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He already felt sorry for her and he hadn't even broken her heart yet.
Henry Owen looked across the crowded music room at Anne Foster and had a nearly overwhelming urge to run from the room, away from her, from himself, from the absolute certainty that he was a bastard. He could remember his father telling him, a sin is made worse when you know you are sinning. If that were true, the devil himself would be waiting at the end of the line for Henry James Owen.
Unless he received a miracle, something he considered highly unlikely given his fallen state, Anne would be his wife before year's end. She was perfect for his purposes and so imperfect in nearly every other way. Indeed, Anne Foster was everything that Henry disliked in a woman. She was blonde, blue-eyed, shy, vacant, and—putting it kindly—plump. And not pleasingly so, he thought with brutal honesty. He preferred dark-haired, dark-eyed beauties with slim waists and petite figures, women who sparkled with intelligence and wit. Conversations with Miss Foster were tedious affairs, punctuated mostly by her rather irritating habit of giggling in nervous bursts at nearly everything that came out of his mouth. But he suspected she was already half in love with him, so convincing her to marry him would be effortless. Anne Foster was indeed perfect.
He only prayed that she would never know the real reason he had chosen her above all other women, because as callous as he tried to be in this matter, Henry was not a cold nor a cruel man. He was simply an obsessed one.
"So, when areyou going to pop the question?" Alex Henley asked carelessly, lifting his chin toward Anne. Alex and Henry had been friends since they were boys in short pants. Where Alex was elegant, a stickler for proper dress if not proper behavior, Henry was rugged and dangerously handsome. Something about his careless elegance attracted women, made them want to straighten his tie and press his suit jacket. The fact that he'd been orphaned as a boy—even though he was now twenty-seven—only added to his appeal.
Giving his friend a look of sheer irritation, Henry said, "I'll consider proposing after I speak with my grandfather. There is still a chance he'll give me Sea Cliff so I can avoid this mess." As always, Henry felt his stomach churn uncomfortably at the thought of actually marrying Anne.
"You know he'll never do it," Alex said. "If only you would give up your obsession with the place."
Henry tightened his jaw. Of all people, Alex should know why Sea Cliff was so important to him. He'd give up his inheritance completely if only his grandfather would grant him that old summer home on Jamestown. His inheritance included the cottage, but it was out of reach until he turned thirty or married. In three years' time, when he celebrated his thirtieth birthday, Sea Cliff would be long gone, a certain victim of a New England coastal storm. Even now, the house teetered on the edge of disaster, clinging precariously to the bluff overlooking Newport, where it had been built thirty-six years ago in 1857. He must gain ownership immediately to save it, and that left him only one option: He must marry.
Henry, a severely practical man, could not begin to rationally explain his driving need to save the cottage. If he spoke the words aloud, they would sound trite, ridiculous: "I want the house because I was happy there." But there it was, his reason for needing to save Sea Cliff. Simply put, he wanted to be happy again.
The summer cottage of his memory was a sort of paradise, a haven from all that was evil and dark. He knew his memories were those of a twelve-year-old boy, that all the days spent on that tiny island tucked between Newport and the Rhode Island mainland melded into one glorious summer's day of blue skies, warm, salt-tinged air, and little-boy toes digging into soft sand. He could not think of Sea Cliff without remembering sultry summer afternoons sitting on the porch with his mother as she read aloud to him, or prowling the woodlands with his father in search of a particular wildflower. The old cottage had been lost to him on the only rainy day he could recall, the day his parents died sailing on Block Island Sound—a day he hadn't even been on Jamestown. In one moment, he lost all that was good in his life. Including Sea Cliff.
Years of neglect had turned it into a ramshackle memorial to a time when he'd been young and completely, utterly happy. As the years passed, he watched in agony as the cottage slowly, horribly deteriorated, abandoned and neglected by his grandfather, who refused to do anything to save the old place. Ten years ago, Henry noticed that the bluff upon which Sea Cliff sat was eroding dramatically, and that was when he'd started his campaign with his grandfather to save it. He'd always known that marriage was an answer, but it was one he'd never seriously considered. He'd watched too many of his friends marry simply to expand the family fortune, and he'd vowed that he would marry only for love as his parents had. Money had never been an issue. Until now.
He could still remember his discussion with Alex when he'd finally decided that marriage was his only option if he truly wanted to save the cottage. He needed a quick marriage to someone who wouldn't question him about the haste, nor object to being abandoned to a solitary life. Henry had no intention of becoming one of those cowed men who made money only to satisfy their wife's vanity. Indeed, he had no intention of becoming a true husband at all.
