Robert Truax, former Second Lieutenant and Confederate officer in the Civil War, made a promise to his comrade Phillip Markham. If anything happened to Phillip, Robert would look after his beloved wife, Miranda. She was his life, his world, his everything. After the war, Robert is left to pick up the pieces and fulfill his pact. When he arrives at Miranda’s home in Galveston, Texas, things are worse than he imagined. Phillip’s name has been dragged through the mud, everyone in town believes him to be a traitor, and his widow is treated as an outcast. Even more disturbing is her emotional well-being. Miranda seems hopeless, lost, and so very alone. Robert had thought his duty would be simple. He would help Miranda as quickly as possible in order to honor a promise. But the moment Robert laid eyes on her, his plans changed. He’s mesmerized by her beauty and yearns to help her in any way he can. He makes it his duty to protect Miranda, turn her reputation around, and to find some way to help her smile again. But it doesn’t prove to be an easy task—Robert knows something about Phillip that could shake Miranda to the core and alter her view of the man she thought she knew so well.
Three years after the close of the Civil War, widow Miranda Markham is still trying to adjust to life as an independent woman in Galveston, Texas, continuing to mourn the husband she lost in a prison camp. Struggling to make ends meet, she decides to turn her home into a boarding house, renaming it the Iron Rail. However, it seems no amount of hard work and up & up business practices will be able to repair her tarnished reputation. Shortly after her husband Phillip's death, gossip spread that Phillip was a traitor, spilling valuable information to the enemy while he was imprisoned.
Captain Monroe exhaled. "Don't forget...no matter what, we need to continue to stress that Phillip Markham was nothing more than one of my lieutenants who happened to have a very good seat on a horse."
"Yes, sir. And, uh, let us not forget he was a gentleman who really loved his wife."
Captain Monroe smiled. "That will probably be the truest thing we've ever said during our time here. Phillip seems to be fairly sure that the sun rises and falls on his Miranda. The man is still smitten after several years of marriage."
"Do you think any woman can be that wonderful?"
Monroe looked at him sadly. "I would like to think there is at least one woman who is. If Miranda Markham loves Phillip even half as much as he loves her, I shudder to think how she is going to receive the news of his death."
Guilty by association, Phillip's wife got her own share of whispers, most suggesting that her business was a front for illicit activity. Miranda's employee, Belle, suspects most of the gossip is coming from those wanting to keep fingers pointed away from their activities. Additionally, Miranda continues to periodically receive anonymous letters, threatening that she needs to leave town "or else".
Just about the time Miranda is stressed and scared to her limit, in to town walks former Second Lieutenant of the Confederate Army Robert Truax. What Miranda doesn't know is that Robert was imprisoned with her husband and in fact made a vow to the dying Phillip that he would look after Miranda... just took him a few years to get around to keeping that promise! All Miranda knows is she has a customer in front of her and she definitely needs the business. While Robert's initial intention may have only been to keep a vow, it doesn't take long for him to be pulled in by Miranda's beauty and her blend of quiet strength and vulnerability. Robert then makes a renewed promise to stay by her side and protect her until her good name has been rightfully restored. But about that reputation... well, turns out there might in fact really be a secret lurking within Phillip's story.
"Jesus, why?" she whispered. "I thought you suffered so much so I wouldn't have to. Why do I have to keep being reminded of how hard life is and how fleeting the feeling of security is?"
When I first started reading this novel, I somehow missed the connection that the author is the same Shelley Shepard Gray who wrote the Chicago World Fair series I reviewed in mid-2016. As it turns out though, even though we're talking about completely different time periods, there were some notable similarities between this book and that series! The initial scene between Belle and Sheriff Kern in this novel I found strangely echoed (almost movement for movement at times) that of the first conversation in the police station between Katie Ryan and Detective Owen Ryan in Deception On Sable Hill (Chicago World's Fair Mystery #2). Likewise, the parlor scene involving Viola & Ruth Markham (Miranda's sister in law and mother in law), Robert Truax and Captain Monroe -- the way it was staged, the dialogue, everything -- reminded me of the "big reveal" scene between the police and the Sloane family at the end of Secrets of Sloane House (Chicago World's Fair Mystery #1). Thirdly, there was the scene with Miranda being nabbed and taken to the abandoned fishery, similar to that of Rosalind being held against her will in one of the abandoned fair buildings, also in Secrets of Sloane House. I don't mean these observations as knocks against the writing of Shelley Gray at all, simply stating similarities I noticed.
While the general premise of this story -- friend looks after pal's grieving widow, falls in love with the girl -- has been done dozens of times over, Gray does bring her own unique touches to the idea. First off, you don't often get to see characters killed off by gangrene! But then again, we are talking Civil War era. Then there was the overall tone... this novel got waaay darker in parts than I was expecting! Both Miranda and Robert admit to battling bouts of deep, dark depression... to the point of actually attempting suicide. Again, given the time period this story is written around, you expect some post-war emotional trauma but I honestly wasn't expecting the topic of suicide to come up within a Christian-based historical novel. But I appreciate the layer of realness it brought to the characters and the overall story. I was also touched at Miranda's rememberances of her last moments with Phillip before he went off to war. Gray writes those scenes with a respectable, unvarnished honesty.
At story's end, I didn't necessarily find myself strongly, deeply moved or disturbed by the lives of these characters -- as I said earlier, this story idea has been played out a bit by previous authors -- but there was enough here that left me curious to see how the next installment of this series turns out.
FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.