Heart of the Tiger

Heart of the Tiger
Lynn Kerstan

September 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-206-4

Book 2 of The Big Cat trilogy

Our PriceUS$14.95
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Miranda "Mira” Holcombe has only one goal in life: To destroy the Duke of Tallant, Jermyn Keynes. Simply for the pleasure of it, he ruined her life, robbed her family of their land and valuables, and now threatens to destroy them entirely. How can a young woman caring for her disabled father bring down a powerful aristocrat? Only her father knows her deepest secrets, and he hopes that in London she will find a kind and gentle man to wed. But Mira is focused only on vengeance, whatever the cost. As she devises a plan to kill the duke, she discovers that Tallant’s dark-souled younger brother, Michael, is bent on the same course. Can she believe he’ll help her? Dare she trust him?

Michael Keynes once burned with dreams and goals, but all have been consumed by his determination to rid the earth of his tyrannical brother. After meeting the irresistible Mira, his mission changes. He resolves to protect her at any cost, and when the duke is found murdered, Michael deflects suspicion onto himself. But can he save Mira from her worst enemy . . . herself?

Neither can deny the electricity between them. Mira bewitches him with her sharp tongue and quick wit. Michael captivates her with his rakish brand of honor and his brilliant scheming on her behalf. Will she be able to escape the past and dare to reach for a better future? Will Michael see beyond the family’s despicable heritage and make a new start in his own life? Can they redeem each other?

Lynn Kerstan, former college professor, folk singer, professional bridge player, and nun, is the author of sixteen romance novels and four novellas, all set in Regency England.

A RITA winner and five-time RITA Finalist, her books are regularly listed among the best in the Regency genre. The Golden Leopard and Heart of the Tiger were selected by Library Journal for its Best Books of the Year list (2002 and 2003), and Dangerous Passions was named by Booklist as one of the Top Ten Romances of 2005.


"… a real page-turner… Michael is gorgeous, dangerous and utterly compelling and Mira is more than up to his weight and doesn't let him get away with anything. The sparks fly when they are together yet there is a lot of tenderness between them, too." -- Carol Sissons, NetGalley 

"Each book I have read of Ms Kerstan pulls at me and leaves me wanting more. I look forward to the next installment in this wonderfully dark, brooding series." -- Shaughnessey Steenburgen-Lill, Bodice Rippers



"Her eloquent prose makes you feel the character's torments and indecisions, as well as their gradually evolving, soul-deep love. "-- The Old Book Barn Gazette



June 1823, India

Son of the Devil, they called him. Brother of the Beast. Outlaw.

Not to his face, to be sure. Few of his countrymen dared speak to him at all, which was just as he liked it. Michael Keynes preferred a solitary life. And besides, it was dangerous to be in his vicinity.

The past few months, his vicinity had been positively lethal. His mercenaries had beaten off five concerted attacks, but three of his best men were killed in an ambush. From all the attention being paid to his activities, the price on his head must have gone up.

It was to be expected. He’d increased the pressure to the point that the East India Consortium had not completed a successful transaction for two years. Assassination was the logical response. Nothing else was going to stop him.

In this, his private crusade, he had always taken care to break no law that anyone cared to enforce. While he efficiently put their competition out of business, Government House officials lined their own pockets with the country trade and secretly cheered him on.

Or they had been cheering. Now his enemies had launched an investigation the officials could not ignore. Powerful forces were demanding he be driven out of India for good, which as it happened, was fine with him. He had unfinished business in England.

But he suspected they weren’t going to let him depart in one piece, if at all. A week ago, he’d barely escaped Calcutta alive. And, as usual, made even more trouble for himself in the process. Behind him, he’d left an Archangel with a broken wing.

Now the avenger, for that’s what he had always been, could expect an avenger on his own trail. There was a nice irony in that, but it was going to be a bloody nuisance.

Ah, well. Not even an Archangel could find him tonight. Above the crumpled ridges of the Himalayan foothills, stars blazed through the water-clear, moonless sky. Michael lit a cigar from the fire and settled with his back against the trunk of a sal tree, his silver flask balanced on one thigh, puffing lazy smoke rings into the still air.

For once, it felt good to be alive. The fat jungle fowl, perfectly roasted over the campfire, had been crisp and juicy, and he was nearly drunk enough to sleep.

