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By Charlotte Hubbard Dorchester Publishing
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Six years later: the spring of 1886.
"'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,'" the pastor intoned. "Ashes to ashes ... dust to dust. Lord, we commit the body and soul of Letitia Bancroft Getty into Your eternal care. Amen."
Gabe felt the eyes in the solemn graveside circle focus on him as he took the spade from the undertaker. Slowly he scooped up some loose dirt. He winced as it hit Letitia's casket with a sorrowful, hollow sound ...
... like when it was Ma and Pa and the girls in their pine coffins, when I was eight and so scared after the Indian massacre I couldn't speak for months.
A sob brought him back to the present. It could have been his own heart's mournful howl, but it was Henrietta Bancroft, swathed in black from head to toe. Those standing around the open grave shifted nervously.
"My baby! Oh, my beautiful baby-too young to die!" she wailed. "And how will I go on without her? Why should I continue to live, when-"
"Hush, dear," Arthur murmured wearily. He muffled his wife's outcry against the shoulder of his somber coat. "We'll get you home and-"
"But this should never have happened!" She jerked her head from his hand. "She was in the dew of her youth! Had Gabriel not insisted on having his way-wanting children despite her fragile frame-"
Arthur flashed him a rueful grimace, still gripping his wife's girth. "Darling, you're too upset to remain here-"
"Of course I'm upset! He killed my only child-my splendid Letitia, for whom I'd die at this moment-"
Something inside him snapped. Somehow Gabe restrained the wrathful reply he wanted to spew at this spiteful, manipulative woman.
"I'm sorry," he muttered, aware that the other mourners were following every nuance of this provocative exchange. "I'll be out of your lives-out of the house-by week's end. Nobody loved Letitia more than I."
He turned sharply, avoiding the curious gazes of clients and friends of the Bancrofts. The hearse and several black carriages lined the cemetery's path ... Gabe felt too agitated to take someone else's vehicle, so he strode as fast as his legs would carry him.
Not a solitary soul followed, which made his situation for these past six years all the more obvious: he was still the outsider. He'd played the parts of husband, partner, and son-in-law but he'd never been considered family. Or worthy of Letitia-not that any man could live up to her parents' expectations. He'd come as a lowly legal apprentice from the plains and had struck it lucky, and now his luck had run out.
Across the street he stumbled, crying openly. Not caring that passersby gawked at him on this otherwise beautiful Saturday afternoon. His feet knew where to turn, what streets to follow, while his mind spun in too many dismal directions to guide him to the fine house he'd shared with his wife. He ran up the front stairs as though Letitia's ghost chased him, entered, and then fell back against the door. He'd seen this day coming with every furtive tip of her silver flask ... every afternoon she'd hidden in her curtained bedroom....
Yet he still couldn't wrap his mind around the finality of it. How many times had he begged her to lay aside the laudanum? Uncivilized as it sounded, his wife was an opium addict, pure and simple. Her mother had been her accomplice at covering just how serious Letitia's problem was. Any disruption of her limited world sent her into hysterics-a condition she considered properly feminine.
For six years he'd pleaded with Letitia to live her own life-with him, rather than at her mother's whim.
For six years he'd endured Henrietta's insults and insinuations.
For six years he'd tolerated the domestics the Bancrofts had hired, in this ostentatious house that had never felt like home.
Total silence rang around him. For the first time, he was there by himself, because Mrs. Kirby and Cranks, the butler, were still at the graveside. Gabe swiped at his eyes and started up the grand oak stairway. No time like the present to pack his few belongings.
Time to cut all ties here and be your own man, dammit.
Sighing bitterly, he entered his room, where his staid half-tester reminded him how little conjugal joy he'd known. Something made him pivot on his heel and cross the hall, to the flounced, floral-papered room that still held the scent of Letitia's perfumes ... and her secrets.
When he yanked out the drawer of her elegant rosewood night table, not one flask but four rattled like bones. How much of that stuff had she hidden around the house? How many times a day had she sipped-or guzzled-when she thought the sky was falling?
More often, after she learned of the baby.
His face contorted with the gut- wrenching pain of knowing-as only he and her parents had-that Letitia had taken his unborn child to the grave. Grief drove him to open the doors of her armoire, to glare at gowns that emphasized his wife's nineteen- inch waist-the envy of all her friends. And in her chest of drawers, where the delicate scents of her sachet bags wafted up, he found those blasted corsets that had maintained her perfect profile.
