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There was so much light, and Alexandra hesitated, confused.
"Alex…andra?" her mother whispered from the bed.
Gold-and-burgundy wallpaper adorned the walls, and dark draperies were closed over the bedroom's two windows. The bureau was a dark, rich mahogany, as was the bed, and the bedding was wine and gold. The room's single armchair was a dark, intense red. Yet the light within almost blinded her. "I am here, Mother," she whispered back.
And then, because Elizabeth Bolton was dying and would not last another night, because she had wasted away from the cancer eating at her, because she was so frail and weak now that she could barely see, much less hear, Alexandra hurried forward. She held back the tears. She hadn't cried, not even once, not even when her father had told her that her mother had a terrible and fatal disease. It hadn't been a shock. Elizabeth had been fading away before Alexandra and her younger sisters' eyes for months. Being the eldest—all of seventeen—meant she had to hold the family together now in this crisis.
Alexandra rushed to her mother's side, her heart clenching as she looked at her gaunt, unrecognizable face and frame. Elizabeth had been so beautiful, so lively, so alive. She was only thirty-eight years old now, but she looked ninety.
Alexandra sat, reaching for her thin, frail hands. "Father said you wished to see me, Mother. What can I get you? Do you want a sip of water?"
Elizabeth smiled wanly, lying prone on the large bed, dwarfed by the pillows behind her, the blankets over her. "Angels," she whispered. "Can you see them?"
Alexandra felt the tears rise. She batted her lashes furiously. Her mother needed her, as did her two sisters, who were only seven and nine. Father needed her, too—though he was locked in the library with his gin. But now she understood the odd light in the room, and the equally strange warmth. "I can't see them, but I can feel them. Are you afraid?"
Elizabeth shook her head ever so slightly, and just as slightly, her grasp on Alexandra's hands increased. "I don't…want to go, Alexandra. The girls…are so young."
It was hard to hear her, so Alexandra leaned even closer to her mother's face. "We don't want you to leave us, but you'll be with the angels now, Mother." Somehow she managed to smile. "I am going to take care of Olivia and Corey—you needn't worry. I will take care of Father, too."
She laid her cheek against her mother's bony face. "I promise. You have done everything for this family, you have been its guiding light, its rock and its anchor, and I will do everything for Father and the girls now. We will be fine. They will be fine." But it didn't feel as if anything would ever be fine again.
"I am so proud…of you," Elizabeth whispered.
Alexandra had straightened so they could look into one another's eyes. She was the oldest, the firstborn, with years separating her and her two younger sisters, and she and her mother had always been close. Elizabeth had taught Alexandra how to manage the household, how to entertain and how to dress for tea or for a ball. She had taught her how to bake cinnamon cookies and how to make lemonade. She had shown her how to smile, even when upset, and how to behave with grace and dignity, no matter the occasion. She had shown her the true power of love, of family, of diligence and respect.
Alexandra knew her mother was proud of her. Just as she knew she could not bear this last moment with her. "Don't worry about the girls or Father. I will take good care of them."
"I know." Elizabeth smiled sadly and fell silent. And it took Alexandra a full moment to realize that her eyes had become sightless.
She gasped, hard, the intense pain blinding her. The tears finally overflowed, even as she fought them. She grasped her mother's hands more firmly and lay down beside her, already missing her acutely, the pain unbearable now, and that was how her fiancé, Owen, found her.
"Alexandra." He gently lifted her to her feet.
She met his concerned, searching gaze and let him guide her from the death room. It was dark and somber now—the warm light long gone. In the hall, he held her for a long time. Alexandra let him, even as her heart broke all over again.
Because she knew what she must do.
Owen was her best friend, her one and only true love, but that didn't matter now.
"Why are you looking at me that way?" he asked, eyes wide.
She clasped his beautiful cheek. "I love you, Owen."
He was alarmed. "You are in shock. This is the time to grieve."
