A retelling of Samson and Delilah’s story in a never-before-seen 1st person narration from best-selling author Chloe Carley!
Playing her role and getting information was all she had to do. But Yvonne Bonner’s adventurous, dramatic, and romantic spirit will be taken advantage of by her half-brother, Rex. And soon she will be overflowing with something much stronger and greater.
After their father’s death in 1905, Rex asks Yvonne to leave Paris and live at his ranch in Colorado to go undercover as a spy on his mysterious rival, Logan.
With her initial attraction to Logan, a man who is only known by his first name, she finds that her affection goes much deeper than that. Unaware of the danger she is in due to Logan’s dark secret, Yvonne finds herself torn between her love for Logan and obligation towards her brother.
But when all secrets come to light, will her new-found faith be able to lead her to the right path or will she once again be lost?
Looking back, I don’t know why I said yes to Rex. It was a mad decision, and one that almost cost me my life.
It could’ve been because I was lonely and bored after Poppa’s death. It could’ve been because I’d never seen America. Or it could’ve been because I’d grown weary of my admirers in Paris. They were all so predictable.
There were certain conventions to Parisian courtship, even in 1905, and we all followed them, as if we were reading off a script.
Oh, Tomas, what beautiful flowers! You spoil me. The opera? Of course, how enchanting!
Don’t misunderstand me: French men are delightful. I find them charming, sophisticated, and divinely romantic. But even so, they lack a certain earthiness, and I miss that. I’ve always had a soft spot for big, stubborn, brawny types.
I like a man who’s quite the opposite of my own personality, even if that proves a bit awkward at dinner parties. What can a girl do? Women are attracted to men, after all.
Perhaps it was my curiosity that provoked me to that mad decision. Poppa always said, “Yvonne, you’re like a cat. If you’re not careful, your curiosity will be the death of you.” He was a very observant man, my father, and usually quite right.
Poppa. I get misty-eyed, even now, when I think of our lovely evenings in Paris. When Poppa was in his last illness, we spent our precious hours together on the balcony of his house on the Rue Vendame and watched as twilight fell. The gas lanterns flickered on, and the streets filled with cabs and sleek carriages and men on fine horses, all on their way to the theater, or the ballet; or in the case of the young men, the Moulin Rouge or the Palais du Cocottes.
Poppa was a celebrated author, with many awards and accolades to his name; but he never cared a snap of his fingers for them. He always said that an author wasn’t a thing in the world but a good gossip.
It was certainly true of him. His most enduring love was his love of scandal. Half the time he was creating it himself, and when he wasn’t, he was laughing at other people’s peccadillos. Nothing was better than to sit in Poppa’s salon with a half-dozen of his friends, all of them famous literati like him, and hear them tell outrageous gossip that even they would never dare to print.
Of course their love of juicy stories rubbed off on me. How could it not? When I was six years old, I shocked my teacher, Sister Marie-Angelique-Clement, by telling her that the Archbishop of Paris had just welcomed his third grandchild. She’d been nowhere near as amused as Poppa and his friends had been the night before.
Poppa was William Bonner, the American literary giant, the man who wrote famous novels like Homeward Bound and Over the Rockies and a dozen others. He attracted a circle of American expatriates in Paris, as well as English and French writers. They were all urbane, amusing, intelligent, and thoroughly godless.
It made them tremendous fun.
Poppa set Paris on fire with laughter when he stole the mayor’s mistress, the very day after the mayor had left his wife for her. I remember distinctly the uproar among Poppa’s friends, who were taking wagers on how soon Monsieur Le Maire would go running back to Madame La Mairesse.
Or the time the English novelist Edward Chamberlain spent the evening drinking with Poppa. He left our house very much the worse for wine. He rode his horse right into the Ballet Russe and made away with the lead ballerina, even though the ballet manager shot a chandelier off the ceiling and chased them with his gun for more than three blocks.
