The hallway was dark, dark as pitch. There were no windows along there. Augustina knew that very well. That meant that the single line of candlelight flickering under one doorway stood out vividly.
Augustina knew well that she hadn’t left a candle burning in her room. In fact, she’d locked the door. Was it the same intruder that she had spotted sneaking around the library last night? Possibly. Whoever it was might have expected that she would sit at dinner longer, and the intruder had assumed they would have more time to rifle through her things.
Either way, Augustina knew that she could not go back downstairs. Not only was there no real help to be found there, but she felt as though she couldn’t bear another moment among those impassive, ice-cold faces.
No, there’d be no help to be got down there. Augustina would just have to face this herself. She took a deep breath, steeling her nerves. She began to step tentatively down the hallway towards the closed door, light spilling out from within.
She had almost reached the door when a floorboard creaked under her feet. Augustina stopped, cursing her own clumsiness. Was it her imagination, or had there been a faint gasp of surprise within her room?
Almost without thinking, Augustina flicked her long, red braid over her shoulder, out of the way….
Wait. No. That wasn’t right. A red braid?
Frowning, Laura flicked back to the beginning of the manuscript, where she’d written a list of characters and their descriptions.
Augustina Black, heroine. Twenty years old, very beautiful, tall, pale, green eyes, red hair worn in a long braid. At some point, Laura had crossed out “red” and added “black”.
It was hard to tell how Laura knew that Augustina had to have black hair instead of red or had to be named Augustina instead of Evelyn or Alice or something else. Authors just knew these things.
Sighing, Laura crossed out Augustina’s casual flicking back of a red braid and instead had her absently pushing back a tendril of black hair behind her ear. Yes, that reads much more smoothly now. Laura picked up her pen and began to write again.
She wrote almost without thinking. The story of Augustina Black was one that Laura had dreamed of for years. Plucky, bold, outspoken, and beautiful, Augustina was everything that Laura wasn’t. She had never even bothered to imagine Augustina looking anything like herself. Everyone knew that Heroines (with a capital H) didn’t have hair and eyes the color of boring old mud. No, they had flashing green eyes and wildly curly, glossy black hair. They were usually very attractive, too, and Augustina Black was no exception. Laura had made Augustina one year older than herself, too. Twenty seemed to be a much better age than nineteen. Nothing exciting ever happened when a person was nineteen.
As if to highlight that point, somebody called impatiently up the stairs for Laura. She sighed, bending over her manuscript.
The story was all but finished. Laura had the ending to finish, of course, but then the novel would be completed. Augustina’s story would be over, and then what?
So, to forestall the inevitable ending, Laura decided to go through her manuscript and make some changes. In particular, she wanted to work on the first meeting of Augustina and the Hero, Bernard Swallow-Hill. It felt almost inevitable to have a love story in Augustina’s adventure, and Bernard was simply perfect—the cool, collected, intellectual half of Augustina’s wild and impetuous nature.
Still, their first meeting was a little less dramatic than Laura would like. After all, first impressions were what counted, weren’t they?
“Laura! Get down here at once!”
The voice was getting closer, and Laura wouldn’t be able to ignore it much longer. If she could just finish off this paragraph….
The door flew open.
“There you are! I knew you’d be working on that stupid little story!”
Laura flushed. “It isn’t a stupid story, Cara. It’s a novel.”
Cara pressed her lips together. “Your father wants you to call me Mother. It’s more appropriate.”
“Yes, but you aren’t my mother.”
Cara Warren was around thirty-six, and until two years ago, she had never been married. She looked as though she could quickly start to look like the stereotypical “spinster woman”. She was tall and painfully thin and favored heavy gowns with dark colors that drained her of color and made her appear ever thinner, even gaunt. She had pale yellow hair that she pulled back into a tight knot at the base of her neck, decorated with an amethyst butterfly hairpin that clashed with her austere style.
Cara had a very pretty face, thin though it was. She had large blue eyes and full lips and had good skin for her age. She had been married to Laura’s father, Calvin Warren, for two years now.
Cara fidgeted a little at Laura’s comment and looked almost guilty.
“I didn’t say that I was your mother. It’s just more proper.”
“Would you like me to call you Mrs. Warren?” Laura asked icily, and Cara rolled her eyes.
“I wish you wouldn’t be so difficult. Now, come down at once. We’re having some of your father’s business partners for dinner, and there are some chores you need to help me with.”
