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Elizabeth stopped outside the door of her father's study to gather her courage. She was certain his summons was about her refusal to accept Reginald Burton-Smythe's offer of marriage, and equally certain he would be very angry. There was simply no help for it. She couldn't abide Mr. Burton-Smythe. His mere presence made her skin crawl. And no one, not even her father, could force her to speak words of acceptance to him.
Elizabeth pressed her hands to her abdomen, drew a slow, deep breath to ease the sudden, painful spasm in her stomach and opened the door -- delay would only increase her father's ire. She stepped inside, closing the door quietly behind her. The room smelled of smoke, after-dinner port and cigars. The combination did little to help the state of her stomach. "You wished to see me, Father?"
Ezra Frazier looked up, placed the paper he was reading on his desk and motioned her forward. "I understand from Burton-Smythe you refused his hand. Is that the right of it?" His tone of voice did not bode well for her. Fear moistened her palms. Elizabeth pressed them to the soft velvet fabric of her long skirt. "Yes, Father, it is."
His features tightened. "Tomorrow when he comes calling, you will ask his forgiveness and tell him you accept." He lifted the paper from his desk and resumed reading. She was dismissed. As easily as that her life was ruined -- any hope for future happiness destroyed. Anger overrode the fear clamped around Elizabeth's chest. She squared her shoulders and forced words out of her constricted throat. "I'm sorry, Father, I cannot . . . I will not . . . accept Mr. Burton- Smythe's offer of marriage."
Shock spread across her father's face. The vein at his right temple pulsed. He rose to his feet. "You dare to defy me?"
The soft, icy tone of his voice made Elizabeth shiver in spite of the anger heating her blood. She searched for words to turn away his wrath. "It is not out of defiance I speak, Father. Rather, it is revulsion and fear of Mr. Burton-Smythe that gives me voice."
"Make me no puling excuses, Elizabeth!" The flames of the fire glittered in her father's cold, steel-gray eyes as he looked at her. "The betrothal agreement has been signed. When you wed Burton-Smythe the warehouse property he owns on South Street comes to me. My fortune will double -- and more yet. I'll not lose my gain because of your mewling fear."
"But, Father, I -- "
"Silence! I'll hear no more excuses. I've long sought that property and it will be mine. Now go to your room and prepare yourself to accept Mr. Burton-Smythe tomorrow. The banns will be read on Sunday."
Elizabeth's stomach churned. She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry to cause you distress, Father -- but I will not wed Mr. Burton-Smythe."
The vein at her father's temple swelled. He placed his hands on his desk and leaned toward her. "Do not stand stubborn in this matter, Elizabeth -- there are ways to ensure your compliance. It would be well if you yield gracefully -- but yield you will."
Elizabeth stared into her father's eyes and knew further protest was useless. He would not listen to her. Greed was his master, and she nothing more than chattel to him. It had always been thus. She swallowed back the bile rising into her throat, lifted her long skirts and walked to the door.
She paused. Took a breath. "Yes, Father?"
"I'll hear no complaints from Burton-Smythe. When you are wed -- be as other wives and suffer your fate in silence."
Elizabeth shuddered and shook off the memory. She would not think of that meeting with her father two nights ago, or of the events that followed. Yesterday was a horror that must be forgotten. It robbed her of strength. She would think only of today. What would happen today? Moisture filmed her eyes. Elizabeth blinked it away and stared at the carriage waiting on the cobblestone street below. He was going to do it. Oh, God, help me. Please help me!
The front door of the house opened and her father stepped out onto the stoop. Elizabeth yanked open the double sashes of her bedroom window. "Father, stop! I beg you -- please don't do this to me!"
Ezra Frazier halted.
Hope, born of desperation, trapped the breath in Elizabeth's lungs. She braced herself on the sill and leaned forward, willing her father to heed her plea. He removed his top hat and tilted his head back until their gazes met. "Close the window, Elizabeth."
