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On a chilly autumn morning in 1859, the lively mistress of a magnificent mansion came flying down the curving staircase, her lilting laughter echoing throughout the grand residence. Eighteen-year-old Suzanna LeGrande was a happy, carefree young aristocrat who had lived all her life in this stately two-story Virginia manse on the rolling banks of the Potomac River.
The laughing young belle lived with her widowed mother, forty-nine-year-old Emile, and her older brother, twenty-two-year-old Matthew. The frail, quiet Emile LeGrande loved her daughter dearly, but the mercurial Suzanna's rambunctious behavior was prone to give her mother headaches.
The LeGrande siblings were close, and Matthew, being the man of the house, was very protective of his beautiful younger sister. Since the high-spirited Suzanna had turned sixteen, hopeful young suitors had been drawn to the vivacious miss. She was, and had always been, stunningly beautiful, with her flaming red hair, large, wide-set blue eyes and milky-white skin. But Suzanna was not vain about her looks. She had turned heads her entire life and thought nothing of it.
Besides, it was a great deal more than her startling beauty that attracted a growing army of male admirers. She possessed a great zest for life and threw herself into everything she did with such blazing intensity it charmed the young bucks and frightened her sedate mother. Suzanna had a compulsion to dramatize, which made her tremendously fascinating to all her friends.
She was high-strung, sensitive, warmhearted and endlessly entertaining. There was never a dull minute around Suzanna. At an early age she had learned—from her gregarious, red-haired father—to spin yarns that left her listeners wide-eyed and hanging on to every word. It was not only boys who found the out-spoken Suzanna intriguing, but girls as well.
She was impetuous and impatient, but so filled with the joy of living that she lifted spirits with her mere presence. Added to her talent for storytelling was her unique ability to read palms and predict futures, an art she had learned from her beloved old nursemaid, now deceased. Naturally, all the young belles wanted to know what romantic adventures lay in store for them. The boys were unconcerned about the future, but looked on the palm reading as an opportunity to hold Suzanna's hand.
Suzanna was totally feminine, yet she had a masculine directness that was captivating. She spoke her mind, was never coy or ambiguous, nor was she particularly diplomatic. While Suzanna took after her deceased father, the lovable, outgoing Lawrence LeGrande, Matthew was more like their mother. He enjoyed a good time as much as the next fellow, but he had no compulsion to race through life as if the world might stop turning should he miss a picnic or party or ball.
An honor graduate of West Point, Matthew took duty, honor and country seriously. And he felt that his most important duty was to see to it no unprincipled male took advantage of his sister. While he was away at the institute, Matthew had worried about what calamity might befall the trusting Suzanna. A scholar who easily excelled in his studies, Matthew had completed his education at the ripe old age of twenty, and had immediately returned home to take up his post as head of the LeGrande household.
"For heaven sake, Suzanna," Matthew said now, looking up as a laughing streak of flaming hair and lilac ruffles dashed past the open library doors. "Isn't it time you displayed a bit more decorum?"
Suzanna skidded to a stop at the umbrella stand in the foyer. As she reached for a woolen cape and matching bonnet, she said over her shoulder, "Do forgive me, Matt. You see, I'm in an awful hurry and really must fly." She turned and flashed a smile at her tall, sandy-haired brother, who had stepped out into the foyer.
"At breakfast you failed to mention you were going out this morning," Matthew casually commented.
"Did I? Well, I have a great deal on my mind, what with next week's reception at Stratford House. That's why I'm in such a hurry. I'm on my way now and—"
"You're planning to be the first guest to arrive?"
"Don't be silly!" Suzanna said as she tied her bonnet's long grosgrain streamers beneath her chin.
"I promised I'd help Mrs. Grayson and Cynthia Ann decide on the decorations and finalize the extensive menu." She added excitedly, "It's a stellar guest list to be sure. More or less the beginning of our upcoming Washington social season. Why, even Colonel Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary, are expected at the festivities, did you know that?"
Matthew nodded. Colonel Lee, a West Point graduate and superintendent at the Point, was home on leave from his regimental duties on the Texas frontier.
"I'll be very surprised if the colonel attends, Suzanna. You know very well that his dear wife is in poor health and rarely leaves Arlington House and therefore..."
"Colonel Lee with be at the reception, Matthew," Suzanna stated emphatically. "He's far too polite and too political to disappoint a hostess as powerful as Jennie Grayson." She crossed to her brother, stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. "After all, the colonel likely plans to—"
"You have no idea what Lee's plans are," Matthew interrupted, quickly changing the subject. "Let's discuss our plans. Have you given any thought to what you'll wear this evening?"
Suzanna stepped back. Her well-arched eyebrows shot up and she looked genuinely puzzled. "This evening? Is there something special about this evening?"
"Suzanna, you do try my patience. I told you several days ago we have an important dinner guest joining us this evening. I expect you to be here."
