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Close your eyes and think of chocolate cake, Caroline Maxwell told herself. It was the only way she could get through this tedious dress fitting. Even in the advanced year of 1894, an American heiress had certain rules to follow, and allowing herself to be a pincushion for the House of Worth seemed to be one of them. What Caroline really wanted was adventure, independence and to see the world. But she doubted her parents would ever come to their senses enough to set her free.
The seamstress, who accompanied Caroline’s new wardrobe from Worth’s Paris dress shop across the Atlantic to the Maxwell family’s Fifth Avenue residence, wielded another pin. Caroline winced in anticipation.
The angry looking woman already caught skin twice. Maybe her aim was off due to the lingering seasickness that delayed yesterday’s fitting. Or perhaps she was intimidated by the dozens of china figurines Mama had positioned about Caroline’s enormous sitting room. The sense that one was being watched by countless beady little eyes could be unsettling. Not to mention the house itself … With sixty rooms, it, too, could rattle a soul.
“Your measurements have changed,” the Frenchwoman accused.
And then there was that.
“Impossible,” Caroline fibbed.
She glanced at her mother, who kept an eye on affairs from her regal perch atop the massive red velvet and gold-gilt settee that she’d also insisted must be part of Caroline’s quarters. Normally, her mother wouldn’t tolerate such talk from a servant, but Agnes was secretly intimidated by the French, which was why they’d left Paris before the dresses were done. Mama brushed away an imaginary crumb from the fabric of her conservative, high-necked dove gray morning dress and then fussed with the tiny bit of lace at each cuff. Caroline knew she was on her own in the battle of the pins.
The seamstress stepped back on the thick carpet to assess her work. Caroline caught her own reflection in the cheval mirror that was positioned so that Mama could see Caroline in profile. Mr. Worth’s style sense was clearly incomparable.
The low-cut—almost risqué—ivory silk ball gown Caroline wore had been embellished with what felt like pounds of pearls and dark green crystals. Assuming she could bear up under the weight, it would complement her clear complexion and hair as dark as her mother’s. Rumor had it that Mama’s maternal great-grandmother had been a Cherokee princess, which Mama would not confirm.
Worth’s skills had also made Caroline’s slight surplus of curves an asset rather than a detriment. Come the season, she was doomed. She had no idea what she could do to top last year’s anti-marriage efforts. All the same, she intended to escape this year’s marriage market as she had 1893’s: unwed, unpromised, and as independent as she could be. Which, in her opinion, was not saying much.
Caroline released her breath and unclenched clammy palms as another pin met only fabric. And in other sunny news, her mother’s insecurity meant that at least Caroline would not be facing French ducs on top of the English dukes Mama kept pushing her to marry.
“Absolument, you have gained since your last fitting,” the seamstress said. “And more than a little.”
Caroline answered with a vague smile. It would never do to confess that she’d begun midnight kitchen forays to ease her tight nerves.
“Caroline, have you varied from our agreed-upon menu?” her mother asked. Alarm had made her dark brows arch closer to her perfectly coiffed hair with its beginning threads of silver.
There had been no agreement. There hadn’t even been negotiations, just no outright objection from Caroline. She’d decided long ago that working around her mother was more diplomatic than upsetting her. Easier, too. And since her mother’s eating edict had made Caroline fifty percent a spectator at family meals, she felt she deserved a fat slice of chocolate cake whenever she wished. It wasn’t noon yet, and her mouth watered at the thought of tonight’s pilfered treat. Actually, not so very pilfered, since Cook had caught on to the scheme and now left cake waiting for her.
Mama pursed her lips and scrutinized Caroline more closely. “You must have been straying. You’re looking plumper in the face when Amelia and Helen are still as slim as can be.”
At sixteen, her twin sisters didn’t yet have the avoidance skills Caroline possessed at twenty-one. Or the same ability to hold their tongues under their mother’s inquisition techniques. They always confessed.
Caroline kept her silence.
Mama narrowed her eyes.
Caroline widened hers.
Mama cleared her throat, giving warning of a lecture to come.
Caroline did her best to exude an aura of innocence as strong as her mother’s favored gardenia perfume. It must have worked, because Mama heaved a resigned sigh.
“Stand taller,” she ordered. “Shoulders back and chin up.”
Caroline complied, though the gown would be no looser around her waist for the effort. Tonight’s cake would have to be her last for a while. It wasn’t as though she could eat her way to freedom. American heiresses were as popular with unmarried and underfunded English noblemen as chocolate cake was with Caroline.