A rustle of grasses drew his gaze to the enormous man emerging from a screen of trees. Hari Singh had gone a distance from the camp to bury the bones from Michael’s dinner, muttering about infidels who killed and devoured God’s animals. Graceful as a deer for all his great height and muscular physique, he lowered himself cross-legged to the ground on the other side of the campfire.

Like all devout Sikhs, he wore a dull metal bracelet around his wrist and threaded a curved dagger into his wide leather belt. His thick black beard, uncut for a quarter of a century, was tightly rolled against his chin. Always alert to danger, he was careful to wear shorts even when bathing. No Sikh would confront a surprise attack in the altogether.

Michael gazed at him with something close to affection. Hari was the most spiritual human being he’d ever known, even in god-obsessed India. Michael’s own soulless faith, confined to aged brandy, fast horses, and passionate women, made him a difficult companion at the best of times. After fifteen years of hellish times, he was astonished that such a man continued to call him friend.

"You needn’t come with me,” he said, reviving an old argument. "What’s the point? You won’t help, and you can’t stop me.”

Hari fed the sputtering campfire from a stack of dry branches. "I wish to visit England. I have Punjabi friends there.”

"You have a lot more of them here. If you want to be useful, contrive some way to keep that meddling idiot busy until I’m finished.”

"Lord Varden will be unable to travel for a time, Michael. And he will never be able to fight you again.”

"But he can get in my way. He already has. I—”

Aung oo aongh. The cry hung in the air like smoke.

Hari cocked his head, listening acutely. "Distant, maybe three miles. Sound travels far here. It pushes off the mountains.”

It came again, a little different. Aooch aounch aoo oo aongh.

"Tiger.” The other noises of the night had gone strangely hushed. "Is that the one?”

"The man-eater is male,” Hari said patiently. "I showed you the pug marks. The toes are square, thick. This one you hear is female.”

"Good God, how can you tell that?”

Two days out of Calcutta, they’d picked up news that sprang from village to village like wildfire. A rare, dreaded man-eater had taken three people in Sarai and five more a few miles north. Every day the shikaris followed a confused trail, passing word by runner and drum of new victims savaged, children carried off.

For a time, Michael and Hari had joined the hunt, but when the trail veered east, Hari continued north, summoned by an inner voice to an almost forgotten place.

In the area of Naini Tal was a sacred lake shaped like a teardrop. Hari had stumbled upon it by accident many years earlier. Its legend told of three sages on a penitential pilgrimage who arrived on the crest of a hill called Cheena and found no water on the other side. Desperate with thirst, they dug a hole at the foot of the mountain and siphoned water into it from the holy lake of Mansarowar in Tibet. When the sages departed, the goddess Naini arrived to take up residence in the blessed waters of the new lake they had formed. It was reached by way of the mountain called Sher Ka Danda, "Path of the Tiger.”

The call sounded again, closer now. Michael looked a question at Hari, who shook his head.

"It is a tigress in estrus. Late for her time. Male and female keep territory near each other and he seeks her out when she calls him. Only when her cubs can survive alone, usually two years, will she call again. The male recognizes her voice and returns to her.”

"That’s a hell of a long time to wait in the bushes.”

"Patience has its reward.” Hari smiled. "During their week together, tigers mate fifty or more times each day.”

"The devil you say! Still, two years without a woman—”

"Only the female mates for life. The males keep a larger territory, so to speak.” Hari traced obscure figures in the dust with his finger. "This brings to mind a parable told by the Lord Buddha of a man pursued by a tiger.”

With a groan, Michael stabbed out his cigar. Hari’s evening homily was as inevitable as sunset, but at least the Buddha’s tales were short. He could never decide if they were deeply profound or only designed to sound that way.

"There was a man pursued by a tiger,” Hari intoned. "He ran and ran until he came to a sheer cliff, where he seized a vine and swung far down over the precipice. Above him, the tiger paced and snarled his hunger. And below, at the bottom of the cliff, another tiger waited for the man to drop.

"While he hung there, two mice came near, one black and one white. They gnawed the vine with sharp white teeth, slowly cutting it through. The man clung for his life to the shredding vine with one hand, and with the other he reached out and plucked a strawberry growing on the cliff. Never had anything tasted so sweet.”