"Why, I wouldn't miss it for the world," she said with a shrug of her slender shoulders. "Another un-suspecting candidate for my hand in marriage?"
Matthew frowned. "Just promise me you'll be home in plenty of time to get properly dressed to receive our guest. And that you'll be on your best behavior. Ty Bellinggrath is a fine man, Suzanna, and—"
"You can count on me, brother, dear," Suzanna said with a teasing smirk. "I'll scrub my face and cinch my waist and be on display when he arrives. Then you may point out all my finer qualities as I slowly pirouette for the prospective bridegroom."
"Do me one small favor, Matt. Promise that if I'm not married by the time I reach twenty-five, you will give up and stop bringing young gentlemen here in hopes of marrying me off!"
For the first time Matthew smiled as he said, "Bellinggrath will be here at seven o'clock, my dear. And so will you."
"I shall look forward to a most enjoyable evening," Suzanna said sarcastically. "Now I really must be going. Poor old Durwood's waiting out in the cold with the carriage."
Suzanna sighed with pleasure as she settled herself comfortably inside the roomy brougham. Old Dur-wood, in full livery, sat proudly up on the box, handling the pair of matched bays with ease despite his worsening arthritis. The horses were fine specimens, curried to a high gloss, and the gleaming black, silver trimmed carriage had seats of soft burgundy leather.
With her bonnet off and slapped down on the seat beside her, Suzanna gazed out the window at the natural beauty of her native Virginia. How she loved the broad avenues and the glittering streams. The familiar sights never failed to take her breath away.
Suzanna was eternally grateful that this was her home, the place where she had been born, the place where she would live all her days. She considered herself fortunate to have had a father who had been so forward thinking and such a brilliant businessman.
It was true that the late Lawrence LeGrande had inherited a tidy sum from his British ancestors, but he hadn't been content to simply let the cash lie in the safety of a bank vault. Instead he had invested wisely in land and had, over time, accumulated a vast fortune from varied endeavors.
There were the tobacco fields in northern Virginia, a coastal cotton plantation in South Carolina, indigo crops in northern Georgia and a host of other well-chosen investments in rail and shipping. The holdings were diverse and profitable and afforded the LeGrande family a life of splendid ease in the stately riverside mansion known as Whitehall.
Suzanna loved her life and her home and prayed that nothing would ever change. She wanted everything to remain just as it was on this crisp autumn morning in October of 1859.
Suzanna was halfway out of the brougham before it came to a full stop in the pebbled drive of Stratford House in the heart of Georgetown. Nonplussed at his young mistress's less than ladylike behavior, old Durwood laid the long leather reins aside and gingerly swung down to the ground.
"Why you want to act like a boy, Miss Suzanna?" he scolded, taking firm hold of her arm as she jumped from the carriage. "Folk'll be gossipin"
"bout us if you don't behave and..."
But Suzanna, skirts lifted, bonnet left behind, was already dashing up the front walk, calling Cynthia Ann's name. The dark-haired girl stepped out onto the shaded veranda, spotted Suzanna and came dashing forward to greet her best friend and trusted confidante. The young women threw their arms around each other and embraced as though it had been weeks—not hours—since last they'd seen each other.
"You'll have lunch with us," Cynthia Ann stated as they walked into the house, arm in arm. "Then spend all afternoon?"
"So long as I'm home by seven," Suzanna replied.
"Matthew is up to his old tricks. He has invited a poor naive fellow to dinner." She made a face. "Be grateful you don't have a big brother!"
Both laughed, then Cynthia Ann asked, "How does Matthew keep coming up with new prospective beaux? Surely you've met all his friends by now. At least all the ones he'd hope you might marry."
Suzanna sighed and shook her head wearily. "Hopefully this is the very last one! His name is Ty Bellinggrath. He and Matt were classmates at West Point, but Bellinggrath left home right after graduation. As I understand it, he's been in Europe for the past couple of years. He only returned a week ago and Matthew immediately pounced on him." She quoted her brother, "I'll have you know, Suzanna LeGrande, that my good friend Ty Bellinggrath is the respected scion of an old Virginia family. He excelled in his studies at the institute and is considered quite a catch." Suzanna laughed and added, "I can just imagine what he looks like. Matt is so anxious to marry me off he's scraping the bottom of the barrel now."
Inside the wide foyer of Stratford House, the slender, still handsome Jennie Grayson waited to welcome her. "We're awfully glad you could come this morning, Suzanna," she exclaimed with a warm smile. To her daughter, she said, "Cynthia, dear, why don't you take Suzanna upstairs, where the two of you can relax for an hour before lunch?" Her attention shifted back to Suzanna. "After we've had a leisurely noontime meal, we'll go over the party menu and give you our ideas regarding the decorations. You're always so innovative, the final decision will be yours."