Maman had died when I was a child, but Poppa’s world was so colorful and amusing that I flourished in spite of it. When Poppa took a mistress from the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I played one of Queen Titania’s fairy attendants, complete with a costume of pale green chiffon and pink spangles. I was dark haired and slender, and it pleased me very much when Poppa’s mistress told me that I was a perfect gamine, pretty as a picture, and made for the stage.
I loved the stage so much that whenever he could, Poppa arranged for me to appear in one of the plays forever being performed in Paris. And when he traveled on book tours, I was always by his side, rubbing elbows with the likes of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. I still have a little rag doll that Mr. Clements gave me once.
I suppose that was why all the magic seemed to go out of the world when Poppa died. I was looking for a challenge―something so wild and foolish that I would one day regret doing it. Something so mad that it would take my mind off how I missed Poppa.
And so when I got Rex’s telegram from America, asking me to join him in Colorado, I decided that was the very thing I needed.
I have half-brothers and sisters all over Paris, and in other parts of the world, of course; but Rex was the oldest half-brother I knew of. His mother had been Poppa’s first wife, though Poppa left them to come to Paris when Rex was still quite small.
All I remembered of Rex was the time he came to visit us when I was seven years old. Rex pushed me to the ground and stole my wagon as we were playing in the park.
Poppa told me afterwards that Rex was angry at him, and not at me; and I believed it, because Poppa made everyone angry. Probably because they loved him and suffered for it. Poppa punished the people who loved him, you see. He was a restless man and was seldom content with his friends or even his lovers for long.
He spent his whole life looking for something he never found.
So, I was desolate when Poppa died, and when Rex sent me the telegram, I agreed to leave Paris and embark on a mad adventure in America. Of what kind, I wasn’t exactly sure, because Rex’s message had been very mysterious. It read:
HELLO VONNIE STOP SORRY TO HEAR ABOUT DAD STOP ARE YOU IN THE MOOD FOR A CHANGE STOP I HAVE WORK FOR YOU IF YOU’RE GAME STOP I’M SENDING A TICKET FOR A BOAT TO NEW YORK AND A TRAIN TO COLORADO STOP HOW ABOUT IT STOP
Yes, that really was all the information Rex gave me. But I was curious to find out what he meant by I have work for you, and the implied promise of excitement. I didn’t need work for the sake of money; Poppa had arranged for me to be more than comfortable. It was my curiosity that persuaded me to sail all the way over the Atlantic, and travel halfway across America, just to find out what the message really meant.
And Poppa’s warning about the cat proved true. In this instance, curiosity really did almost kill me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I suppose I should start at the beginning, when I arrived at the train station in Denver. Looking back at it now, I was amazingly naïve.
Rex was waiting for me as the train pulled into Denver, and I recognized him at once. He was tall, like Poppa, and stood head and shoulders above the rest of the people on the platform. He looked just as I remembered, only older. Rex had a full head of blonde hair, and a bristly blonde moustache. He was dressed in a smart brown hunting jacket and khaki slacks.
But he still had that indefinable look of resentment in the set of his jaw, and the faint, sullen curve of his lower lip. Poppa had once said, in one of his less charitable moments, that Rex always looked as if someone had stolen his lollipop. The memory made me smile, because amazingly, it was still true.
Rex had blue eyes, and they were very keen. They fell on me like a spotlight when I stepped off the train, and that was uncomfortable. But Rex was in all other respects hospitality itself. He was carrying a bouquet of beautiful yellow roses, and he presented them to me.
“Welcome to America, Vonnie,” he smiled, and leaned down to kiss me. I offered my cheek and accepted the flowers.
“I suppose you’re wondering what the devil I was talking about, eh?”
“I confess it. I’m afire to hear the answer to the mystery.”
Rex took my hand and looped it through his elbow as we walked along. “I seem to remember that you used to go on stage as a child, didn’t you, Vonnie?”
“Oh, yes. Often.”
“Good. Because I want to offer you the chance to do some real-life play acting.”
I was delighted by the suggestion. “I’d love that! Tell me everything.”
