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By JANE GOODGER ZEBRA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Jane Goodger
All right reserved.
Chapter One Newport, Rhode Island, 1892
"I was thinking of a Christmas wedding," her mother said, as casually as if she were ordering consommé for luncheon from cook.
Elizabeth suppressed a gasp. Her mother detested any show of defiance, but she simply could not allow this. "I haven't even met him, Mother." Remarkable how calm she could be when she wanted to scream.
Alva Cummings pursed her lips and placed her correspondence to the side, a sign of her extreme displeasure. Each morning, Elizabeth had to suffer an audience with her mother, a tedious and cutting recounting of her performance the previous day. And today, it seemed, they were again talking about Elizabeth's marriage to the ninth Duke of Bellingham. "As you know, whether you have met His Grace or not is of little consequence. Instead of arguing with me, you should be thanking me. You will be a duchess. Think of it. A duchess."
But all Elizabeth could think of was Henry, the only man she would ever love. Something in her face must have betrayed her thoughts, for her mother turned her full attention to her nineteen-year-old daughter.
"Sit up straight, Elizabeth. Must you always slouch?"
Elizabeth pulled her body impossibly tighter.
"As a duchess you will be looked upon by everyone as setting the standard for behavior. Despite your averagelooks," she said cruelly, "the duke has agreed to visit us in Newport where I expect he will propose. And you will agree. I cannot fathom your complete selfishness in this regard. You know your father would benefit immensely and yet you continue to resist this and all other attempts we have made to raise your position in society."
Elizabeth stared at her mother. "My position?" she asked, so angry she told herself she didn't care if she raised her mother's ire. But of course she did, and when her mother's eyes hardened to crystal, her entire body was shot with fear.
"You ungrateful little girl. Yes. Your position. This match is coveted by every mother-and daughter-here and in England. It is what we have worked on, hoped for, prayed for. And you can sit there and whine to me because your childish heart has been foolishly given to a fortune hunter. It's disgusting and beneath you, Elizabeth."
"He is a good man," she said softly.
"He is a scoundrel. He has had numerous affairs with several married women and it is common knowledge that he has been on the hunt for an heiress for years. And there is rumor of madness in the family. A second cousin or such. And I won't have any mad grandchildren."
Elizabeth shut her mother out, knowing it was all lies. The best thing for her to do now was pretend to be an obedient daughter, even though her heart sang with a rebellion so strong she could hardly contain it. "I don't wish to talk about this any longer," Elizabeth said.
"Nor do I. Then it is settled." Her mother glared at her as if she could somehow see the secrets in her heart.
"It is," Elizabeth said, knowing she was not lying. For in her heart, her life was settled, though it wasn't the life her mother was envisioning. Henry was the only man she would marry, and if the Duke of Bellingham came to Newport and asked to marry her she would simply decline. For now, though, it would be better to appease her mother, to keep her secret safe in her heart. She would marry Henry, for he had asked and she had agreed.
They had been bike riding in New York on Riverside Drive with her two best friends and their mothers, as well as Henry and two other young men. Already her mother had suspected Henry's interest in her and tried to discourage it, but it was far too late. Two weeks before, Elizabeth and Henry rode ahead, hearts racing, faces alight with mischievousness as they left the others behind, ignoring her mother's shrill voice urging them to slow down.
They'd stopped, out of breath and laughing. "Marry me, Elizabeth. We'll elope before your mother can protest. Don't say a word to anyone. We'll manage it somehow. Say yes, my love."
Elizabeth wanted to throw her arms around Henry and dance about with him, but her mother was coming near, her face red with the exertion of trying to catch up with the two. They spoke in hurried whispers, for the Cummings were leaving for Newport the very next day. "Yes. Yes, I will. Oh, Henry, I'm so happy."
"Nothing could keep me away from you. I'll follow you to Newport in one week," he'd said, his handsome face shining with happiness. He'd cut such a dashing figure that day with his Panama hat and white suit. Elizabeth didn't know a woman, other than her mother, whose heart didn't pick up a beat at the mere sight of him.
When her mother arrived, they tried to stop smiling, but they were both so happy, Elizabeth knew her mother suspected something, if not the whole truth. And that likely explained the painful meeting she'd just had with her.
They'd been in Newport two weeks now. Elizabeth hated it here, had been a virtual prisoner with her mother as the uncompromising warden. She'd not been allowed to accept a single invitation to a ball or picnic, and instead sweltered in her room that didn't even have a view of the Atlantic Ocean. Her windows were so high, they let in light but little else. But despite everything, once she was away from her mother and back in her room, she could smile again, she could think of Henry, remember how he looked, how she could tell he'd wanted to kiss her when they'd made their plans. Everything would be fine. Once the wedding was done, her mother would have to forgive her. And if she didn't that would be fine, too.