“If you are to wear a coronet, you must look as though you were born to it,” Mama said. That and “you are this family’s crown jewel” were two of her mother’s favorite things to say. Caroline found both statements as uncomfortable as the corset currently mashing her innards.
Mama had been about to issue another proclamation—probably about crown jewels—but was distracted by a one-person stampede down the mahogany parquet hallway.
Annie, Caroline’s new personal maid, appeared. Breathless, she took an instant to compose herself. It was hopeless. During her dash, her red curls had sprung free from their tight bun and were now nearly at right angles from the white cap atop her head.
“Mrs. Maxwell, ma’am, O’Brien has asked me to tell you that Mrs. Longhorne is calling,” Annie said.
She thrust out a calling card. She did not, however, have the silver tray that the butler used, so Caroline’s mother pretended not to see it.
Annie waited for a response, then plowed on, either unaware or uncaring of her breach of decorum. “Ma’am, she’s on her way up here now.”
“Really, here?” Agnes asked, rising.
Annie was saved. Mrs. Longhorne venturing to private quarters without invitation was an even greater violation of Mama’s rules than Annie’s slipup.
Mildred Longhorne rushed in, her hands fluttering on either side of her face like two of the finches that Mama kept caged in the conservatory. Her pointy nose was red at the tip and her usually nondescript gray eyes sparkled with excitement. She hadn’t even changed out of the black riding habit she wore for a morning turn about the park, and the knot of early June pansies at one buttonhole looked ready to jump ship.
“Agnes, I have the most exciting news! Lord Bremerton is visiting with friends at Newport this season.”
Caroline’s mother gasped. “Bremerton, the son of Viscount Bellingham, grandson of the Duke of Endsleigh?”
“He’s married,” Mama said in a dismissive tone.
While Caroline was hardly in love with her mother’s determination to marry her into English nobility, she had to give her credit for an impressive level of study.
“No, no … not that one. He’s dead. There’s a new Bremerton!”
“Dead?” Caroline’s mother repeated. She’d sounded a little gleeful, too.
“Yes, a riding accident, I heard. The younger son has taken the title, and his father is rumored to be in poor health. You know what that means, don’t you?”
Mama walked a circle around Caroline and the seamstress. Apparently content with what she saw, she returned her attention to Mrs. Longhorne.
“He’ll be a duke,” she replied.
“Yes!” her friend cried. “And Caroline will be a duchess!”
Where was a slice of chocolate cake when a girl needed one?
* * *
AT TEN minutes until eight that evening, most of the family sat in the Oriental drawing room awaiting the call to dinner. All they lacked was Caroline’s brother, Edward, who at almost twenty-seven, lived down Fifth Avenue in the lesser mansion the family had left behind when this one had been completed.
“Any time Edward isn’t where he’s promised to be, he’s off with that Jack Culhane,” Mama complained to Caroline’s father.
Caroline hid the smile that seemed to work its way across her face whenever she thought of her brother’s best friend. She could guarantee that wherever they were, Eddie and Jack were having more fun than she was. For as long as she could remember, she’d tried to tag after them with little success. When she’d walk in on their tale-telling, she’d catch just enough to make her more determined to be part of their adventures.
They were all grown now, with Eddie working at Papa’s side, and Jack buying up businesses almost as quickly as his father did. But Caroline’s greatest adventure had been frightening off a handful of dukes last year, and that was before Mama had taken away most of her freedom. She hated to sound ungrateful, because she knew how lucky she was. All the same, she’d trade a steamer trunk packed with Maxwell money for just a few days of living like Jack and Eddie.
“Edward said he’ll be here at eight, and he will be,” Papa replied. “He’s a Maxwell man, which means he’s a man of his word.”
He turned his attention to Caroline, who had been doing her best to blend into the bold orange and green chrysanthemum-patterned brocade of her chair—not an easy job when one was wearing a peacock blue dress.
“Maxwell women, too. Am I right, Pumpkin?” he asked. Pride shone from his craggy features, and from under his thick gray moustache—so startling in contrast to his fading auburn hair—as it moved upward with his smile.
Caroline hesitated. His question was simple enough on the surface, but since just minutes ago her parents had been discussing Lord Bremerton’s visit, she knew what Papa really meant. She searched for a comment positive enough to make her father happy, yet still not an outright promise to lure and marry some Englishman she’d never met. Not when she had someone oh-so-much better in mind.
“Really, Bernard, you must stop calling her that,” Mama said, saving Caroline another diplomatic dance. “It was bad enough that it slipped out at the Astors’ ball last year. Imagine if you said it in front of Bremerton?”
“There’s no mistaking her for a gourd, Agnes,” Papa said. “And you’ll always be my Pumpkin, won’t you, Caroline?”