"If you have to marry, marry an ugly girl, Henry. She'll be so grateful to be Mrs. Henry Owen, she won't question why she's been abandoned," Alex had said half-jokingly. "You'll avoid a lot of messiness, mark my words."
Despite the cruelty of such a scheme, Henry immediately thought of Anne Foster—shy, homely Anne, whose eyes peering from beneath thick banana curls of yellow hair followed him around the room at a dozen different Newport functions that summer. In his obsessive haze, Alex's suggestion made perfect sense, and Anne was the perfect target.
When he'd asked her to dance that first time, he'd felt so horrid, he'd nearly abandoned his ill-conceived plan right there. Anne had been so clearly delighted, so awed to find herself dancing with him, he'd wanted to fall to his knees and confess then and there what he planned. She was, he thought, so very unaware of how rotten he was. And that made his ability to follow through more difficult; she was making it all too easy for him.
Anne looked over at Henry again. She simply couldn't help herself. He was so beautiful and she loved him so much. Oh, please, God, let him speak to me again tonight. She drank in the sight of him, his strong, cleanly shaved jaw, his curling brown hair, his mesmerizing gray eyes. She need only look at him to feel all aflutter, quite unlike herself. For the first time in her life, Anne felt pretty. She thought her new blue gown made her appear thin. Well, thinner. God knew she'd nearly made herself and her maid faint by demanding that her stays be pulled beyond what she thought she could endure. It was worth the agony—and it was sheer agony to have one's waist squeezed so unmercifully—if she could again attract Henry's attention, She loved her thick curls, the way they bounced around her head whenever she moved quickly. She found herself turning her head quickly on purpose, just so she could create the effect of bouncing curls.
"Do stop that," Beatrice Leyden said after getting smacked in the face for the third time with one of Anne's errant curls. Beatrice was Anne's closest friend—her only true friend—and the only person to whom she confessed her love for Henry. Anne hadn't much cared for Beatrice's reaction. "Oh, Anne, he's a bounder in-the extreme. He's nearly as bad as that Alexander Henley he's always with."
"Henry is a fine man. You don't know him the way I do," she'd countered.
Now Henry was on the other side of her parents' music room, and all she could think about was that he might ask to sit with her when the string quartet from New York began its concert. He looked her way and her heart pounded hard against her ribs. "Oh, mercy, here he comes," Anne said, letting out an uncontrollable giggle.
"Don't worry, I won't leave your side," Beatrice said, grabbing Anne's wrist as if she needed fortification.
"But you must leave. Oh, please, Bea, I hardly ever get a chance to be alone with him."
Beatrice cast an obvious look about the crowded room, but gave her friend a smile before moving away.
Nodding to his friends, Henry began making his way across the room, skirting behind a row of chairs set up for the small audience. To Anne's loving eyes, he looked magnificent in his black jacket, silver embroidered waistcoat, and crisp white shirt. His cravat was silver with the tiniest black polka dots, tied to perfection. Perfection, Anne sighed, like everything else about him.
"Happy birthday, Anne," he said when he reached her.
Anne giggled. It was about all she did in his presence, to her great annoyance. Anne, who disdained the silly, skinny, twittering girls who seemed to monopolize men like Henry, found herself acting just like them. It was a Wonder Henry kept coming back, for certainly he'd no idea that she had a brain in her head with all that giggling she did. She couldn't help it. Whenever Henry talked to her, her brain shut down, and out of her mouth came the most inane, ridiculous things. When she recalled their conversations later, she found herself mortified by her complete lack of poise.
"I've a small gift for you," he said. "A small token of my esteem."
"Oh." She looked down at the small, rectangular wooden box. A gift. For her. From Henry. She swallowed a giggle that threatened to erupt from her throat.
Anne took the box and ran a hand over the smoothly polished surface, savoring the moment, her pulse racing. Never before in her life had a man other than her father given her a present. Slowly she opened the lid to reveal a pretty little gold heart on an impossibly delicate gold chain.
"For me?" she asked stupidly. Then giggled, hating herself.
"Of course, for you."
She pulled the necklace out of the box, hardly feeling the thin chain against her fingertips. "It's lovely. Thank you, Henry. Do you mind?" she asked, handing the necklace to him and presenting him with her back, all the time thinking she sounded like a woman Who was used to accepting gifts from admirers.
