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by Gwyneth Atlee
Description: Ever since her mother vanished when she was a child, Shae Rowan's embittered father has kept her a virtual prisoner of their Gulf Coast home. To escape his tyranny, she reluctantly agrees to marry the selfish heir to a shipping fortune. But all that changes when she meets a handsome stranger on the beach, and suddenly finds herself giving in to dangerous, unyielding passion. Phillip Payton's unconventional beliefs have isolated him from others, until Shae gives him the strength to pursue his dreams--and captures his lonely heart. Yet before they can embrace a magnificent future together, Phillip must free his beautiful beloved of the one thing that haunts her: the truth about her mother's past. Discovering it could shatter what they share--or forge a bond that can never be broken.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2000
eBookwise Release Date: August 2007
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [465 KB]
Reading time: 295-413 min.
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"Crabs is mighty queer critters, and the best barometers ye ever seen. When there's a storm coming, crabs goes for deep water and buries 'emselves in the mud, an' they don't come back afore the storm's over, neither. Why, just 'fore the big storm in '75 I din't get no crabs, only one er two, and them was all black with mud. I knowed right away there was goin' ter be a storm, and jest pulled up my nets an' took my things all ashore ... That storm didn't catch Crab Jack, though--not much. The crabs told him it was comin', an' he got out of the way."
--Galveston Daily News
May 2, 1880
Wednesday, September 14, 1875
"Mary!" Samuel "King" Rowan's voice boomed up the stairwell of the columned town house.
Damn the girl, she never answered to her given name, wouldn't if he bellowed it all evening. She was every bit as willful as her mother once had been. He lit a gas lamp against the growing dimness and tried again. "Mary Shae!"
Still no answer, and fury pumped blood to his face. If she'd run off to the beach again...
Pounding up the stairs, he stormed past the cane-bottomed chair where his unmarried sister so often embroidered. A needle rolled off an ivory wad of linen and clinked against the hardwood floor. Though he knew Alberta must be listening from somewhere nearby, at the moment he couldn't care less. All that mattered was the thought of Augustus Lowell and his family waiting for their belated guests of honor.
Where the hell was his stubborn daughter this time? Did she guess the connections he had forged, the bridges that he'd burned, to make this evening possible? Did she even care her self-destruction could ruin him as well?
By God, he was roasting in this get-up! After loosening his cravat, King unbuttoned his starched collar. Whoever had invented the damned things obviously hadn't spent ten minutes sweltering in humid Texas air.
Without a pause to knock, he thrust open the door of Mary Shae's second-story bedroom. Scanning the room, he saw nothing that bespoke her presence. The bed was undisturbed, her white spread slightly less askew than normal. A jumble of skirts, petticoats, and waists hung carelessly inside her open wardrobe. Her worktable remained strewn with brushes, a mixing board, the ingredients of oil colors.
Nearby, on an easel, a large canvas sported the beginnings of a promising beach scene. Couples strolled along the shoreline, silhouetted by the twilight sky. Some held hands; others walked beside each other in attitudes of quiet conversation. At another time, King might have marveled at the way her talent had outstripped his own. But this time, he kicked the easel's leg and sent the canvas crashing to the floor.
"Mary Shae!" he shouted.
His voice and the splintering of the easel sent his daughter's birds into a panic. With shrill whistles, the tiny finches beat their wings against the large cage that hung beside the open door to the upper veranda. The last rays of the dying sun gleamed off the wire bars.
"You don't like it?" King roared. "Here! Fly free instead."
He lifted his daughter's birdcage off its hook, stormed onto the gallery, and violently pitched the delicate enclosure over the railing.
The crash on the walk below gave him little satisfaction. He might have killed Mary Shae's tame finches, but twenty-one years of his strict rule had done nothing to crush the wildness in her. * * * *
Stealing Father's buggy had been a terrible mistake.
The mare stamped nervously as Shae tied her to a hunk of smooth-worn driftwood not far from the gulf waters. Nearby, clumps of sandy seaweed formed a ragged borderline, scented with the strange perfume of salt and old decay.
"Be still this time, Delilah." The young woman patted the horse's smooth, gold neck. Then she kicked off her stylish, heeled shoes. After peeling off her ivory stockings, she tossed them in the sand and hoisted her long, crepe de chine skirt.
By now, Shae would be late to her own engagement party. She pictured her few friends there, arrayed in dresses festooned like wedding cakes. Her future in-laws, the Lowells, would stand as stiff as horsehair, even in their own home. If one could call the Lowell Mansion, Fairwater Haven, just a home. Their pompous son, Ethan, would feign concern when Father reported grimly that Mary Shae was "indisposed." They all would, but behind the gloves, they'd whisper, the way they always did.
