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  The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria by . . .
Laura Joh Rowland
"...a fabulous seventeenth century Japanese who-done-it..."
— Harriet Klausner/Blether Book Reviews on THE PILLOW BOOK OF LADY WISTERIA


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Excerpt from THE PILLOW BOOK OF LADY WISTERIA

Prologue

Cover: The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria by Laura Joh RowlandEdo, Genroku Period, Year 6, Month 11 (Tokyo, December 1693)

"Virtuous men have said, both in poetry and classic works, that houses of debauch, for women of pleasure and for street-walkers, are the worm-eaten spots of cities and towns. But these are necessary evils, and if they be forcibly abolished, men of unrighteous principles will become like raveled thread."
--from the 73rd section of the Legacy of the First Tokugawa Shogun

Northwest of the great capital of Edo, isolated among marshes and rice paddies, the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter adorned the winter night like a flashy jewel. Its lights formed a bright, smoky halo above the high walls; the moon's reflection shimmered silver on the encircling moat. Inside the quarter, colored lanterns blazed along the eaves of the teahouses and brothels that lined the streets. Courtesans dressed in gaudy kimono sat in the barred windows of the brothels and called invitations to men who strolled in search of entertainment. Roving vendors sold tea and dumplings, and a hawker beckoned customers into a shop that sold paintings of the most beautiful prostitutes, but the late hour and chill weather had driven most of the trade indoors. Teahouse maids poured sake; drunken customers raised their voices in bawdy song. Musicians played for guests at banquets in elegant parlors, while amorous couples embraced behind windows.

The man in an upstairs guest chamber on Ageyacho Street lay oblivious to the revelry. Drunken stupor immobilized him on the bed, which seemed to rock and sway beneath him. Singing, samisen music, and laughter from the parlor downstairs echoed up to him in waves of discordant sound. Through his half-open eyelids he saw red lights glide and spin, like reflections in a whirlpool. A painted landscape of gardens slid along the periphery of his vision. Dizzy and nauseated, he moaned. He tried to recall where he was and how he'd gotten here.

He had faint memory of a ride through winter fields, and cups of heated sake. A woman's beautiful face glowed in lamplight, eyes demurely downcast. More sake accompanied flirtatious conversation. Next came the hot, urgent intertwining of bodies, then ecstatic pleasure, followed by much more drink. Because he possessed a hearty tolerance for liquor, he couldn't understand how the usual amount had so thoroughly inebriated him. A peculiar lethargy spread through his veins. He felt strangely disconnected from his body, which seemed heavy as stone, yet afloat on air. A pang of fear chimed in his groggy consciousness, but the stupor dulled emotion. While he tried to fathom what had happened to him, he sensed that he wasn't alone in the room.

Someone's rapid footsteps trod the tatami around the bed. The moving hems of multicolored robes swished air currents across his face. Whispers, distorted into eerie, droning gibberish, pervaded the distant music. Now he saw, bending over him, a human figure--a dark, indistinct shape outlined by the revolving red light. The whispers quickened and rose to a keening pitch. He sensed danger that shot alarm through his stupor. But his body resisted his effort to move. The lethargy paralyzed his limbs. His mouth formed a soundless plea.

The figure leaned closer. Its fist clenched what looked to be a long, thin, shaft that wavered in his blurry vision. Then the figure struck at him with sudden violence. Pain seared deep into his left eye, rousing him alert. A squeal of agony burst from him. Music, laughter, and screaming rose to a cacophonous din. Turbulent shadows rocked the chamber. He saw a brilliant white lightning bolt blaze through his brain, heard his heart thunder in his ears. The impact heaved up his arms and legs, which flailed as his body convulsed in involuntary spasms. But the terrible pain in his eye pinned him to the bed. Blood stained his vision scarlet, obliterated the person whose grip on the shaft held him captive. His head pounded with torment. Gradually, his struggles weakened; his heartbeat slowed. Sounds and sensations ebbed, until black unconsciousness quenched the lightning and death ended his agony.


Chapter 1

The summons came at dawn.

Edo Castle, reigning upon its hilltop above the city, raised its watchtowers and peaked roofs toward a sky like steel coated with ice. Inside the castle, two of the shogun's attendants and their soldiers sped on horseback between barracks surrounding the mansions where the high officials of the court resided. A chill, gusty wind flapped the soldiers' banners and tore the smoke from their lanterns. The party halted outside the gate of Sano Ichiro, the shogun's sosakan-sama--Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People.