Everything in her went still. The chill of displeasure in her father's eyes was colder than the March air blowing in around her. A shiver slithered down her spine. Cold knots formed in her stomach. That was it then. He was going to meet with Reginald Burton-Smythe to complete the wedding arrangements, and nothing she could say or do would change his mind. He had coveted that waterfront property for too long to let it slip through his grasping fingers now.
Elizabeth straightened, clenching her hands into fists at her sides as she watched her father walk down the marble steps, cross the sidewalk, and climb into the waiting carriage. Money was her father's god. His business properties all he cared about. He ruled over them and his household with an iron hand, showing no one love or mercy -- and always he had his way. But not this time. No, not this time. This was about the rest of her life. And she would die before she would give herself to the man who had attacked her last night.
The driver cracked his whip.
Elizabeth flinched as if the lash had been laid against her own flesh. A sick emptiness replaced her vestige of last hope. She closed and latched the window sashes, then, lifted her chin and strode to her wardrobe. The sharp beat of the horse's hoofs against the cobblestone street rang in her ears as she fastened her cloak around her shoulders. The rumble of the carriage wheels spurred her resolve. She dragged the large drawstring bag she had made during her sleepless night from its hiding place, put the possessions she had chosen to take with her inside, then pulled from her pocket the note she had written.
Father and Mother,
I cannot marry Mr. Burton-Smythe. I could not endure it. As you intend to force that union upon me, you leave me no choice. I must go.
Her stomach churned. She swallowed hard, drew another steadying breath, and placed the note on her bed. It was done. She was ready to go. All she needed now was her money, and the key.
Elizabeth snatched up the few coins hidden in her sewing box, dropped them into her reticule, then stepped to her dresser. Her hands trembled as she unscrewed the base of the pewter candlestick and dumped the key hidden there onto her upturned palm. She curled her fingers tightly around the small, cold metal shaft. Thank God for Miss Essie. Oh, thank God her governess had hidden the key all those years ago!
A rush of tears stung her swollen, burning eyes. She blinked them away, pulled on her kid gloves, then hurried to her bedroom door and pressed her ear against the flat center panel, listening for any sound of movement in the hallway beyond. She heard nothing.
Heartened by the silence, Elizabeth leaned down and fitted the key into the lock. The click of the bolt sliding back was loud in the silence. For a long moment she waited, then, grasping the knob firmly she turned it ever so slowly and eased the door open a crack.
There was no one in sight.
The air trapped in her lungs expelled in a burst of relief. She stepped into the hallway, locked her door, then tiptoed along the corridor to the top of the staircase. Footsteps sounded in the entrance hall below.
Elizabeth jolted to a stop. She whirled about and darted to the side of the stairs, pressing her body back against the wall where she would be hidden from view. Whoever it is, don't let them come upstairs! Please, God, don't let them come upstairs! Her heart hammered wildly against her ribs as the footsteps began to climb.
Elizabeth gasped and squeezed more tightly against the wall at the sound of her mother's voice.
"I want no one upstairs until Mr. Frazier returns! Go tidy the drawing room."
The maid's footsteps retreated. Doors closed.
Elizabeth sagged against the wall, then immediately righted herself and moved to the banister to peek down into the room below. It was empty. Thank heaven! If her mother should discover her -- She jerked her mind from the debilitating thought, took a firm grip on the handrail and started down the stairs.
There was a loud creak.
Elizabeth's heart leaped into her throat. She froze in place -- waited. No one came to investigate. After a few moments, she tightened her grip on the railing and crept forward, her mouth dry as she tested each step, her long skirts sliding from tread to tread with a sibilant whisper that to her ears sounded like a roar. When she reached the solid floor of the entrance hall her heart was pounding so violently she felt giddy. She inched her way to the front door, eased it open and slid outside. The frigid air stung her face.
Elizabeth pulled her fur-lined hood in place, tucked the drawstring bag out of sight beneath her cloak, then rushed down the marble steps to the sidewalk and hurried away.
"Justin, do sit down! I hate it when you prowl about like a cat. Or should I say a nervous bridegroom?"
