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No, no, no. I won't do it." Ruth Fox glared at her younger sister Jen. "We have enough to do without chasing after rich men." She glanced at the dress shop's clock before pressing another seam on Mrs. Vanderloo's tea gown. The wealthy client wanted her dresses by five o'clock, and Ruth was running late.
"But think how it would help Daddy." Jen, perched on a stool at the worktable, twirled a pincushion between her hands while their youngest sister, Minnie, hung on every word. "Three daughters at home costs money. If even one of us married a wealthy man, we could help Daddy get the treatment he needs."
"Yes, we could," Minnie echoed. Ruth's baby sister would go along with anything Jen suggested, no matter how ridiculous, and this went far beyond ridiculous.
Ruth finger-pressed the next seam and reached for a hot iron off the old stove. On hot summer days, she wished for an electric iron, but those cost money, and every cent was needed for the hospital. "You could best help by basting that blouse for me."
Naturally, Jen ignored her request. Of all the sisters, she possessed the least skill and interest in sewing. Her dreams leaned more toward the adventurous, like flying airplanes.
Jen plunked the pincushion down on the worktable. "You heard the doctors. Daddy needs that electrical treatment."
"Whatever they call it. The point is it'll cost more. After this latest episode " Jen's voice drifted off in concern. "Did you see the look on Mother's face? And then she left for the sanitarium that very afternoon. It's bad, isn't it?"
Ruth had to stop this conversation from escalating into hysteria. "We don't know that."
"Because no one tells us anything." Jen crossed her arms. "Do they think we can't figure it out? We're grown women. Tell me the truth, Ruthie. Mother left you in charge. I saw you looking through the ledger last night. We don't have the money for the treatment, do we?"
Ruth hesitated. It hadn't taken her long to discover they were deep in debt, but revealing that fact would serve no good purpose. "I'm sure Daddy and Mother have taken care of everything."
Jen looked doubtful.
"Even if they haven't," Ruth added before Minnie picked up her sister's pessimism, "it doesn't mean we need to hound rich men. There are more reliable ways to make money."
"It would take twenty years to earn it on our wages," Jen countered, "and Daddy needs the money now. That's why marrying into wealth is such a good idea. You heard the story of Nurse Walker when we last visited Daddy.
How her patient Mr. Cornelius fell in love with her and paid off all her debts?"
Ruth hated to admit the story had tumbled around in her head, too.
"He was rich." Minnie's eyes lit with excitement. "From oil."
"Automobiles," Jen corrected. "But it doesn't matter how he made his money. What we need to do is find our own Mr. Cornelius."
Ruth shook her head. "That was just a story. Even if it is true, that sort of thing only happens once in a lifetime."
"No, it doesn't." Minnie fairly quivered with excitement. "I know someone just like Mr. Cornelius. Mr. Brandon Landers helped Mrs. Simmons when he fell in love with Anna."
"That's not the same," Ruth said, though in some ways it was. The man had given Anna and her mother a home when they lost theirs. In time, he fell in love with Anna and married her. Anna's mother still lived in the guest cottage on the Landers estate right here in Pearlman. "He married Anna for love, not money."
"I love his brother, Reggie, and in time Reggie will love me," Minnie insisted. "It'll be just like Mr. Cornelius and Miss Walker."
Ruth would never understand her baby sister. After initially shying away from the college man, she had developed a crush on him. This plan of Jen's provided just the vehicle to encourage Minnie's fancy for a man who didn't deserve her.
"Mother and Daddy would never let you marry at your age," Ruth cautioned.
"Eighteen is old enough. Plenty of girls my age are engaged, and some already married. I wouldn't want to wait forever, like "
Though Minnie stopped before uttering the hurtful words, Ruth knew her sister meant her. Ruth had never had a beau, never danced with a man and never experienced a romantic kiss. Oh, she longed for it all. A home. A family of her own. A good Christian husband, poor but hardworking. A man who wouldn't mind a plain wife with poor eyesight. Countless tearful prayers had been sent heavenward, but at twenty-six, she was a spinster.
Minnie was right about girls here marrying young, but she didn't understand that a man didn't love you simply because you loved him. That applied doubly to rich, handsome men. The wounds they inflicted lasted a lifetime.
Ruth attacked the seam with the iron.
"I'm sorry, Ruthie," Minnie said with a sob. "I didn't mean anything by it. But can't you see? Daddy needs our help, and this is the perfect solution."
"We are already helping by taking care of the shop and house and praying for him." Yet as Daddy's heart grew weaker, Ruth feared the small contribution they made would never be enough. But marry for money? That road led to nothing but heartache, as their oldest sister could testify. Beatrice had married the heir to the biggest fortune in town, yet she'd confided to Ruth that her marriage was struggling.