Within his estate, Sano slept beneath mounded quilts. He dreamed he was at the Black Lotus Temple, scene of a crime he'd investigated three months ago. Deranged monks and nuns fought him and his troops; explosions boomed and fire raged. Yet even as Sano wielded his sword against phantoms of memory, his senses remained attuned to the real world and perceived the approach of an actual threat. He bolted awake in darkness, flung off the quilts, and sat up in the frigid air of his bedchamber.

Beside him, his wife Reiko stirred. "What is it?" she asked sleepily.

Then they heard, outside their door, the voice of Sano's chief retainer, Hirata: "Sosakan-sama, I'm sorry to disturb you, but the shogun's envoys are here on urgent business. They wish to see you at once."

Moments later, after hastily dressing, Sano was seated in the reception hall with the two envoys. A maid served bowls of tea. The senior envoy, a dignified samurai named Ota, said, "We bring news of a serious incident that requires your personal attention. His Excellency the Shogun's cousin, the Honorable Lord Matsudaira Mitsuyoshi, has died. As you are undoubtedly aware, he was not just kin to the shogun, but his probable successor."

The shogun had no sons as yet; therefore, a relative must be designated heir to his position as Japan's supreme dictator in case he died without issue. Sano had known that Mitsuyoshi--twenty-five years old and a favorite of the shogun--was a likely candidate.

Ota continued, "Mitsuyoshi-san spent yesterday evening in Yoshiwara." This was Edo's pleasure quarter, the only place in the city where prostitution was legal. Men from all classes of society went there to drink, revel, and enjoy the favors of the courtesans--women sold into prostitution by impoverished families, or sentenced to work in Yoshiwara as punishment for crimes. The quarter was located some distance from Edo, to safeguard public morals and respect propriety. "There he was stabbed to death."

Consternation struck Sano: This was serious indeed, for any attack on a member of the ruling Tokugawa clan constituted an attack on the regime, which was high treason. And the murder of someone so close to the shogun represented a crime of the most sensitive nature.

"May I ask what were the circumstances of the stabbing?" Sano said.

"The details are not known to us," said the younger envoy, a brawny captain of the shogun's bodyguards. "It is your responsibility to discover them. The shogun orders you to investigate the murder and apprehend the killer."

"I'll begin immediately." As Sano bowed to the envoys, duty settled upon his shoulders like a weight that he wasn't sure he could bear. Though detective work was his vocation and his spirit required the challenge of delivering killers to justice, he wasn't ready for another big case. The Black Lotus investigation had depleted him physically and mentally. He felt like an injured warrior heading into battle again before his wounds had healed. And he knew that this case had as serious a potential for disaster as had the Black Lotus.

#

A long, cold ride brought Sano, Hirata, and five men from Sano's detective corps to the pleasure quarter by mid-morning. Snowflakes drifted onto the tiled rooftops of Yoshiwara; its surrounding moat reflected the overcast sky. The cawing of crows above the fallow fields sounded shrilly metallic. Sano and his men dismounted outside the quarter's high wall that kept the revelry contained and the courtesans from escaping. Their breath puffed out in white clouds into the icy wind. They left the horses with a stable boy and strode across the bridge to the gate, which was painted bright red and barred shut. A noisy commotion greeted them.

"Let us out!" Inside the quarter, men had climbed the gate and thrust their heads between the thick wooden bars below the roof. "We want to go home!"

Outside the gate stood four Yoshiwara guards. One of them told the prisoners, "Nobody leaves. Police orders."

Loud protests arose; a furious pounding shook the gate's heavy wooden planks.

"So the police have beat us to the scene," Hirata said to Sano. An expression of concern crossed his youthful face.

Sano's heart plunged, for in spite of his high rank and position close to the shogun, he could expect hindrance, rather than cooperation, from Edo's police. "At least they've contained the people who were in Yoshiwara last night. That will save us the trouble of tracking down witnesses."

He approached the guards, who hastily bowed to him and his men. After introducing himself and announcing his purpose, Sano asked, "Where did Lord Mitsuyoshi die?"