Justin Davidson Randolph turned and looked down into his sister's upturned face -- into long, heavily lashed blue eyes so like his own. "If that was an attempt at levity, Laina, it failed miserably. I suggest you save your humor for a more appropriate time."
"But humor is appropriate at a farce."
The barb hit its mark. Justin frowned. "Be careful, Laina. You go too far."
"No, Justin, you go too far. 'Widower' and 'Interested' indeed! It's like a child's game."
The muscle along his jaw twitched. Justin took a calming breath. "Laina Brighton, marriage hasn't changed you at all. You can be a most provoking woman. I assure you it's no game. I called myself 'Widower' to protect my identity from the women who answered my Article of Intent."
"Which proves you know the character of the women you are dealing with! Including 'Interested.'"
"Laina -- " He put a wealth of warning in the growled name.
"I'm sorry, Justin. I don't want to quarrel with you. But this plan of yours is ludicrous. I know you've been hurt. Terribly hurt. And I don't blame you for feeling bitter. But please don't do this to yourself. One rotten apple -- "
His disgusted snort cut her off. "One?"
"All right, two. But Rebecca and Margaret were selfish, schem -- "
"Laina, that's all past. Please -- don't speak their names ever again!" The muscle at his jaw twitched again. Justin rubbed the spot, trying to ease the tightness away.
"Very well. I'll not mention them again -- except to say they are not worth what you are doing to yourself."
He shouldn't have told her. Maybe if he didn't answer she'd give up. Justin shook his head and moved away to stare down into the fire. It didn't work. She followed him. His back muscles tensed at the light touch of her hand on his jacket. "Justin, forget this plan. Give yourself another chance. Give those chil -- "
She stopped as he pivoted about to face her. "No more arguments, Laina. Granted, Rebecca and Margaret were less than admirable women. Is that not all the more reason to do what I am doing?" He lifted his lips in a cynical smile. "You can't deny I've not done well choosing with my heart. It seems to have an abominable lack of good taste."
Tears welled into her eyes at his words. She glared up at him. "I hate this change in you, Justin. You've turned into this cold, remote, untouchable stranger. I want you to stop this foolishness! I want my warm, gentle, loving brother back. You're going to destroy your life."
"Don't cry, Lainy." The old childhood name slipped softly from Justin's lips. He drew his older sister into his arms and held her close. "I know a marriage of convenience is not ideal. But at least it will be an honest relationship."
He held up a hand to forestall her comment as she jerked backward out of his arms and drew breath to speak. "Yes, an honest relationship, even if it will be based purely on greed. At least this time the avarice will be out in the open." Justin frowned, and turned away to put on his coat. Laina was right, he had changed -- his voice sounded as cold and hard as his heart felt. He lifted her wool, fur-trimmed coat off the chair and held it for her. "We've talked enough. It's time to go."
He straightened the coat's overcape about her shoulders, handed her the matching coal-scuttle bonnet and opened the drawing room door, stepping back to let her precede him into the entrance hall. "The Haversham Coach House is some distance from here. Surely you'd not have me keep my bride waiting?" His attempt to ease the tension between them with the light remark failed. He winced inwardly as Laina's eyes flashed with anger. There was an audible snap from the bonnet's satin chin ribbons as she yanked them into place and tied them.
"She can wait till the stars fall from the sky for all I care! And don't call her your bride in my presence. I'll never accept her as such."
Justin's heart gave a painful wrench as Laina snatched her fur muff from the seat of the chair and swept past him. He didn't want to hurt her, but he couldn't let her dissuade him from the path he had chosen. He had been made a fool of twice. He didn't intend that it should ever happen again. But he needed a suitable wife -- a mother for the children. Justin set his jaw in grim determination, grabbed his felt top hat from the chair and followed Laina out her front door and down the brick steps to the waiting cabriolet he had hired.