And everything they said about her would be true. She wasn't up to "Lowell standards." Inferior stock, they'd gossip, referring to her mother. Shy as a deer, and half as wild. All true, every bit.
As the sun dipped beneath clouds to slide behind Port Providence, Shae gazed across the graying waters. She took off the hat that should have kept her hair in place, not caring that its elegant, long feather trailed in the moist sand. Tossing it aside, she strode toward the only thing that still made sense--that gleaming, narrow margin between land and sea.
She lifted her skirts still higher and waded into the gentle surf. Warm gulf waters swirled gently around her ankles, molding rills and hollows just behind her heels. She turned to watch a few sandpipers skittering along damp, reflective sands, racing on stilt legs ahead of foamy wavelets. Despite the confusion that whirled inside her mind, she smiled at the birds, amused as always by their awkward dance and piping cries.
A few late strollers paused to stare at her, a young woman in party clothes standing in the surf. Her heart pounding, Shae stared back until the oldest, a mustachioed gentleman, shook his head and walked away. The others followed, their shoulders stiff with unspoken disapproval.
She'd done it, she realized with excitement. She had made them go away. Maybe she had been wrong. Perhaps she could have survived that horrible engagement party after all.
She let the demi-train of fine pink silk droop in the salt water, and in doing so, doomed the costly dress. What did it matter anyway, now that she'd run off? Father couldn't kill her more than once.
Not that his tirades were truly fatal. As she'd long ago discovered, they only made her want to die.
Father. Shae sometimes imagined that he thought her just another jeweler's gem, to be trapped inside binding metal prongs, to sparkle for no one except him. And Ethan Lowell, of course, the man he had selected for her future. King Rowan held that even now, though 1875 was years past slavery, it was right that he should determine everything she did.
Enough of that, Shae thought. He wasn't her king, just her father. At twenty-one, she felt determined to snip those puppet's strings. She might marry Ethan, but she wouldn't be put on display tonight. She shouldn't have to pay forever for her mother's sins.
Surely, Father realized that. Sometimes Shae imagined she could feel him trying to relent. Each time she glanced toward her mirror, she sensed that everything about her conspired to remind him of Mother. How often Shae had longed for her friends' straight brown tresses, their brown or gray-blue eyes. Instead, she had her mother's Irish features: the emerald eyes, the red-gold hair that rippled toward her waist, the sprinkling of light freckles across a slightly upturned nose. How could Father help remembering how Glennis wounded him each time he gazed at her? Was it any wonder he worried for her chastity?
Yet when Ethan's eye had fallen on her, how relieved Father had seemed. Any association with the fine Lowell family could only serve to bolster King's reputation and send even more of Port Providence's elite flocking to his jewelry store.
That was how they'd met. Ethan had come to have a brooch made for his mother's birthday. He'd been so delighted with the results, he'd asked to meet the craftsman.
Ethan sputtered with disbelief when he was introduced to her. He'd stammered so foolishly about her age and gender that he'd come back later to apologize and bring her flowers. That was how it started, and though Shae found Ethan self-absorbed and boring, her father had insisted she accept each crumb of attention the future heir bestowed on her.
"You're lucky he would have you," King said. "Surely he has heard of Her by now."
"Her." The only appellation her mother was allowed. It still pained Shae to think of it. Glennis McElbee Rowan had run off with a stranger--had it been six years ago? Yes, 1869, when Shae was just fifteen, not yet a woman. The memory of shame and betrayal had left an empty socket, still too raw and deep to plumb.
Humiliated by gossip and her own murky suspicions, Shae refused to return to school. Instead, she had shadowed Father, as if she might keep him from disappearing too. At his shop, she watched him make and sell fine jewelry at the business he had brought here from their Philadelphia home two years before. Although she had inherited his artistic talent, she had never before been attracted to his chosen craft. For the first few months, she toyed with jewelry in an attempt to win back the affection he had shown when she was younger. Soon, however, her interest bloomed in earnest, and she immersed herself in her designs. Within a few short years, the jewelry she created brought more profit than King's.
Now Shae smiled, remembering how she'd accidentally overheard him discussing it with his bookkeeper, Lucius. Though he'd never told her directly, she heard pride in her father's voice. At least she thought it was pride. Sometimes, she suspected her imagination was the only tint that colored Father's voice with tenderness.
