City of Ash: A Novel

City of Ash: A Novel

by Megan Chance

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When the great Seattle fire of 1889 leaves them with nothing to lose, two very different women discover a mutual passion for revenge.
Chicago socialite and art patron Geneva Langley has brought scandal to her family for the last time. Her latest and boldest act of immodesty is too much for her father to bear, and he banishes her to Seattle, along with her scheming, ambitious husband, Nathan. Seattle is a far cry from Chicago—the streets are muddy, the society backward, and Ginny feels stifled and alone.
Despite her considerable talent, Beatrice Wilkes is an actress whose dream of being a leading lady is fading rapidly. She can’t believe her luck when a new production gives her a chance at stardom, but Geneva Langley seizes the opportunity for her own and unwittingly crushes Bea’s last dream.
The two women engage in a fierce battle for center stage, but the great Seattle fire, which ravages the city, changes their fates and plans. In its aftermath, Ginny and Bea see an opportunity to change their lives: but it would mean banding together to enact a truly wicked plan. Their dark and perilous alliance will set them on the path to either redemption or damnation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307461049
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/07/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 322,045
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

MEGAN CHANCE is the author of Prima Donna, The Spiritualist, An Inconvenient Wife, and Susannah Morrow.  A former television news photographer, she lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Chicago, 1888

I remember very well the night that changed everything, although of course I could not know it then. One could not tell at the start that it would be different from any other night, because even the lavish display of Louise Berkstad’s ballroom could not disguise the fact that the same faces wandered among the vases of blooming night jasmine perfuming the air, nor that the same musicians played the same tunes beneath a ceiling painted deep blue and spangled with stars of phosphorescent paint, nor that the same matrons with their judging glances--my grandmother included--sat pretending not to gossip beside the huge stone fountain dripping into a “pond” decorated with moss and lily pads sprinkled with gold dust.

I was twenty-three and self-assured in that way only favored daughters could be, the heiress to Stratford Mining, who was fondly chastised for racing carriages in the park and forgiven for flirting too obviously with boys at dances. My father encouraged my high spirits. He was my first and best audience; he laughed when people worried over the way I pushed at convention and said, “Let the young be young. As long as it doesn’t interfere with my business, I don’t see the harm.”

I was conversing with artists and philosophers at his suppers before I was fourteen. By fifteen, I served as his hostess along with my grandmother, my mother having died when I was nine. At eighteen, he made me the trustee of his art patronage, which was extensive--my father loved art as I did; portraits of him hung above nearly every mantel in our house, and he had a room devoted to sculpture, classical nudes, Grecian beauties, muscled Roman youths. And though I had no artistic talent of my own, I did have a talent for introducing artists to the society that would support them. By the time I was twenty-one, I had gained a reputation for taste and originality that belonged to a woman twice my age. I thought I knew everything.

There’s the challenge fate loves best, isn’t it? I was ripe for a fall and so . . . the apple.

Nathan Langley was the scion of an old society family that had lost everything in the crash of Jay Cooke & Company. His father had committed suicide; his mother died soon after. Everyone knew she’d ended her days in an asylum, though her son refused to speak of it. Nathan had been forced to go into trade, and he proved to be good at business--something society never quite forgives, preferring destitute gentility to ambition, but Nathan had enough of a pedigree that we could afford to be gracious.

I had known him for some time, though we had never been formally introduced. Rather to say, I knew of him. He was older than I, and off to a university in Boston before I was out of short skirts. By the time he returned to Chicago, I was fully grown, and as aware of my own charms as a woman could be. He was sandy haired, blue eyed, finely muscled in the way that meant he worked at it. And he had the advantage of not being one of the feckless, spoiled, and barely grown young men of my circle. He was someone new. Someone . . . intriguing.

He seemed equally intrigued. “Ginny Stratford,” he said, eyeing my low decolletage with a practiced eye as we danced. “How you have grown.”

“I could say the same for you,” I said.

He leaned close to whisper, “How well we look together. Look at how they watch us.”

“It’s because they’re afraid I’ll do something outrageous,” I teased.

“Ah yes. I’ve heard rumors about you.”

“Interesting ones, I hope.”

“Interesting.” He laughed--I liked his smile, his straight white teeth. “Yes, I should say they are at least that.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” I told him.