Rex cleared his throat. “I’m a cattle rancher now, Vonnie. Quite a successful one, though you may laugh to hear it.”
“Not at all, I assure you.”
“I have five thousand acres, twenty thousand head―oh, that means cattle, my dear,” he explained, with a smile. “I have a new wife and good credit at the bank. I have the largest ranch in southwestern Colorado.
“Or rather, I did have the largest ranch, until this year.”
“Oh-oh,” I teased, and smiled up at him; but to my alarm, Rex didn’t think my joke at all funny. He gave me another piercing look, like the jab of a needle.
“Durango’s always had a problem with drifter trash. We had a fellow like that blow into town last year. A real no-good. He lived in a shack outside of town and kept to himself and was in and out of jail for drinking and busting things up.
“But somehow, a few months ago, something changed. This busted-broke drifter suddenly started buying things up―land, cattle, houses.
“He bought the ranch next door to mine, and I know for a fact that it cost thirty thousand dollars. He used to walk everywhere he went, but now he rides a thoroughbred stallion and has a brand-new carriage!”
I gave him a respectful glance. “Dear me! Perhaps fortune smiled on him at the card tables.”
“Maybe. But I can’t find anybody who’s ever seen him gambling.”
“Indeed! It is a mystery, then.”
Rex helped me climb up into the carriage he had waiting outside the station, and then got in and sat down in the opposite seat. The driver whipped up the horses, and we went tooling through Denver as smoothly as if we were on a paved boulevard in Paris.
I had arrived on the last train into Denver, and the city was dark; but I was diverted by what I could see of the town and watched as the quaint little clapboard buildings and houses rolled by. These were sometimes punctuated by red brick buildings, none of them more than two stories high. The streets were of dirt, and very dusty.
Rex’s voice pulled me back to the present.
“I was wondering if you’d be willing to use your skill as an actress to―to help me solve the mystery about this fellow,” Rex was saying. “It’s a risky proposition, but you always did love excitement, didn’t you, Vonnie?”
I smiled and nodded. “I live for it! What would you like me to do?”
Rex leaned toward me, and his eyes were keen again. “Just this. I want you to enter his household posing as a maid and gather information about him for me.”
“La-la, Rex!” I laughed. “You mean you want me to spy on the poor fellow?”
He gave me an odd look and didn’t laugh at all. “Yes, that’s it, Vonnie. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I just want you to keep your eyes and ears open. See if you can find out who he is, and where he came from, and most of all―how he got his money. Does he have a rich backer somewhere? Political patrons? Influential family? Where does he keep his money? The fellow seems to lead a charmed life, and I want to find out why.”
“You mentioned that he was often jailed,” I demurred, and crossed my hands in my lap. “Is he then violent?”
Rex set his jaw and gave me an odd, appraising look. “He can be, when he’s drunk. But I’ve never heard of him hitting a woman.”
“Mmm. What does he look like, this fellow, and what is his name?”
Rex grimaced. “He’s the sort of man women go crazy for,” he grumbled. “Big, hulking brute. Ox muscles and a bird brain.”
“His name is Logan James.”
I rolled the name over in my mind and smiled. “It’s musical, that name. Is he married?”
“Not that I can tell. He used to be, but his wife died six months after. I haven’t seen him with a respectable woman since.”
I leaned back and stared at Rex in astonishment, and he sputtered a little in spite of himself. “I suppose he’s discreet. He doesn’t like to tell his business.”
“Perhaps he is a gentleman,” I suggested softly, and smiled to see Rex bristle.
“Perhaps,” he replied, in a sour tone.
Rex put me up at a beautiful hotel in Denver that night, and we took the train down to Durango the next day. The countryside was breathtaking―vast, towering mountains rolled away to the horizon on either side of the train, and we followed the course of a sparkling, rushing river almost all the way. When we arrived in Durango at nightfall, I saw that the town nestled in the lap of the mountains, and its lights glittered in the purple dusk below us like jewels on a velvet cloth.