Despite the sun's last, slanting rays, something pale gleamed in the sand beneath the water's surface. Burrowing with her toes, Shae dislodged a milk-white shell, a lightning whelk, she realized. She bent to scoop it into her palm, examined the spiral structure inside the collapsed exterior, and found it to her liking. If she survived this evening, she must remember when she returned to her designs: the pinkish-orange sunset, the birds' legs mirrored in the shining sand, the simple swirl the surf and time had left for her inside that fractured shell.
She secreted the fragile treasure inside a silken drawstring bag and hoped she could remember the images so she could craft them out of gold and enamel. No, pure gold this time. It had to be pure gold. A pin? No, a pendant. Shae saw it, recognized its form in her mind's eye, and smiled.
Forgetting all else, she turned her back on the graying waters of the gulf. The knowledge wouldn't last until tomorrow, she was sure. She had to get home quickly and sketch it on her drawing pad, or she would surely lose it.
In her haste, she nearly plowed into the young man in the fine frock coat who stood glaring by her father's gig.
"Are you completely stupid or just unbelievably rude?" he asked. He removed a dapper top hat, more fitting for a ball than this wild stretch of beach.
Shae's gaze flicked to his scowling face only an instant before she looked down at the sand. Yet in that instant, her artist's eye took in the stranger's features. How the breeze ruffled his jet hair, which he wore a bit too long. How his hazel eyes struck at her like snakebite. How his late twenties had edged his tall figure past lankiness and into elegance. In the dying light, his face, clean-shaven, with a straight nose and high cheekbones, could be a lord's face in an English portrait. An angry lord's, just now.
"I--I'm sorry," Shae apologized, although she was unsure why. She'd pulled up short before she bumped him, and his wrath seemed too severe.
"Tell that to the Lowells, Shae Rowan! You've humiliated them before their guests. Ethan told me he imagined you'd flown here. You don't even have nerve enough to follow through with your scheme to fleece them. I tried to warn him, mind you, of the pitfalls of any liaison with a woman of your--type. And then I came to see if Ethan had been right, if any female would be crass enough to snub the most important families in this city for an evening stroll. You've all the sense of those sandpipers." He gestured broadly toward the gulf.
When his top hat waved, her horse's eyes rolled and the mare lurched sideways. Shae heard leather snap as Delilah broke the narrow tie. With a shrill whinny, the animal galloped down the beach, the empty gig jouncing along the sand behind her.
Shae shrieked and began to run after the jugheaded beast. Delilah might be a fine saddle horse, but every time Shae drove her, something awful happened! If she ever stole a gig again, she'd be sure to make certain Samson wore the harness.
She had only run a half-dozen steps when her bare foot impaled itself on a sword-sharp object hidden in the sand. With a shriek, Shae tangled her legs in petticoats and fell, her shoulder and face slamming the rough granules.
Pain lanced through the instep of her right foot, up her leg. Drawing her knee closer to her chest, she rolled toward the worst hurt. A thumb-sized fragment of driftwood stuck out from the flesh. Blood already stained the grayish sand.
"I hate that horse!" she wailed.
"Here, get up." The arrogant lordling stuck a hand out as if doing her a favor.
Who was this stranger, who felt so qualified to catalogue her faults? Ignoring his offer, Shae struggled to stand. One leg crooked like a heron's, she demanded, "Run and catch Delilah, before she--"
Both their heads jerked toward a crash. The gig lay on its side, the left wheel spinning rapidly. The mare stood with legs splayed, bewildered, as if she'd never wrecked a buggy in her life.
"Oh!" Shae sank back to the sand and put her hands up to her face. "I may as well go join the Ursulines as face my father now!"
Her tormentor smirked. "I don't believe the nuns would approve of the decolletage."
Shae flushed at his ungentlemanly mention of her neckline. Then, as her embarrassment gave way to anger, her fingers dug into the damp sand, making a fist around it. "You think this is funny, don't you? You think I'll gladly await your orders--as soon as I wail and cry for your help and forgiveness."
"Under the circumstances, it would seem appropriate."
"So does this." She flung the sand across his frock coat, all over his gray pants. It smacked the fabric with a satisfying popping sound, like bacon frying. A dark clot stuck on his square chin.
Shae smiled despite her pain. Every now and then, she mentally thanked instead of cursed her mother for some unexpected gift. How long had that Irish temper lain dormant in her blood and muscles before urging them to even once strike back?
Now that she had, she felt elated. At least until he wiped his face and glared at her again.
"Ordinarily, I would help an injured lady in distress. But as there is obviously no lady present, you have absolved me of that duty."