The only sound was the crackle of the fire.

"That’s it?” Michael said after a time. "Gather ye strawberries while ye may?”

"The parable is not so simple as that. It is different for every man, and each time I hear the tale or speak it, new harmonies flow from the center. Tonight it sings of life reborn.”

Michael drained the flask in one long swallow, rolled onto his side, and stuffed a blanket under his head. "That’s the trouble with this country. India never lets you finish dying.”

The dry riverbed crackled under the blazing June sun. Dust billowed with every footfall as Michael and Hari plodded along Sher Ka Danda, obscuring their sight in a haze of heat and whirring insects. Hari led the horses while Michael slouched a few yards ahead, one foot after the other, lost in his own darkness. He didn’t want to think, but his head spun and hummed like the gnats that clouded his eyes.

It was late afternoon when they came near an oxbow that retained a little water. Hari dropped back to refill their canteens and let the animals drink.

Michael scarcely noticed. Hot, tense, driven to keep moving, he turned a bend and nearly tripped over an exposed tree root. Recovering, he looked up. Froze.

No more than ten feet in front of him, a sleek tigress glared at him from icy sky-blue eyes. She was white, silvery in the harsh sun, with black stripes inscribed across her back and sides like a tocsin. Her ears were flattened with challenge. Sharp fangs curved from her snarling mouth. She dared him to move.

No chance to lift the rifle and fire in time. He wanted to look away, to let her know he wasn’t a threat, but her blue gaze held his with implacable purpose. Beauty and death, poised to leap. She growled low in her throat.

He had feared nothing since leaving England, least of all death, but he found himself terrified by this silver-white, blue-eyed cat. She seemed to have his name written across her open mouth and gleaming teeth.

The sharp crack of a snapping twig sounded to his right. He swung his head toward the noise. Nothing. When he looked back, the tigress had vanished.

About fifteen feet away, to the left, Hari slowly rose from behind a shield of dry grasses, rifle poised.

Michael shuddered as black and white streaks flashed before his eyes. His flesh seemed to melt in the hot air. Dropping to hands and knees, blood drumming in his ears, he gasped for air.

After a time, he dragged his head up and looked through sweat-stung eyes at Hari, who was now crouching in front of him. "My God, man. Why didn’t you shoot?”

"I could not, Michael-Sahib. For my life I could not kill her.” Rising, Hari offered his hand.

Michael grasped it and allowed himself to be pulled upright. His legs quivered. He’d been that close to death many times, but nothing had ever struck a chord of terror like those endless moments facing the white tigress.

Hari let go his hand. "I spared her life. She spared your life. It is karma.”

"If you say so.” And if karma was another name for large, ravenous cat.

"Shall we make camp? The water is clean here and it will soon be dusk. By now, the tigress is far away, but I shall keep watch.”

Michael poked Hari’s broad chest with his rifle barrel. "A lot of use that will be. If she comes back for a late supper, you’ll probably dish me up on a bed of rice.”

"With curried peas.”

As he watched the Englishman turn away, Hari Singh felt the air crackle. He lifted his head to the sky. Like all his prescient visions, the message came and went in a heartbeat. A blast of light. A flash of truth too bright to distinguish.

He would only know what he’d seen when he saw it again.



Chapter 1

November 1823, England

"There is no hope, then?”

Grim faced, Mr. Stewart Callendar, honored graduate of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, closed the door behind him and sagged against it. "Miss Holcombe... Mira... you knew it, I think, before you brought him here.”

"Yes.” She kept her hands tightly folded on her lap. "You needn’t protect my sensibilities, Stewart. Complete frankness will help me understand what we are facing.”

"Very much the same as you have dealt with these last three years, I’m afraid. In my experience, whatever improvement there is to be will occur within the first year. Naturally, there are exceptions, but beyond his progress in the early months, your father has regained little control of his body. I find no significant improvement in muscular control.”

"But his wrist is stronger, and his finger. He can lift his head now.”

"Yes. But those are motions he developed early, and the added strength comes from usage and the exercises you conduct with him. Have you seen voluntary motion in some other part of his body?”

Wishing it, willing it, did not make it so. "None,” she said.

"It is little comfort, I know, but his breathing is excellent, and he is still able to swallow liquids and soft foods. None of what I observed on my last examination has diminished.”

