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The Lost Heiress of Hawkscliffe

The Lost Heiress of Hawkscliffe by Joyce C. Ware
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Katherine Mackenzie agreed to catalogue the Ramsay oriental rug collection before she realized the drama playing out in the famous painter’s mansion. Ramsay’s heir, his exotic mistress Roxelana, had been missing for seven years and was about to be declared legally dead. Katherine wanted no part of the intrigue—until she noticed that in Roxelana’s portrait, the beauty was wearing the same ring that Katherine had inherited.

Gothic by Joyce C. Ware; originally published by Zebra Gothic

Belgrave House; February 1990
219 pages; ISBN 9780821728963
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Lost Heiress of Hawkscliffe
Author: Joyce C. Ware


There it is, Kate ... do you see it? Hawkscliffe!

I can still feel the warm pressure of Uncle Vartan’ s arm around my slight shoulders as I stood snuggled against him on the deck of the Mary Powell, my eyes straining to follow his pointing finger.

It was my first trip on a Hudson River steamer, an outing planned to celebrate my thirteenth birthday. What made it memorable—unique, in fact—was that Uncle Vartan had decided to close his shop. He even paid his astonished helpers the day’s wage they could ill afford to lose.

“Let the Hagopians sell a rug for a change,” he said as he locked the door, pocketing the key with a flourish. “Come, dear child, the river awaits us.”

Oh, what a day it was! There was so much to see, I wished for eyes in the back of my head. Suddenly, Uncle Vartan’s arm tightened around me.


The name meant nothing to me then; confused, I looked downstream across the churning wake of the paddlewheel.

“No, dear child, up there. Higher than high.”

I pressed hard against him, my hands gripping the glossy mahogany rail, the better to trace the path of his finger across the swirling water and up the craggy cliff face to the very top.

“Where, Uncle Vartan? I don’t see....”

Then, all at once, gleaming gold against a phalanx of dark, jagged spruce, I spied soaring minarets and a glitter of mosaics more brilliantly blue than the June sky above us. A moment later, the steamer rounded a bend, and the delicate lofty spires were veiled by billowing verdancy.

In later years, as I helped him roll up a glorious antique rug he had just sold. Uncle Vartan would sometimes whisper that there was an even finer one of its type at Hawkscliffe.

“If only we might visit there someday,” I would murmur longingly, for by then I knew that the estate’s owner, the famous artist Charles Quintus Ramsay, had once been my uncle’s most valued customer. “Please do say we may, Uncle Vartan.”

But no matter how artful my plea, his response never varied. “We’ll see, dear girl, we’ll see,” he would say, but a troubled look in his deep-set eyes belied the tender smile meant to ease my disappointment. By the time I was eighteen, I knew that what he really meant was no.

Chapter 1

The day I finally journeyed to Hawkscliffe it must have been raining in New York, for as the train chugged north I recall spatters of sleet starring the fogged win­dows. I remember, too, wiping the soot-streaked glass with my handkerchief, but all I gained for my scrap of soiled linen was a dismal view. The gaudy dress of fall had given way to the mourning cloak of early November, and even that month’s subtle hues were washed to gray that drear afternoon.

I tried to glimpse the long-remembered fabled aerie as the train slowed for Hendryk, my destination, but this time clouds masked the towers soaring above the rocky eminence that dominated the old riverside town. Hawks­cliffe! A. romantic conceit, some called it; a folly, said others. Uncle Vartan had pronounced it more suitable for Constantinople’s Bosphorus than the wilder shores of the Hudson.

Dear Uncle Vartan. I sniffed back the tears that had reddened my eyes so often during the six months since his death. I opened my purse, and as my fingers blindly sought a clean handkerchief, the rustle of the creased letter within reminded me that the time for weeping was past. If my bold plan was to succeed, I needed a stiff spine, not sobs.

The entrance to Hawkscliffe was closer to the town than I had expected. Layered masses of rhododendron masked it from curious exploration by casual passersby, and beyond the curtain of gray-green leaves a narrow drive wound steeply up. I feared the small horse harnessed to my hired runabout would be hard taxed to accomplish the task set for him, but my fears proved groundless. The lane curved this way and that, softening the grade, and at every bend a rustic pond, a glade, or a towering stand of evergreens diverted the eye. The distant views were shrouded still by clouds, and perforce my attention was claimed by the fairytale spires playing peekaboo among the hemlocks and spruces.