“Of course I will.” Even from across the sea.
Deep male talk and laughter sounded from outside the room. Jack was here with Eddie. This time Caroline couldn’t stop her smile from appearing. They walked in together with Jack standing inches taller than Eddie, who was of average height. And where Eddie was on the wiry side, Jack looked as though he could take on Calcutta street thieves and win.
Jack’s black frock coat sat well across his broad shoulders, and the white of his starched shirt and collar set off the sun-darkened color of his skin and deep brown hair. She liked that he was clean-shaven, too. Eddie’s attempt at a moustache seemed a little scant, though she’d never say so to her brother.
“Six minutes to spare,” Eddie said before kissing Mama on the cheek. “You were counting, weren’t you?”
“I was doing no such thing,” she said, but bright flags of pink on her face let Eddie know he had caught her.
Mama’s gaze drifted past Eddie and on to Jack. While she didn’t permit her disapproval to show in her expression, she still managed to convey it by stiffening her posture. Even Pomeroy, the little mop of a lapdog Mama had acquired so she could feel a bit like Queen Victoria, seemed to tighten up.
“Good evening, Mrs. Maxwell,” Jack said, giving a slight bow.
“We were late getting back from Jack’s new business concern. I hope you don’t mind if he joins us for dinner,” Eddie added.
“No, really, I need to be on my way,” Jack said. “I just wanted to say hello to the family.”
His smile briefly settled on Amelia and Helen, who wore matching yellow satin dresses in appropriately girlish styles. And because Mama believed in playing the asset of their twinhood to the fullest, their wavy auburn hair had been upswept in identical fashions, too. They smiled prettily and inclined their heads to Jack, but never met his eyes.
His attention moved on to Caroline, who had no qualms about meeting Jack Culhane head-on.
“Hello, Caroline. Are the social rounds treating you well?” he asked, a devilish light shining in his blue eyes.
How her girlfriends could not find him handsome was beyond Caroline. They used phrases like “too earthy” when they spoke of him. She thought the men they found attractive looked half-starved.
Jack was perfect.
Her heart beat faster at the sight of the two dimples that always appeared when he teased her. He knew how she felt about the endless gatherings that Mama insisted she attend. And Jack felt the same way, too. He might slip into a party, but he was always quickly gone.
“Very well,” she said. “I’ve been having a wonderful time.”
“Bordering on delirious.”
His smile became a full-out grin. “I’ll bet.”
“Stay for dinner,” Eddie said to Jack. “Tell my father about the new brewery and your plans for expansion.”
Caroline waited for his answer. She’d make a devil’s bargain of her own and trade away tonight’s final slice of cake if he would stay.
“Another brewery?” her father asked Jack in a tone that was disapproving and yet curious, too.
“Yes, sir,” Jack replied.
“Don’t you already have one in Pennsylvania?”
“And one in Boston, as well.”
Papa frowned. “Then why buy any more?”
“For the same reasons your grandfather bought those regional railroads, sir. Consolidation of power and resources.”
Papa flicked his hand as though shooing away a gnat. “Breweries aren’t the same thing at all.”
Caroline settled in to eavesdrop. She felt sheer joy at hearing a conversation of more import than whether it was appropriate to have the lettering on one’s calling card embossed.
“With all due respect, sir, you’re wrong,” Jack said.
Papa rose from the ornate carved chair Mama claimed was Imperial Chinese. He joined Jack and Eddie in front of the cavernous fireplace, stepping on one of the two tiger skins on the floor while on his way. Caroline tried to avoid looking at the tigers. She’d been thirteen when Papa had brought them home from a hunting trip, and she’d cried well into the night upon seeing them.
Caroline focused on the gentlemen. They looked so civilized in their black evening suits, though Papa’s was cut to accommodate his girth. He ate with the same robust passion he gave the rest of life.
“I’m wrong, am I?” he asked Jack, clearly warming to the debate.
Caroline’s mother must have known that her window of opportunity for a dinner without Jack Culhane had closed.
“O’Brien, see that there’s room at the table for Mister Culhane,” she said.
The butler, who was an expert at appearing and disappearing with ghostly skill, left only to appear an impossibly short time later and announce that dinner was served.
They entered the dining room, which had been known to seat three hundred when Mama was having one of her larger parties. Their footsteps echoed all the way to the ceiling, with its frescoes of fat little cherubs, platters of fruit, and women who’d always looked to Caroline to be in some form of distress.
