An unforgettable novel that transports the reader from modern day Australia to the windswept Isle of Wight and the courtrooms of London in the 1780’s.
With her marriage on the rocks, workaholic lawyer Liz Jones agrees to visit Seagrove, a stately home on the Isle of Wight, while she quietly investigates its provenance on behalf of a client. When she discovers Seagrove is linked to a notorious eighteenth-century court case, Liz is fascinated – not only by the house and its history, but also by its current owners.
In the winter of 1789, the infamous Delany Nash scandalised London when details of her alleged affair with her husband’s brother were aired in a public courtroom. Yet her journals reveal an extraordinary woman’s tale of passion, betrayal and heartbreak. Captivated by Delany’s story Liz delves into her research, but the more she uncovers, the more she risks jeopardising the future of everyone at Seagrove. For there are dark secrets buried beneath the rumours that surround the house, and when the truth emerges the repercussions will echo down through the centuries.
Shifting between the 1780s and the present, The Wife’s Tale is a mesmerising story of love, loyalty and sacrifice.
Liz washed up on the shore of the Isle of Wight like flotsam, bedraggled in body and spirit. The exhaustion of flying across the world after the emotional upheaval of Tony’s desertion seemed to have knocked the stuffing out of her. She wished she could crawl into a nice warm bed and stay there for a century.
Having learned from experience that her style of driving was incompatible with narrow English country lanes, Liz didn’t hire a car, which would have been the most sensible mode of transport to use on the island during her stay. When she’d told Seagrove’s manager her plans to take a train and a bus to Seagrove, the woman had insisted on sending someone to collect her from the ferry terminal at Ryde. What a relief.
Only during a conversation on the ferry did she learn that buses no longer stopped near Seagrove, because some of the closest road had recently fallen off the cliff. She tried not to be daunted by that.
Nevertheless, by the time she arrived at the Isle of Wight port, Liz could have wept with gratitude when she saw the tall, carelessly dressed individual holding a sign with her name on it. His attention wasn’t on her or on the crowd disembarking from the ferry, but on a paperback novel in his hand.
“Boy, am I glad to see you.” The man looked up and her words trailed away as she saw his face.
No man had a right to be that handsome outside a Hollywood movie. He had a healthy, outdoors look to him, all tousled hair and golden tan. Laughter lines at the corners of his eyes and the deep furrows on either side of his mouth gave his face character, and a little age, too. She guessed he must have been older than she was, but not by much. And those eyes… Sea green and changeable, like the waters that lapped against the nearby shore. He wore faded jeans and a t-shirt that had a tiny rip at the shoulder seam.
His gaze flicked over her without interest. “Is that all you have?”
She looked down at herself. Then she realized he referred to her lack of baggage. Most of her summer wardrobe was in Phuket with Tony, so she’d decided to pack a carry-on suitcase and buy the rest over here.
“Yes, that’s it.” Her mouth twisted a little at the thought of Tony. “Long story.”
He didn’t seem the least bit curious to hear it but merely reached for her bag and headed toward the car park with it.
Her driver was a big man, with that rumpled elegance that seemed coded into the DNA of a certain type of Englishman. He drove an ancient Range Rover that seemed to be held together by chewing gum and string.
This must be the lord of the manor.
“I’m Liz, by the way,” she said over the roof of the car, before getting in.
He looked down at the sign he’d been holding with her name on it, then tossed it to the back seat. “Morning.”
Without taking her lead and introducing himself in return, he climbed in beside her. His physical presence seemed to fill the cabin. What was he, six-four?
Liz was no midget. She’d once heard herself called a ‘strapping wench’ by the senior partner at her old law firm, but she felt tiny next to this man.
He glanced at her as he backed out of the parking space, eyes glittering in the golden tan of his face. Was it her imagination or did his gaze linger with slight puzzlement on her hair? Nothing she’d done to it that morning could get the strange kink out of it. Although to be honest, she hadn’t tried very hard.
She supposed he had a right to judge. While it was as uncontrived as the rest of him, this man’s hair was a work of art. It was brown streaked with every shade of highlight, from caramel to tawny to gold, and shaggy as a surfer’s. She’d no doubt the color was natural. He didn’t seem the type to sit in a salon with little strips of foil sprouting from his head.
“So… what’s your name?” she prompted, because it didn’t look like he was ever going to volunteer the information. A wave of tiredness hit her. What time was it in Australia? She didn’t have the energy to work it out.
“Theo Nash,” he said.
She’d been right about his identity, then. What was the Lord of the manor doing playing chauffeur? Didn’t he have minions to do that for him?