Laura groaned. “Cara, you know as well as I do that the servants do all the real chores. You just want me to help you arrange some flowers or do some embroidery.”
“And what is wrong with flower arranging or embroidery?”
“Nothing, of course, not if that’s what you want! But you know that for me, it isn’t!” Laura argued. “Why can’t you just let me write my story?”
Cara sighed. “Because you need to be productive, Laura.”
“This is productive.”
“No, it isn’t. Something productive will help you to build a future—and don’t dare say that that silly novel will help you with that! I mean something real, something realistic.”
“Like finding a husband,” Laura muttered.
Cara lifted her chin. “Yes, like finding a husband. Take it from me, living as a single woman is no fun in this world. It can be downright dangerous, almost impossible. You need to secure yourself a husband as soon as you can, and let me tell you, my girl, time is fast running out.”
“Exactly. You only have a few years left, trust me.”
Laura sighed. “That sounds like my problem, Cara, not yours.”
Cara was getting more and more annoyed. Laura knew that it wasn’t right for her to keep irritating her stepmother like this, but it was more or less the only way she could get one over on her. Calvin would always side with his wife over his daughter.
Laura pointedly looked back down at her writing, willing Cara to go away. She just wanted a few moments to fight down the resentment that was always bubbling underneath the surface.
Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
Anna Warren had said that. Anna, Laura’s mother, had been Calvin’s first wife.
Perhaps Laura would have liked Cara more if she’d been a child when her mother died, instead of a fifteen-year-old girl who was fully aware of her own grief and what she had lost. Laura remembered standing at her mother’s grave all too well, staring down at the coffin, slowly covered by earth. She was weak, still, swaying a little on her feet. The fever had drained her, and there were far too many missing people among the mourners. Not everyone had been fortunate enough to survive the fever like Laura had.
But it hadn’t mattered that Laura felt sick and weak, because her father was right there beside her. His arm was around her shoulders, and he supported her. She knew that he wouldn’t let her fall.
A year and a half later, Laura had begun to feel that they could return to normal, that she could begin to build a life for herself.
Then Calvin met Miss Cara Worth, and they were married only six months later.
No point in holding a grudge. All she did was get married, Laura thought, feeling resigned. She was about to turn and offer a half-hearted apology, but before she could do so, Cara spun on her heel and stomped out of the room.
Laura groaned aloud. She heard her stepmother storm down the stairs, and her heels clicked across the stone foyer. Laura knew quite well that she was heading towards her father’s study.
A door opened and closed, and there was a brief pause. Laura held her breath, waiting.
Sure enough, here it came.
The study door opened, and Calvin bellowed up the stairs. His deep voice sounded thoroughly tired.
“Laura! Come down here at once, please!”
Laura bit back a curse. She carefully placed her precious manuscript in a drawer of her writing desk, away from the treacherous drafts from the open window, and hurried to answer his summons.
Spencer wondered idly whether all sellers of farm equipment were such rogues, cheats, and liars, or just the ones in Chicago—Or maybe just this particular specimen.
His name was Mr. Jones, one of a fleet of Mr. Joneses in Chicago, and he’d probably worked hard to create that anonymity. Judging by his rusty, old-fashioned bits of metal and wire in his warehouse, there would be plenty of angry customers seeking him out to complain.
“No less than fifty dollars,” Mr. Jones said with a belch. He was a portly man, the buttons of his unusually opulent waistcoat straining. His hair was all but gone, and he’d made a half-hearted attempt to hide the fact by smearing greasy strands of hair from ear to ear.
He was chewing tobacco, making the whole picture so much worse. He eyed Spencer with ill-concealed contempt. Perhaps it was because Spencer was young, or because he was handsome and slim, or even because he was determinedly haggling Mr. Jones down in price. It was more likely a combination of all three.
“Fifty dollars is outrageous,” Spencer said calmly. He had only been allotted a total of fifty-five dollars for the trip. That included his return ticket and accommodations while he was here. Even the cheapest boarding-house he could find had eaten up a dollar or two. Despite his best efforts, Spencer only had forty-seven dollars remaining. “I shall pay no more than thirty.”
Mr. Jones—who had clearly missed his vocation as an actor—choked with horror.
