’s place.

“I do not intend to wed. Allow me to manage the estate—”

He snorted derisively. “Is that what you call your playing around in the accounts?” He filled a pipe from Papa’s tobacco jar.

Angry words rose to the tip of her tongue and stopped there. Very few men considered a woman intelligent enough to manage accounts, least of all an estate. Whitmore was not one of them.

“If you examine my entries—”

“I have.” He slammed shut the ledger before him. “Some might consider them adequate, considering your gender, but I found them entirely insufficient.”

“Insufficient! Compare my skills to any man—”

“Use those skills to benefit your husband.”

She choked. “I am in mourning and cannot consider marriage.”

“You have worn black long enough. It’s time to move on. I suggest you change into something more cheerful.” His cold gray gaze, fixed above fashionably long sideburns, bored into her. “That would be welcomed by our guests.”

Mr. Kirby and Mrs. Durning, whose husband had just left for Liverpool to provision his ship for the crossing to the West Indies, were expected. Neither cared about her attire, but at least it gave her an excuse to leave this unbearable interview.

“If you will excuse me, then.” She reached for the doorknob.

“Not quite yet.” He drew a breath on the pipe and exhaled a cloud of rich smoke.

If she closed her eyes, she could imagine Papa sitting there, his spectacles resting on the tip of his nose, where they would slide after his hours of agonizing over the accounts. Papa had been a kind and generous man, often excusing debts and allowing rents to remain in arrears far too long. Of course, she hadn’t known that until he fell ill and she had to take on the accounts.

Whitmore cleared his throat. “At three and twenty you will soon slip from a marriageable age.”

“Apparently not, if Mr. Kirby is still calling.”

Whitmore’s jaw tightened. “His long association with the family places him in a rather fortunate position.”

“Fortunate? That is a matter of perspective, is it not? As you just stated, I bring a pittance into any marriage.”

“Precisely. Few would consider a wife who brings only five hundred.”

She could not resist poking at his unstated desire. “You might continue the fifty pounds per year. We are cousins, after all.”

“Let me spell out what you could never have gleaned from your pitiable scribbling in the ledgers. Your father’s estate is in ruin.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he lifted a finger to silence her.

“Even if I manage to collect the arrears, which I fully intend to do, it will not offset the losses.”

Catherine would not be set down so easily. “Then how do you intend to pay the dowry?”

His lips twitched, signaling triumph. “I will sell the estate.”

“Sell Deerford?” The words barely escaped her constricted throat. “You can’t!”

“As you well know, I can. In fact, a buyer is at hand.”

“A buyer?” She clawed at hope. “Mr. Kirby?” Perhaps she would agree to marry him if it meant saving Deerford.

He laughed. “Certainly not.”

“Then who? Will he continue the tenants’ leases? Will he keep planting the land as always?”

“This clay soil was never suited to farming, dear Miss Haynes. It will fare much better in the hands of the pottery manufacturer that is buying it.”

“A factory?” Her head spun. “But, the house.”

“It would have been too costly to maintain.”

“What will happen to the tenants? You must take care of them. They have worked Deerford land for generations.”

He leaned back and blew out a plume of smoke. “They can apply for employment at the factory.”

“But they’re farmers.” Each face flashed through her mind, from old widow Evans to the two-year-old Herring twins. “They don’t know anything else.”

“Then they can move elsewhere.”

His cold statement sent shivers down her spine. She must help them, but how? The few guineas in her possession wouldn’t feed them long. They needed lands to tend.

“You must find them new homes,” she pleaded.

“Sometimes progress demands change. For them and for you.” He paused. “Deerford is extinct. You have nowhere to go, Miss Haynes. Perhaps a husband—especially one as charitably minded as Mr. Kirby—would find a place for your tenants on his father’s or future patrons’ lands.”

Her throat closed. How carefully he had crafted the snare. If she hoped to help the displaced tenants, she must marry Eustace Kirby.