Gabe yearned to rip them apart with his bare hands ... but that would only prove what a demanding madman he was, wouldn't it? What a despicable bastard he'd been for sharing his wife's bed-how often? Why, he could count the times on his fingers ... nights of wifely duty followed by days of cold loathing.
Was that a carriage clattering up the drive? He quickly shut the drawer and then the doors of the armoire. As he reached toward the night table, however, instinct told him to claim a last memento of his marriage: her diary, with a cover of deep green velvet and a lock that mocked him. Gabe retreated to his room, still wondering why he had to sneak around in his own house ...
But it was never really yours, was it? They merely allowed you to sleep and take your meals here.
The sonorous chiming of the doorbell surprised him. The domestics always entered through the kitchen, while Arthur and Henrietta would never have rung the bell because they had a key. Certainly no one had come to offer him condolences-he'd made few friends who weren't connected to Letitia's parents.
So who could it be? Should he pretend he wasn't home? By all rights, he should still be at the cemetery accepting words of stiff pity.
"Gabriel? Gabriel, are you here, dear?"
The familiar female voice ascended to his room as surely as its owner would if he didn't answer. He slipped the diary into his top dresser drawer and gathered his courage: accepting the sympathy of his few real friends would be the most difficult part of this ordeal. Best to greet the headmistress of the Academy for Young Ladies and get past the awkwardness of this condolence call before they had an audience. How like Miss Vanderbilt to try the door; to give his grief a higher priority than waiting for the butler's return.
Gabe straightened his tie and stood taller: Agatha Vanderbilt was a stickler for a tidy appearance. But as he descended the stairs and saw her snowy upswept hair, prim gray suit, and compassionate gaze, formalities melted. "Miss Vanderbilt! How nice of you to stop by."
"That was the most ludicrous, indecent display of cruelty I have ever witnessed, Gabe." Her voice resonated sharply in the high-ceilinged vestibule as her expression softened. "I'm so sorry for your loss. And sorrier still that you've endured that woman's tongue and interference all during your marriage."
He stopped halfway down the stairs. He felt like a little boy who desperately needed his mama, and when the headmistress opened her arms, he rushed into them. She came only to his shoulder, yet Gabe felt this powerful woman's embrace filling him with her love and light and strength. He could certainly use those things. "Thank you so much. I-"
"Your room is clean and ready at the academy, should you care to live there again. For as long as you need to."
His mouth fell open. How like Miss Vanderbilt to know exactly what he needed, and offer it without wasting words or expecting anything in return.
"That's the best idea I've heard today." He tightened his arms around her, noticing how robust she felt compared to the woman he'd held these past six years. Such an unfair situation, that his wife had trussed herself so tightly ... starved herself for approval and the kind of love he apparently couldn't give her.
"It was kind of you to come to the funeral. Letitia gloried in the years she spent in your school."
"Too bad she didn't learn anything that really mattered." The little woman sighed sadly. "Who cares that the table is perfectly set and the linens properly folded, if those in the home are constantly at odds. Or ... unwell? This might not be the proper thing to say-"
"I've never heard you utter an inappropriate word, Miss Vanderbilt."
"-but as her teacher, I suspected Letitia had ... habits that would take over her life. She was a sweet, biddable girl from a prosperous family, but she had absolutely no sense of herself." The headmistress sighed, carefully considering her words. "She was too concerned with pleasing her parents-or being the envy of her friends-to know who she was. Letitia thought of life as a mirror, and it was never herself she saw there. Always a reflection of someone else's expectations."
What an astute observation! From his perspective-always at a distance, even when she stood beside him-Gabe had imagined marionette strings attached to Letitia's dainty limbs and firmly fastened to her mother's hands.
Miss Vanderbilt sighed sadly. "Here I am rambling on like an old maid school teacher when you've had your heart broken and your entire life shattered. Forgive me, Gabe."
Her brown eyes gazed directly at him-there was never any sidestepping the headmistress. Though she hadn't been his classroom teacher, she'd been a guardian angel who'd seen his need for a professional apprenticeship when no one else could introduce him to the right people.
"Nothing to forgive," he replied. "You handed me the opportunity of a lifetime, recommending me to Arthur while providing a room-"
"I've often wondered if I really did you any favors, dear. Perhaps if I'd warned you about Henrietta's meddling, or Letitia's-"
"I wouldn't have heard you. I was too dumbstruck by her beauty to see the thorns that came with the rose."