The small wagon rolled to a halt. The driver wordlessly deposited my bags in a wide recess set into a head-high stone wall, a massive bulwark of roughly quarried granite cubes, backed with shrubbery and matted with vines, which effectively shielded the mansion from view. I stared at the stout wooden door barring my entrance. Its only ornamentation was a series of spear-shaped iron hinges pocked with rust and the swags of abandoned spiderwebs whose dusty strands still clutched the husks of hapless victims. I could find no latch or any means by which to announce my arrival, and as I huddled under the meager overhang to escape the raw wind, fitful eddys swirled dry leaves from neglected nooks to pluck at my ankles like inquisitive, bony fingers.

As the clip-clop of the descending pony’s hooves faded into silence, I became aware of a shrill cry above me. Kee-er-r-r.... Kee-er-r-r.... It trailed breathily into stillness, like the wail of a lost child who has given up all hope of being found. Kee-er-r-r.…

 I peered up, hoping to distinguish the source of the keening, and all at once there ; they were: birds—large birds—circling low above the cliffs, the hawks that gave this windswept fastness its name.

Then another sound nudged at my ears . It was low, but strangely disquieting. In front of me an overgrown thicket shivered. A moment later a massive lop-eared head pierced the tangled branches, its teeth bared in a dreadful grin. The rumbling growl became a snarl as the dog’s heavy, rough-coated body emerged, and startled recogni­tion sent me scrambling up the wall faster than the dog’s uncoiling muscles could hurl it toward the spot I had just abandoned.


The voice was as deep as the dog’s growl; its command­ing tone turned the animal’s menacing attack into slinking retreat. Whining piteously, the dog sat back on its haunches and cast an imploring look at the man who crashed from the thicket, then pulled up short at the sight of me.

“Well, Zulu, not your usual prey, eh? Prettier than a sheep; but not as edible—unless, of course, you could first unwrap her from all that serge.”

He was a tall man. Clean-shaven and hatless, with dark hair ruffled by the wind, he wore his rough, leather-patched shooting coat with the easy grace of an outdoorsman. The groundskeeper, I guessed. Those oiled, high-laced boots were too well worn to be those of a weekend sportsman. He talked soothingly to the dog, snapped a heavy leash to her wide, hobnailed collar, skewered his walking stick through its loop as a makeshift stake, then turned his attention to me.

“She’s really quite harmless. Now if it had been her brother, Pasha....” He grimaced expressively, intimat­ing that I would be in bloody shreds by now if that had been the case.

“Hardly harmless,” I retorted heatedly, “if her usual prey is sheep. In her native land that would not be tolerated.”

The man looked startled. His eyes were the clear water-green of mountain tarns. “You know the breed, then?”

“Yes, I do.” Once seen guarding sheep in its native Anatolia, the fierce, single-minded Akbash was not easily forgotten., “Why else would I be up here, playing at Humpty-Dumpty?”

“Why else, indeed?” He cocked his head to one side and placed his brown fists on his hips. “A lady alpinist, perhaps? Not another claimant to the estate, I trust—a long-lost cousin? Or maybe a bastard daughter. Now that would be a capital jest!”

His choice of words was, I was sure, as deliberate as his concluding, mirthless snort of laughter, but the disdainful curl of lip? Habitual, I decided.

“Your language, sir, is exceeded only by your imperti­nence. I am here at the invitation of Mr. Philo Ramsay, and if your manners were not in as sorry a state as the grounds entrusted to your care—”

“Invited by Philo? The devil you say!”

I was startled by his familiar reference to the person who, judging from the letter in my purse, would soon be master of Hawkscliffe. We stared at each other. The man made no move to assist me from the stony ledge. He crossed his arms and adopted an easy stance, prepared to wait me out. His lazy, confident smile was that of a man accustomed to treating women with the same light-handed, careless mastery as he would a mettlesome horse. Uncle Vartan had warned me about men of his ilk.

I gathered my forces. “My purse, if you please.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“My purse!” I commanded. “There! On top of my bags.”

The man looked at my purse and then at me. He smiled again. Obviously, he was not mine to command—at least not without a reason that suited him. Very well, then... two could play at this game.

“The invitation you appear to question, my good man, is in that purse.”

