by Virginia Hale
When Kate York accepted a temporary position as the music teacher at her former Catholic boarding school, St. Joan of Arc, she expected to deal with rowdy adolescents, strict nuns, and memories of her intense friendship with her old roommate, Tilly Wattle. The last thing Kate expected, however, was for Tilly to show up as the substitute teacher.
The last time the two had seen each other, Tilly had her heart set on joining the sisterhood of nuns that had raised her as an orphan. Tilly longed for a simple life devoting herself to God while Kate longed for a simple life devoting herself to Tilly. Now, twelve years since she forced herself to say goodbye, Kate realizes that she never really got over her sweet, beautiful friend—or the secret kisses they shared as girls.
In her heart of hearts Kate believes that Tilly can match her passion with equal intensity. When Tilly steadfastly refuses to talk about their past, what choice does Kate have but to try to control her own longings and concentrate on renewing their friendship?
But what if Kate isn’t the only one desperate to hide her true feelings…
Lambda Literary Awards
The Secret Chord — Finalist, Lesbian Romance.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Even before I saw a staged production of The Sound of Music at seven years old—my very musical—I was already well on my way to wearing out the VHS tape. The Sound of Music had celebrated it’s thirty-fifth anniversary the year I started kindergarten, but Maria’s courage and tenacity had earned the film a special place in my childhood from the moment I’d first watched her sit on a pinecone. Now, with each rewatch, I always find myself wondering if I’ll ever meet a character as charming as Fraulein Maria.
Faith and identity can make for a complicated marriage. In The Secret Chord, Tilly, who’s spent most of her life believing it her destiny to join the order, suddenly realises she wants something entirely different—her best friend, Kate. The idea of exploring this tension was very, very enticing. I hope you love Kate and Tilly as much as I loved writing their story!"
Orla S. - I have a confession to make, even though this is her third book and she's won a Golden Crown, I hadn't heard of Virginia Hale before reading this gem. It really is one of the best books I've read in a long time and thoroughly deserves the five star rating.
As well as the romantic aspect, parts of "The Secret Chord" are very funny, particularly the passages featuring the school students. As someone who has taught teenage girls and worked as residential staff in a boarding school I can vouch for the accuracy of their portrayal! Some of the nuns are also hilarious, although they are a damn sight nicer than any of the ones I encountered in my convent school days.
I think the best recommendation I can give this book is that before I had even finished it I went and bought Hale's two other books, which I subsequently devoured and adored. Definitely an author on my watch list and I can safely say that Virginia Hale has achieved 'buy without needing to read the synopsis' status.
Lex Kent’s Reviews - One of the things I really appreciate about Hale is she writes books that feel slightly different than the normal romance books we are used to. It did not take long for this book to grab me and after it did, it did not want to let me go. The way Hale writes is impressive and just really works for me.
I would absolutely recommend this to romance fans. In fact I would recommend any of Hale’s books to romances fans. All of them are well written and worth the read. In my opinion Hale is a special author and I can’t wait to see what she puts out next.
Carrie K. - "Tilly had longed for a simple life and devoting herself to God. Kate had longed for a simple life and devoting herself to Tilly."
Rarely do I feel like a book so emphatically resonates with me. All of the pieces have to come together just right. And they did. This was so very complicated. There was longing that I felt in my bones. Deep feelings so heavy they were destined to be revealed. Interactions charged with want. Emotions ran the gamut. Virginia Hale is such a talented writer. She showed us this beautiful relationship between two women. No telling. Showing us with looks, words, and touches. I read a ridiculous amount of books and so few of them can make me feel what the characters are feeling. I loved. I ached. I desired. I hoped.
And who hasn't ever felt this way but never had the words as eloquent to describe?
"It was hard to throw Tilly a buoy when she was in desperate need of a lifeline too."
I didn't even have to finish this book to know it was going to be one of my all-time favorites. Not a single complaint. I loved all of the author's decisions and direction. I'm feeling like this review is inadequate because I can't find the right words to say how much I loved this.
I recommend this to everyone. Romance, second chances, feelings of unrequited love, religious guilt, emotional affair, infidelity, slow burn, will they/won't they, and ferries.