"In the Owariya ageya," came the answer.

Yoshiwara was a world unto itself, Sano knew, with a unique protocol. Some five hundred courtesans ranked in a hierarchy of beauty, elegance, and price. The top-ranking women were known as tayu. A popular epithet for them was keisei--castle topplers--because their influence could ruin men and destroy kingdoms. Though all the prostitutes lived in brothels and most received clients there, the tayu entertained men in ageya, houses of assignation, used for that purpose but not as homes for the women. The Owariya was a prestigious ageya, reserved for the wealthiest, most prominent men.

"Open the gate and let us in," Sano ordered the guards.

They complied. Sano and his men entered the pleasure quarter, while the guards held back the pushing, shouting crowd inside. As Sano led his party down Nakanocho, the main avenue that bisected Yoshiwara, the wind buffeted unlit lanterns hanging from the eaves of the wooden buildings and stirred up an odor of urine. Teahouses were filled with sullen, disheveled men. Women peeked out through window bars, their painted faces avid. Nervous murmurs arose as Sano and his men passed, while Tokugawa troops patrolled Nakanocho and the six streets perpendicular to it.

The murder of the shogun's heir had put a temporary halt to the festivities that ordinarily never ended.

Sano turned onto Ageyacho, a street lined with the houses of assignation. These were attached buildings, their facades and balconies screened with wooden lattices. Servants loitered in the recessed doorways. Smoke from charcoal braziers swirled in the wind, mingling with the snowflakes. A group of samurai stood guard outside the Owariya, smoking tobacco pipes. Some wore the Tokugawa triple-hollyhock-leaf crest on their cloaks; others wore leggings and short kimonos and carried jitte--steel parrying wands, the weapon of the police force. They all fixed level gazes upon Sano.

"Guess who brought them here," Hirata murmured to Sano in a voice replete with ire.

As they reached the Owariya, the door slid open, and out stepped a tall, broad-shouldered samurai dressed in a sumptuous cloak of padded black silk. He was in his thirties, his bearing arrogant, his angular face strikingly handsome. When he saw Sano, his full, sensual mouth curved in a humorless smile.

"Greetings, Sosakan-sama," he said.

"Greetings, Honorable Chief Police Commissioner Hoshina," Sano said. As they exchanged bows, the air vibrated with their antagonism.

They'd first met in Miyako, the imperial capital, where Sano had gone to investigate the death of a court noble. Hoshina had been head of the local police, and pretended to assist Sano on the case--while conspiring against him with Chamberlain Yanagisawa, the shogun's powerful second-in-command. Yanagisawa and Hoshina had become lovers, and Yanagisawa had appointed Hoshina as Edo's Chief Police Commissioner.

"What brings you here?" Hoshina's tone implied that Sano was a trespasser in his territory.

"The shogun's orders," Sano said, accustomed to Hoshina's hostility. During their clash in Miyako, Sano had defeated Hoshina, who had never forgotten. "I've come to investigate the murder. Unless you've already found the killer?"

"No," Hoshina said with a reluctance that indicated how much he would like to say he had. Arms folded, he blocked the door of the ageya. "But you've traveled here for nothing, because I already have an investigation underway. Whatever you want to know, just ask me."

The Miyako case had resulted in a truce between Sano and Yanagisawa--formerly bitter enemies--but Hoshina refused to let matters lie, because he viewed Sano as a threat to his own rise in the bakufu, the military government that ruled Japan. Now, having settled into his new position and cultivated allies, Hoshina had begun his campaign against Sano. Their paths crossed often when Sano investigated crimes, and Hoshina always sought to prove himself the superior detective while undermining Sano. He conducted his own inquiries into Sano's cases, hoping to solve them first and take the credit. Obviously, Hoshina meant to extend their rivalry into this case, and there was little that Sano could do to stop him. Although Sano was a high official of the shogun, Hoshina had the favor of Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who controlled the shogun and virtually ruled Japan. Thus, Hoshina could treat Sano however he pleased, short of causing open warfare that would disturb their superiors.

"I prefer to see for myself." Speaking quietly but firmly, Sano held his adversary's gaze.

Hirata and his detectives clustered around him, as the police moved nearer Hoshina. The wind keened, and angry voices yelled curses somewhere in the quarter. Then Hoshina chuckled, as though his defiance against Sano had been a mere joke.