"Nor has his mind. He has lost weight, though, and seems more lethargic than before. But we have been required to relocate several times in the past few months, and travel is difficult for him.”

The doctor, a sturdy, compact Scot with unruly copper hair and side-whiskers that needed trimming, took his place in the chair behind his desk, hazel eyes fixed on her intently. "I wish you would consider leaving him here with us.”

"Did he ask you to say that?”

"He would have done, I ken, could he speak. And you know we will care for him as we would our own father. Janet is fond of him, as am I.”

"All your patients receive excellent care, Stewart. And it is perfectly true he wants to remain here. But that is on my account.”

"Then why begrudge him the good deed? Tunbridge Wells is not so great a journey. You can visit him often. He will have a regimen of healthful foods, exercise, and the company of the other patients. Surely that is preferable to the isolation of your home? And it cannot be easy for you to tend to him with so little help.”

Before her father’s examination, she had been compelled to describe his circumstances since last the doctor had seen him. And Stewart, bless his soul, was perniciously keen at hearing what she had not said.

"We won’t be returning to Seacrest.” It hurt to say that. The home where she had grown up, her father’s cherished library, all closed to them now. "But our circumstances have improved a bit. You will be glad to hear I can soon pay what we owe—”

"The money doesna matter.” His dark eyes flashed. "There is naught I would withhold from you. My feelings have not altered. Not in all the time you were gone.”

A heaviness began to gather in her chest. She closed her eyes for a moment, willing it away. "Nor have mine,” she said as gently as she could.

They had met on only four occasions, for heaven’s sake, and he had proposed marriage on their second and third encounters. Kind men, decent men, kept falling in love with her for no good reason whatever, leaving her to refuse them because she could do nothing else. If they knew her as she truly was, they would run like foxes.

"I cannot wed you, Stewart, nor any other man. There is something I must do, and it will require all my attention. Save that reserved for my father,” she added quickly, but he was already leaning forward in his chair.

"The more reason to leave him with us, then.”

Because it would tie her to this place, and to him. She must make her request without giving him false hope. "In fact, it would be enormously helpful if you’d keep him here for a week or so, while I go up to London to look for a residence that can accommodate his needs.”

"You mean to live in London?”His stubby brows prickled with reproach. "But the air is unhealthy. And the expense! Servants are more dear there. The houses have narrow stairs. How will you transport him? How—?”

"I shall manage as I always have done.” Which meant frantically improvising from one minute to the next, but she couldn’t very well admit that. "And you must not think I find it difficult. Although my father is locked inside his body, we communicate very well indeed. Yes, of late he has come to imagine I would do better if he set me free of him, but he is wrong. I shall not leave him until he requires more than I can possibly give.” She smiled. "Truly, it is no hardship. To care for him is my privilege. And my joy.”

She hadn’t meant to say that. To reveal so much. She scarcely dared look up at Stewart, and when she did, her worst fears were realized. He positively glowed with admiration.

"We shall be pleased to have your father in residence for as long as necessary,” he said. "And if you provide me your direction, I shall send daily reports of his welfare.”

"Thank you.” After a glance at the mantelpiece clock, she rose and brushed down her skirts, eager to escape the heated emotions radiating from across the room. "There is a mail coach I must shortly catch. I shall be in touch as soon as I have settled in London. And now, if you will excuse me, I’ll take leave of my father.”

At the door, she made the mistake of glancing back. Stewart was still gazing at her with hungry veneration, mentally polishing up a halo for Saint Miranda, virgin and martyr.

And she, of course, was neither of those things.

Sothingdon House, imposing and grand in a quiet Mayfair street, caused Mira to catch her breath. It hadn’t occurred to her that the somewhat disreputable pair for whom she’d once done a small favor might have become so, well, so reputable.

She looked again at the direction Lady Jessica inscribed on the letter of thanks she’d posted almost a year ago. Had it been so long? By now, Miranda Holcombe’s welcome had surely worn out. How could she plunk her insignificant self on the doorstep and ask to be admitted? Pride made it difficult to mount the steps and lift the knocker, but pride and difficulty were her constant companions. She never let either of them stop her.

Before her nerves had steadied, a footman was ushering her into a bright parlor where Lady Jessica Duran opened her arms in welcome. "At last!” she exclaimed. "I have been desperately worried about you.”