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around herself and walked to a small table where she kept her portable rosewood writing desk, and wondered if she could dare write a letter to Henry. The footmen had been instructed not to allow her to leave the house, not even to walk around the beautiful grounds that swept down to the sea.
"Where are you?" she whispered, writing Henry's name over and over before crumpling the paper up. It wouldn't do for a maid to find the revealing paper, then show it to her mother. Henry had said he'd come to visit her. He'd said he'd write. Two weeks had passed since their engagement and she hadn't heard a thing.
A quiet knock she recognized as her governess drew her away from her tortured thoughts. One look at Susan's face and Elizabeth knew immediately that something was horribly wrong. Susan's eyes were red-rimmed and her nose bright red from crying.
"Your mother has dismissed me," Susan said, taking a lace-edged handkerchief and angrily dashing away a tear.
"But why?" Elizabeth asked, feeling the shock of those words pierce her.
"She told me I wasn't needed anymore. That you'd be a married woman soon without need of a governess."
It was probably true that Elizabeth, at nineteen, was far too old for a governess, but Susan was more than that and always had been. Susan was one of her dearest friends, the person she trusted most in the world. She was the only one who knew Elizabeth was engaged, who knew she was deeply and forever in love with Henry. Not even her closest friend, Maggie, knew that.
"I'll tell you something your mother swore me not to tell, but it doesn't make any difference now. Not one bit of difference," Susan said bitterly. "Your young man has been to the house every day for a week and your mother has Swanson send him away."
"He has?" Her deep relief that Henry had not forgotten her was immediately followed by the anguish of knowing he'd been sent callously away. And no one had bothered to tell her. The servants' loyalty to Alva was absolute, for they'd seen too many instances of employees sent to the streets for infractions far smaller than flouting her direct orders. Her maid, the footmen who guarded the doors, even Susan may have given her sad looks, but no one had dared countermand her mother.
"And he's written, too. A stack of letters. All burned. I just don't understand your mother, how she can be so cruel. And now I'm sacked. Just like that." She looked nervously at the door as if Alva would materialize. "She doesn't know I'm up here with you, if she did ... I have to go, my dear."
"No," Elizabeth said, panic hitting her hard. She could not lose Susan, not now, not when she needed her more than ever. "I'll talk to my mother. I'll tell her she can't fire you. This is impossible."
"I have to go," Susan said, clearly distressed. "You don't know what she's capable of. Don't cross her, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth felt the blood drain from her face and was suddenly afraid she might actually faint. "What are you saying?"
"You cannot marry Henry. She'll do something awful. You didn't hear what she said to me, how much she's against your marrying anyone but that duke."
Elizabeth shook her head. "But he hasn't asked yet."
"He will," Susan said woodenly. "I have to go. I don't want to. You know that."
Elizabeth threw herself against the older woman, clutching her as if she were her only hope. "Please, Susan," she said. "I'll talk to Mother."
Susan pulled away. "I'll be praying for you." She headed for the door and Elizabeth suppressed a chill that ran down her spine. She'd never known Susan to pray for anything and wondered precisely what she was trying to protect her from.
"Where will you go? How can I reach you?"
"I'll write," she said, but her expression told Elizabeth she was probably unlikely to receive the missive.
"Mark it from my father," Elizabeth said. "She'd never think to cross him."
Susan gave her a small smile, then disappeared through the door.
Elizabeth paced frantically in her room, wondering if she could sneak out of the house during the night to meet with Henry. She didn't know where he was, with whom he was staying, or if he was staying at a hotel. Certainly she couldn't wander about the streets of Newport in the dark calling his name. It was hopeless. Her body throbbed with impotent anger. She had to stop her mother from this madness. She must.
Elizabeth stormed out her door, ready to finally confront her mother. Alva Cummings was still in her drawing room, diligently working on her correspondence, no doubt giving her regrets for dozens of invitations for her daughter. The thought that her mother had most probably read the letters to her from Henry further incensed her.
"Mother, you cannot fire Susan. I will not tolerate it," she said, proud at how forceful she sounded. Her mother didn't even glance up, made not a single motion that she was even aware her daughter was in the room. Elizabeth refused to repeat herself for she knew her mother heard her. The longer she stood facing the silent woman, the more her power drained away, until desperation began seeping past her newfound strength.
"Susan is my friend," she said. "You cannot dismiss her from my life so easily. You cannot."
Alva continued scribbling away, but her face was slightly ruddy, which Elizabeth took as a sign of her anger. Good. She didn't care if she exploded from anger.