“‘My good man,’” He repeated the words under his breath, shaking his head. He handed the black pouch up to me. “At yer service, milady,” he said with a servile bow.

He was making fun of me. My fingers trembled with indignation as I extracted the creased letter. What was it Uncle Vartan used to say? Let no one rob you of your dignity, dear girl. I drew a deep breath and thrust the paper at him. “There! Read it yourself. Assuming you know how,” I added in a mutter.

A twitch of his wide mobile mouth was the only in­dication he had heard my aside. His eyes scanned the paragraphs rapidly.

“It must be a miracle,” he said at length, eyeing me solemnly. “The last time I saw Vartan Avakian he was a middle-aged Armenian.”

I could feel the hot blood rise into my cheeks as I snatched the letter from his outstretched hand. Why should I have to pass muster with a groundskeeper? I was tempted to make my way off the wall as best I could, march down to the town, and take the first train back to New York City. The modest brownstone Uncle Vartan had left me had never seemed more appealing. But there were my bags—much too heavy to carry that long distance—and above all, my mission. I could not allow pique to de­flect me. A few ruffled feathers were a small price to pay for all I planned for my future.

“I am Vartan Avakian’s niece, Katherine Mackenzie,” I began, in as dignified a manner as it is possible to muster while sitting, legs adangle, on top of a stone wall. “My uncle died six months ago; I have come to accept in his stead the commission offered him.” Exasperation clipped my words short. “Now will you please conduct me to Mr. Ramsay?”

The man stepped back, folded his arms again, and regarded me speculatively through narrowed eyes. The piercing intelligence in their green depths arrested me. Whatever else this fellow was, he was no fool.

“And what does a little saffron-haired girl like you know about appraising oriental rugs? Since when have Scots taken to trading in carpets?”

“It is true, my father was a Scot—”

The man nodded. “Strong blood, that. I can see it in the hair and the set of the jaw.” He chuckled. “And in that splash of freckles across your nose.”

“—But my mother. Uncle Vartan’s sister, was Ar­menian,” I continued, ignoring his personal remarks.

He stepped closer. He placed his long hands on the wall, one on either side of me. “Of course,” he murmured, searching my face, “that explains the dark eyes: those liquid, eastern eyes.....”

His voice drifted off. I could feel the blood pounding in my ears. His eyes seemed to draw me in until I was drowning in the clear water-green of them. I heard a sigh—my own—and than an indignant yelp.

The man turned, releasing me from his gaze. “Hush, Zulu!”

By the time he turned back I had recovered my self-possession, but the inactivity forced by my precarious perch had taken its toll. My kid walking boots offered scant protection from the numbing cold, and sleet had once again begun to needle my cheeks. At length, dis­comfort conquered my distaste.

“Please, sir, I fear I require your assistance.”

I leaned down to grasp the hands he reached up to me. Their strength was reassuring, but as I inched myself uncertainly off the rough granite, the warm pressure of those hands, transferred to my waist to support me, made me tremble. Fearing I would fall, he held me even closer, and as I eased down along the warm, strong length of him I inhaled a heady aroma of tweed, oiled leather, and healthy male skin.                                

“Violets,” he murmured, his lips grazing my ear. “You have the scent of violets....”

My toes touched the ground. Breaking free from his embrace, I busily began to assemble my few belongings.

He strolled over and relieved me of my bags, brushing me aside as unconcernedly as one might a small, ill-tempered terrier. “We go through the gap.” Both hands now occupied with my belongings, he motioned with his head. “Just there, up ahead.” The dog yelped again. “Would you mind?”

I removed his walking stick from the loop in Zuleika’s leash. She favored me with a brief wag and moved on at a sedate pace, the leash trailing behind her.

He led the way through the rock-bound passage, then stopped to let me precede him into the rough-mown dealing beyond. My clasped hands flew to my breast as my eyes opened wide. I couldn’t decide whether to be amazed, amused, or dreadfully homesick .  Perhaps all three.

The extraordinary building that dominated the hilltop above me was a pastiche, a veritable Turkish stew of the architectural styles of my birthplace: mosque and medrese, castle and yali. It combined stone and wood, mosaic and gilt in a dizzying, dazzling array of Ottoman-Byzantine-Arabic ornamentation. Both foolish and fine, it was as grand an expression of the brashly romantic spirit of my adopted land as I could ever hope to see.