Rex’s ranch wasn’t far from the town, and a carriage was waiting for us at the train station. We arrived at the Bonner Ranch late that evening, and under cover of night. Rex’s house was long and low: Lights burned in every window, and there were lanterns in the yard.
We pulled up to the entrance, and Rex helped me down from the carriage. “Stacey’s going to be thrilled,” he told me. “She’s been looking forward to meeting my glamorous sister from Paris.”
“I should’ve worn makeup,” I told him, and Rex laughed and opened the big front door.
The interior of Rex’s house reminded me of a hunting lodge I saw once in Germany. It was overwhelmingly brown. The walls were paneled wood, the ceiling and floors were wood, and the furniture was mostly upholstered in leather. Several trophy heads were mounted on the walls: deer, bighorn sheep, and one bear, whose huge jaws were still opened in a roar.
“Oh, Rex, is this your sister?”
A smiling blonde woman came walking toward us. She extended her hand, and I took it.
“Rex has told me so much about you,” she murmured. “I’m so glad you could come to visit us!”
“I’m delighted to be here,” I told her. “Colorado is enchanting. It’s so wild and free. It has such a … je ne sais quoi.”
Stacey smiled and reached out to me. “Let me take your bag. Come and have some dinner with us, and afterward you can turn in. We have a room all made up for you.”
We all had a very convivial meal, although Rex did most of the talking. I had to pity poor Stacey. She could hardly get a word in edgewise, and she hadn’t been Rex’s wife long enough to be resigned to that.
I had a small wedding present that I’d been saving, and I presented it to Stacey at the dinner table. It seemed to brighten her up.
“Oh, look, Rex!” she cried. “It’s a crystal wine decanter!”
Rex nodded. “Very elegant. Thank you, Vonnie.”
“It belonged to Jules Verne,” I told him. “And it’s only half the gift. I have also a bottle of champagne in my carpet bag.”
Stacey turned to Rex and laughed, and he smiled: “Break out the wine glasses, Stacey! Let’s have a toast.”
I presented the wine bottle, and Rex opened it as Stacey set out the glasses. When she returned, Rex poured champagne into our glasses, and then raised his own.
“To a long, happy visit―and a brilliant performance.”
Poor Stacey looked confused, but she touched our glasses and drank her wine. I gathered that Rex hadn’t taken her completely into his confidence.
It would be just like him.
When we’d finished our meal, Rex wished me a pleasant sleep, and Stacey walked me to my bedroom door.
“We’re so glad you came to visit us,” she told me. “Thank you again for the lovely wedding present.”
“You’re welcome. And good night.”
I turned in, and by that time I was very sleepy. I put it down to the wine and the long journey, because in Paris Poppa and I rarely retired until well after midnight.
I changed into my nightgown and climbed into a big brass bed with fresh linens and a soft, deep pillow. I should have gone to sleep instantly; but for some reason I lay awake for quite a long time.
I was thinking of what Rex had told me about the mysterious Logan James. If I disregarded my half-brother’s jealous commentary, I gleaned four things: Logan James was young, rich, apparently unmarried, and quite good-looking.
I smiled, snuggled into my pillow, and drifted off to sleep; and because of the wine, or perhaps my own imagination, I had very pleasant dreams.
The rest of my stay at Rex’s home was ridiculously cloak-and-dagger. It was amusing to see how serious he was about our little charade. He sent his servants away, and poor Stacey had to cook and clean so he could brief me unobserved.
“Here’s the advertisement, Vonnie,” he told me, and handed me a little newspaper clipping from the previous week. It read:
Wanted. Maid for large ranch house. Good salary, room and board included. Must be willing to work on evenings and weekends. Apply Bar J Ranch, Durango. Ask for Phyllis Giles.
“How do you know I’ll be hired?” I asked him. “I’m sure I’ll have competition for the work.”
Rex raised a bushy eyebrow. “I don’t think you’ll have any trouble at all getting hired,” he replied dryly. “Just be sure to let Mr. James see you. Smile at him.”
