Read an Excerpt
The Forever Brides
By A.S. Fenichel
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 A.S. Fenichel
All rights reserved.
After six weeks of seasickness, Sophia's legs wobbled on the gangplank. She searched London's crowded dock for her aunt and uncle. A shame her aching muscles kept her from running to dry land and finding them. She wasn't above kissing solid ground.
Her maid, Marie, and footman, Jasper, hadn't left her side since Sophia's mother charged them with her care on the journey.
People from every walk of life bustled around the docks, unloading stores and loading supplies for the next journey. A woman in a serviceable dress hugged a young man as he exited the ship from steerage. The mother and son reunion stuck like a knife and she turned away as a child's screaming pulled her attention to the baby who had also endured the long voyage.
At the bottom of the walkway, an older woman in a perfectly tailored burgundy morning dress glanced at something one of her impeccable footmen held. She took the object and pursed her lips. Brown spots marred her tapered hand as she smoothed her bun, though not a hair dared go askew from the perfect coif. She evaluated Sophia down the length of her narrow nose and her frown deepened tightening the profound lines of someone who wore the expression often.
When Sophia reached the dock, one of the woman's footmen approached. "Miss Braighton?"
"Yes. I'm Sophia Braighton."
A touch of sympathy in his eyes, he nodded. "Follow me, please, Miss." He walked her to the woman.
Handing Sophia a miniature portrait of herself, she spoke with a deep, formal air of authority. "I'm Lady Daphne Collington, your great aunt on your father's side. You will be in my charge. Your things may be loaded in the carriage."
Jasper ran off with her ladyship's footman to load the trunks. Dressed in navy blue livery, he looked better than Sophia, but shabby in comparison to the Collington servants in turquoise and bright white.
Sophia handed her miniature back and covered her dismay with a pleasant smile. Taking a deep breath to quash her nausea, she hoped the carriage loading would take some time. The thought of being closeted into another moving vehicle had her in knots. "Lady Collington, where are my Aunt Adelaide and Uncle Cecil? I was given to believe they would be fostering me for this season."
Lady Collington harrumphed.
She would never survive the season with her notorious aunt. Unable to go back to Philadelphia, she held her tongue and hoped for the best. No. There was no going back, and with Lady Collington as her chaperone, there would be no hiding away.
"I'm not accustomed to being spoken to so frankly by one so young. You are far too direct, a consequence of being raised in the Colonies, to be sure. In addition, you are emaciated and we shall have to do something about those ill-fitting clothes." Lady Collington scrutinized her. "I have no idea how we will get you married. Skin and bones is not at all the fashion this season. And that hair, blond is much more in style. Is it always so stringy or is it the salt air?" She climbed into her carriage.
There was no help for it. She should be happy anyone would have her after her banishment from home. "Marie, will you be comfortable in the carriage with my trunks?"
Footmen were loading her trunks into the coach behind the elegant carriage with terrible efficiency.
"Of course. The question is, will you?"
Sophia forced a smile and leaned toward Marie. "Mother is very fond of Aunt Daphne, but she did warn me that she can be a bit harsh at first blush."
Marie raised narrow eyebrows, bobbed, and strode toward the other carriage.
Sophia stepped into the carriage and sat opposite Daphne.
Lady Collington straitened the crisp white lace at her collar. "My niece and her husband have gone to the country. The child is ill again."
Sophia's chest tightened. Best to drop the subject. She would learn more from the servants regarding her cousin than from Lady Collington. "I'm not usually so thin. I'm afraid the voyage was uncomfortable for me."
Lady Collington's eyes widened before her stern gaze returned. "Seasickness is a matter of the mind. You should be stronger-minded than a common girl and have been able to overcome such a disturbance."
Sophia hoped she didn't look as stunned by Daphne's announcement as she felt. Otherwise, she was gaping at the woman. "I see. Have you traveled much abroad then, Lady Collington?"
"Why would I ever wish to leave England?"
Sophia's parents had told many stories about her great aunt over the years. The dowager countess was a widow of an earl who had died before Sophia was born. Every time Sophia's father received a letter from his aunt, he would read it to the entire family. The contents were always severe, but the Braightons found the messages amusing. In a recent letter, she had disclosed that her son, the current earl, had married but chose to stay most of the time in the country. A circumstance the dowager found quite vexing.
Sophia hid her amusement. "I cannot imagine. May I call you aunt?"
"If you wish, but only in the confines of family and close friends. I assume you have been taught proper etiquette."
Sophia forced a smile. "Oh yes, Aunt. Four years at Mrs. Mirabelle's School for Young Ladies."
Lady Daphne's piercing blue eyes narrowed. "This Mirabelle, was she English? I hope your mother did not send you to some Italian to learn manners."
