The Stolen Marriage
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Published by: St. Martin's Press
Release Date: October 3, 2017
1944: Hickory, North Carolina
Tess DeMello has just ended her engagement to the love of her life when she is forced into a strange and loveless marriage to an enigmatic man. With no way out and growing racial tensions in a small rural town, can Tess untangle her husband’s mysterious past before her life is put in any more danger?
“Chamberlain conveys a strong sense of daily life in the American South during WWII, and the concurrent devastation of the polio epidemic, in this well-crafted crime-tinged tale of a marriage of convenience.”
“Combines the issue-driven style of Jodi Picoult, the romantic tension of Nora Roberts, and the lifedefining-mistake motif of Amy Hatvany’s It Happens All the Time.”
“Secrets, intrigue, mystery, love, forgiveness, and drama—it’s all here. And it is riveting. Chamberlain’s latest novel demands the reader to race, yet savor, the journey to the finale.”
The Stolen Marriage
Hickory, North Carolina
It’s a terrible feeling, being despised. From the moment I set foot in Hickory, I felt the suspicion, distrust, and outright hostility of most of the people I met. Even my new twenty-year-old sister-in-law Lucy regarded me with disdain. I was only three years older than Lucy and when Henry told me about her, I thought How wonderful! We can be friends. We were not anywhere close to being friends. So when, on a bright early June morning five months after my arrival, Lucy asked me for a favor, I agreed. Anything. I would do anything to try to win her over.
Although I’d fixed my too thick and--according to my mother-in-law Ruth, too long--dark brown hair into its usual victory roll and bun, I was still in my robe at ten that morning. Ruth would call it my ‘dressing gown’, correcting my bourgeois language as she looked down her nose at me. Ruth collected complaints about me the way she collected her Tiffany glass vases. Henry and I lived with her and Lucy in a stunning colonial--the James Kraft house, it was called, after Henry’s grandfather--in Hickory’s Oakwood neighborhood. Henry had grown up in the house and it was a mansion in my eyes. Neither Henry nor I was happy about our living arrangement, though. Henry was building a house a few miles away on a huge tree-filled lot and in a month or so, we would be in our own home. I hoped that would make things better. Our marriage. My relationship with Ruth and Lucy. My miserable mood. I hadn’t been happy in so long. I doubted a new house was going to fix what was wrong with me.
I generally got dressed shortly before Hattie, the family’s maid, came upstairs to clean. Hattie was kind to me, but I didn’t want her to see me in my robe so late in the morning and possibly mention my attire to Ruth. I still wasn’t used to having a maid. It left my days empty. No work. Nothing to clean. Nothing to do other than read and I’d already worked my way through most of the fiction in the Krafts’ well-stocked library. I missed nursing school. I missed the Little Italy neighborhood in Baltimore where I’d lived all my life until my move to Hickory. I missed my mother. And of course, Vincent. I missed Vincent more than anyone or anything. I’d be missing him for the rest of my life.
I was making my bed when I heard footsteps in the hall outside the bedroom I shared with Henry, and Lucy suddenly pushed open the door and walked into the room without knocking. She’d finished her sophomore year at Lenoir-Rhyne College and was footloose for the summer. She was a pretty girl, her dark blond hair perfectly coiffed in a wavy bob, spit curls at her temples. Her blue eyes lit up when she smiled, although I rarely saw that smile directed at me. Even though she didn’t like me, she adored her brother. Everyone loved and admired Henry. The fact that this outsider—me--had come into his life and therefore into the lives of everyone in Hickory disturbed them. I’d shaken things up in a town that was already shaken by the war, with losses and casualties too numerous to count. No one trusted me. I was the outsider who’d stolen their Henry Thomas Kraft from them. The town’s golden boy.
I finished tucking the chenille bedspread under my pillow as Lucy flopped down onto Henry’s bed. She wore a coral linen blouse and tan capris and she held a long white envelope, thick with its contents, in her hand.