"And I'm not marrying the duke. I cannot because I am already promised to another. Henry and I plan to wed-"
"You will not," her mother shouted, standing so abruptly, Elizabeth let out a startled cry. "How dare you make such an agreement without my consent. Or your father's. You have no right."
"We love each other."
Alva's face nearly turned purple. "Have you any idea the sacrifice your father and I have made in order to arrange your marriage to the duke. Do you? Love," she spat. "Marriage has nothing to do with love. And if you think, my dear, that Henry Ellsworth loves anything more than your money, you are very sadly mistaken. I would never allow you to put this family in such a humiliating position. It will not be tolerated. I would have him murdered before I allowed such a man to ruin my daughter's life."
"Get out of my sight. You disgust me," Alva said. Her face was ruddy, but the skin around her lips was stark white. "Get out!"
Elizabeth hurried away from her mother, down a long hall, and to her room where she threw herself onto her bed. Behind her, the door closed, the obvious result of the efficient footman. Two hours later, when she tried to go down for dinner, she was told by the same man that she was not allowed to leave her room and that her meal would be sent up shortly.
Elizabeth whirled around, her eyes frantically going to the high windows that were completely inaccessible. It was almost as if Alva had foreseen the future when she so thoughtfully designed her daughter's oppressive bedroom. It had become her prison.
The next few days were a nightmare for her. Her meals were brought in by servants who dared not say a word to her. The house seemed abnormally quiet, as if someone had died. Indeed, Elizabeth felt as if she were dying inside. How could she go on when her entire life was over? She longed to see Henry, to explain what was happening, to let him know that she loved him still.
On the third day of her isolation, the door opened and her mother's dearest friend, Mrs. William-Smythe walked in. Elizabeth was a mess. She hadn't changed from her nightgown or bothered to brush her auburn hair, even though it was long past noon. What did it matter what happened now? When she saw Mrs. William-Smythe, she felt a glimmer of hope, for she was always such a warm and reasonable woman.
"Elizabeth," she said, her gray eyes taking in her dishabille with slight distaste. "Do you know what you have done to your mother with your callous indifference to her feelings? She has suffered a heart attack, brought on by your ridiculous rebellion. Have you a notion what it means when a daughter literally breaks her mother's heart?"
Despite her anger at her mother, Elizabeth was shocked to hear Alva was ill. She might be angry with her, but despite everything, she loved her and certainly didn't wish her dead. "Is she going to be well?"
"The doctor said it was only a mild attack. This time," the older woman said pointedly. "But if you persist on going against her, she could have another attack, this one fatal. I'm certain you do not want your mother's death on your conscience."
Elizabeth sat down on her bed, her legs no longer able to hold her up. Her life was being sucked from her, her hope drained away by this woman's words. "Of course I don't," she said, looking down at the rich Aubusson carpet at her feet. Then she looked up, her expression tormented. "But is my happiness of so little importance? Should I not have a say in which man I marry?"
"You are far too young to make such an important decision," she said, sounding so much like her mother Elizabeth wondered if Alva had written a script. "If you persist on going against your mother and marrying this man, I have no doubt your mother will be forced into some drastic measure to prevent it. Do you understand what I am saying to you?"
"Yes," Elizabeth said dully, remembering her mother's threat to have Henry murdered. As crazy as it seemed, she was not entirely certain her mother would not have him murdered, so great was her obsession to have her marry a great English title. Mrs. William-Smythe's image blurred in front of her as her eyes filled with tears.
"Then you will agree to marry the duke?"
She blinked the tears away so that she could see the woman clearly when she made her answer.
"Yes. I will marry the duke."
Mrs. William-Smythe smiled as if all were finally right with the world. "I'm so glad you've come to your senses, my dear. I shall go tell your mother the good news. Imagine. A Christmas wedding. She'll be so happy," she gushed.
She left the room, left the girl weeping silently on her bed, and took away any hope Elizabeth had of ever being in love.
Chapter Two England, Four Months Earlier
Randall Blackmore, ninth Duke of Bellingham, stared in disbelief at the letter before him, a letter that instantly solved his problems. One million pounds, an impossible amount of money, would be at his disposal if only he agreed to travel to America and marry a girl he'd never laid eyes on.
It was so damned tempting. As well as humiliating and insane. But after meeting last week for the third time with the family solicitors it just might be the only thing between salvation and complete ruin. He wanted to ball up the letter and toss it in the fire grate. He wanted to, but he knew he wouldn't. He let out a curse which encouraged a chuckle from Lord Hollings, Earl of Wellesley, his most trusted friend. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Marry Christmas by JANE GOODGER
Copyright © 2008 by Jane Goodger. Excerpted by permission.
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