"As you wish," he said, and stepped away from the door.

But he followed Sano's party into the ageya. Beyond the entryway, which contained a guard stationed at a podium, a corridor extended between rooms separated by lattice and paper partitions. A lantern glowed in a luxurious front parlor. There sat two pretty courtesans, eight surly-looking samurai, several plainly dressed women who looked to be servants, and a squat older man in gray robes. All regarded Sano and Hirata with apprehension. The older man rose and hurried over to kneel at Sano's feet.

"Please allow me to introduce myself, master," he said, bowing low. "I am Eigoro, proprietor of the Owariya. Please let me say that nothing like this has ever happened here before." His body quaked with his terror that the shogun's sosakan-sama would blame him for the murder. "Please believe that no one in my establishment did this evil thing."

"No one is accusing you," Sano said, though everyone present in Yoshiwara at the time of the murder was a suspect until proven otherwise. "Show me where Lord Mitsuyoshi died."

"Certainly, master." The proprietor scrambled up.

Hoshina said, "You don't need him. I can show you."

Sano considered ordering Hoshina out of the house, then merely ignored him: Antagonizing Chamberlain Yanagisawa's mate was dangerous. But Sano must not rely on Hoshina for information, because Hoshina would surely misguide him.

Eyeing the group in the parlor, Sano addressed the proprietor: "Were they in the house last night?"

"Yes, master."

Sano ascertained that four of the samurai were Lord Mitsuyoshi's retainers, then glanced at Hirata and the detectives. They nodded and moved toward the parlor to question the retainers, courtesans, other clients, and servants. The proprietor led Sano upstairs, to a large chamber at the front of the house. Entering, Sano gleaned a quick impression of burning lanterns, lavish landscape murals, and a gilded screen, before his attention fixed upon the men in the room. Two soldiers were preparing to move a shrouded figure, which lay upon the futon, onto a litter. A samurai clad in ornate robes pawed through a pile of clothes on the tatami; another rummaged in a drawer of the wall cabinet. Sano recognized both as senior police commanders.

"Yoriki Hayashi-san. Yoriki Yamaga-san," he said, angered to find them and their troops disturbing the crime scene and ready to remove the body before he'd had a chance to examine either. "Stop that at once," he ordered all the men.

The police halted their actions and bowed stiffly, gazing at Sano with open dislike. Sano knew they would never forget that he'd been their colleague, nor cease resenting his promotion and doing him a bad turn whenever possible. He said sternly, "You will all leave now."

Hayashi and Yamaga exchanged glances with Chief Commissioner Hoshina, who stood in the doorway. Then Yamaga spoke to Sano: "I wish you the best of luck, sosakan-sama, because you will surely need it." His voice exuded insolence. He and Hayashi and their men strode out of the room.

The proprietor shrank into a corner, while Hoshina watched Sano for a reaction. Sano saw little point in losing his temper, or in regretting that his old enemies now worked for his new one. He crouched beside the futon and drew back the white cloth that covered the corpse of Lord Mitsuyoshi.

The shogun's heir lay on his back, arms at his sides. The bronze satin robe he wore had fallen open to expose his naked, muscular torso, limp genitals, and extended legs. A looped topknot adorned the shaved crown of his head. From his left eye protruded a long, slender object that looked to be a woman's hair ornament--double-pronged, made of black lacquer, ending in a globe of flowers carved from cinnabar. Blood and slime had oozed around the embedded prongs and down Mitsuyoshi's cheek; droplets stained the mattress. The injured eyeball was cloudy and misshapen. The other eye seemed to stare at it, while Mitsuyoshi's mouth gaped in shock.

Sano winced at the gruesome sight; his stomach clenched as he made a closer observation of the body and recalled what he knew about the shogun's cousin. Handsome, dashing Mitsuyoshi might have one day ruled Japan, yet he'd had little interest in politics and much in the glamorous life. He'd excelled at combat, yet there was no sign that he'd struggled against his killer. A reek of liquor suggested that he'd been drunk and semiconscious when stabbed. Sano also detected the feral smell of sex.

"Who was the woman with him last night?" Sano asked the proprietor.

"A tayu named Lady Wisteria."