Pin’s Reviews - Hale is again very successful in her storytelling. The book is easy to read, the protagonists are interesting and likable, and the atmosphere at the school is shown convincingly. There is a nice bunch of supporting and minor characters. With all other elements done well, this makes for another good book by this author. I liked it, and will definitely check out her next offering. Recommended.
Grfb’s Reviews - Virginia Hale first impressed me with her debut novel Echo Point. Her writing style is almost impeccable and her stories are always complex and interesting. Where There's A Will was my favorite story of hers until now. The Secret Chord is another level of quality though and it's the brilliant testimony of Hale's creativity and evolution as an author.
I think this novel is one of the best I've read this year. I didn't want it to end, I would really like to see Kate and Tilly in another book as they are such complex and rich characters.
Betty H. - As I sit here thinking of how to describe The Secret Chord by Virginia Hale, the one word that keeps popping into my head is ‘intense’. This story grabs you from page one and doesn’t let go until the last page.
I had a hard time putting this book down. It is a powerful love story full of the push/pull of religion over some people’s lives, and shows the strength of will it takes to find the way to love.
This is a wonderfully poignant slow burn, second chance romance that has lingered in my mind for days after I finished reading it. The story unfolds slowly but I never felt bored–I was captivated from the first page and that lasted right to the last one. There’s just the right level of angst and pining to propel things along but this isn’t a total hand-wringer. Instead, this is an intelligent and mature novel of love.
“Is something wrong, Kate?”
Kate pulled her gaze from the approaching ferry and looked to the passenger seat of the convent van parked at the pier. She forced a smile for Sister Ruth. “Nothing’s wrong.” Lying to a nun—that’s a surefire way to get a one-way ticket to Hell. She removed her black frames and buffed the lenses on the crushed shirttails of her white button-up. “It’s just that I still have so much lesson prep for this week. I’ve been so busy trying to get everything together for the VCE Literature Extension class I’m job-sharing with Tilly that I haven’t even started my lesson plan for VCE Music Performance.” She fogged the glass with her breath and rubbed at the persisting streaks. “You know what it’s like when the girls come back from holidays—I’ll barely have a second to myself to think.”
Kate pushed her glasses up her nose, the emerald hills of Mornington Peninsula suddenly much clearer in the distance. Remarkably, the nine-thirty passenger ferry was making perfect time as it tugged across Port Phillip Bay from Mornington Pier, headed straight for Lords Island. The sight of the small, coffee-coloured vessel left Kate’s palms clammy, her hands shakier than when she’d woken at seven to make up the guest room bed for St. Joan’s imminent guest. She bit back a sigh. Contrary to what she was selling—contrary to what Sister Ruth had too easily bought—Kate’s nervousness was completely unrelated to the return of three hundred students to the island within the next forty-eight hours.
As Sister Ruth wound down the passenger window, the veil of her baby-blue habit fluttered in the cool October breeze. With a soft sigh, she returned her focus to her crossword puzzle. “You work so hard for those girls.”
Kate smiled. “So do you, Reverend Mother.”
Nearing seventy-five, Sister Ruth was like an Eveready battery. She was a wonderful headmistress and maths teacher—Kate could attest to that having once been her student. Although Sister Ruth had odd ideas and an even stranger manner of articulating those ideas, the students—the twenty-five boarders, especially—adored their principal like a grandmother.
Nine months before, when Kate had arrived to assume the year-long position of music teacher at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Girls’ School, Kate’s first impression of her former headmistress was that she seemed absolutely exhausted. One of the primary missions of The Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy was education of youth. If Kate had a dollar for every time she’d had to remind Sister Ruth that it wasn’t her job to bear that mission alone, she’d have accounted for her highly coveted salary. Now, nine months into her contract, Kate often found herself awake at night wondering why she had decided to share that mission at all.