“No? Oh now, that is a pity.” He pulled me closer than was proper, and I let him. “Don’t tell me you’re as staid and traditional as the other girls in this room after all.”

“Would you be disappointed if it were true?”

“Devastated,” he said

I laughed. “So tell me, Mr. Langley, which is the most interesting rumor you’ve heard?”

“Hmmm . . . which one? There were so many,” he teased. “I think it must be that you were the muse for that poem of Jonathan Hastings’s. I can’t remember the name of it.”

“Lilith in the Garden,” I said. “And that happens to be true.” What was true as well was that I’d lost my virtue to Hastings when I was eighteen, in the guest room of my father’s house while Papa waited tea for him in the parlor.

Nathan Langley raised his eyebrow at me as if he’d guessed that as well. “Well, then, I suppose I should read it.”

“If you like.”

“Yes, I should like. I wonder what secrets are to be found within it?”

“I have no secrets, Mr. Langley. Ask anyone.”

“I beg to disagree. I rather think you have a great many secrets, Miss Stratford.” His smile said that he wished to be one of them, and I felt a little shiver of the kind I’d never felt before.

He was not anyone’s choice for me, which is why he became the choice I made for myself. But it was more than that. Nathan was as impatient with social niceties as I. That night I danced with him three times, much to the dismay of my grandmother, who shook her head at me from where she sat talking with her friends. I would have danced with him again but for the fact that my card was nearly full before I’d met him. I was . . . entranced by him, I suppose. By the things he said, by the way he talked to me, as if I were an experienced woman--which I was not, Jonathan Hastings notwithstanding, as it was only the one time, and not as I’d dreamed passion would be. The way Nathan looked at me was the way a man looked at a woman he wanted, and it made me realize how badly the other men I’d known compared. My experience with Jonathan Hastings had been quick and soon over. I had thought it love, but I’d been too young to understand how to be a lover, and he had not bothered to teach me. And here was Nathan Langley, who it seemed increasingly did wish to teach me . . . something. He made me feel as no one else had ever done.

Our first kiss was in the night garden at a soiree celebrating the newest sculpture by one of my father’s artists, a man of great talent though little grace and charm, whom I’d managed, with no small effort, to make the most coveted guest of the season.

“Tell me why you like his Leda,” Nathan said and then listened with an intensity I’d never known as I spoke of sublimity and the purity of love, and when I asked him what he’d thought of it, he looked at me consideringly and said,

“It reminded me of you.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Sublime,” he whispered, his gaze never leaving my face, falling to my lips. “Pure love. I never look at you that I don’t want to lose myself in you.”

How easily I fell. How well he knew what to say, how to win me. When he kissed me that night, I felt the impatience in him, a roughness that frightened and excited me at the same time. I would have lain with him there in the grass if he hadn’t stopped, breathless but not apologizing, instead saying, “Dear God, the things we could do to each other . . .”

When he asked me to marry him, I did not hesitate. I wanted him too badly. Fortunately, my father liked him. Nathan was a good businessman, and Papa readily folded him into Stratford Mining, where he became, very quickly, indispensable.

I was blissfully happy. I was in love and in a state of heightened desire that had me reaching for Nathan whenever he was in the room. Society called us lovebirds and twittered nervously around us, and both Nathan and I laughed at it. I felt myself ridiculously lucky--what other woman had a husband who was so fine a lover, who listened so intently to everything she said? Nathan said I had a mind unlike any woman’s, he told me how thoughtful were my opinions, how I’d opened up worlds for him. It was not unusual for us to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning, making love and talking over some philosophy or another. Oh, there were little annoyances, of course, as there are in every marriage. Nathan had a temper, I learned, and he was easily irritated. There were arguments, mostly over my behavior, I admit. I was spending too much time hobnobbing with disreputable artists, or this writer or that actor was a fool, how did I not see it, or it was unseemly for a married woman to debate philosophy in little cafes into the wee hours of the morning.

I was uneasy at the comments, but I attributed them to his exhaustion--by the time we’d been married three years, he had become my father’s most trusted adviser, and Papa began to talk of the possibility of Nathan entering politics, as it would be of great benefit for Stratford Mining to have a voice in government. Nathan was very busy now. He was often out late. His comments about my behavior became more pointed, sometimes now accompanied by tempers that left no object safe--a vase, a shoe brush, a little bisque statuette. But it wasn’t until Emily Dentridge’s ball that I became worried.

