Eighteen-year-old Laurel Millard, youngest of seven children, is expected to stay home and "take care of Mama" by her older siblings, but Laurel has dreams of starting her own family. Operating a silk loom at the Atlanta Exposition will give her the chance to capture the heart of a man wealthy enough to take care of Laurel and any children she might bear, as well as her mother.
Langdon Rochester's parents have given him an ultimatum: settle down with a wife or lose his family inheritance. At the Exposition, Langdon meets Laurel. Marrying her would satisfy his parents's command, she would look lovely on his arm for social events, and in her besotted state, he believes she would overlook him continuing pursuing rowdy adventures with his unmarried buddies. Langdon decides to woo Laurel. Willie Sharp is not well-off and must take on an extra job at the Atlanta Exposition as a security guard. When mischief-makers cause trouble in the Women's Building, Willie is put in charge of keeping the building secure. He enjoys visiting with Laurel, who seems like the little sister he never had, but his feelings for Laurel change to something much deeper. Can Willie convince Laurel that he can give her better life--even with so little to offer?
|Publisher:||The Crown Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||5 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Sunday, September 1, 1895
Pine Hill neighborhood, Atlanta, Georgia
Laurel swung her feet from the armrest of the sofa to the floor and sat up. The book she’d been reading slid from her lap and landed with a soft thud on the faded square of carpet that formed an island in the middle of the scuffed hardwood floor. Ordinarily, retrieving a book—a precious thing to both her and Mama—would take precedence over all else, but the mutter of voices from the porch and the click of a key in the front door stole her attention. Which of her siblings had chosen to disturb Mama’s afternoon nap?
The door creaked open, and her brother Alfred, the oldest of the Millard siblings, stepped over the threshold with his usual air of importance. Their sister Nell followed him in. Worry smote Laurel, and she bounded to her feet. There must be a family emergency if both pompous Alfred and strong-minded Nell, who couldn’t even sit together on the Millard family pew in the Episcopal church without breaking into an argument midsermon, had come together.
“Alfred, Nell, what—” Laurel’s jaw dropped. Eugene, Raymond, and Mayme trailed in behind Nell. Never before had all five of her siblings shown up at the same time, no spouses or children in tow, for a visit. Her knees gave way, and she plopped onto the sofa’s center cushion, gaping in both confusion and apprehension.
Alfred fixed his unsmiling brown-eyed gaze on her. “Is Mama sleepin’?”
What else would Mama be doing at three thirty on a Sunday afternoon? Laurel kept the question to herself. Nineteen years her senior, Alfred tended to construe nearly everything she said as insolence. She nodded.
“Good.” Alfred flicked his hand at the others, and they removed their light cloaks and hats and draped them on the hall tree beside the door. Nell pressed her finger against her pursed lips, her frown giving a warning, and then they all chose a seat—Alfred in what Laurel always called Papa’s chair, although she had no memory of her papa sitting in it, Nell in Mama’s rocker, Eugene on the round stool in front of Mama’s loom, and Raymond and Mayme on either side of Laurel on the sofa.
Her stomach fluttered. Was this how a rabbit cornered by a pack of hungry coyotes felt? Needing to do something to calm her jumping nerves, she leaned forward and reached for the book.
Raymond clamped his hand over her knee and shook his head.
Laurel pointed at the book. “But I only wanted to—”
“Hush.” Mayme retrieved the green-fabric-covered volume of Verne’s Cesar Cascabel, smoothed the rumpled pages, and closed it, then placed it on the table next to the beautiful hand-painted oil lamp Papa had gifted Mama on their last wedding anniversary before his death over fifteen years ago.
The moment Mayme released the book, Alfred cleared his throat. As if it were a secret signal, everyone—Laurel included—folded their hands in their laps and turned their attention on him. He crossed his legs. “We’ve come about Mama.”
Laurel’s mouth went dry. “Is somethin’ wrong? Is she ill?”
Of course Mama was fine. If she had been stricken with some sort of disease, Laurel would have noticed. After all, she lived with Mama, worked with her side by side at the loom or on stitching projects, and sat with her in the parlor every evening, taking turns reading aloud from one of the books on their single, overstuffed shelf. It had been only the two of them since Mayme, the closest in age to Laurel, married and moved into her own home ten years ago, so Laurel would know better than anyone the state of Mama’s health.
Nell made a sour face. “Of course not, Laurel. Don’t be dramatic.”
Did she mean more dramatic than all of them swooping in at once? “Then what?”
Alfred bounced his foot. Sunlight from the uncovered parlor window flashed white on the toe of his highly polished boot. “Mama turns sixty next week.”