Henry fumbled with the clasp and nearly dropped the necklace down her dress before she rescued it, digging for it as discreetly as possible. Her skin flushed so hot it prickled, but she handed the chain back to him for another go, pretending she wasn't dying of humiliation. Anne felt the cool gold chain go around her neck, pull tight, then loosen. His knuckles pressed against her nape as he worked to clasp the chain.
"One minute. It's ... the chain's a bit short."
He tried again, Anne's cheeks flaming red in embarrassment, and she quickly prayed no one was looking. The longer he struggled with the chain, the more self-conscious she became. He mistakenly pulled the sensitive hairs at the base of her skull and she bit the inside of her bottom lip to keep from crying out. Disappointment filled her, that this moment she should have cherished in her heart would be simply another humiliation. The chain is not too short, my neck is too big, she thought, hoping that Henry would give up. She lifted her chin a bit, hoping to thin out her neck, and felt the chain again biting slightly into her.
"There," he said with obvious relief.
She turned with a forced smile on her lips. "I'm certain it looks lovely."
He gave her something like a grin that looked to Anne more like a grimace, and agreed it did. Anne found for the rest of the evening that whenever she spoke, the little heart would flip up and down, up and down. And when she laughed, which she did less and less as the evening wore on, it would flutter there like a butterfly with a damaged wing.
A soft knock sounded on the study door of Arthur Owen's New York town house a brief moment before the butler quietly opened it and cautiously poked his head through.
"His grandson is here," the butler whispered.
Williamson nodded and glanced back at his employer, who sat slumped and snoring in his wheelchair. "Give me ten minutes," he said softly.
Before the door clicked closed, Williamson was by Arthur Owen's side, a hand gently shaking the old man awake. "Sir," he said loudly into the old man's hair-tufted ear, receiving only a garbled mumble for his efforts. "Sir, Henry is here. He'll be up in ten minutes."
The old man's head snapped up. "Henry, you say?" he demanded, his words only slightly slurred. "On his way up now?" His tone held a hint of panic, and Williamson gave him a small reassuring smile.
"In ten minutes, sir. We'll get you together, all right." Even as he spoke, Arthur Owen's cadaverously thin valet walked briskly to a large cabinet at the far side of the darkened room. He removed a freshly starched shirt, cravat, tan waistcoat, and dark brown jacket, and draped them across one arm. In his free hand, he held a pair of stockings and the old man's brilliantly polished shoes.
Within minutes, the fragile-looking invalid was transformed into a sharp-eyed curmudgeon. His grandson would never know that beneath the lap blanket was only a pair of drawers, slightly stained from his breakfast that morning. There wasn't time to haul Arthur out of the wheelchair to tug trousers over his useless legs. Williamson wheeled Arthur behind the desk and briskly pulled open the thick velvet draperies that ordinarily remained closed, ignoring the old man's protest. On the desk in front of Arthur, Williamson placed a leather portfolio and a scattering of documents, gaining him a rueful smile of appreciation. Arthur's thinning, gray hair was swept back, his eyes sharp. He was ready to face the one person in the world he loved more than life.
Henry walked into the study without knocking, squinting against the bright sun that cast his grandfather into an imposing silhouette. He was shrouded in light and dust, which served to give the old man a menacing spectral quality. Even sitting in the wheelchair, even though it was obvious the stroke that had stricken his grandfather more than a decade before left him an invalid, Arthur Owen was the only man who could—and did—intimidate Henry. He hated that fact, almost as much as he hated the man himself.
"You didn't schedule an appointment," Arthur said loudly.
"I never do," Henry countered easily, even though his gut clenched. The old gent never failed to make him feel like the stuttering, skinny twelve-year-old boy he once was, standing before his grandfather to explain an unsatisfactory, school report. Shutting out that memory, Henry forced himself to stride farther into the room.
"I'm here about Sea Cliff," Henry said, moving to the side of the desk so that the sunlight struck the side of his grandfather's face, fully revealing each line that crisscrossed his pale skin. My God, Henry thought, he's so old. Unexpectedly, his heart softened, something that surprised him as much as it would have the old man. For the first time he noticed how his grandfather's fine suit jacket hung limply on his shoulders, how thin his legs appeared beneath the blanket that covered him. He turned away to look out the window, not wanting to have his resolve weakened by the real evidence that his grandfather was old and frail and probably dying.
"Sea Cliff is not yours yet," Arthur said, gripping his wheelchair's armrests fiercely.
Henry spun around, all kind thoughts swept away by his grandfather's belligerence. "I am aware of who owns Sea Cliff. But perhaps you are not aware that the house is about to tumble into Narragansett Bay. That last storm stripped away the hill and exposed the foundation."