"Miss Mirabelle was very much English, Aunt Daphne." The carriage began moving, and she tried to ignore her nausea. "I was under the impression that you quite liked my mother. She has always seemed very fond of you, whenever she speaks of England."
"Of course I like your mother. She is a delight and I regret my nephew chose to take his family to America. I advised him strongly against it. That does not mean I would wish your manners to be in the Italian style. It would make my work much more difficult. English men have a certain expectation of a wife, you know."
"Yes, Aunt." Looking forward to a bed that didn't move while she slept was her only solace.
Daphne gave her a hard look. "Do you not wish to find a husband?"
"I'll do as you tell me, Aunt." It was a strain, but Sophia was too tired and sick to argue with a woman who'd never understand.
"Of course you will." Daphne ran her finger under her collar where the satin and lace caused an angry rash.
They travelled the rest of the way to London's Grosvenor Square in silence, though she felt Aunt Daphne's gaze on her the entire drive.
As Sophia stepped down onto solid ground, she covered her giggle with her hand. There would be no more rocking of boats or carriages for a while.
The thirty-foot ceiling in the foyer was capped by a crystal chandelier glittering like a crown. Polished to a high shine, the wooden railing of the curved staircase enrobed the space.
"This is your home? No one else lives here with you?" Even with the massive sitting room on the right and library to the left, the walls closed in on her. It was all as grand as her father's stories had indicated.
Daphne cleared her throat. "Upon his father's death, my son, the Earl of Grafton, gifted me this townhouse, since it had long been my home in London. He purchased another for his new wife."
"It's so big." How would she, Sophia Braighton from Philadelphia, ever fit in such a place? She stepped across the white marble with grey veins. Black accent tiles formed geometric shapes in the floor and walls of the entry.
"There will be plenty of time to explore the house, Sophia. You must be exhausted and I would like to rest as well. Mrs. Colms, the housekeeper, will show you to your room."
A large woman in a gray dress and white cap stood off to the side.
"Tonight I'll have your meal sent up, but in the future, I expect, you will prefer to dine with me. We shall not accept any invitations for balls or dinners this week, while you recover from your journey. However, we do have a picnic in three days, which we will attend."
"Thank you, Aunt Daphne. I am tired." She took a few steps then turned, overcome by a sudden feeling of guilt for all the trouble she would likely cause Aunt Daphne. Exhaustion and the idea of resting in a bed that didn't sway with the waves of the ocean might have had a hand in her emotional state, but she hated to be a burden. "I'm sorry to have been foisted on you in such a way. I do appreciate your willingness to sponsor me this season." She threw herself against her Great Aunt Daphne and wrapped her arms around her.
Lady Collington gave Sophia's back one quick pat before dropping her hands back to her sides.
Sophia ended the awkward embrace. Her face warmed over her impulsive show of affection for a woman she had never before met.
Lips tight and eyes wide, Daphne cleared her throat.
She kissed Daphne's cheek and rushed up the steps with no idea where she was supposed to go.
From below, Aunt Daphne said, "Show the girl her room."
Mrs. Colms ambling footfall pounded up the steps and down the hall. She opened the door to a bedroom with sun filtering in and the scent of flowers. "If you require anything, ask me or one of the staff, miss."
"Thank you." Everything was clean and new in the room complete with fresh-cut flowers. Kinder thoughts of her severe aunt warmed her heart. Aunt Daphne had gone to the trouble of having new, cream-colored curtains hung and fresh linens purchased. A small writing desk appeared new as well and a supply of paper, quills and ink sat on one side. The palest pink damask covered the walls and it too was fresh and new.
Already in the room unpacking gowns, Marie grumbled over how they would all need to be taken in. She hoped for an under-maid who sewed tolerably well.
Her window overlooked orderly gardens. Every bush groomed to perfection. Roses bloomed as if by command. Would she too be expected to do everything perfectly? Fear over how much she would disappoint Aunt Daphne tightened around her heart. Disappointing another family member loomed unbearable. Threatening tears stung her eyes. "Marie, leave that for now. I would like to nap a while."
Marie gave her a pitying look. "Shall I help you undress, my lady?"
"No. I'll just lie down atop the coverlet. Come and wake me in two hours, please. Oh, and when you chat with the servants, would you inquire as to the nature of my cousin's illness?"
With three gowns slung over her arm, Marie slipped out of the room.
Sophia leaned back against the mountain of expensive pillows. She missed her mother and father. She longed for home, but it was the home of years gone by, not the place recently left behind. Her father's house hadn't changed in that time, but she was different and everything familiar tainted.
Sophia cried in spite of her determination to be brave. Finally, exhaustion overtook her and she slept.
Someone pulled her away. A heavy weight covered her and a hand pressed over her mouth. She couldn't scream or even breathe. She smothered and struggled to free herself. Excruciating pain erupted between her legs. Her father's angry screams rose above a commotion of banging and her mother's crying. Mortified and afraid, she curled into a ball on the hard floor. Every inch of her body hurt. Then, mercifully, the world went black.