The salary had been incredibly attractive—that was what she’d told her mother and sister. But the truth was that a position at St. Joan’s offered Kate an escape. If she could isolate herself on Lords, she couldn’t be tempted to spend nights in inner city Melbourne with Elodie, her kind and attentive and loyal ex who had simply envisioned a future different to the one Kate desperately wanted—a future including children. If she relocated to Lords and took on the position of housemother from Monday to Friday, the breakup would finally be final—and they could both move on. And that was exactly what had happened—they hadn’t spoken in six months.
Initially, she’d reluctantly relocated to Lords with a negative mindset. Knowing what her peers had been like at St. Joan’s in the early noughties, she had thought her decision might prove to be a nightmare. But in the decade since Kate’s graduation, the school had fostered a much more sisterly atmosphere. Kate was pleasantly surprised to find that these girls were decidedly less entitled than they had been, that the select twenty-five students who now boarded—just as Kate once had—lived almost as simply as the sisters residing in the convent beside the boarding house.
As housemother, the only noteworthy meltdown Kate had witnessed had occurred the previous month. During a ferocious storm, the Telstra tower had been struck, severing telecommunications for the entire island, including the pioneer village that sat at the edge of the two-lane causeway on the other side of Lords. With the Internet down, all hell had broken loose. Without Wi-Fi—Netflix, Instagram, Facebook—it seemed that Kate had Lucifer’s progenies on her hands. She didn’t have enough fingers to count how often one of the girls had stepped into her office and made a case to return to the mainland. Lexi, of course, had been first.
“I’m feeling really sick, Kate,” she’d said. “I’m feeling the way my Nan felt when she got pneumonia. Like real bad sort of thing. I think I need to get the ferry back to the mainland to stay at my aunt’s for a few days. She only lives a few suburbs away from Mornington. My parents would be totally cool with it…”
Glaring over the rim of her glasses, Kate had fixed her only Year Ten boarder with a look. “Lexi, I’d like to see how you would have survived Kokoda. I really would.”
“If I wanted to hear my dad say that,” Lexi had spat, “I’d live with him and not you!”
“Go for it,” Kate had murmured, returning to grading music essays.
“This island is a prison!” Grace had informed Kate the next night. “You’re the worst housemother! You run this place like a death camp!” Emma had claimed an hour before the connection returned. Like heroin addicts feeling their rush, the girls had gone from demons to angels, and once more, all was well on Lords. Lately, Kate had even found herself missing the Year Twelves who had recently moved back to the mainland to undertake VCE exams hosted at larger schools, reducing the cohort from three hundred-and-fifty to just three hundred.
Three months until Christmas and her contract would be completed, Sister Mary Patrick coming from Ballarat to take the reins in the music department next year. Kate was looking forward to returning to Melbourne, to a life where she didn’t live tight-lipped about her sexuality, endlessly longing for the weekend when she could take off to the mainland to absorb enough adult conversation to survive a five-day week of she leaves all of her hair clogged in the shower and she stole my bra and she Snapchatted a fugly picture of me even though I didn’t give her permission. As Kate watched the ferry chug closer, aware of exactly who was on board, something told her that these next three months were going to be harder than the last nine combined.
“It’s a lovely time of year for Tilly to be coming home,” Sister Ruth said, her gaze still focused on her puzzle. “Not too hot, not too cold. And the vegetable garden is flourishing like never before. Tilly will just love it! She was always an excellent cook.”
Because she had no option but to become one, Kate thought, bitterness prickling beneath her skin. It wasn’t as though Tilly had it tough but losing her parents in a car accident when she was five and being sent from England to be raised by her mother’s sister on Lords had reaped Tilly a life of responsibility unfamiliar to the other boarders. Sister Hattie had been a deeply loving aunt, but she’d also wanted Tilly to learn about duty. By the time Kate had arrived at the island at fifteen, barely able to boil pasta for herself, Tilly had been a good cook for years. The legally-blind Sister Mary Joseph had taught her, and when she’d passed away when the girls were sixteen, Tilly had taken on the cooking responsibilities—boarding house and convent—to share with old Sister Mary Claire until graduation.
“Thank you for driving down with me to pick Tilly up,” Sister Ruth said.