His grandfather sneered at him. "If it were up to me, if I had the strength," he said as he fisted his thin, veiny hands, "I'd push that cursed place into the water today."
Henry's face tightened with anger. "You will get your wish, Grandfather. One more nor'easter, one more hurricane; and she'll be gone."
Henry took a deep breath and attempted a calm smile. "I know you don't like the old place. All the more reason to give it to me now. Why wait until it becomes official in three years when I turn thirty? I'll not ask for money, just the house."
Henry stood rigid before the man who had controlled his life from the moment his parents had died fifteen years ago. His grandfather had controlled the huge inheritance that awaited when he turned thirty, money that would free him from the tentacles his grandfather had wrapped around him, strangling him since he'd walked away from his parents' empty graves and into his grandfather's care.
"I could use my own money to shore up the cliff, if only you'll grant me permission." He could hear the pleading tone of his voice and it made him want to scream.
Arthur snorted. "What money? All your so-called money is tied up into that embarrassing boatyard."
Henry closed his eyes. It was an old argument, one he would never win with his grandfather, who'd made his vast fortune in the China trade. Henry knew that no matter how successful his yacht-building enterprise became, it would never be considered a socially acceptable way to make money. His name and his huge inheritance bought his way into New York's finest homes and nothing else.
"I could save Sea Cliff."
Arthur lifted his chin, his eyes blazing with intensity. "I don't want it saved."
Henry clenched his jaw so tightly, his teeth hurt. "Then sell it. But why let it waste away?"
"You're too damned sentimental, Henry. It's another weakness," he said, clearly inferring that Henry had many.
For an instant, Henry pictured himself putting his hands around the old man's sagging throat and squeezing' the life out of him. Instead, he said, "Mother and Father loved Sea Cliff. They were happy there and would feel the same way as I. They would want to save it."
The old man snorted again. "No one was ever happy there. I should have had it torn down years ago."
"Then why didn't you?" Henry shouted, anger pulsing through his veins. "Why let it rot on that cliff? You're nothing but a cruel, vindictive old man who's blaming a house for his own sorry tragedy. Mark me well, Grandfather, if it's the last thing I do, I'll save that house."
Arthur gulped, his face growing a deep red, the veins in his neck clearly visible. "That house ..." He gasped, his hands grasping at his cravat. "That house ..."
Alarmed, Henry moved quickly to his grandfather's side, pushing the old man's shaking hands away from this throat. He deftly undid the necktie before rushing to find Williamson.
"He's having some sort of fit," he told the secretary, concern clear in his voice.
"I'm fine," Arthur managed to call out, and Henry turned with surprise to see that his grandfather did, indeed, seem fine. Or at least no longer in any danger of keeling over dead.
Henry, suddenly feeling deeply remorseful, moved quickly to the wheelchair, and knelt beside his grandfather. "I won't argue about this, Grandfather. I didn't come to argue, but to inform you that I intend to save Sea Cliff, one way or another."
"Sea Cliff is mine." That fact alone seemed to soothe the old man.
"There is another way for me to obtain my inheritance, as you well know." Henry stood, a fist pressing hard on the surface of the desk, as he outlined precisely how he intended to obtain the money that was rightfully his. As he spoke, Henry sensed that his grandfather tried to remain unmoved by his words, and he would have believed Arthur unshaken if he hadn't noticed the old man's gnarled hands clench convulsively.
"Don't be an idiot," Arthur spat. "I may be stuck in this town house twelve months a year, but I do know you haven't seriously courted anyone. Or do you plan to hire someone to marry you?"
"I have a girl in mind. She'll say yes."
Arthur cackled. "Who? Some desperate shriveled old maid?"
Henry flushed at his grandfather's near miss. "She's only twenty-one."
Slapping his hand down in triumph, Arthur shouted, "I knew it! Who is the unfortunate girl?"
Arthur drew his bushy eyebrows together in thought. He'd been away from society for several years, and Henry was counting on him not knowing Anne. He was wrong. "The fat one? Good God, Henry, you can do better than that. Certainly Sea Cliff can't be worth a lifetime shackled to her." Then the puzzled expression left his face. "You don't intend to be shackled to her for life, do you, boy? That's why you picked her." The idea seemed to delight him.
Henry's features hardened. "As I said, I will do just about anything to save Sea Cliff. Even marry an ugly girl," he said, being purposely coarse.