“Can you drive me to Adora’s house in the Buick?” she asked, holding the envelope in the air. “I want to drop off the money for the headstone.”
Adora Johnson had been the Kraft family’s maid since Henry was a little boy. She’d had to retire a couple of years ago when arthritis made the work impossible for her, and her niece Hattie took over. Adora’s six-year-old grandson Butchie had died of polio the week before and Ruth had taken up a collection at church so that Adora and her family would have enough money for a headstone. That was one thing that touched me about the Kraft family: they still looked after their former maid.
“I thought your mother was going to take the money to Adora,” I said.
“She asked me to do it.” Lucy patted her hair as if making sure every strand was in place. “She doesn’t like going to colored town. But the bus takes so long and we have that car sitting right there. Please?”
I was frankly surprised by the request. First, Lucy never made a secret of her disdain for me. Second, gas was rationed and we didn’t drive anywhere unless it was absolutely necessary. And third, we never drove the Buick. It hadn’t been out of the garage in the five months I’d lived in Hickory. Henry drove his beloved Cadillac back and forth to his factory, and Ruth usually called a driver to take her to her various meetings and social events, but Henry had told me right from the start that I wouldn’t be driving as long as the war was going on. I knew how to drive, but the Buick needed new tires and with rubber being rationed it would be a while, if ever, that Henry would be able to get them. So I was stuck at home, day in, day out. Not that I had anyplace to go. The few times I’d gone into town, I’d felt the stares of strangers following my every move.
“I’m sorry, Lucy,” I said, straightening up from making the bed. “You know Henry said I can’t use the car.”
“That’s silly.” She studied her nails. She’d painted them coral the night before and they perfectly matched her short sleeved blouse. “The car’s sitting right there,” she argued. “It still has gas in it. So its tires are old? It’s not like Adora lives on the moon. We’ll make it to her house and back with no problem.”
“You’re so afraid to do anything on your own!” she interrupted me. “And why do you still insist on calling him ‘Henry’? He’s Hank. Henry sounds ridiculous.”
“He introduced himself to me as Henry, so he’ll always be—”
“He was putting on airs. Come on,” she pleaded. “Please take me. I can’t bear the bus.”
I sat down on the dressing table bench, facing her. “Maybe we could mail the money.” I motioned to the envelope. “Adora’s family is still under quarantine, aren’t they? You won’t even be able to go into the house.”
“I’m not mailing thirty-two dollars!” Lucy said. “And besides, some of it is in coins. I’ll have to leave it on their porch.”
Maybe I should do it. This was an opportunity to forge a relationship with my sister-in-law. So far, my attempts to strike up a friendship with her had failed, but maybe with just the two of us in the car, it would be different. We could chat as we drove. We could stop someplace for a milkshake on the way home.
“All right,” I said. “Now?”
“If you can bring yourself to get dressed.” She nodded toward my robe.
“Of course.” I would not be ruffled by her sarcasm. “I’ll just be a minute.”
“Put this in your handbag,” she commanded, standing up to give me the envelope. “I don’t want to have to take mine.”
Once she left the room, I began dressing. Stockings, girdle, slip, a yellow skirt and white blouse. Back home in Little Italy, I would have simply pulled on my dungarees and a shirt and my scuffed saddle shoes and been out the door in five minutes. That would never do in Ruth Kraft’s house. Lucy was pushing her luck with those capris today, but she generally went along with her mother’s demand for conservative dress. I’d never known girls like Lucy before. They hadn’t existed in the Catholic schools I attended and certainly not in my nursing school. Lucy’s big regret in life was that there had been no debutante ball the year she was expected to “come out” because of the war. Debutante ball? I couldn’t relate at all.