The name struck an unsettling chord in Sano. He had met Lady Wisteria during his first case, a double murder. One victim had been her friend, and she'd given Sano information to help him find the killer. Beautiful, exotic, and alluring, she'd also seduced him, and memory stirred physical sensations in Sano, even though four years had passed since he'd last seen her and he'd married the wife he passionately loved.

Hoshina narrowed his heavy-lidded eyes at Sano. "Do you know Wisteria?"

"I know of her." Sano wished to keep their acquaintance private, for various reasons. Now unease prevailed over nostalgia, because he had reason to know Wisteria had left Yoshiwara soon after they'd first met. He himself had secured her freedom, as compensation for wrongs she had suffered because she'd helped him. Afterward, he'd visited her a few times, but his life had grown so busy that he'd let the connection lapse. Later he'd heard that she had returned to the pleasure quarter, though he didn't know why. Now he was disturbed to learn that she was involved in this murder.

"Where is she now?" he said.

"She's vanished," Hoshina said. "No one seems to have seen her go or knows where she went."

Sano's first reaction was relief: He wouldn't have to see Wisteria, and the past could stay buried. His second reaction was dismay because an important witness--or suspect--was missing. Did her disappearance mean she'd stabbed Mitsuyoshi? Sano knew the dangers of partiality toward a suspect, yet didn't like to think that the woman he'd known could be a killer.

"Who was the last person to see Lady Wisteria and Lord Mitsuyoshi?" Sano asked the proprietor.

"That would be the yarite. Her name is Momoko." The man was babbling, overeager to please. "Shall I fetch her, master?"

A yarite was a female brothel employee, usually a former prostitute, who served as chaperone to the courtesans, teaching new girls the art of pleasing men and ensuring that her charges behaved properly. Her other duties included arranging appointments between tayu and their clients.

"I'll see her as soon as I'm finished here," Sano said, conscious of Hoshina listening intently to the conversation. The police commissioner was a skilled detective, but glad to take advantage of facts discovered by others. "Did anyone else enter this room during the night?"

"Not as far as I know, master."

But if Lady Wisteria had left the house unobserved, so could someone else have entered secretly, and committed murder. Sano drew the cloth over the body and rose. "Who found the body, and when?"

"Momoko did," the proprietor said. "It was a little after midnight. She came running downstairs, screaming that Lord Mitsuyoshi was dead."

All the more reason to question the yarite, thought Sano. She might have noticed something important, and in some murder cases, the culprit proved to be the person who discovered the crime. He bent to sort through the clothes on the floor, and found a man's surcoat, trousers, and kimono, presumably belonging to the victim, and a woman's ivory satin dressing gown. The gown was soft to his touch, and Sano recognized its odor of musky perfume. Closing his mind against memories of Wisteria and himself together, he moved to the dressing table behind the screen. The table held a mirror, comb, brush, jars of face powder and rouge. On the floor around the table lay a red silk cloth and a few strands of long black hair.

Sano addressed Hoshina: "What have you done to locate Wisteria?"

"I've got men out searching the quarter, the highways, and the surrounding countryside." Hoshina added, "If she's there, I'll find her."

Before you do, said his inflection. And Hoshina might indeed, because he had a head start. Sano felt an urgent need to find Wisteria first, because he feared that Hoshina would harm her before her guilt or innocence could be determined.

"Did Lady Wisteria often entertain clients here?" he asked the proprietor.

"Oh, yes, master."

Then she would have kept personal possessions at the Owariya, instead of just bringing a set of bedding with her for a night's visit, as courtesans did to houses they rarely used. "Where is her kamuro?" Sano said.

A kamuro was a young girl, in training to be a prostitute, who waited on the courtesans to learn the trade and earn her keep. Her chores included tending the courtesans' possessions.

"In the kitchen, master."

"Please bring her up."

The proprietor departed, then soon returned with a girl of perhaps eleven years. Small and thin, she had an oval face made up with white rice powder and red rouge, and wispy hair. She wore the traditional pine-leaf-patterned kimono of her station.

"This is Chidori-chan," the proprietor told Sano, then addressed the kamuro: "The master wants to talk to you."

Her frightened gaze veered around the room, then downward; she bobbed a clumsy bow.

"Don't be afraid," Sano said in a reassuring tone. "I just want you to look over Lady Wisteria's things with me."