She smiled ruefully. "Well stated. Letitia had an ethereal charm that enthralled us all, even when we knew it might be her downfall." Miss Vanderbilt gazed around the vestibule then, taking in the mahogany credenza and the prism lamps that glowed in the gilt- framed mirror. "Did I surmise correctly that you'll be leaving the law firm, as well?"
"I don't see any way to continue working with Arthur, when-"
"His loss. And his fault, too," she asserted with a nod of her head. "Had he stood up for himself-stood up for you!-and for your right to a real marriage, many unfortunate situations could've been avoided.
"You can think this over, Gabriel, as you'll have better offers, but I'd be pleased to hire you as an instructor at the academy," she continued firmly. "Your command of the language and the law would be a welcome addition to-"
"But only girls go there! And teach there!" Gabe pointed out.
"Perhaps that's an oversight on my part," she responded softly. "My girls would benefit from the presence of a strong, upstanding male during their formative years. A man who would teach them the academics and serve as a model for the kind of mate they'd best be attracting, as well."
"Why ... thank you," he breathed. "I believe that's the highest compliment anyone's ever paid me."
"High time. But mind you, Gabriel, I'll understand if you'd rather remain in your profession than subject yourself to my students," she said warmly. "You wouldn't be among total strangers, however. Grace Malloy is one of our graduates this term-"
"Gracie? But she was just a little girl at my wedding!" He smiled for the first time in days. "Of course she's grown up in the past six years. I've done some of that myself."
Miss Vanderbilt smiled. "And after Lily graduated, she became my personal assistant at the academy. She's a wonderful chaplain and advisor for the girls. Close to them in age, yet a shining example of using one's God- given talents."
"Yes, Lily always had an angelic glow about her," he murmured.
Empty and forlorn as he felt, returning to his room at the academy ... overhearing the twitter of girlish laughter and shared secrets ... sounded like a party, compared to the oppression he'd known in this grand mansion.
But he had loose ends to tie up before he could make any decisions about his future. It might be awhile before he could offer students at the Academy for Young Ladies the sort of leadership they needed, for Miss Vanderbilt's school maintained a high academic and social standard. If he decided to teach, there'd be no pulling out to practice law again. "I can't thank you enough for such a kind offer."
"I never proffer positions out of kindness, Gabriel. It benefits no one if I create positions that don't improve my academy and curriculum." Her smile warmed his weary heart as she grasped his hands. "Take your time. With the current term near its end, you wouldn't be assuming your duties until fall.
"And no matter what you decide," she went on softly, "I hope you'll allow yourself time to grieve and recover from Letitia's untimely passing. You've endured more than any of us can imagine."
As the door closed behind her, Gabe caved in to emotions he hadn't foreseen: anguish, yes, but relief and hope, as well! Having someplace to go-worthwhile work in his future-made dissolving his partnership with Arthur Bancroft far less excruciating. More importantly, he'd be surrounded by compassionate friends who truly cared about him. While living this life of social and professional privilege had seemed like a promotion from his humble youth, Gabe craved the companionship of everyday people. People who lived simply and loved deeply.
Mopping his face with his sleeve, he returned to his room to pack. Except for his clothing and books, little in this house really belonged to him. Letitia and her mother had chosen the furnishings, the china-all the accoutrements befitting the home of a coddled daughter. He emptied his armoire quickly, dropped his personal effects into a valise, and then gathered his legal tomes from the small study adjacent to his room.
Such a modest pile of boxes and two trunks ... so little to show for six years of marriage and his partnership with Letitia's father. Yet it felt good to walk away unencumbered. Beholden to no one.
He loaded his belongings into the smallest carriage and silently thanked Billy Bristol for teaching him how to hitch up horses when they were kids. As the last rays of afternoon sunlight streaked the manicured lawn, Gabe Getty pulled away with a tired sigh. He stopped the horse at the end of the driveway for a final look back.
"Good-bye, Letitia," he whispered, choking on those words. "You'll never know how different things might've been ... how I loved you so much I wanted to die right along with you and our child. I ... I hope you've found your peace at last."
Excerpted from Gabriel's Lady by Charlotte Hubbard Copyright © 2008 by Charlotte Hubbard. Excerpted by permission.
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