“Thirty? Thirty? Why, you’re barely out of the cradle, and you don’t understand these things. Thirty dollars will make me a hefty loss. I don’t get up and spit in the morning for that kind of money.”
Well, that was blatantly untrue, but Spencer decided not to bother arguing the point.
“You’ll never sell that rusted bit of metal for fifty dollars,” he pointed out, and Mr. Jones harrumphed.
The “rusted bit of metal” in question was something they needed for plowing. Mr. Holland Senior had spent some time excitedly explaining what it was for and why they needed a new one, but really, that wasn’t Spencer’s forte. The Holland ranch had Peter Holland and a fleet of farm hands to keep the place going, and Spencer was quite happy to handle the business side of matters. Accounts and haggling were where he shone, and their whole system worked very well indeed.
“Forty,” Mr. Jones said. “That’s my final offer.”
Mr. Jones stuck out a damp, pudgy hand, and Spencer forced himself to shake it. Fifty dollars was, in fact, a perfectly reasonable price. However, Spencer had now secured the piece in question and had a full twelve dollars left to get himself and his large parcel home.
He’d send the parcel home separately, of course. He wasn’t about to lug that huge, heavy thing on the train. He would box it up and send it ahead of himself to Texas with a note to his father.
Found what we were looking for. You might get this before I get home or even at the same time since the train to Texas departs in four days. Don’t worry, Pa. I’ll guard my money as carefully as possible, and I should return home with a few dollars in my pocket if I eat sparingly.
I hope Barnaby’s leg is healing nicely—that was a bad break. I’ll send a quick telegram on the day I leave Chicago. Between you and me, I’m relieved to get away from the city. It’s not for me. It reminds me of—
Spencer paused, then crossed out the last half-sentence. On further reflection, he crumpled up the paper altogether and started again.
Found what we were looking for, and for less than we hoped. I’m dating this letter so that you know that I left Chicago four days hence, as that’s the soonest the train to Texas leaves. Hope you’re well and give my regards to Barnaby—I hope his leg is getting better.
Yes, that was a much better letter. Short, informative, but to the point. Peter Holland was a good man who loved his son very much, but he wasn’t given to bursts of emotion.
It probably reminded him too much of acting and the stage. Heaven forbid his son would show any tendencies towards drama. That would be too much like….
Spencer cut off that thought before it progressed too far. With the parcel neatly packed up and ready to leave, Spencer was free to kick his heels and take his ease before it was time to go.
Well, that wasn’t going to be much fun, was it? After all, what on earth was there to do in Chicago?
Spencer walked quickly through the crowded Chicago streets, more out of habit than from any real need to get someplace quickly. He wasn’t particularly eager to get back to his grubby boarding house, with the beady-eyed landlady who hadn’t bothered to hide her dislike for Spencer.
Still, she’d made it clear that money was money, and the dollars in Spencer’s hand would outweigh any personal dislike she had for him. That didn’t mean that she would make her boarding house a pleasant place for him to spend his days in.
At least he could go and buy his train ticket first before returning to that wretched, grubby house. Not quite the sort of person to linger and dawdle, Spencer had only been walking a few minutes before the train station loomed.
There was some sort of theater set back from the road. It was difficult to tell whether it was the respectable kind or the sort of place where more bawdy plays were performed. Either way, Spencer walked past as quickly as possible. But he didn’t move quickly enough to fend off the intrusive thoughts, of course.
He could never walk quickly enough to get away from those.
Is Mother performing here?
Is she playing a leading role, or is she pushed back into the chorus? Is she happy?
Did she find a new family? A new son, perhaps? Is that wealthy wretch she left us for taking care of her? Probably not.
Spencer clenched his jaw. No. Now wasn’t the time to think about that sort of thing. He had four days to spend with himself and his own company, so he had better not start thinking such maudlin thoughts.
His mother probably wasn’t in Chicago. She hadn’t told them where she was going and left no forwarding address. She had no interest in her husband and son any longer. She’d made that perfectly clear.
Spencer remembered his father, hunched over his writing desk, weeping over the hastily, carelessly written letter. He’d crumpled it in his fist, then smoothed it out again, then crumpled it once again.
Spencer would have torn it up and thrown it in the fire, but Peter had kept it. It was probably secreted in a drawer somewhere as a private reminder of their misery.
He bought his ticket, and the ticket master curiously eyed him.
“Everything all right, sir?”