At the sight of her, a pain gripped Mira so sharply that she wrapped her arms around her waist to contain it. But she found a smile and crossed to where the beautiful and exceedingly pregnant Lady Jessica half sat and half reclined on a Grecian sofa. "Thank you for receiving me,” she said in the soft voice that required her to draw close to anyone who wished to hear her. "I am sorry to have imposed on—”

"Indeed you have not! Sit here next to the table because I have ordered tea, which you will be required to pour. And you needn’t feel uneasy. I’ve six weeks more before I pop, or so the doctor assures me, although whether the babe will wait that long is another question. From all the kicking and squirming, there seems to be a great hurry to get out of me.”

Envy, squirming and kicking inside Mira, made any response impossible. She settled on the chair, straightened her skirts, and reined in her stampeding emotions.

"Miss Holcombe?” Lady Jessica’s voice was edged with concern. "I... Your father?”

Mira, following her gaze, realized Lady Jessica was looking at her black bombazine gown, the black bonnet covering her hair, and the black gloves she wore. The footman had taken her black cloak. "Oh dear,” she said, untying the ribbons and removing her hat. "I forgot how this must appear to you. My father is well and being cared for by his physician while I am in London. When I must travel, I find it useful to disguise myself in mourning clothes. People are often undeservedly kind, which causes me to feel guilty for deceiving them, but at least I am permitted to go my way without interference.”

"It is difficult for a female to travel alone. I cannot like it that you do so.” Lady Jessica laughed. "Good heavens. I just realized what I was saying. I am preaching at you. It must be impending motherhood that has transformed me from a ramshackle rebel into a tedious old biddy. Do you know, I have stoutly resolved to forbid my daughter, should I have one, to behave as I have always done. Not that any daughter born to the likes of me and Duran would pay us the slightest attention.”

Wincing, she spread her fingers across her swollen belly. "I swear there is a fandango being danced inside me. How good you have come to provide a distraction. Duran will be sorry to have missed you, though. We have bought a small property in Sussex, and he has gone to see it made ready for us. Where are you staying?”

Mira was spared from answering by a knock at the door. Soon, maids and footmen were spreading before her on the table a pot of tea and plates filled with small sandwiches, lemon tarts, poppyseed cake, scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam, and almond biscuits.

"Are you shocked?” Lady Jessica regarded the assortment with evident delight. "Duran says an army could travel for a week on what I eat in a day. He also says I have developed a remarkable likeness to an ascent balloon, except that it would require a cyclone to launch me into the air. Mind you, he says these things from a safe distance.”

Mira strained tea into a pair of Wedgwood cups. "You don’t appear to object.”

"Oh, there is no accounting for male behavior at times like this. The moment a pregnancy is confirmed, they strut around as if no other male had ever accomplished so great a feat. Then they grow annoyingly solicitous, as if we females have suddenly become too frail to spoon sugar into a cup. The next stage, the one Duran occupies now, is excessive teasing to cover his fear of what might happen to me or the babe. I dare not think what he will come to when I begin to deliver. Two of the tarts, if you please, and as many sandwiches as will fit on one of those plates.”

After placing the dishes where Lady Jessica could reach them, Mira took a sip of tea. It tasted bitter.

"You are too thin, Miss Holcombe,” said Lady Jessica. "And too pale. Yes, I know it is none of my business, but I suspect you are in some sort of difficulty. I also believe I’ve some idea what it is, but I’d rather you tell me directly.”

"If you wish, but I am sure you overestimate my troubles. Since my uncle’s death I have felt a trifle harried, that is all.”

"I read in the Times that he had died. Did the Duke of Tallant swoop in, as you predicted?”

"Oh, yes. But by that time, Father and I had left the castle. And I am afraid we took with us nearly everything I thought to be of value. Lacking your expertise, I was for the most part guessing, but I tossed any promising items into the pot. Or in this case, into the icehouse.”

"Good for you. It is no more than Tallant deserves, to lose what he is attempting to steal. I recall that when we were searching for the Golden Leopard in your dungeon, Duran uncovered a number of valuable antiquities. Did you wish me to sell them for you?”