Chidori nodded, but Sano saw her tremble. He pitied her, trapped in Yoshiwara, destined for a life of sexual slavery. She might someday attract a patron who would buy her freedom, but could instead end up begging on the streets, as did many courtesans when they got too old to attract clients. Sano gently led Chidori over to the cabinet, where they examined the folded garments and pairs of sandals on the shelves. Hoshina watched, leaning against the wall, his expression attentive.

"Is anything missing?" Sano asked Chidori.

" . . . The outfit Lady Wisteria had on last night." Chidori risked a glance at Sano, seemed to discern that he wouldn't hurt her, and spoke up more boldly: "She wore a black kimono with purple wisteria blossoms and green vines on it."

Her conspicuous costume would aid the search for her, Sano thought, and saw the idea register on Hoshina's countenance. Opening the cabinet's other compartments, Sano revealed quilts, bath supplies, a tea service, a sake decanter and cups, a writing box containing brushes, inkstone, and water jar. A drawer held hair ornaments--lacquerware picks, silk flowers mounted on combs, ribbons. Chidori attested that all the possessions were present as she remembered from when she'd tidied the cabinet yesterday. This left Sano one last task for the girl.

"Chidori-chan, I must ask you to look at the body." Seeing her blench, he added, "You need only look for a moment. Try to be brave."

The kamuro gulped, nodding. Sano stepped to the bed and peeled back the cloth just far enough to reveal the upper part of Mitsuyoshi's head. Chidori gasped; she stared in horror at the hairpin stuck in the eye.

"Does the hairpin belong to Lady Wisteria?" Sano said.

Emitting a whimper, Chidori shook her head. Sano experienced a cautious relief as he replaced the cloth. That Wisteria didn't own the hairpin was evidence that hinted at her innocence. "Do you know who it does belong to?"

"Momoko-san," the girl whispered.

The yarite again, thought Sano. Revealed as the last person to see Wisteria and Lord Mitsuyoshi, discoverer of the body, and now, owner of the murder weapon, she seemed a better suspect than Wisteria. He said to Chidori, "Look around the room again. Are you sure nothing is missing?"

"Yes, master." Then a frown wrinkled Chidori's brow.

Sano felt his instincts stir, as they did when he knew he was about to hear something important. Hoshina pushed himself away from the wall, eyeing the kamuro with heightened interest.

"What is it?" Sano said.

"Her pillow book," said Chidori.

A pillow book was a journal in which a woman recorded her private thoughts and the events of her life, in the tradition of Imperial court ladies. "What was in the book?" Sano said, intrigued to learn that Wisteria had followed the centuries-old custom.

"I don't know. I can't read."

More questioning revealed that the pillow book was a pack of white rice paper, bound between lavender silk covers tied with green ribbon. Wisteria wrote in it whenever she had a spare moment, and if she heard someone coming, she would quickly put it away, as though fearful that they might read it. She took the book with her whenever she left the brothel, and Chidori had seen her tuck it under her sash yesterday evening, but although Sano searched the entire room, the pillow book was indeed gone.

"Wisteria could have removed it when she left," Hoshina suggested.

Or someone had stolen the pillow book, Sano thought, resisting Hoshina's attempt to draw him into a discussion and elicit ideas from him. He considered possible scenarios for the crime. Perhaps the killer had entered the room while Wisteria and Mitsuyoshi slept, stabbed Mitsuyoshi, kidnapped Wisteria, and stolen the pillow book. But perhaps Wisteria herself had killed Mitsuyoshi, then fled, taking her book with her. Each scenario was as plausible as the other, and Sano realized how little he knew about his former lover. What had happened to her since they'd parted ways? Was she capable of such a grisly murder? The idea alarmed Sano, as did the suspicion that this case would bring him and Wisteria together again, with unpredictable consequences.

Hiding his uneasiness, Sano turned to the proprietor and said, "I'll see the yarite now."

Excerpt from THE PILLOW BOOK OF LADY WISTERIA
©Laura Joh Rowland, 2002
Published by St. Martin's Press




"Feudal Japan is lovingly recreated in
THE PILLOW BOOK OF LADY WISTERIA.
Ms. Rowland gives us a superb read, full of mystery and charm. "
—Romantic Times

lady


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