Jack was ushered to a spot just to Caroline’s right. She glanced at her mother to see if a mistake had been made. Jack should have been seated far closer to Papa so that they could continue to converse. Apparently not, since her mother wore a content smile, probably at the thought of having quashed business talk. O’Brien looked pleased with himself, too. Caroline would never understand how the butler managed to read Mama’s mind, but he was a master at it.
The family settled in, and wine was poured. Mama and the twins talked of the tea they’d attended in the afternoon while most everyone else attempted to appear interested. Caroline, however, was too occupied by trying not to be so conscious of Jack.
Warmth seemed to roll from him. She caught a hint of wood smoke that must have traveled with him from his afternoon’s adventures. She glanced his way and found that he’d been looking at her, so she pretended great interest in the silver of her place setting.
The first course was served: a little quail that had been stuffed with something or another. After a tiny bite, Caroline set her fork on the plate’s edge. Good thing, too, because she was under extra scrutiny after this morning’s fitting.
“We must improve Rosemeade’s grounds and refurnish it immediately. It’s entirely lacking in elegance. If we didn’t need to be in residence no later than July first, I’d say to raze the whole thing and start over. But with both Bremerton and the season upon us, I shouldn’t get carried away,” Mama said to Papa after being sure Caroline had left her quail to languish.
“Do whatever you wish,” Caroline’s father replied. That was his stock answer for anything regarding the family’s residences, which he left wholly to his wife.
Caroline wasn’t feeling quite so calm. Their Newport summer cottage was her favorite. While it was hardly small at forty rooms, its Tudor-style stone-and-timber exterior gave it a sense of simplicity that this house lacked. Rosemeade also held memories of the many summer days when she’d chased after Eddie and Jack. Her heart would break if those were wiped away.
“Why would Rosemeade need improvement? It’s perfect just as it is,” she said.
“Perfect? Perfect to entertain a duke?” Mama asked.
Caroline could feel her hard-fought control evaporating.
“What duke?” she asked. “Bremerton’s not a duke unless both his father and grandfather conveniently die.”
Her mother couldn’t have looked more shocked if frogs had sprung from Caroline’s mouth.
“It’s true, Mama. That’s the one fact you have. What you don’t know is what sort of man he is … if he’s kind or smart or has a good smile,” she said, thinking of Jack’s smile. “And—”
“Caroline, be quiet!” her mother commanded.
But Caroline’s words might as well have been those frogs because she couldn’t stop them. “And for once, could we have something that isn’t made to look like something other than what it is?”
She waved her hand at the room’s rosewood moldings that her mother had ordered covered in gold-leaf. “Could we have wood and not make it look like gold?”
She pointed a finger at the marble fireplace that had been detailed to look like burled oak. “And stone that isn’t painted like wood?”
She settled one hand against the half-high bodice of her silk-and-chiffon dinner dress, which, as far as she was concerned, was too fussy to be tolerated.
“And me? What about me, Mama? Couldn’t we just agree that my hair is as straight as a pin and stop torturing it into curls? Couldn’t we stop dressing me as though I’m royalty when I’m just me … plain, unremarkable me?”
Caroline’s words caught up with her, and her anger passed as quickly as it had come. She’d never been able to hang on to it, which she supposed was a decent trait. A handier one would have been keeping her frustration to herself.
Her mother and father were staring at her, aghast. Amelia and Helen looked as though they were about to burst into tears. And poor Eddie was gazing raptly into his wine goblet as though the secrets to life rested there.
Caroline didn’t dare look at Jack. If she did, her humiliation would be complete. She pushed back her chair and rose.
“I … I think I’m feeling unwell,” she said into the silence that hung over the table. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just…”
But because she had no idea what she planned to do, she simply turned and left. Her new shoes skidded on the hard floor, making her steps as wobbly as she felt inside.
She passed Annie in the hallway, but didn’t stop to ask her what in heaven’s name she was doing by the dining room. And instead of heading upstairs as she, too, should have done, Caroline rushed to the conservatory.
Once inside, she closed the glass and wrought-iron door that kept the room’s warmth and humidity neatly trapped. She paused at the finch cage and shook her head.
“I know just how you feel,” she said to the birds.
At least the birds couldn’t see through the room’s foliage to know that their kind flitted freely outside. Caroline had to watch Eddie being given full rein, while she and the twins were groomed to be Mama’s idea of perfect wives.
But that was not going to change.
The best she could do was work well within the cage that surrounded her, too. Caroline touched the tip of one finger to the pinkish edge of a delicate orchid blossom and watched it quiver. At least it was a very pretty cage, if over-furnished.
“I knew I’d find you here,” said a male voice.
Copyright © 2012 by The Gus Group