Ora Scraggs gripped the sideboard of the wagon as it made its lumbering, lurching progress down the road toward New York. March 28, 1820 -- her wedding day. At least it would have been if it weren't for that addlebrained, dim-witted coach driver. The grip of her hand on the edge of the board seat tightened as she glared down at the long, jagged tear in the skirt of the red wool traveling outfit she had stolen from her mistress. A pox on him! A pox on the driver and his whole family! If he hadn't been going so fast he might have missed that deep hole, the wheel wouldn't have broken and --
Oh, what was the use? Why mull it over? The accident had happened. She was beaten. And she had planned so carefully! From the moment she'd overheard her mistress and her friends reading and laughing about that Article of Intent, she'd been figuring her every move. Now, the splendid, genteel entrance she had planned for her arrival at the Haversham Coach House in the hired coach and fancy stolen clothes was ruined. The time of her marriage appointment with "Widower" long past. Now she had to think up a new scheme, find another rich man to diddle. And she would! Her plan to have "Widower's" money might be denied her by today's accident, but she was clever. She would think of something. There were a lot of rich gentlemen in New York. And meanwhile . . .
Ora cast a speculative glance at the farmer driving the wagon and her lips curved upward in a self-satisfied smirk. It was a bit of luck he had happened by and offered her a ride after the accident. She could cozy up to him until after he sold his grain in New York tonight -- until he had all that lovely money she could steal. But she'd best get at it -- it was already twilight. She smiled and slid closer to him.
"Oh!" Elizabeth stumbled over an exposed root, falling to her hands and knees on the hard-packed earth. The jar of her landing sent pain radiating throughout her bruised, exhausted body. She felt the jolt at every spot where Reginald's angry blows had landed.
She struggled to her feet, brushed the dry dirt from her cloak, then reached for the drawstring bag. Sharp pain shot through the tired muscles along her spine as her abused body protested. She eased herself erect and walked on, stinging darts prickling her cold, aching, satin-slipper-clad feet with every step. If only her father hadn't taken her shoes and boots! Elizabeth pressed her lips together and set her mind against her discomfort. Ever since she ran away this morning she had been walking, searching for a way out of town, but soon she would be able to rest at the coach house that kind old man with the oyster barrow had told her of. It was only a little farther.
Rapid footsteps sounded behind her. Elizabeth started. Was that one of the servants Reginald had out searching for her? She'd managed to elude one of them earlier when she'd overheard him asking about her at The Black Horse Inn -- but if she was caught out here in the open . . .
Panic seized her. She glanced toward the shadows at the side of the road but it was too late to hide. She swung the cloth bag in front of her, covered it with her cloak, then pulled her hood farther forward, ducking her head so her face would be fully hidden from view. Fear propelled her forward as the footsteps behind her grew louder; drew nearer. It took all of her inner strength not to look over her shoulder -- not to drop the bag and run.
Please, God, don't let it be one of Reginald's lackeys!
The footsteps picked up speed, then veered away down a narrow alley on her left. Elizabeth stopped. Dull fists of pain pounded at her temples. She set the bag on the ground at her feet and lifted her trembling hands to rub the pain away. A cat, prowling in the shadows, leaped to the top of a fence and yowled. Her frayed nerves jolted.
Oh, Lord, help me! I must find this Haversham Coach House, Lord. I must find a way out of town before --
What if she hadn't enough money to hire a carriage? Elizabeth drove her hand into her reticule, then stood staring at the few coins on her palm as the throbbing in her temples increased. She'd had no time to plan -- to think of anything beyond escape -- and now it was too late.
She frowned, then drew her weary body fully erect. She had no time for such discouraging thoughts. The coins clinked together dully as she dropped them back into her reticule. She was free of Reginald Burton-Smythe, that was what mattered. She would simply go as far as her funds would take her.
"But first, I must find this Haversham Coach House."
The sound of her voice startled her. Elizabeth glanced quickly up and down the street, but there was no one to overhear. She was all alone in the fading twilight. The thought brought a feeling of desolation so unexpected and powerful she gasped. She swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat, picked up the cloth bag, and walked on.