Nathan was working late, and so he meant to meet me there. By the time he arrived, dinner was over, and I was playing cards with Ambrose Rivers--who was Chicago’s most notorious art critic and my dear friend--and Miles Ashby, a painter Papa had lately taken a liking to. I had always enjoyed gambling, and I was winning. Nathan came into the parlor just as Ashby fell to his knees before me, bowing in mock supplication, laying his head in my lap. We were all a little drunk by then, and he made me laugh.

I didn’t see Nathan until he was upon me. He grasped my arm; I didn’t see how angry he was until we were in the carriage, when he turned on me with a furious, “What the hell did you think you were doing? Did you not see how everyone was staring?”

I was taken aback. “I cannot help it that people watch me, Nathan.”

His voice was tight. “Of course you can. You encourage it with your behavior.”

“There was nothing wrong in--”

“Playing cards? Having Ashby swoon over you like a schoolboy?”

“He doesn’t swoon. We’re friends--”

“You will end the friendship tomorrow.”

“I will not! Why should I?”

His gaze was burning. “Because I forbid you to continue to see him.”

I was startled. He had never before been so vehement. “Forbid me? You can’t forbid me.”

“I can and I will,” he snapped. “People are talking, Geneva, and I won’t have it.”

I thought he couldn’t mean it. I thought he was only tired. It turned out that I was required to do nothing in any case; Miles Ashby left for New York City within the week. He’d secured a patron there, he told me, and he was anxious to work on a new commission.

In the months that followed, things only deteriorated between my husband and I. We made love infrequently now, and when we did there were times when he was very rough, when I had the vague sense that he was punishing me.

I admit I was unhappy. I was unused to being ignored and dismissed, and we were both so angry. I missed the man I’d married. I looked for ways to bring him back to me, for ways to help him. I thought that if I could aid him with his languishing political career, he would turn to me again. I would help him the way I’d helped my father. Nathan needed the influence of important people, and so I decided to start a salon, a weekly meeting of artists and intellectuals. Papa was ambivalent about the idea, but not forbidding. Nathan, who I thought would understand my purpose, said, “Stop wasting your time and money on idiotic painters and actors too self-absorbed to see past their own noses. They can do nothing for me.”

He was wrong, and I knew it, so I went ahead with the salon. I was certain he would come to see its value. At first, it seemed he was right. Chicago society was upended and confused. They hated it, though no one would say so overtly; the Stratford name and money were not something to offend. I cultivated the salon carefully, courting my guests assiduously--divine actors and creamy prima donnas and luscious tenors, poets, and philosophers and artists of all kinds. They moved among vases of orchids and sideboards set with champagne and wine and absinthe. I crowded candles onto every surface, as talk seemed to flow so much more naturally in candlelight that flickered with every breath and movement. Gradually it began to have the influence I’d hoped for. Within a year, my salon became the most talked about in Chicago.

The man I’d begun it for would have nothing to do with it. Nathan refused to attend; he berated it at every opportunity. When I told him I’d done it for him, he said, “Don’t lie to yourself or to me. You did it for yourself, Ginny. You’re the most spoiled woman I’ve ever known. I asked you not to do it. But God forbid you ever do anything I ask. Did you never once think of how it might look?”

“There’s nothing wrong in it.”

“People think you a step above a whore,” he said brutally.

I felt myself pale. “That isn’t true.”

“Isn’t it? You should hear the rumors I hear.”

“I don’t believe you.”

He threw a wineglass across the room so the wine stained the wallpaper. I was afraid, and there was something in his eyes that disturbed me, that reminded me of the rumors about his mother, but I was too angry myself to heed it. He said, “You will do as I say,” and I screamed at him that I would do as I wished, whatever anyone else thought of it. Nathan grabbed me then. I thought he might hurt me. For a moment we stood staring at each other, and then it changed, it twisted. Anger into passion. He kissed me, and I bit his lip until it bled. It became the most passionate interlude we’d had in months, and I was afraid of myself, of how I urged him on--this anger was better than nothing, after all.

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