Whitmore seized his advantage. “I suggest you give full consideration to Mr. Kirby’s suit.”

She sank into the closest chair. “But he’s a clergyman.”

Whitmore’s brow quirked. “Do you harbor resentment against that noble profession?”

Her cousin would not think so highly of the ministry if he had been forced into it as Mr. Kirby had been.

“I wouldn’t make a good minister’s wife.”

“Let us hope Mr. Kirby doesn’t see that fault before the blessed event. I shall give him my blessing.”

“But I did not agree to marry him.”

“You would destroy your father’s hopes for you and leave your beloved tenants without a future rather than commit to a life of serving the Lord?”

Put that way, it did sound rather selfish, but she could not marry Mr. Kirby. The mere thought of kissing him made her stomach turn. Having children? Settling into a country parish? Impossible.

“There must be another answer.” Yet she could not see it.

Thanks you for visiting! I hope you've enjoyed this peek into Freedom's Price. Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing for a copy. Winner will be announced Monday, July 3.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Week #25: Hidden Threat by Connie Mann


She’ll uncover who’s poisoning her hometown—at any cost.

An environmental crisis is the last thing clean-water crusader Eve Jackson expected in her hometown. She’s used to taking on powerful DC politicians in her fight, but when a baby in Safe Harbor, Florida, shows mysterious signs of possible poisoning, the danger hits painfully close to home, stirring memories of her own mother’s death.

Eve’s search leads her to the Sutton Ranch, now run by her high school crush, Cole. Focused on keeping the family ranch afloat as a series of deformed calves are born to his herd, Cole has no time for Eve’s crusade. But as her unwelcome questioning ostracizes her from locals, Cole’s irritation turns to intrigue—not only about the source of the poisoned water but also the tenacious, loyal, and passionate woman determined to help.

As Eve digs deeper into Cole’s operation, she sees her suspicions in Sutton Ranch may be misplaced. Yet she can’t shake the feeling that his ranch, and perhaps his past, hold the answers she seeks. When the sabotage escalates, the two must work together to uncover the culprit—if they can survive the investigation.
March—Rural Virginia
Eve Jackson crouched in the mud outside the chain-link fence and wished she’d worn different shoes. Wet sludge oozed into her new ankle boots and her fingers were numb, but a niggle of excitement bubbled up just the same. If her informant’s tip panned out, she’d finally have the proof she needed to nail this company for contaminating the nearby stream. She’d been after them for almost a year but had never been able to come up with hard evidence. If she got it this morning, every shivering minute would be worth it. Nobody messed with the water supply and made children sick, doggone it. Not if she was around to stop it.
She lowered the viewfinder on her brand-new digital camera and rubbed her arms in the predawn light. She’d grabbed her peacoat on the way out the door, but the heavy wool was no match for a cold, damp stakeout, never mind that it was already March. She hadn’t expected the sudden downpour as she’d driven to this sleepy little town in the Virginia countryside, either.
She’d been staked out behind the aging warehouse for almost three hours. Her cramped muscles were beyond stiff, and she would have traded her left arm for a cup of coffee and a hot bath. Nothing and no one had moved since she’d arrived.
She shifted position and wobbled. She flailed her arms and grabbed the fence just before she landed backward in the mud. The camera strap yanked her neck as the camera smacked her chest, but at least it stayed out of the mud. By the time she steadied herself, she was breathing hard, wondering if this would prove to be yet another wasted night.
Several minutes later, her head snapped up when she heard the distinctive rumble of a diesel engine firing up nearby.
Here we go.
Her heart rate quickened as she raised her camera and zoomed in on the activity near the warehouse. Several more trucks rumbled down the dirt road from the main highway. All of them tankers.
Oh yeah. We’ve got you now.

Thanks for joining in this peek into Hidden Threat. Please leave a comment to be entered into a drawing for an autographed print copy (inside the US). Winner will be announced on Monday, June 26.