Lucy was waiting for me by the detached garage that stood behind the house, next to Hattie’s little cottage. I’d found the key to the Buick in the key cupboard by the back door and I couldn’t help the jittery nerves I felt as I opened the double garage doors and approached the driver’s side of the car. I was disobeying my husband. I hoped he never had to know. Henry was mercurial. I was never sure if he’d yell or simply fall silent when he was angry. Either way, he would be very upset to know what I was doing right now.
I opened the car door and slid onto the mohair bench seat while Lucy got in on the passenger side. She was holding a second envelope, this one large and tan and bearing a white address label. I’d seen those manila envelopes around the house from time to time and thought they had something to do with Henry’s factory. I was too focused on the car to ask her why she was bringing this one along.
The Buick came to life instantly when I turned the key in the ignition. I’d worried Henry might have siphoned the gas out of the tank for the Cadillac, but that didn’t seem to be the case. I felt rusty as I explored the dashboard and pedals and gear shift. The only other car I’d driven—the car I’d learned in—had been Vincent’s ancient Ford and the Buick was fancier. Lucy seemed to scrutinize my every move, unnerving me. She would report back to her friends. My moronic sister-in-law couldn’t figure out how to drive the Buick, she’d tell them. Maybe not, though, since Lucy didn’t know how to drive at all. But surely she’d find something to complain about and her friends would all agree that I was the most insufferable creature in all of Hickory, the girl who had tricked Henry Kraft into marrying her.
“Make sure you put it in ‘reverse’ and not ‘drive’,” Lucy said.
How stupid do you think I am? I thought, but I said nothing and my hand trembled slightly as I shifted into reverse, my foot pressing hard on the clutch. I backed slowly out of the garage and down the long driveway, worried that Ruth might come home early and spot us. That was all I needed. She’d be on the phone to Henry. Do you know what that wife of yours is doing now?
“Turn north when we get out to the street,” Lucy commanded.
“North?” I asked. “That’s the wrong direction.”
“We need to make another stop.” She held up the manila envelope. “I have to drop this off at someone’s house.”
I pressed the brake before the car reached the street. “Where does this someone live?”
She hesitated. “Just on the other side of the river. We’ll go out 321.”
I laughed. “No, we will not go out 321,” I said. “You said we’d go to Adora’s. Period. We shouldn’t be in this car to begin with.”
“It’s five minutes away, Tess. We drive to this fellow’s house. Leave the envelope in his mailbox and then drive to Adora’s. Adds ten minutes total to the trip. What’s the big deal?”
I looked down at the gas gauge. We were fine, as far as gas went. What was the big deal?
“What’s so important that it can’t simply be mailed?” I asked, looking at the envelope in her hands.
“It’s some boring business document Hank wants this person to have and it’ll take too long to mail it. He hasn’t had time to get it to him himself. Hank’ll be pleased we delivered it.”
The day was bright and warm and the fact that she wanted more time with me rather than less was seductive. I wanted to please her. To do something right in her eyes. “All right,” I said, against my better judgment. I backed the car out of the driveway and headed north along our tree-lined street. Unhappy though I was in Hickory, I had to admit it was a pretty town and our Oakwood neighborhood with its huge houses and sweeping lawns was the prettiest part of all.
Driving, I felt the sudden thrill of freedom. We rolled down our windows and the warm June air filled the car.
“You should learn to drive,” I said to Lucy. “It’s so much fun.”
“Not much point without a car I can use,” she said.
“Well, hopefully that will change soon.” Since D-Day, a new sort of optimism had come over all of us when it came to the war.
“Hank should let you use this car all the time,” Lucy said as I turned a corner. “He’s so stingy.”
“He’s not stingy,” I said, thinking I should defend my husband. “He’s really a fine man.”
I felt her staring at me and I glanced at her. “What?” I said.
“You don’t know Hank at all,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
She played with the clasp on the manila envelope. “There are things about my brother . . . You have no idea, Tess,” she said. “You’re so naïve. He’s using you, you know. I suppose that’s fitting. You used him, so he uses you.”