Jen drummed her fingers on the tabletop. "Any little bit would help. Even if we can't marry into wealth, at least we wouldn't be living at home anymore. Daddy wouldn't have to feed and clothe us. Any decent husband would help pay for the treatments."
As Jen ticked off the benefits of her idea, Ruth paused in her pressing, iron held high so it wouldn't scorch the delicate georgette crepe. Her sister had a point. None of them brought in much from their part-time jobs. The dress shop had lost clients. Maybe marriage was the only answer.
Unfortunately, no man would look twice at plain old Ruth. Jen dashed around in trousers half the time, discouraging all but the most forward-thinking man. That left Minnie, and Ruth couldn't abide the thought of her baby sister marrying that idler Reggie Landers.
Ruth pushed up her spectacles and set down the heavy iron. "There must be a better way to help Daddy. It's not as if we can walk up to a man and ask him to marry us."
Jen tossed her head. "Don't be ridiculous. We'll come up with a plan of attack."
"A plan of attack? You make it sound like a military maneuver." Ruth shook her head. Sometimes Jen behaved more like a boy than the lady she ought to be.
A scorched smell tickled her nostrils. The iron! In her inattention, she'd set it down. She jerked it up. Thank goodness, the silk hadn't burned.
"I made a list of eligible bachelors." Jen produced a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket. With a great show, she smoothed it out on the tabletop.
Ruth fought a wave of panic. "No man wants to feel like he's being hunted."
"But it's all right for them to pursue us," Jen pointed out before addressing her list. "Gil Vanderloo is home from college. He asked me to dance once. A definite possibility. You could ask about him when you drop off the dresses."
"I will do no such thing." Through the open windows, Ruth heard the church bells ring the five-o'clock hour. "Oh, dear. Mrs. Vanderloo wanted her gowns before five so she could dress for her garden party. You've made me late with all this silly talk."
She finished the last seam and slid the dress onto a hanger to cool. She plunked a plain straw hat on her head and jabbed a hatpin through the loose bun of fine blond hair at the nape of her neck. Gloves, gloves Where were her gloves? She dashed around the shop looking for them while her sisters reviewed Jen's list. If she weren't already frantic, the whispers would have driven her mad.
"I don't have time for this nonsense." Ruth grabbed the pasteboard carton she used to protect garments against dirt but hesitated. Even this short distance could wrinkle the gowns, and Mrs. Vanderloo didn't have time to iron them out. Considering the weather had cleared after this morning's rain and few clouds now graced the sky, she decided to risk going without. What could happen in a few blocks?
She grabbed the hangers and held the dresses high so their hems didn't brush the ground. Once out the door, she'd loosely drape them over her other arm and pray they didn't crease.
Before leaving, she directed her sisters to close the shop. Without waiting for confirmation, Ruth pushed backward through the door, turned and crashed into something very solid. The impact staggered her, and in a desperate attempt to regain her balance, she dropped the hangers.
"Hello, there." The rich baritone voice came with strong hands that caught her by the shoulders and prevented a spill.
She'd run into a mana very tall man. A stranger, no less. An extremely handsome stranger who at that very moment still held her shoulders. Ruth swallowed hard as she looked up at his impressive height. Goodness! He practically scraped the sky, but the effort was worth it. He looked as if he'd stepped out of a moving-picture show in his meticulously tailored suit. Clean-cut and dark-haired, he exuded the confidence and charm of the fashionable set. From the expensive silk necktie and jaunty fedora to the polished black shoes, every inch of him advertised his wealth.
And she'd just plowed into him.
"Are you all right?" His voice did sound kind.
Ruth drew in a shaky breath, far too conscious of the hands he'd just removed from her shoulders. My, he was handsome! An exotic yet comfortingly familiar scent enveloped him. She breathed in deeply. Bergamot. That was it. The scent reminded her of a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea. Who was this man, and why did his touch send a shiver down her spine on such a hot day? He must think her either careless or a fool. Or half-blind. As she adjusted her glasses, the taunts of her childhood schoolmates came to mind. Goofy Ruthie. Frog eyes.
"I'm sorry." She averted her gaze. "I wasn't watching where I was going."
"The fault's mine. I wasn't paying attention."
He was apologizing? She risked another glance at the exceedingly handsome man.
His lips curved into a wry smile. "Sorry about your dresses."
Dresses? She smoothed her skirt. Oh, dear, she'd worn a plain old dress that was years out of style and fraying at the cuffs. "I'm all right."
"I meant the ones you dropped." He bent, and she followed his outstretched arm to the horrifying sight of Mrs. Vanderloo's tea gowns floating in a mud puddle.