Kate shifted stiffly in the driver’s seat. “No problem at all.” What choice did she have? With Sister Caroline away visiting her terminally ill sister in Tasmania for the rest of the year, Kate was the only one left on the island who could drive a manual car. She couldn’t very well expect Tilly to wait an eternity on the unreliable island shuttle, or heave her suitcase up the hill. Like her own, Tilly’s fair skin had never taken well to the sun.
“I remember you two together,” Sister Ruth said absentmindedly. Kate watched the corners of the Reverend Mother’s lips quirk. “You were so hard to wake up in the morning. Tilly was always up and at breakfast, and she’d have to go back to your room to drag you down just before the bells rang. And your hair each morning in homeroom, my goodness! Like a charcoal bird’s nest, Katherine…”
Chuckling, Kate rubbed her sweaty palms across her shorts. “Reverend Mother, I think you’ll find that you’re exaggerating.” She’d never been an early riser, true, but in the later years, when they’d been two of the oldest students, she’d been up early each morning to help prepare the breakfast for the convent, desperate to steal as much time alone with Tilly as possible. Not even sharing a dorm room had been enough to satisfy her.
“Exaggerating?” Sister Ruth hummed. “Am I?”
Kate wanted to smile, but the closer the boat came to the cove, the harder her heart began to hammer. “I haven’t seen her in almost twelve years,” she murmured.
Sister Ruth looked over. She hesitated before she spoke, and when she did, her words were soft, as though she could comprehend the ache in Kate’s heart beginning to catch like dry tinder to a blue flame. “You just missed her by weeks earlier this year,” she started. “She always visits in January, what with how busy she is at St. Matthew’s the rest of the year—you know how demanding the parishes in Melbourne get, with the feast days, and Easter of course…”
She hummed her acknowledgment.
“She visited just before you arrived, before she had to return to teach in the city. It was the first time she’d been here since we lost Sister Hattie—God rest her soul—and I think our Tilly was quite shocked to find that there are only five of us here now, that over two-thirds of the teachers aren’t sisters, that so many of the rooms in the convent are…vacant.” She paused for a moment, staring out at Port Phillip Bay, at the ferry that carried Tilly home. “I always thought she’d join us here, make one of those rooms her own. I truly did think it was the Lord’s plan for Tilly. Really, I did.”
She swallowed. “To join the order, you mean?”
Overlooking the secret she’d rather keep locked away for all eternity, Kate had to agree. She’d been shocked to learn from the sisters that Tilly had never taken her vows. She couldn’t recall a time when Tilly hadn’t had her heart set on becoming a nun. “I’ve already been called to it,” Tilly had said each time she’d fallen to her knees between their beds to pray. And each time, the hole in Kate’s heart had grown larger because she had been called to something else—a fantasy world where they shared a love deeper than friendship. Tilly had longed for a simple life and devoting herself to God. Kate had longed for a simple life and devoting herself to Tilly.
“Can I ask you something, Reverend Mother?”
“Do you know why Tilly didn’t take her vows?”
Sister Ruth tapped her pen against the puzzle book. “I do.” She scribbled an answer into the boxes of a vertical column.
As Sister Ruth’s loyal silence settled in the van, she didn’t press.
“I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you asked her yourself, Kate. You were always so close.”
She cringed. When there hadn’t been so much as a “Hello” exchanged in all that time, Hey, Til, why didn’t you end up committing to a life of poverty and abstinence? seemed inappropriate.
The wooden rosary beads around Sister Ruth’s waist jingled as she turned the page, deciding against attempting a difficult-level game of sudoku. “It’s a shame you couldn’t have gone to the same university, especially considering that you both studied teaching. You would have just loved a Catholic university, Kate. Such a small campus, like a family. You would have felt right at home.”
She bit her tongue. She wouldn’t have. Spending her teen years cloistered on Lords was enough Catholicism for three lifetimes, thank you very much. The memories of her adolescence—post her parents’ divorce—were wonderful. She’d spent winter mornings slowly walking the rolling green hills of Lords, wasted summer evenings jumping from the pier into the crashing waves of the cove. Still, she’d felt suffocated. St. Joan of Arc had been the most loving, nurturing, picturesque prison possible, but a pretty prison was still a prison. University had been the opportunity to reinvent herself she craved. At first, being apart from Tilly had felt like she was missing a limb, but after a few months of separation, she’d moved on.