His grandfather closed his eyes for such a long time, Henry began to think that the old man had fallen asleep. When Arthur finally opened his eyes, Henry saw something he'd never seen before on his grandfather's face—defeat. "You are more like your father than I thought."
His eyes blazing with new anger, Henry said, "Don't think it is an insult for you to compare me to my father."
His grandfather smiled blandly. "It is hardly that, Henry. I meant it as a compliment. The greatest of ones."
Henry turned away as if he suddenly smelled something putrid. "I know what you thought of my father."
"I'll not have this discussion now. I bid you good day, Grandfather. The next time I see you, it will be to sign the necessary papers regarding my inheritance." Henry began walking from the study.
"Don't think this will be so easy, Henry," his grandfather warned.
Henry turned at the door, victory shining in his eyes. "The conditions upon which my father's money and properties become mine are quite clear. Since you will not free up any portion of the inheritance now, you have forced my hand."
Arthur slammed a fist down upon his wheelchair. "I will not allow this!" he shouted, sounding almost overwrought. Once again, his grandfather was cast in silhouette, making it impossible for Henry to see just how crazed his grandfather's expression had become.
"You have no choice, Grandfather. No choice at all." He walked from the room, nodding at Williamson, who rushed past him to Arthur's side.
Even after Henry closed the door, he could hear his grandfather's shouts, and the quiet tones of Williamson as he tried to calm the apoplectic old man. Henry had to chuckle. He'd finally triumphed over him, and he began to whistle as he let himself out of the town house and into New York's bustling Fifth Avenue traffic.
Inside the study, Arthur was calming down, though his entire body still shook with helpless rage. "My stationery, Williamson. And an empty journal. Get them now."
It was time to tell Henry the truth about his parents and the awful secret Sea Cliff hid. For weeks Arthur had felt death creeping ever closer, and he had dreaded that final end almost as much as he dreaded telling Henry the truth. He must not allow the boy to discover for himself the true reason he'd kept Sea Cliff from him. As he had done a thousand times, he cursed his own foolishness, and the crippling seizure that' had prevented him from righting a wrong Committed so long ago.
Williamson returned with the stationery and journal, poised to transcribe Arthur's words. Williamson, a loyal servant and dear friend, would soon be the only other soul on earth who knew about Sea Cliff and the horrible events of fifteen years ago. He sat, pen at the ready, on the far side of the gleaming desk.
"The letter first," Arthur said.
Williamson pulled out a sheet of rich, cream vellum. "To whom are we writing, sir?'
Arthur was silent a long time, his watery gray eyes boring holes into the cold fireplace. He'd be damned if he allowed this wedding to take place. He began dictating: "My dear Miss Foster ..."
Posted March 8, 2014
This novel is by far one of my most beloved. I've reread this story a few times because it makes me feel the character's emotions. I felt
Anne's insecurities over her looks, then the pain & heartache over the abandonment and about finding out the truth about her so called
husband Henry's reason for marriage. But he also had remorse and felt guilty for what he had planned to do to Anne, but he was
desperate to repair his family's seaside home, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Therefore, the end justified the means.
Finally, once Anne loses her weight, she blossoms into a beautiful woman and reinvents herself. Anne now has a taste of sweet revenge, that she's
planning on taking towards her now financially secure ex-husband. She's discovered she could use her looks to her advantage, since he hasn't recognized
her at social events, to bring him to his knees, then reject him. See how it feels buddy! But it is all bitter sweet, because she realizes she never got over him.
And now she's the deceiver and he's the one on other end, the hurt one.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
<P>In 1893, Henry Owen surprises everyone by courting overweight Anne Foster. Unbeknownst to the naive young lady, Henry plans to marry her so he can obtain his inheritance three years earlier than if he stayed single. Henry is obsessed with saving Sea Cliff, a family home overlooking Newport that New England storms are destroying by eroding the ground the building stands on. Henry marries Anne, leaves her on their wedding day, and divorces her three weeks later. Anne realizes he courted and married her for his money. <P>Two years later, Anne returns, but is now a beautiful young lady. She plans to avenge the affront Henry did to her by ruining him as he did her since polite society snubs her for being a divorcee. However, her plan to make him fall in love with her goes astray when she returns the feelings. <P>THE PERFECT WIFE is a humorous romp that brings to life the fashionable 400 that led society during the ¿Gay Nineties¿. The story line is fun though the dramatic change in Anne¿s appearance seems stretched. The lead couple provides charming interplay while the support cast adds depth to how the elite thought. This tale is an enjoyable Americana romance. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.