Laurel wrinkled her nose. “Yes, I know. But she’s already told me she doesn’t want a party, so if y’all are here to help organize one, then—”
“She’s getting up in years”—Alfred, probably construing her comment an interruption, gave her a severe look—“and shouldn’t be left to take care of the house and yard on her own.”
Nell pressed her lips together and tsk-tsked. “Ideally, she would have a husband to help her.” The room was stifling despite the open windows, but even so, Nell’s icy stare sent a shiver down Laurel’s spine. “Had you not chased off the only prospect, we wouldn’t be havin’ this conversation.”
Would they never forgive her for crying every time Mr. Davis paid Mama a visit? Laurel held her hands wide. “I was barely three years old.”
Nell rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t matter. After your caterwauling, he abandoned the attempt at courtship, and Mama has been alone to this day.”
Eugene, always the quietest of the group and Laurel’s favorite of all her siblings, twisted back and forth on the stool. “At her age, it’s not likely another chance for marriage will come along.” He glanced at Alfred, as if questioning whether he’d gotten his lines right. “So that one chance she had with Mr. Davis…”
Laurel gritted her teeth. She couldn’t even recall Mr. Davis, let alone her reason for bawling when he looked at her. If Mama hadn’t confirmed the story, Laurel would suspect Mayme or Raymond had made it up to have another excuse to torment her.
She had come along late in Mama’s life, following the loss of three babies in a row, and the others always accused her of being Mama’s favorite. After all these years, she wouldn’t change their opinion, so she didn’t waste her breath by defending herself. But, oh, how hard to stay silent against the unfair accusation. She pinched a loose strand of hair falling from the nape of her neck and coiled it around her finger.
Eugene seemed to have run out of words, so Laurel turned to Alfred. “What is it you’re trying to tell me?”
Alfred uncrossed his legs and leaned forward slightly, his dark brows descending. “Someone will need to care for Mama into her dotage, and we believe the rightful person is you.”
Laurel’s mouth fell open. She touched her fingertips to her bodice in silent query.
Nell nodded so hard the knot of dark hair atop her head lost a pin. “That’s exactly right. Mama risked her life bringing you into this world. She nearly died along with your twin.”
Sadness struck with such force that tears stung Laurel’s eyes. How could she so deeply mourn someone she’d never met? She’d spent her life missing two important people—her papa and the twin her parents had named Lily.
Nell continued in a strident tone, unaware of—or, perhaps more accurate, unconcerned by—Laurel’s inner pain. “Why, at forty-two she should have been preparing to spoil her first grandchildren, but instead she was suckling you at her breast. You owe her a debt of gratitude, Laurel, and you can repay it by agreein’ to remain here with Mama until that day we lay her to rest next to Papa.”
Laurel released a disbelieving laugh. “You can’t mean that.”
Mayme folded her arms over her chest and peered down her nose at Laurel. “Oh, she does. We all do.”
“It only makes sense,” Raymond said. “The rest of us have our own homes.”
“And our own families,” Mayme added.
Raymond snorted. “You can’t expect us to ignore those responsibilities.”
“You can’t possibly be that selfish.” Mayme’s voice turned wheedling. “Not after everything you’ve already cost her.”
Laurel looked back and forth from brother to sister so rapidly her head began to swim. She held up both hands and closed her eyes. “Stop. Please…be quiet and let me think.”
“There’s nothing to think about.”
She popped her eyes open and met Alfred’s stern frown.
“We’ve given it much thought, discussed it at length, and all agree this is the best way to ascertain Mama’s needs will be met.”
“But…” Laurel swallowed. What of her needs? Her wants? She’d largely stopped socializing with her girlfriends two years back when they all became so boy besotted, it embarrassed her. But since the passage of her eighteenth birthday, she’d often contemplated the joy of becoming a wife and a mother. Why, Mama must be considering Laurel’s future, because she’d allowed Patrick Brinkley to call on her. Twice!
Twirling a loose strand of hair around her finger, she looked around the room and examined each of her siblings’ faces by turn. Was there a hint of understanding in at least one pair of Millard coffee-brown eyes? She saw none, although she suspected if Eugene raised his head and met her gaze, she might witness sympathy from him.
She dropped the strand of hair and blinked back tears. “You really want me to give up on having my own family?”
“For a time, yes.” Nell snapped the answer. “It’s only right. You’re the baby. She doted on you. Now it’s her turn to be doted upon.”
“And your turn,” Mayme said, “to be the doter.”