She began shaking her head. "I can't marry you, Owen. I told her I would take care of this family, and I meant it. My life is no longer my own. I can't marry you, I can't be your wife, or the mother of your children. I can't. I have to take care of my sisters." And in that moment, she knew it was the truth and was overwhelmed by the turn her life had taken.
"Alexandra!" he cried. "Allow yourself a period of mourning. I will wait for you. I love you, and we will get through this together."
But she pulled away, the hardest thing she had ever done. "No, Owen. Everything has changed. Corey and Olivia need me, and so does Father."
"I am going to wait for you," he warned, and tears glistened on his lashes.
There were no choices now. She would hold the family together, no matter what it meant or what it took. "Goodbye, Owen," she said.
"I can no longer afford you," the Baron of Edgemont said.
Alexandra Bolton stared in some surprise at her grim, rather disheveled father. He had just summoned her and her two younger sisters into the small, shabby library where he occasionally looked at the estate's books. Oddly, he seemed sober—and it was almost half past four in the afternoon. What did he mean, exactly? "I know how precarious our finances are," she said, but her smile was reassuring. "I am taking in additional sewing, Father, and I should be able to earn an extra pound every week."
Her father made a discouraging sound. "You are exactly like your mother. She was tireless, Alexandra, tireless in her efforts to reassure me—right up until the day of her death." He walked away, his posture slumped, and took his seat behind his equally worn and tired desk. It was crooked. One leg needed repair.
Alexandra was becoming vaguely alarmed. She had been doing her best to hold the family together ever since Elizabeth Bolton had died—no easy task, considering her father's terrible penchant for gaming and whiskey, which only their mother had been able to restrain. The last time her father had asked her and her two younger sisters into the library, it had been to tell them that their mother was fatally ill. Of course, Elizabeth had been fading before their very eyes. The news had been heart wrenching, but not a surprise.
Elizabeth had died nine years ago. Since then, her father had lost all self-restraint. He did not even try to refrain from his bad habits. Corey was tempestuous by nature, and did as she pleased when away from Alexandra's watchful eyes. Olivia had withdrawn into her world of watercolors and pastels, and although she seemed content, Alexandra despaired. She herself had given up true love to take care of them all. But there were no regrets.
"Someone must be cheerful," she said with a firm smile. "We may be short on funds, but we have a fine home, even if it could use some repairs, and we have clothes on our backs and food on the table. Our situation could be worse."
Corey, who was only sixteen, choked. After all, every rug in the house was threadbare, the walls needed paint and plaster, and the draperies were literally falling apart. The grounds were as bad, for their staff had been reduced to one manservant and the gardener let go last year. Their London townhome had been sold, but Edgemont Way was within an hour's drive of Greenwich, fortunately or not.
Alexandra decided to ignore her rather reckless, very outspoken and terribly beautiful little sister. "Father? Your demeanor is worrying me." And he was not yet foxed. He was always foxed well before noon. What did this turn mean? She couldn't be hopeful. She knew he had no reason to try to change his dissolute ways.
The baron sighed. "My last line of credit has been squashed."
Her unease escalated. Like most of their peers, they lived on rents and credit. But her father's obsession with gambling had forced him to sell off their tenant farms, one by one, and there were only two tenants left. Those rents might have been enough to support the family if he didn't game compulsively almost every single night. But he did game excessively and obsessively, so within a few years of their mother's death, Alexandra had turned her love for sewing into a source of income for them, though it was, at times, humiliating. The very women they had once enjoyed teas and dinner parties with were now her customers. Lady Lewis enjoyed personally handing over her torn and damaged garments, while making a huge fuss at how "sloppy" the repairs were upon their return. Alexandra always smiled and apologized. She was actually excellent with a thread and needle, and until the downturn, she had enjoyed sewing and embroidery. Now, given a choice, she doubted she would ever thread a needle again.
But they did have clothes on their backs, a roof over their heads and food on the table. Their clothes were out of fashion and well mended, the roof leaked when it stormed, and their diet was generally limited to bread, vegetables and potatoes, with red meat on Sundays. But that was better than nothing at all.