Mira looked up in surprise. It was why she was here, of course. After a week of sleepless nights—her recalcitrant pride!—she had wrenched up the courage to beg a favor from a virtual stranger, entirely overlooking the fact that Lady Jessica routinely dealt with clients exactly like herself. Not that it signified. In her present circumstances, Lady Jessica could scarcely set about flogging a hodgepodge of artifacts and gewgaws.

"I can see it is out of the question now,” Mira said. "But perhaps you could recommend another dealer.”

"Indeed I can. My secretary, Helena Pryce, knows far more about my business than I ever did, and in the past few months, I have weaned my clients from the habit of speaking only with me. Now we work together, Helena and Duran and I, and you may be sure we will get you the best price for everything you put on offer. One other thing. I will not hear of taking a commission on the sales. You would insult me by creating a business transaction between us. What is more, I insist on advancing you a portion of the anticipated return. Now pass me another lemon tart.”

Mira did, and smiled, and said nothing. Relief had set her heart thumping. Without money she could do nothing that she must do, and the little she had got by pawning her mother’s wedding ring and few bits of jewelry would soon be exhausted.

Lady Jessica brushed a crumb from her bodice. "Where are you staying, Miss Holcombe? Not a hotel, I hope. Duran and I will soon remove ourselves to Sussex, but you are welcome here for as long as you like. Helena will be glad of the company.”

It had come to the sticking point. To why she must not associate herself with these good people, except in secret. "Thank you. I wish it were possible to accept your kind offer. But Tallant is both tenacious and vindictive, and I must not draw his attention to my”—she scarcely dared say it—"to my friends. If you would help me, then you must also permit me to set the terms.”

"I see. Well, it is no great thing to oblige you, for all my business transactions are confidential and my personal relationships no one else’s concern. How is this? I shall offer you whatever favors I wish to supply, and you will select those you are willing to take. Even better, you must tell me what you require. It may be something I would fail to consider.”

In the face of such generosity, Mira chose her words carefully. "Tallant has had everything his way because my family, what little remains of it, is obscure. But that wasn’t always the case. While we have never been wealthy, our home in Kent was invariably thronged with my father’s friends, and until his illness, they kept up a lively correspondence with him. I want to find a place here in London where we can live a public life, surrounded by people. Father is determined I shall find a husband, which I assure you is the very last thing I am looking for, but it will please him to imagine I am in the marketplace and enjoying myself there. More important, if we become known to influential people, Tallant will not find it so easy to persecute us.”

"All perfectly logical,” said Lady Jessica with a frown, "although I’d rather you felt able to confide the truth. But how could you, to someone you have met only once before? What happened to your cats?”

"My cats?” A wave of sadness swept over Mira. "Oh, we couldn’t take them on our travels, but I found a family willing to keep them together in their home. How astonishing that you should remember my cats. You never even saw them.”

"No. But since they helped us escape from the castle, I wondered what had become of them. And I have in mind the perfect residence for your purposes, except that the proprietress does not accept pets. It is truly an ideal location, if a little bizarre. I shall write to Beata Neri, and Helena will deliver the letter in person. We are of long acquaintance with her, so Beata will not think of refusing us.”

Mira gulped. "Is it terribly expensive?”

"I expect so, but Helena will negotiate a bargain price. To reside there, however, you will be required to cut a fashionable figure. I’d send you directly off to a modiste, at my expense, but you would feel obliged to refuse the offer. In consequence, I must ask you to do me the service of accepting my castoffs.”

"The service?”

"Oh, indeed. I’ll not fit into a single thing I own for a considerable time, and by then I shall be longing for an entirely new wardrobe. Besides, there must be a dozen gowns I’ve never worn, dating back to the time I bought all the wrong colors and fabrics, ones that didn’t suit me at all. How delightful that my mistakes can be made over to flatter you, as they will.”

Lady Jessica held out her hands. "Will you lever me upright? We’ll go to my chambers and get you measured and start trying things on you. My lady’s maid has had little to occupy her since I swelled up like a melon. She will be pleased to take on this project, and by the time we’re done fitting you, Helena Pryce will have returned from wherever she goes on Tuesdays. Then we shall discuss the disposal of your pilfered hoard.”

Mira laughed, as she was meant to do, and helped Lady Jessica lurch to her feet. But this welcome, this largesse, made things too easy, she was thinking all the while. And as she had learned by painful experience, what looked to be a blessing was always a trap.


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