She clamped a hand over her mouth, but it couldn't stop the strangulated cry that shot up her throat. Already she was late, and now Mrs. Vanderloo's expensive dresses were ruined. This could cost the shop dearly.
He lifted the gowns with one hand and brushed at the mud on them with the other.
"Stop!" she cried. "You'll only make it worse."
"I'm afraid it's too late." He turned the dresses so she could see the damage.
Her eyes blurred with tears. The ivory georgette bore a streak of dirty brown, and the mint-green lace gown looked as if an entire pot of coffee had been dumped on it. For years Mrs. Vanderloo had been one of the shop's best customers, but lately she'd gone from ordering new dresses to bringing in ready-made frocks for alterations. Each time she complained about the bill. Each time she threatened never to bring another gown to them. This would be the proverbial last straw. The shop couldn't stand to lose more customers.
She gulped. "They're ruined."
"They're just dresses."
"Just dresses? They're not just dresses. They're tea gowns. Expensive ones. What will I do?" She pressed her hands to her face, nauseated at the thought of how much this would cost.
"I'm sorry," he said more gently. "I wasn't thinking of their value. Let me help. Since the whole thing is my fault, I'll replace them. Is there a store in town that sells comparable gowns?"
Ruth shook her head.
"Then let me bring you some catalogs tomorrow."
"No!" Even though Mrs. Vanderloo had bought these from a catalog, she would insist Ruth replicate them exactly, using the same or better materials at no charge.
His forehead furrowed. "I assure you that the catalogs are from the finest stores. Select any gowns you wish. Cost doesn't matter."
If cost didn't matter, then he must indeed be rich.
"Nonsense." He held the unmarred sleeve of the georgette gown next to her arm. "If I may make a suggestion, I'd choose a different color. Ivory doesn't suit your fair complexion. Rose would better bring out the color in your cheeks."
"But" Ruth began to protest that the dresses weren't hers when the peculiarity of his statement struck her. Few men could tell rose from blush. To most, both were pink. Yet this stranger clearly knew the full range of colors and hues. "Are you an artist? It's not every day that I meet a man who understands color."
He laughed. "Who doesn't like a little color? Don't worry. I'll set things right. What do you say? Will you let me buy the dresses?"
The offer was incredible, especially when Ruth was to blame. "That's not necessary"
"Of course it is. We'll get two that highlight your fine features."
"But you don't understand. The dresses aren't mine. You see, I'm a seamstress, and these belong to a customer. I was supposed to deliver them before five o'clock so she'd have them for her garden party tonight." Ruth broke off, acutely aware that she'd started blathering.
The man glanced at the Fox Dress Shop sign over the door, and a look of dismay crossed his face before he reined it in with a taut smile. "Then I'll let your client choose the replacements."
"You would do that?" Ruth tried to wrap her mind around such generosity. "But it isn't your fault, and Mrs. Vanderloo is quite particular."
The corners of his eyes crinkled in a way that suggested he smiled often. "Of course she is. But together we can persuade her that it's to her best advantage to accept the replacements."
Together? He was going to go to Mrs. Vanderloo's house with her?
She must have been standing with her mouth agape, because that smile of his turned into a grin.
"I ran into you," he said. "It's only fair that I offer the apology." He extended an arm. "Shall we?"
Ruth couldn't breathe. This handsome, wealthy stranger wanted to escort her down Main Street in front of everyone. No man had ever done that, and this one didn't even know her. Such a thing was not done. Tongues would wag. Ruth pressed her hands to her hot cheeks and pretended to check her hat in the window. Behind her, the stranger still held the dresses, and inside the shop her sisters grinned like monkeys.
They thought she was flirting.
She whirled away from the window and straight into the arms of the handsome man. Oh, no! She'd done it again.
"I'm sorry." She backed away, her face blazing hot. "I didn't realize you were standing so close. II was just checking my hat." She patted it for emphasis.
The elegant suit, the gold cuff links, the silk handkerchief. A man like him would never be interested in a wallflower like her.
"You look quite presentable." His easy smile warmed her in the most unnerving way.
It was just a compliment, she told herself. Nothing more. She was the one who'd let reason fly away on the wind. No doubt Jen's ridiculous marriage idea had precipitated such lunacy. He just happened to match her criteria exactly. What if ? Ruth shook her head. Instead of fantasizing about relationships that could never happen, she should concentrate on the business at hand.
Mrs. Vanderloo was her customer. Ruth should handle the situation alone, but the man's offer of two new dresses might appease the difficult client. The dress shop couldn't afford to lose her business. Ruth had no choice but to accept. Of course, she would pay him back for the gowns. That should settle the matter.
"All right. I accept." She might have to concede that point, but she didn't need to take his arm. "I'd better lead the way."