Spencer flinched and forced a smile at the man. “Yes, quite all right, thanks.”
The ticket master smiled, unconvinced, and handed over the ticket. That left Spencer with nothing else to do besides go back to Mrs. Plum’s house. Ugh. If he loitered enough, he wouldn’t have to eat lunch at her place. Mrs. Plum had a strange knack for cooking food that smelled delicious—giving the impression that one was about to enjoy a tasty meal—but produced food that was little more than disgusting mush.
Spencer would rather go hungry. Still, his things were back there, and so were his precious sketchbooks.
Besides, it was starting to rain.
Oddly enough, it seemed to be raining inside Mrs. Plum’s establishment.
Or perhaps it was just the leaky roof.
Mrs. Plum herself sat like a gargoyle in the center of the narrow hallway, requiring her unfortunate tenants to shuffle sideways past her to get to the stairs. She glared at Spencer as if he’d personally offended her.
Well, perhaps he had. He hadn’t eaten any of her greasy dinners since that first fateful breakfast.
“How long will you be staying?” she ground out. “It’s three dollars for another week.”
“I only need four days,” Spencer answered, trying to seem polite.
“You’ll pay now.”
Mrs. Plum demanded it as if she didn’t quite trust him, but Spencer knew well that asking for payment upfront was standard procedure.
He handed over the required dollars and scurried thankfully upstairs.
His room was just as drafty and leaky as the hallway, probably even more so. Mrs. Plum patched up the worst of the leaks that were downstairs, as those were her rooms.
Spencer’s room was small and oddly shaped. It had probably once been one larger room, divided up into two or even three. The more tenants Mrs. Plum got in, the better. The room smelled musty, and the window was painted shut. Spencer suspected that he would notice the room’s shortcomings even more now that he’d be spending more time here.
He had spent three days in town so far, and he’d spent each day in searching out the part they needed and finding the best price. Now he had nothing to do but pace his tiny room, which was hardly large enough for the bed and one or two bits of furniture.
One bit of furniture included a spindly chair. Spencer tugged the chair over to the window, settling it so that he could peer down into the street. He took his sketchbook out of the only locked drawer and sat down to work.
His sketchbook was full of drawings. These books could be expensive to buy, especially the ones that Spencer liked best, with thick, creamy paper. So, not a single page could be wasted. Pages with only a smallish drawing on it were filled up with others in the corners, and there was a sketch—or an attempted sketch—on each side.
He preferred drawing people to landscapes.
Landscapes were all very well, but it seemed impossible to capture their true essence. A picture was never going to be as beautiful as the real thing.
Drawing people, however, was something completely different. A good artist—and Spencer flattered himself that he was a good artist—could capture something of a person’s spirit. Spencer had seen portraits that had seemed to paint a piece of a person’s soul between the paint or pencil and paper.
That was what Spencer strove for. He was trying to improve his speed—some artists could complete a full sketch with only a few artful lines—so he preferred to sit and watch the world go by, sketching strangers.
Spencer filled a page in his sketchbook with a dozen tiny little people, all completely unconscious of his scrutiny. It was a pleasant exercise, but he knew he’d get tired of sketching old men and worn-looking ladies.
As the afternoon wore on, the stream of people died away, and Spencer finally put away his sketchbook with a sigh. Downstairs, Mrs. Plum had clearly begun cooking up another concoction.
How on earth was he going to fill the next four days?
“Embraced by a Tormented Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
After her mother’s death, Laura only dreamt of one thing: becoming a writer. Little did she know that her dream would crumble into million pieces. When she can no longer live with her stepmother, Laura escapes, and soon finds herself in an awful situation; she is taken hostage, along with a handsome, mysterious stranger…
Can Laura’s resilience, determination, and spectacular imagination be the key to save her?
Spencer Holland always planned to live a plain, organized life. Abandoned by his mother, he fears that if he opens his heart to anyone, he will get hurt again. However, when destiny brings Laura onto his path, he immediately finds himself drawn to her colorful personality and charismatic nature.
The love of a lifetime hanging by a thread…
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Laura and Spencer become witnesses to an unthinkable crime that leads to their captivity. Yet, fate places them in a situation that will soon challenge their feelings in the most extraordinary way. How will they find common ground amid such adversity? Will their pure love prevail over hatred and machinations in the end?
“Embraced by a Tormented Heart” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.