Liz stifled a yawn. “Nice to meet you, Theo.” She rested her head against the window and tried not to fall asleep.
She still hadn’t managed to corner Nick on the real reason he’d sent her here. When questioned further about their conversation in his study, he’d turned annoyingly vague.
That was uncharacteristic of him, come to think of it. Once she’d agreed to go to Seagrove, he’d sent a package of printed information she hadn’t yet had time to read. He’d reiterated her mission to negotiate to buy the estate, but that wasn’t all he wanted. She was sure of it.
What was it that he’d been about to say when Yolande had interrupted them that day? When Liz had pressed for more on the phone, he told her that once she’d settled in and read the material he’d sent, he’d be in touch to discuss strategy.
He’d thanked her for her care of Yolande, and reading between the lines, Liz took it that he’d managed to smooth things over with his wife. Maybe Yolande’s accident had given Nick the jolt he’d needed. Liz hoped so, for Yolande’s sake.
The landscape rattled by in a blur of deep green hills, fields and meadows spotted with sheep. She knew enough of the island’s geography to predict they would head inland to get to Seagrove, so she wouldn’t see much of the coastline. The chalk stumps of the Needles, the island’s most famous landmark, were situated well to the west. Her destination was on the island’s south coast, maybe half an hour’s drive.
If she’d hoped for a tour guide-style commentary on their journey, she was to be disappointed. Theo kept his eyes on the road, muttering now and then when the actions of another motorist displeased him, or raising an index finger from the wheel in acknowledgement when some obliging person pulled onto the shoulder of the road to let him pass.
On the whole, she was glad Theo wasn’t too interested in talking. While she knew she ought to pay attention to the countryside, the motion of the car soon lulled her into a doze.
A sharp bump woke her. Liz opened her eyes.
They’d left the smooth road and were rattling and bouncing along a lane that was little more than a goat track. Liz looked out Theo’s window and saw water on the horizon.
Beyond the track, the cliff fell away steeply, giving her a jolt of vertigo. Her brain told her the edge was some distance away, but her hand gripped the armrest on the door beside her. As if that could keep them from tumbling over.
A structure came into view, but it wasn’t the grand Georgian edifice she’d expected. The Range Rover puttered to a stop outside a large, gabled two story house with dormer windows and a thatched roof. It squatted amid an overgrown garden, as if hunkering down, bracing itself against the elements.
She blinked. “This isn’t Seagrove.”
“No,” said Theo. “The big house is about a mile or so that way.” He pointed in a direction she assumed was north. “This is Saltwater Cottage, where you’re staying. All booked and paid for.”
Before she could get it herself, he grabbed her case and headed up the path.
The garden gate hung loosely on its hinges, flapping rhythmically with the stiff sea breeze. Liz caught it on the backward swing, pushed it open and followed him.
“Cleaned it up a bit,” said Theo, looking around. “Needs a deal more work, though.”
While clearly old and as shabby as her driver, the cottage was clean. That was a relief.
“As long as there’s a bed and a bath, I don’t care,” said Liz. Would decent plumbing be too much to hope for?
Nick’s assistant had made the booking. What was M.J. thinking, to stick her miles away from the real action? If Liz was supposed to be digging for information, didn’t it make a lot more sense for her to stay at the house? Well, she’d see what could be done about her accommodation when she got her wits together.
Liz squinted up at the bare light bulb that hung on a lead over the stairwell. “I’m guessing you don’t have wi-fi here.”
“Not even mobile reception,” said Theo, in a tone that bordered on the self-congratulatory. Liz checked her phone. He was right.
The cottage had an uncanny atmosphere, as if ghosts whispered through cracks in the walls. She often felt like that in old buildings. You didn’t get too many houses of this vintage back home in Brisbane.
She followed Theo into the low-beamed living room that adjoined the small entry hall. He yanked aside the curtains on the front window and sunlight flooded the room.
He’d called the place a cottage, but it was a large house by Liz’s standards, made of stone and covered in a thick blanket of ivy. It was draughty and musty, and she didn’t doubt the chimney was blocked with birds’ nests or the carcasses of sundry climbing animals.
Luckily, it was summer. She wouldn’t need to make use of the fireplace. Besides, if she had anything to do with it, she’d be staying up at the “big house” in no time.
“Hold on,” Theo said, opening a cupboard under the stairs, “I’ll turn the power on.”
“Are you the caretaker, then?” said Liz. She managed to keep her voice deadpan. Something about this man—perhaps his unwillingness to exchange more than monosyllables by way of conversation—made her want to needle him.
When he didn’t answer her, she peered around at him, to see that he watched her with a slightly bemused expression.