She woke from the same nightmare that had haunted her for the past three years. Perspiration soaked her dress and her heart raced as she gasped for breath. Hair stuck to her face and neck. Blinking the room into focus, she lay still while the worst of her terror passed.
The banging from the nightmare continued. Someone was tapping on the door.
"Enter." Sophia sat up.
Marie stepped inside. "I have ordered you a bath, Miss."
"Thank you, Marie. I would adore a real bath." She stood and stretched. The sun cast a blush over the manicured garden. The shadows of tall shrubberies, with their crisp shapes, stretched long across the walkways. She had slept far longer than two hours.
Marie supervised the arrival of the bath and buckets of water. "I spoke to her ladyship's maid. The air in London does not agree with your young cousin. They have taken her to the country, where she has less trouble breathing. That is all the staff here knows. I'll have a meal sent up when you are finished with your bath."
"Thank you." She sank into the bath. Warm, rose-scented water washed away the nightmare's effects. By the time she pulled herself out, she was too exhausted to eat much. Marie bundled her into the soft down bed and sleep claimed her almost before her head hit the pillow.
* * *
Sophia woke gasping. Daylight pierced gaps in the window dressing. In times of great stress, the dream haunted her sleep with more frequency. Finding herself the ward of Lady Daphne Collington was certainly stressful. She struggled from bed and pulled the drapery back.
According to her parents, London weather was dreary, but the sun shone on the maze of shrubs below as if daring her to be grim. She readied herself to face the day.
In the breakfast room, Daphne sat tall and elegant. Her cheeks were high and her hair arranged into a neat bun. She must have been even more stunning when she was young.
"Good morning, aunt." Sophia walked to the sideboard and filled a plate with boar's head ham, oyster patties and bread.
The room faced the street and was flooded with light from the high windows. The enormous table must have been a remnant from a time when many more people resided under the roof. She sat to Daphne's left.
"You are looking better, Sophia. I trust you slept well." Daphne spoke over her crisp newspaper.
"Oh, I feel fine. I couldn't ask for a more pleasant room. Thank you, Aunt Daphne."
Daphne waved a hand and kept her expression stern. "You may explore the house today if you wish. I generally take a walk in the park each day after calling hours. You may join me, if you feel up to it."
"I would like that very much."
Daphne nodded and returned to her paper, while sipping coffee.
A cup of chocolate arrived via footman and Sophia was grateful to Marie for thinking to inform the cook of her preferences.
"Stupid girl" Aunt Daphne muttered.
Sophia's heart raced. She had not chipped the fine china or even scratched one delicate flower from the edge of the plate. How had she managed to disappoint so quickly? "I beg your pardon?" Daphne handed over the newspaper. "Elinor Burkenstock has ruined herself. Her poor mother must be beside herself. She will never get that nit married off now. You should take note, Sophia. That type of behavior will not be tolerated while you are in this house."
This reporter has it on good authority that the fine gathering at the Addison's Ball was marred by dreadful behavior. Sources say Miss EB was caught in a compromising position with Sir M, by none other than Lady P. This reporter is shocked by the blatant disregard for propriety displayed by Miss EB ...
The account went on, but it was so confusing, she stopped reading and looked at Daphne. "I don't understand all of this Miss EB, Sir M and Lady P business."
"It is a rather silly code the paper uses to avoid being outright slanderous. Meaningless, really, since everyone knows everyone else, at least by reputation. Miss EB is, of course, Elinor Burkenstock. Sir M is Sir Michael Rollins, a man of questionable honor and, by all accounts, little means. Lady P is Lady Pemberhamble, the most outrageous gossip in all of England. It really is a shame. The stupid girl will be put on the shelf, or if by some miracle her father can force a marriage with Rollins, she will then be married to a libertine."
"I'm surprised this gossip interests you, Aunt."
Lady Collington's lips tipped up in what might have been a smile, but it vanished. "I do not perpetuate gossip, my dear, but reading about it is part of how we get by here in London without being bored to tears. Besides, the girl's mother, Virginia Burkenstock is a particular friend of mine. Was it so different in Philadelphia?"
Three years ago, people she'd thought were her friends had abandoned her at the first sign of scandal. Sophia's father had squashed the truth, but still, rumors circulated for a season. "No. I suppose not, but I don't like the malice behind such rumors. For all we know, there might be little truth to the story. But because her family was unable to hush it up and it made it to print, she'll be ruined."
"What would you suggest, Sophia?" Aunt Daphne raised one imperialistic eyebrow.
Excerpted from Tainted Bride by A.S. Fenichel. Copyright © 2016 A.S. Fenichel. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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