She stared at him in disbelief as he turned and strode away. He was going to leave her here, she realized, alone and hurt, with her gig tipped over in the sand! How could he, after he had set this accident in motion?
As she tried in vain to stand, something rattled in her silk bag--broken shards of a crushed shell.
The man mounted a black horse and rode away without a single backward glance. Shae couldn't imagine which of Ethan's useless friends he was; she only knew she hated him the most. * * * *
"Be still, Mary Shae." Aunt Alberta tugged on the loose bandages on Shae's injured foot, jolting her with fresh pain. Her Philadelphian accent, like her brother's, had not been softened by eight years spent in the South. The sturdy woman ignored Shae's groan and secured the wrapping none too gently. Though she sometimes sympathized with the girl she'd helped raise, she'd been the first to curse Shae for her ridiculous notion of escape.
"What sort of nonsense is this? You told me you were looking forward to this marriage. Now that they've heard you weren't so 'indisposed' after all, it's ruined. You might have thought of us, young lady. It's rather awkward to provide you with a lie and have you muck it up by getting caught." With each word, the tugs at her bandage became a little harder. Knowing she deserved each one, Shae gritted her teeth and kept her peace.
She couldn't have known the only people to heed her cries for help would be guests leaving the Lowells' failed engagement party. But she wouldn't argue that small point after what she'd done. Especially not with Father stalking somewhere in the house. She flinched at the sound of a slammed door in another room.
The kitchen door banged open, and King strode in. Everything about him set her to mind of a print she'd seen once of an old lion, from his muttonchop whiskers to the graying mane. And especially the ever-present roar. "Damn it, I have tried! God knows I've done everything I could to give you this one chance. And you race off like some stupid slut. Destroyed the gig! Destroyed your life, as far as I'm concerned. Because the simple truth is you never deserved Ethan Lowell in the first place. You're just like Her, Mary Shae! Just like Her after all."
Shae slid still lower in the straight-backed chair. Tears blurred her vision as he stormed out of the room. Up until now, she hadn't cried. Not when she'd had to call out for help on the beach. Not even when Alberta pulled the shard of wood out of her foot. But Father's words, as always, wounded deeply. And just like fishhooks, each point had a barb, so it would work its way into her and lodge inside her heart.
Alone with Alberta, Shae could no longer dam the tears. Why hadn't she simply gone through with this party, gone through with this marriage so she could leave this soulless house? She had to escape somewhere, anywhere, where King's demands could never follow.
The thickset woman wrapped a fleshy arm around her niece. A spinster, Alberta had come to live with them several years before Shae's mother's disappearance.
"My brother's wrong, Shae, wrong. You're not Her. You never have been." Though she was fiercely loyal to King, Alberta always spoke her mind. As far as Shae knew, hers was the only criticism King tolerated. Perhaps he felt he needed it to round out the toadying he demanded from his employees and associates.
"He's right about one thing. No one thinks I deserve a Lowell." Shae used the older woman's offered kerchief to wipe away her tears. "That's why I couldn't go tonight. Cynthia tells me all the gossip--"
"--Of course she does." Alberta pulled away and picked a cloth off the pile of scraps she'd torn for bandages. After dipping it in the washbasin, she wiped blood spatters from the wood floor. Her face puckered as she spoke of Shae's friend. "That girl's had her cap set for Ethan Lowell since the moment someone first explained trust funds to her. Without all the big words, that is. I imagine your 'good friend' is consoling him even as we speak."
Shae wanted to argue, but she suspected that her aunt was right. She had always wondered at the edge of glee in Cynthia's voice as her friend reported the latest set of snide remarks. Could Cynthia have exaggerated what she overheard to drive Shae from the man she wanted for herself?
Shae imagined Cynthia marrying Ethan. Dressing in the finest frills purchased with all his ready cash. Planning menus with his stuffy mother and the household staff. Socializing with the ladies of the garden club. Listening to him report the latest cotton export figures or extol his sailing prowess.
Though she knew how inappropriate it must look, she felt her lips twitch and then draw back in a smile. "I don't think I deserve Ethan either. I don't believe any thinking woman does."
Aunt Alberta slapped her hand down on the table. "Have you no sense at all? Do you realize what you've lost, or what you've cost your father's reputation?"
Shae felt the blood drain from her face. Though she cared little for her own loss, she felt guilt over her father's. Guilt and fear, twined together like two hissing serpents.
For if she'd learned anything these past six years, she'd learned how King reacted to a loss. With this incident, she might have pushed him beyond the point of purgatory. Now he'd make her life a living hell.