Justin pushed aside the remains of his half-eaten meal and looked up at "Judge," the man who had been a surrogate father to Laina and him since their own father's death in 1812. "Well, Judge, it seems I owe you an apology for wasting your time. Considering the lateness of the hour I can only surmise that 'Interested' lost her interest, and has changed her mind about marrying 'Widower.' It seems I cannot even buy loyalty from a woman."
"Don't sound so shocked, Laina." He slid his gaze to his sister's face. "I'm simply stating the truth." He flung his napkin down on the scarred wood table and surged to his feet. "I'll have the carriages brought round."
"Not so fast, my boy."
Justin glanced down at the age-spotted hand gripping his arm, then lifted his gaze to the judge's face. "What is it?" The elderly man dipped his head in the direction of the entrance. "As much as I wish it were not so -- I believe that may be your intended bride." Justin turned. A woman in a blue wool, fur-trimmed cloak stood just inside the door looking about.
"Are you still determined to go through with this ridiculous marriage?"
The judge sounded less than enthusiastic. Justin nodded.
"I am. As long as my conditions are met."
The judge sighed. "Very well. I have said all that I can say." He rose slowly to his feet.
Justin moved to join him.
The older man shook his gray head in negation. "You wait here. I want to talk privately with this woman to assure myself she fully understands the conditions of this preposterous union. Unless I do, I will have no part of it."
Justin frowned. "You leave me no choice."
"As was my intent." The judge gave him a fatherly pat on the shoulder and walked away.
"How may I serve you, madam?" Elizabeth fastened a wary gaze on the proprietor. "You may tell me if a gentleman has been making inquiries about -- that is, if anyone has inquired -- "
"I believe I'm the one to answer that question."
Elizabeth jumped and spun about. A portly, prosperous looking older man of medium height gave her a brief nod.
"I am here on behalf of the gentleman you were asking about. I am Judge William Braden."
Judge? The law! Reginald had set the law on her to force her to honor the betrothal contract her father had signed! Elizabeth darted a panicked glance at the door beyond the judge, gauging the distance to freedom. It was too close to him. She'd never get the door open before he seized her. She looked back at the elderly man, who was still talking.
"The gentleman you were asking after has engaged my services to handle the legalities of this . . . er . . . situation. And, as the matter is of a delicate nature, we have arranged use of a private room. If you will come with me?"
Elizabeth cringed as the man picked up the bag that had fallen from her suddenly nerveless fingers, then grasped her elbow. Her stomach roiled. He'd found her. Reginald had hired a judge and -- Reginald. She gazed frantically about as the judge ushered her into a small room. There was no one waiting there.
Relief stole the strength from her legs. She collapsed onto a hard wood chair, watching as the judge closed the door. There was no bolt. She might yet make good her escape. Oh, if only she weren't so weary! If only she could think!
Elizabeth straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin as the judge came to stand in front of her. One thing she knew. She would not go back. Jail would be better than marriage to Reginald Burton-Smythe.
"To begin, let me say that I do not approve of the action being taken by my client."
The judge's deep, authoritative voice cut across Elizabeth's dark thoughts. Her heart leaped with hope. If he didn't approve, would he help her escape?
"However, such actions are perfectly legal."
The abrupt words plunged her back into despair.
"As for you, I want to be certain, in my own mind, that you fully understand the seriousness of what you are doing before this . . . this escapade goes any further. In light of that, I feel it best if I review the circumstances of your position. After I have done so we can discuss any consequences that might depend from it."
Consequences? Shock streaked along Elizabeth's nerves. Perhaps she would go to jail. She clasped her hands tightly in her lap to hide their trembling.
"Shall I proceed?"
She gave a polite nod.
"Very well." The judge clasped his hands behind his back and cleared his throat. "As you know, my client stands ready to marry the woman that meets the qualifications set forth in his published Article of Intent." His voice sharpened. "My purpose, is to make certain those qualifications are understood and met. The first being, of course, that you agree to a marriage of convenience only."
Copyright © 2004 Dorothy Clark