“And the vicar seems like a lovely man,” Sister Ruth said. “Anglican,” she added, “but lovely.”
Kate clicked her jaw. “So she didn’t just hitch a ride with him down here from the city this morning? They know each other?”
Sister Ruth sighed. “I’m not sure, Kate. I don’t know a thing about it.”
Perhaps that had been the greatest surprise of all, even more than learning Tilly hadn’t taken her vows. Seeing Tilly in a habit would have been easier to digest—vows were expected, predicted, the fault in their stars. But this vicar thing? It had come barrelling out of nowhere and knocked Kate for six. Something about the fact that Tilly had followed a vicar from Melbourne to Mornington didn’t sit right with Kate. It irked her to think what a perfect coincidence it happened to be that the same week the vicar was to be invested at the Anglican parish on the peninsula, Tilly’s contract at St. Matthew’s just happened to finish, enabling her to return to St. Joan’s as a temporary teacher.
If Tilly hadn’t joined the sisterhood, did that mean she was with the vicar? The thought of Tilly with a man, any man, be it a vicar or the goddamn Marlon Brando of Melbourne, was a concept difficult to swallow. Kate had heard the sisters say the vicar had children. A boy and a girl—young. That he just so happened to be recently widowed joined the dots. Tilly had always latched to a problem like flies to molasses, made it her job to fix things—situations, sadness, people. Sad people in sadder situations. The whole thing just reeked of some sort of Von Trapp situation, and the fact was simple: no one could solve a problem like Matilda.
As the ferry docked, the horn sounded, vibrating through Kate, a hot flush breaking out between her breasts. Sister Ruth closed her puzzle book and slapped it onto the dashboard. “Feel like coming for the walk?”
Kate slammed the driver’s door closed behind her. As she followed Sister Ruth across the gravel of the slipway toward the pier, her legs threatened to give way. She hadn’t felt this nervous since her last blind date—a set-up orchestrated by her sister with a woman who, at twenty-five, was five years Kate’s junior. It hadn’t worked out. It should have, there was no reason for it not to, but it hadn’t.
It was the smaller of the two ferries this morning—the passenger ferry, not the much larger twelve-car ferry that always made the final ten p.m. stop en route to the more populated East Island. The bay was mapped like a wishbone—Melbourne at the pinnacle, Mornington and Portarlington at each point. Lords and East Islands sat between the stems, but unlike East Island, Lords was connected to Portarlington by a two-kilometre, stone causeway that stretched into the bay. Kate rarely crossed the convict-constructed causeway—her family lived on the opposite side of the bay, and taking the car ferry directly from Lords to Mornington was much quicker than taking the causeway and driving two hours via Melbourne around the bay—but most of the students caught buses across the causeway each morning, only a handful taking ferries from Mornington. St. Joan’s heavily relied on the causeway—when the causeway was occasionally closed due to an exceptionally high tide, the ferries had to work double time to ship the cohort back to Portarlington. Thankfully, the ferries were always at their beck and call—if the sisters planned on going into Mornington on a weekday to visit St. Gerard’s, the local church, they’d phone ahead to request the car ferry stop via Lords Island to pick them up with the van.
This morning, as Kate had assumed, the passenger ferry was stopping at Lords Island just for Tilly. Colin, the deckhand, hauled himself onto the pier, securing the lines to the dock cleats as he tied off, crisscrossing the ropes to get the right angle. A second later, a slender figure appeared in the doorway, steadying herself on the doorjamb of the cabin as she tugged a large suitcase behind her.
She traced her tongue over her dry lips. It was Tilly, undoubtedly. A dress, buttoned to her collarbone—almost matronly. A dark, delicate plait flying across her back as she accepted a helping hand up onto the pier, thanking the deckhand as he lifted two suitcases and a cabin bag onto the planks.
Her stomach flipped as an invisible rope pulled tight between them and, for the first time in twelve years, Tilly looked her way.