“So that’s settled.” Alfred slapped his knees and stretched to his feet. Nell, Eugene, Raymond, and Mayme also stood and moved to the hall tree. While they retrieved their items, Alfred turned a somber look on Laurel. “I trust you to make sure Mama’s final years are not spent in loneliness and want. You won’t disappoint me, will you?”
Laurel remained seated, her muscles too quivery to support her weight. A part of her rebelled against her siblings’ expectations, but Alfred had never vowed to trust her before. The grown-up big brother she’d always tried—and failed—to please now offered her a chance to redeem herself in his eyes.
The hopeful child residing deep inside of her shook its head. “No, Alfred. I won’t.”
Peachtree Street, Atlanta
“Langdon, I am sorely disappointed in you.”
Langdon choked back a snort. When was Father not disappointed in him? Langdon maintained his relaxed position on the sofa—head resting on a tufted pillow, feet crossed on the opposite armrest—but angled his face and followed his father’s progress from the library’s wide doorway to the wingback chairs in front of the cold fireplace. His mind tripped backward through the day’s happenings. Church with his parents, during which he’d stayed awake, followed by an insufferably long lunch, during which he’d engaged Mother in cheerful conversation. He’d even denied himself an afternoon cigar. For what reason had Harrison Faulk Rochester found fault with his son today?
His expression distorting into a grimace, Father held both hands toward Langdon. “Look at you. Twenty-three years old, a university graduate, and you have nothing better to do than lie about reading…reading…” He scowled at the magazine propped against Langdon’s stomach. “What is that you’ve got?”
Langdon turned the Harper’s Weekly cover toward his father. “It’s an older issue—January of ’93—but the article about the International Monetary Conference in Brussels is quite interesting.”
Father huffed. “At least you aren’t filling your brain with drivel.”
Langdon sat up and tossed the magazine aside. Father would have had a conniption fit if he’d come in while his son was caught up in the serial story about a soldier named Connors. Romantic drivel at its best. Or, as Father would term it, its worst. “If my reading magazines on a Sunday afternoon offends you, Father, I’ll gladly choose a book instead.” He rose and perused one of the twenty-four floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
Father dropped into one of the chairs and slapped the brocade armrest. “It isn’t your reading on a Sunday afternoon that offends me. Of course Sunday is a day of rest practiced by the religious and nonreligious alike. It’s your lazy attitude the remainder of the week causing my indigestion and your mother’s fretfulness.”
Mother was fretful? Langdon faced his father and folded his arms over his chest. He had shed his suit jacket and unfastened the top buttons of his shirt after the church service. Here it was after four o’clock, and Father still wore every bit of his formal attire, down to the black-and-gray-striped silk tie fashioned in its crisp four-in-hand knot. The collar of his shirt, bound by the tie, bit into his neck and forced the flesh to mushroom above the band of white. So stodgy and stuffy he appeared. Had Father ever been young and blissfully unburdened? Likely not.
Langdon crossed to the second chair and seated himself, taking care to mimic his father’s dignified pose. “I only finished with university two and a half months ago. I wasn’t aware my enjoying a few weeks of relaxation was a source of angst to Mother.” He ran his hand through his hair, sweeping the thick strands away from his forehead. “What would she have me do instead?”
“Grow up.” Father barked the words, then bowed his head and massaged his graying temples with his fingertips.
Langdon gritted his teeth and dug his fingers into the chair’s carved handholds. Those weren’t Mother’s words. Gentle Mother never spoke abruptly. And Father never spoke anything but abruptly. As a matter of fact, it seemed the only time Father spoke to him was to deliver reprimands. While living in university housing, Langdon had decided that since he couldn’t please his father, he may as well please himself. But if he truly was causing Mother heartache…
Father fixed Langdon with a weary yet firm look. “I tolerated you repeating several classes, which meant an additional year at the university. At your mother’s insistence, I’ve held my tongue when you’ve come in late night after night, often disheveled and reeking of cigar smoke, and then stayed in bed until noon.” He shook his head, his cheeks mottling crimson. “I admit, I am partially to blame. I allowed your mother to overindulge you because you are our only child. But those days are over. You’re no longer a child to be pampered. You’re a grown man, Langdon. You must behave like one.”
“You’re six years old, Langdon, old enough to buckle your own shoes.”
“You’re nine years old, Langdon, too old to cry over a skinned knee.”
“You’re fifteen years old, Langdon. You will remain at the dinner table and engage in intelligent conversation.”
Expectation after expectation rolled through the back of his mind. He’d learned to buckle his shoes, had learned to control his tears, had learned to contribute to conversation around a dinner table. All without ever receiving a word of praise. He swallowed his resentment and forced a disinterested tone. “What is it you want from me, Father?”