“But it’s so…so American!” I exclaimed.

My companion stared at me thunderstruck, then threw back his dark head and laughed wholeheartedly. “My dear Miss Mackenzie,” he finally said, “I am forever in your debt. I had given up hope of ever being surprised by anything again. Come, let me introduce you to Philo. Sometimes I think he’s even less susceptible to surprise than I—though for very different reasons.”

As I climbed the wide steps to the broad terrace surrounding the mansion, I became aware that the neglect I had already noted in the encroaching thickets extended to the building as well. Sculptured timber arches, splintered along the edges, were soft with dark decay at their centers. Eroding mortar betrayed a crumbling but­tress’s lack of useful function. Spires discolored by tar­nish proved the gilding counterfeit, and the tulips and car­nations swirling over the glazed wall tiles had sacrificed petals and leaves to a score of frosts and heaving thaws.

How sad, I thought. Suddenly I was reminded of the woman I had once seen on my uncle’s arm. I was hurrying through a neighborhood I seldom frequented, on an errand I no longer recall, when all at once there they were, strolling out from under the gaily striped canvas awning of a small hotel. When I recovered from my mild surprise—for in my innocence I assumed he had taken the lady to tea—I remember thinking how pretty she was. Blond and pink-cheeked, she was dressed in the latest fashion, and a flirtatious smile curved her lips as she listened to what my uncle was saying. As they drew closer, however, I realized that her clothing was garish, her lips and aging cheeks were painted, and the gold of her hair was as false as the gilt on Hawkscliffe’s spires. Shocked, I stopped and stared, and then my uncle saw me. I can still see the guilt and shame in his eyes.

We never spoke of the incident, but it was soon afterwards that Uncle Vartan began my apprenticeship in earnest. He said he did not wish to see me forced either to marry for my keep, or, because of what he was pleased to term my superior intelligence, to settle for demeaning employment.

In time, of course, I became aware of yet another alternative for young women with no prospects, and if Uncle Vartan had known now often the memory of that raddled, painted face served to spur my studies of carpet structure and repair, he might have been more grateful than sorry for the encounter.

“Come along, Miss Mackenzie. Let’s get you settled. You’ll have time enough to gawk tomorrow.”

Gawk, indeed. I looked up once more at the facade’s shabby grandeur. Even wasted faces have their uses, I reminded myself. I then hastened obediently across die leaf-littered terrace in the wake of my long-legged guide, disconcerted to find myself traveling in tandem with the ambling sheepdog. Docile and silent—for the moment, at least—the pair of us no doubt fulfilled his requirements for females of whatever species. It was, after all, what my father had required of my mother and would, if he had lived, have demanded of me. As it was, I was expected at a very young age to attend as raptly to Papa’s lectures on Eastern art as his converts did to his parables.

My poor father! How my stifled yawns pained him. He never realized how much more compelling his sermons on sin were than his dry discourse on architraves. When John Mackenzie preached, one could almost feel the searing heat of hellfire and hear the screams of the damned. An odd talent, I’ve often thought since.

I truly mourned my parents’ untimely deaths, but after the weeping, after the voyage to New York, after I made a new life with Uncle Vartan—who found my childish prattle charming—I vowed I would never accept a man who could not accept me as his equal.

To be sure, romantic love had its charms—at twenty-three I had experienced infatuation’s fleeting magic more than once—but I was firmly convinced that only friend­ship, the noblest of human ties, would allow me to remain captain of my own soul whilst navigating life’s stormy passages to the calm harbor of my golden years.

I reminded myself of this conviction as I hurried along after the dark-haired man whose rough, careless dress could not disguise his lithe grace and erect, confident carriage. Surely the heat in my cheeks was due only to my effort to keep up with him, and the heightened beat of my heart merely anticipated my meeting with Philo Ramsay. I was a businesswoman with a mission; what could I possibly find of interest in the kind of bold masculinity that provokes sighs from shopgirls?

He stopped before a bank of French windows and turned. His saturnine face remained unsmiling, but a glint in his eyes—perhaps a mere reflection of the warm light spilling out from within—seemed to mock my earnest thoughts. I swept by him, under the arch of his tweedy arm, through the pair of windows he opened for me. As I did so, a slight exhalation escaped my lips that, I must confess, sounded uncommonly like a sigh.