I laughed merrily. “You want me to flirt with him!―For shame, Rex.”
Rex smiled and shrugged. “That part I leave up to you, Vonnie.”
“Who is this person mentioned in the ad, this Phyllis Giles?” I asked him, and he made a face.
“Oh, she’s a pill,” he told me, and fished a peppermint out of his pocket, as if the mention of Phyllis Giles gave him a sour stomach. “A real harridan. Just do what she tells you, and you’ll get along all right. But be careful of her, Vonnie,” he added, with a serious look. “She’s keen as a needle, and always on the watch. Don’t let her looks fool you. She’s the real boss over there.”
“Dear me!” I laughed. “You make her sound like a Tartar!”
“She is,” Rex mumbled, and put the tin of peppermints back into his pocket. “Stay on her good side as much as you can and do your spying when she’s not around.”
“I’ll be on my guard,” I promised, and Rex patted my arm.
“Good, good. Now remember―mostly I want to find out where he got his money, and where he keeps it. That’s the main thing. But anything else you can find about his past, or his family, or if he’s been in trouble with the law, is good too. You can’t dig up enough dirt on the fellow to satisfy me. I want it all.”
I coughed discreetly and gave him a troubled look. “I see. And what if I get caught?”
Rex smiled and patted my arm again. “I have confidence in you, Vonnie,” he replied bracingly. “You’re a good liar.”
I straightened to my full height. “Thank you!” I replied dryly; but he only nodded and dug into his pocket.
“Now, I’m going to give you a hundred dollars for any little expenses you might incur,” he told me, “and I had Stacey buy you a couple of suitable dresses and boots―everything you’ll need to look the part of a maid.”
He raised his eyes, and again, they put me very much in the spotlight.
“I suppose you can’t alter your accent?”
“I speak flawless English,” I told him, with a touch of pique; “but if you like, I can tell them I’m down from Canada. That I’m Quebecoise.”
Rex beamed at me. “Perfect! I knew I could count on your ingenuity.” He set a small stack of cash down beside me. “If you need more money, just send word. And if you ever feel that you’re”―he paused and seemed to choose his words―“less than perfectly safe, leave at once.”
“Thank you, Rex,” I drawled, and in the same dry tone as before; but if Rex detected irony in my voice, he gave no sign of it.
“Now, there’s a big party at the Miller Ranch tonight,” he told me. “Everybody within twenty miles is going to be there. It’s the perfect time for me to get you back to town, and into a boarding house. Durango will be empty tonight. We’ll set out after dark, and I’ll drop you off just outside of town. I recommend Ma Grantham’s.”
“Boarding house? What, you mean there isn’t a hotel in all of Durango?” I wailed.
Rex shook his head. “Yes. But you couldn’t go there. Remember, Vonnie, you’re a poor girl now.”
I nodded and smiled. “Very true. Well, one must suffer for art.”
Rex laughed and reached for a cigar. “I don’t foresee much suffering for you, Vonnie,” he teased. “But bring me back everything you can find on this two-bit drifter, and I’ll make it more than worth your while. This”―he picked up the money― “is just a down payment. There’s lots more where that came from.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Thank you, I’m sure,” I told him, with a little smile, “but I don’t really need the money. I’m doing this for the challenge, Rex. Just for the diversion.”
I stood up and shook out my skirts, and gave him such a bland little smile that his face went completely red. I confess that I laughed up my sleeve at the way Rex stomped out of the room, even if it wasn’t very good of me to wound his pride.
Rex’s pride was so exaggerated. It was like an overinflated balloon, and I fear I couldn’t resist the temptation to poke a little hole in it, every now and then.
Having brought me safely to Colorado, Rex rolled out the second phase of his nefarious plan, which was to transform me into a maid. And to my dismay, the dresses Stacey had chosen were perfect for that goal. They were made of cheap, drab cotton, they were poorly made, and they were barren of even a scrap of lace or one tiny bow.
They had penniless beggar written all over them.