“Actually, “caretaker” is a good way of describing it.” He held up her carry-on. “Put this in the bedroom, shall I?” He headed up the stairs.
Liz followed him, thinking he didn’t sound offended by her cheek, which was just as well. She was supposed to be getting to know these people, after all. “Are you Lord Nash, then? Sorry. It’s just that you’re not dressed like a peer of the realm.”
“My Order of the Garter is at the dry-cleaners,” he said over his shoulder, but she caught the glimmer of a smile as he opened one of the doors off the landing.
“Well, you can’t blame me,” said Liz, encouraged by the spark of humor. “I expected a bluff squire type in tweeds and a wax jacket, at the very least.” Not a sun-drenched god in jeans and a ripped t-shirt. Not quite your average Mr. Darcy.
Lord Kenyon, 1789
The Court of King’s Bench, Westminster Hall, seethed and roiled with a mass of bodies. Those spectators who had failed to bribe their way to a seat close to the fray surged and flowed and spilled out into the greater hall.
The stalls of booksellers and drapers that once lined the walls outside the court were long gone, but some enterprising hawkers plied their wares to the teeming throng. Nearby pie-vendors and taverns expected a brisk trade today. Voyeurism was hungry work. Thirsty work, too.
In fact, the Lord Chief Justice would not wager a groat on half the audience’s sobriety, though it was well before noon. The beery, sweaty reek of humanity offended his nostrils even from his elevated position on the bench.
He called the court to order, but at first, he could not make himself heard over the din. Gathering all the considerable power of his lungs, Lord Kenyon issued a thunderous command to the crowd to be silent or he would clear the room.
He gave the quieted assembly a long, baleful stare. Before him ranged a sea of bewigged and hatted heads—here a pair of fashionable types all powdered and patched; there a bulbous-nosed merchant with a nut brown wig and snuff-dusted lapels. Even a handful of women… One would not like to call them ladies, whatever their pedigree, for no true lady would deign to appear at such a notorious prosecution.
Sundry reporters littered the court, scribbling their impressions earnestly, the which they would later print as scandal sheets and sell to titillate the jaded public palate. The infamous caricaturist, Gillray, was also present. Lord Kenyon scowled. Even he was not safe from the sharp end of Gillray’s wit.
With an irritated twitch at the sleeve of his robes, Kenyon turned his attention to the jury. A group of right-thinking, affluent men, men of sufficient means and experience to return a verdict that was both sensible and prompt.
Given a soupçon of judicial guidance, these upstanding citizens would make the plaintiff considerably richer when he went to bed tonight than when he’d awoken this morning. Assuming the defendant was in a position to pay.
A ripple of murmurs ran through the throng, marking the late appearance of the principals in today’s drama.
Heads craned to see as both parties took their places on either side of the court room. The plaintiff, Lord Nash, was a well-looking man in a pale, ascetic way, his dress characterized by propriety rather than flair. He had an air of ineffable boredom, as if to him, the proceedings were a matter of indifference.
Lord Nash’s brother, Mr. Julian Nash, that radical rogue and reckless libertine, was the defendant in this case. His frame was larger than his brother’s, cast from a rougher mould. He was not generally held to be handsome. Yet, his dark features held a potency that drew ladies to his side.
One doubted Mr. Nash knew the meaning of the word ennui.
The crowd was permitted only the briefest glimpse of the two brothers, however. Being gentlemen and therefore entitled to a modicum of privacy, the parties sat behind curtains that hid them from prying eyes.
Cain and Abel, come to court to settle their differences. Kenyon approved the propriety of taste and judgment which led Lord Nash to wield the law as his weapon, rather than a sword.
Dueling was still the prevailing manner of deciding disputes between gentlemen over offenses against their honor. If one were cynical, one might say that an award of damages for twenty thousand pounds would be far preferable to finding oneself with a hole through one’s heart, or spitted on one’s younger brother’s blade. A handy fellow in a fight was Mr. Julian Nash—or so the gossip went. He’d honed his skills on many an irate husband, after all.
If Kenyon had anything to say about it—and in his court he had almost everything to say—Julian Nash would pay for his transgressions with his person if he could not pay with his purse.
Prison was the proper place for such a blackguard as would stoop to seduce his own brother’s virtuous young wife. The Lord Chief Justice had presided over many a trial for criminal conversation in the past decade or so. Never had he seen an instance of such calculated depravity, of fraternal betrayal, as this. Such calumny demanded the highest possible damages in reparation.
