A Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred #3)

By: Joanna Shupe

Chapter One

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

—Helen Keller

New York City

January 1890

Lady Christina Barclay was officially trespassing.

Yet as she stepped out of the mews and into the magnificent empty gardens behind this large Fifth Avenue home, she could not bring herself to care.

The home belonged to her cousin’s reclusive neighbor, a man Christina knew very little about. Since arriving in New York three weeks ago from London, she had learned his parents had died some years ago and that he never left his house. Her cousin Patricia hadn’t ever clapped eyes on the man, not once in her eighteen years.

None of that mattered to Christina. She had no interest in the man’s life or his problems, only the tranquil gardens behind his home. The space was full of winding paths, alabaster statues, and utter quiet. It had become her slice of solitude in a busy modern city filled with noise and smothering crowds every which way she turned. Not to mention the gazes that brimmed with judgment and scorn following her every movement. In this peaceful place, Christina could be alone, away from the rest of the world.

So yes, she was trespassing but for a noble cause. Namely, her sanity.

Early every morning she escaped her cousin’s home to stroll about these gardens. Here, she could forget the scandal that had brought her family to America, as well as the pressure from her parents to marry a rich man, thereby solving all their financial troubles.

The future of the Barclays rests on your shoulders, her mother often said.

Heavens, the mere idea caused Christina’s stomach to clench. She had never been comfortable around people, let alone men. There had been no friends or family around during her childhood in London. Of course years had passed before she realized the problem was not her; it was her mother. Lady Barclay was widely disliked in society, even before their money disappeared. Still, this did not help Christina’s confidence when it came to meeting people.

You have the beauty to attract a rich man if you would only smile, her mother said. I had the eye of every gentlemen in the room when I debuted. Of course, you are not as pretty as I was at your age . . .

Christina dug her nails into her gloved palms. How she hated when her mother said that. What was there to smile about when you were being paraded about like a lamb for slaughter?

The bitter wind whipped across her skin as she ran a hand along the top of a short hedge. Even in winter, the carefully manicured paths were pretty, just empty plots where flowers would soon bloom. Trellises and arches abounded, the stone fountains dry and dormant. There was even a hedge maze. Perhaps she’d attempt it in the spring, if she were not married by then.

A shiver unrelated to the outside temperature went through her. Her American cousin, Patricia, told Christina not to worry, that marriage would not be so bad, but Christina doubted this. She brought no dowry to a marriage, no social standing. Instead, she would bring scandal and debt. What man in his right mind wanted as much?

She rounded the next bend and something large darted out from the bushes then stopped on the path. It was a dog. A very large dog. She froze. Suddenly, it spotted her, its head snapping up. Small dark eyes pinned her to the spot.

She had no idea what to do around a dog. The countess had never allowed pets in the Barclay household. Was she supposed to speak? Run? Kneel?

“Good boy,” she said, hearing the tremor in her voice. “I mean you no harm.”

Unfortunately, the only way to reach her cousin’s home was to cut through the gardens. She had to find a way to get around the dog unscathed.

There were iron benches along the path, hedges beyond that. No one was nearby. Perhaps she could lose the animal in the hedge maze. Legs shaking, she inched backward, never taking her gaze off the dog’s large teeth. At her movement, the dog’s tail started wagging. That was a positive sign, correct? “See, everything is perfectly well. I’ll just turn around and—”

The dog bounded forward as if chasing prey. Panic shot through her limbs as fear clogged her throat. Oh, dear Lord. It was coming straight for her. She could not move, her muscles clenched in absolute terror. Just as the dog leaped to rip her to shreds, Christina screamed. Giant paws landed on her chest, pushing her down, and she felt herself tipping over, falling toward the stone path. Her arms flailed but came up empty.