My own corset fit me like a second skin, was soft as down, and was festooned with pink ribbons. I had purchased my beautiful petticoats at an exclusive shop in Paris. They were elaborately ruffled, and three inches thick with lace.
By contrast, my new corset was a cheap horror. It had sloppy stitching, an uncomfortable fit, and cruel whalebone ribbing that poked me whenever I moved.
My new underskirt was as thin and limp as a wet rag.
The boots were the worst of all. They were of very poor quality leather, black, stiff, and slapped together by some back street cobbler who gave no thought to comfort.
And it didn’t end there. Rex had made it clear that my hair combs and ribbons had to go, that my hairstyle was too fashionable, and that a maid would not be able to afford jeweled earrings. I even had to abandon my lovely scented soaps and perfumes.
So I stripped myself right down to my underwear, and brushed my hair out straight, and started from nothing. I plaited my hair into a long, thick braid, like I used to do as a child, and pinned it up on top of my head in a coil. I climbed into the horrible new under things, and they were just as uncomfortable as they looked.
Then I pulled up the thick black stockings Stacey had laid out for me. I’d never seen them on any woman under seventy, and they failed utterly to protect my poor toes when I laced up the cruel boots.
I pulled on the dress last of all. It was a light gray, and slightly less drab than the other two, which were olive green and brown.
I buttoned up the dress, turned to look at myself in the mirror, and put a hand to my mouth in horror.
The effect was hideous.
Those cheap clothes made me look like one of the washer women in Paris. One could see them early in the morning, carrying basket loads of other people’s dirty clothes. They combed their hair flat on their heads, they were dressed in rags, and they never smiled, because all of them were missing teeth.
I couldn’t decide whether to cry or burst out laughing; but of course I was acting. I had to slip out of my own personality and put on the personality of a maid.
I once saw Sarah Bernhardt at the Odéon. She was playing the role of a very old woman, and I watched her from our opera box in rapt admiration. The beautiful diva had disguised herself so completely that had she hobbled past, I would’ve believed her a woman of ninety.
I took a deep breath, lifted my chin, and stared at my own reflection serenely. The more completely I became an insignificant maid, the more successful I was.
That knowledge would be my comfort, and my secret amusement, as I embarked on my deep, dark career as a spy.
Rex hustled me out to the wagon that night as soon as it was dark. He helped me climb up into the front seat, and I needed the help, because I was wearing the cheap boots. They had slick soles, and they made climbing treacherous.
“Remember now, Vonnie, you’ve just arrived in town and you don’t know me at all. You’re from Canada, and you’ve worked for years as a lady’s maid for a rich family up there.”
“I’m quite capable of making up my own story,” I told him, and smoothed my hair. “I’m a good liar, remember?”
Rex climbed up beside me and shook the reins. “That’s true enough. Just remember, the most important thing is the money. Where did he get it? And anything scandalous, odd, or, of course, illegal, I want to know right away.”
“Why do you hate this fellow so?” I asked, as the wagon lurched away from the house. “Can’t you both be successful? Maybe you can even be partners. Wouldn’t that be more profitable than espionage?”
Rex fairly snorted. “It’ll be a cold day before I partner with that trash,” he growled. “He got too rich too fast for everything to be nice and legal. I’ll bet cash money that he’s jailbait.”
“But how?” I objected.
Rex turned to me in the darkness. “That’s what I’m sending you over there to find out,” he grumbled.
We jolted off down the road, and it was a lucky thing there was a full moon that night to light our way. The landscape was rough and hilly, and at times the road hugged the edge of sheer cliffs that plunged down hundreds of feet.
But it was all very clandestine and exciting, and for the first time since Poppa’s death, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I might not share Rex’s detestation of this mysterious fellow, but I entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of my new adventure.
If Logan James was doing something seriously wrong, then he deserved to be exposed, and I’d be doing the community a service to denounce him.
If he was innocent, then I’d find nothing. I’d leave his household as discreetly as I came. There would be no harm done.
At least, that was what I told myself, as we bounced down the moonlit road to Durango.
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