Twenty thousand pounds. It was enough to ruin a man. Yet, ten times that sum was insufficient to assuage the distress and suffering Julian Nash had caused his brother.
After another call for silence, Lord Kenyon was about to invite the plaintiff’s counsel to open the case, when a new and flagrant arrival caught his eye.
A dark-haired lady sailed into the court room. Like a proud little yacht carving the sea, she slipped through the gathering of gaping fools, the curling ostrich plume in her hat fluttering like an ensign in her wake. She stopped at a particular chair in the front row a short distance beyond the bar table.
The lady addressed the chair’s burly occupant without a hint of hesitancy. “My good man, I paid for that seat.”
She did not seem to raise her voice, yet her words carried throughout the stilled court room.
The brawny fellow scrambled up, full of apologies, bowing low and palming the coin she held out in compensation for the loss of his vantage point.
With a brisk nod, the lady took his place. Clasping her hands in her lap, she lowered her gaze demurely. As if she had not, by her mere presence, added fuel to a scandal that would keep the Grub Street presses running hot for weeks to come.
Lord Kenyon, his shock giving way to incredulity, found his voice. “My lady! Lady Nash, what can you mean by this?”
Her broad hat brim dipped and curled rakishly, cavalier-style, to shade her features. When she rose in her place and lifted her chin to address him, a shaft of light from the window high above struck her face, and her beauty burst upon him.
He’d seen likenesses of her in sketches, in the Romney portrait at the Royal Academy, and most recently in lewd cartoons in print shop windows.
They had not done her justice. There was an aura about her that could not be captured even by the finest artist. Whether it lay in the decided elegance of her movements, the candid clarity of her expression or the vitality of her presence, he knew not.
Beneath that hat, lush ringlets of deepest ebony rioted in ordered profusion. A heart-shaped face, flawless skin, eyes so intensely blue they seemed to glow beneath those finely arched black brows. Lips that brought to mind every sonnet about lips ever written. Cherry-ripe…
Before he could recover from his stupefaction, she answered him. “My lord, is it not permitted for any citizen to watch these proceedings?”
Dragging his mind back to the matter at hand, Kenyon leaned forward and pressed his palms down on the blotter before him.
“That is quite beside the point. The wife concerned in a prosecution for criminal conversation does not appear at the trial. It is unheard of.”
He glanced toward the back of the court, where her husband, Lord Nash, sat silent. Whatever reaction he might have to his wife’s unwelcome intrusion was concealed by muslin hangings. “The damage to your reputation, ma’am…”
Her voice silvered with gentle mockery. “My lord, the damage was done when my husband barred me from my house and my children and served his odious writ on his brother. He has already ruined me, despite my innocence, and regardless of the outcome of this case. To add insult to injury, I may not even defend my reputation by joining as party to the action. The least I deserve is to confront my accusers by my presence, if not through my attorney.”
Mr. Garrow, counsel for the plaintiff, was on his feet. “My lord, I object. This is wholly improper. My client’s lady wife has no standing in this matter and cannot be called as witness. She may not sneak in her testimony by the back door.”
Ignoring the interjection, Lady Nash addressed the Chief Justice. “I would not have spoken at all had not your lordship desired me to explain my presence.”
“My lord, this is most irregular.” Garrow sent a furious glance sideways at his colleague, who lounged at the other end of the bar table.
Mr. Erskine, for the defendant, rubbed the side of his large nose and read his brief and affected deafness. Had the wily advocate planned this? Or was Lady Nash off on some mad frolic of her own?
It wasn’t merely irregular, as Garrow said. It was an outrage to decency. The lady would be obliged to watch, and be watched in turn, as every sordid detail of her affair with her brother-in-law was extracted from witnesses, picked over, highlighted and debated by counsel. From love letters and trysts to overheard moans of passion and stained linens, all would be laid bare.
And yet, there was that proud set to her shoulders, the fine, determined line of her jaw…
“Be seated, ma’am,” Lord Kenyon told her heavily. “And hold your tongue. As Mr. Garrow pointed out, this is not a forum for you to argue your case, nor to air whatever grievances you might have.”
She raised her hand as if taking the oath. “I shall be as silent as the grave, my lord.”
“Be sure that you are,” he said. “If your presence further disrupts the proceedings, I shall order you to leave forthwith.”
“Yes, my lord.”
He stared at her with a suspicious ferocity that had made many a perjuring witness shake in his shoes. The lady bowed her head, but the gesture did not fool him into believing her cowed. He knew a petty urge to eject her from the court on the grounds of sheer effrontery.
With a sour taste in his mouth, Lord Kenyon addressed counsel. “Mr. Garrow, you may proceed.”