My hands tightened on the steering wheel. She was tapping into a fear that haunted me when I was at my weakest. I would tell myself that Henry was a truly good man. On my darkest days, I reminded myself that as miserable as I was, I would have been worse off without him. I’d learned to ignore his moodiness. I’d learned to accept his explanations when he came home late at night from work--and on the few occasions when he didn’t come home at all.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “How is he using me?” I ignored the dig about me using him. It was an argument I would never win.
“Never mind,” she said. “Let’s just drive.”
“No, really, Lucy,” I said, downshifting as we approached a stop sign. “You can’t start a conversation like that and then . . . ”
“You don’t really know him, that’s all.” Her voice had a tight, sinister edge to it. “He’s not who you think he is.”
I laughed uncomfortably. “So mysterious!” I said. We’d reached 321 and I turned onto the wider road in the direction of the Catawba River. “I’ll have to ask him to tell me all his deep, dark secrets.”
“Do not tell him I said anything.” She leaned her head closer to the open window, the breeze blowing her hair around her head. “Let’s just shut up about it, all right?”
“All right,” I said.
We drove for a few minutes in silence. I saw the broad river ahead of us, the sun reflecting off its glassy surface. We were nearing the long bridge when an explosive sound suddenly filled the car and we veered abruptly to the right. I pressed the brake hard, but the car was no longer in contact with the road. It sailed over the grassy shoulder and down a steep slope, straight toward the river. Lucy screamed, her hands on the dashboard. One of the tires blew, I thought. Maybe more than one? We seemed airborne for the longest time and I grabbed wildly for the steering wheel but it spun out of my control. My foot still pounded the brake, but it did nothing to slow us down as we catapulted toward that blinding sheet of glassy water. I let out my own scream as I glanced at Lucy. She looked stunned, a trickle of blood running from her forehead and down her cheek, her lips forming some sort of prayer.
The Buick hit the water nose first and it felt as though we’d crashed into a wall of concrete rather than a river. The car instantly began to sink, chilly water rushing through our open windows, rising up my calves. My thighs.
“Let me out! Let me out!” Lucy screamed.
My heart felt like a drum in my chest as I tried to open my car door, but the pressure of the water was far too great. “Get out!” I shouted to Lucy. She was frantically rolling her window up in a futile attempt to keep the river from pouring into the car. “Don’t roll it up!” I shouted. “You need to get out that way!”
She seemed dazed, that prayer or whatever it was still on her lips. The water had quickly risen to my chin and I filled with terror at the thought of it covering my head, stealing my breath. Maneuvering my body onto the seat from beneath the steering wheel, I grabbed the door frame and fought the current of water as I pulled myself through the open window. I gasped for air, and realized I’d been holding my breath even though my nose had never been underwater.
The roof of the car was still above the surface of the river. I held onto it as I pulled myself around the car to Lucy’s side. I reached into the water blindly to grab the door handle. Drawing in a breath, I pulled myself below the water’s surface. Lucy was on the other side of the window, her head tipped back as she struggled to keep her nose above the rapidly rising water. I knocked ineffectually on the glass, trying to pantomime that she needed to roll her window down. She didn’t seem to understand me and I watched the level of the water quickly reach her nose and pull her under. Her blue eyes were wide with terror, beseeching me to save her, her hand pressed against the window. I rose to the surface of the water, gasping for breath for real this time, and paddled as quickly as I could over to the driver’s side of the car. I would have to go back in through the driver’s side window and somehow pull her out. I’d never been a strong swimmer but I had no choice. I filled my lungs with air and dove under the water and through the window. My legs still outside the car, I grabbed Lucy’s shoulder with one hand, her hair with another. I tugged and only then realized her legs were pinned beneath the dashboard. She turned her terrified face toward me and I watched in helpless horror as the life left her eyes. I was frozen for a moment, my brain numb with fear before I became aware that my lungs were about to burst. In a panic, I retreated through the window, one thought in my mind: Air. I need air.
And then I had no thoughts at all.