And her sisters did not recall a time of luncheons and balls. Alexandra was grateful for that.
But how would they get on without credit? "I will take in more sewing," she said, determined.
"How can you take on more sewing? You are already up all night with the customers you have," Corey shot back. "You have calluses on your thumbs!"
Corey was right, and Alexandra knew it. She was only one person, and she simply couldn't manage more work, unless she forwent any sleep at all.
"Last summer Lord Henredon asked me if I would paint his portrait. I refused," Olivia said quietly. While Corey was a true golden blonde, Olivia was that indistinct shade that was neither blond nor brown, but she was also very pretty. "But I could offer my services to the shire as a portrait artist. I think I could make quite a few pounds within a very short time."
Alexandra stared at her middle sister, dismayed. Her sisters' happiness meant everything to her. "You are a naturalist," she said softly. "You despise doing portraits." But there was more. She knew that Henredon had made improper remarks to Olivia, and improper advances would no doubt have followed. Henredon was known for his gallivanting ways.
"It is a good idea," Olivia returned as quietly, steel in her green eyes.
"I am hoping it will not come to that," Alexandra said, meaning it. She was afraid her good-natured sister would be taken advantage of in many ways.
"I doubt that will be necessary, Olivia," Edgemont said. He turned to Alexandra. "How old are you?"
Alexandra was mildly confused by her father's odd question. "I am twenty-six."
The baron flushed. "I thought you were younger, maybe twenty-four. But you're still an attractive woman, Alexandra, and you keep a fine household, in spite of our means, so you will be the first—to show your sisters proper respect."
Tension began to knot in her stomach, but she kept a firm smile in place. "I will be the first to do what, Father?" she asked with care.
"To marry, of course. It's high time, don't you think?"
Alexandra was disbelieving. "There's no money for a dowry."
"I am aware of that," Edgemont snapped. "I am very aware of that, Alexandra. Despite that, an inquiry has been made about you."
Alexandra pulled a chair close and sat down. Was Edgemont mad? No one would ever consider marrying an impoverished spinster of her age. Everyone in town knew of her "profession," just as everyone knew that Edgemont gambled and drank every possible night away. The truth was that the good Bolton name was seriously tainted. "Are you serious, Father?"
He smiled eagerly now. "Squire Denney approached me last night to ask after you—and to enquire if he could call."
Alexandra was so surprised that she sat up straight, causing her chair to rock on its uneven legs. Was there a chance of marriage, after all this time? And for the first time in years, she thought of Owen St. James, the man she had given her heart to so long ago.
"You know him, of course," her father continued, smiling at her. "You sewed his late wife's garments for several years. He has come out of mourning now, and apparently you made a considerable impression upon him."
Alexandra knew she must not think of Owen now, or of the hopes and dreams they had once shared. She recalled the squire, a rather stately older man who had always been polite and respectful to her. She did not know him well, but his wife had been a valuable customer. She had been saddened for him when his wife had passed away. But now she did not know what to think.
She trembled. When she had given up the idea of marriage nine years ago, they had still been a family with respectable means. But they had been reduced almost to abject poverty now. The squire was landed and wealthy. Marriage to him could improve their circumstances, their lives.
"He must be sixty years old," Corey gasped, paling.
"He is an older man, but he is very well-off, and he is only fifty, Corey. Alexandra will have a closet full of the latest gowns. You will like that, won't you?" He turned to her, brows raised. "He has a fine manor house. He has a carriage and a brougham."
Alexandra started, gathering up her wits. She had a suitor—one with means. Yes, he was an older man, but he had always been kind, and if he was inclined toward generosity, he could be a savior for their family. She thought again of Owen and his courtship, and she was saddened. She must put Owen out of her mind. Squire Denney's suit was flattering, and more than that, it was a boon. At her age, in her circumstances, she could not expect more.