A friend's newspaper advertisement for a groom nets the most famous actor in London, Arthur Bex. Shy heiress Ester Croome proposes to elope with the handsome man, who she's secretly loved for two years, in order to escape an impending engagement arranged by her overbearing family.
Trying to outlive the shadow of his villainous uncle, Bex needs to marry quickly—to a woman of good character. And smart, beautiful Ester fits the bill. But a harrowing trip to Gretna Green and dangerous abolition rallies prove to be a more treacherous stage than either imagined. Infatuation and a mutual love for Shakespeare might not be enough to bind a couple looking to outrun the chains and secrets of family and the past.
Each book in the Advertisements for Love series is STANDALONE:
* The Bittersweet Bride
* The Bashful Bride
* The Butterfly Bride
* The Bewildered Bride
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
March 18, 1820, London, England
Ester Croome sank into the hammered copper tub and let the warm, sudsy water soak her skin, kissing her in her favorite lilac scent. A copy of the Morning Post sat on the floor of the bathing room with big, wet fingerprints atop her friend's advertisement for a marriage of convenience and a brutal review of her favorite actor, Arthur Bex.
"Miss Croome," Mrs. Fitterwall, the family's Irish housekeeper, said as she entered the bathing room with a silver pitcher high in her hands. "You must be part fish." Bashful, even to another woman, Ester ducked into the suds until just her neck showed. "You should knock, Mrs. Fitterwall."
"I've been working here five years, and you're still a shy one, Miss Croome, but you can't lay about in the tub all morn. You've an appointment in town and then must come back and get ready for the party. No dawdling for a Croome."
The woman glanced at the walls. "Your mother has only a few more things to restore and then everything will be done at Nineteen Fournier."
Only an Olympian acanthus leaf indention in the molding needed fixing in the salmon-pink room. Her mother had three passions: Nineteen Fournier, newspapers, and knitting. Poor Mama. She needed something to be happy about.
"Come on, Miss Croome. I must rinse you off. Is that your mother's Morning Post? She'll be looking for it."
Ester didn't reply as the woman carefully poured the pitcher over her. It wasn't time to wash her hair, and tender-headed Ester was grateful, but a splash too much of water would reduce her braided chignon to frizzy tangles. Wet Blackamoor hair could be unruly. At least Ester's curls were.
"Don't you fret. Not a drop of water will dampen your head. Your Mama's big party is tonight. Five years in this house. You must look your best." Mrs. Fitterwall gathered a robe and readied a fresh towel.
Ester unfolded her arms from about her bosom, a touch too large for her small height, stepped into the soft cotton, winding it tightly about her, then she dove into the robe the woman held out.
"The way you carry on, you'd think you hated baths." The woman chuckled, but Ester didn't think it funny. She was shy and small, but in her heart roared a lion. Someday she'd find the strength to show the world.
"I'll send the maid to your room to help you dress." She scooped up the paper and shook it as Ester rubbed lotion on to her hands. "And hurry. I think your father's discussing your birthday." The woman winked at her. "If you're quick, you might find out what big surprise he has for you."
But Ester was unmoved.
Papa always made a big to-do out of birthdays and holidays, but things hadn't been right between them for a while. With a sigh, she offered Mrs. Fitterwall a small smile, then dashed to her room to dress.
In her closet, she flipped past the bright hues to her silver-gray gown, perfect for the outside world still in mourning for the king. Upon laying out the dress, she bathed once again in lotion, making sure to cover her elbows and knees. Mama said the ash on her skin could be so bad it would cut her stockings to ribbons.
She finished in time for the maid to come in and help. Once laced and properly corseted over her chemise, she slipped into her day dress then covered up in a dark spencer jacket and her favorite coral and pearl necklace. Pleased that she looked presentable, she fought the frilly lace covering her canopy bed to recover her sketchbook. Her friend, Frederica Burghley, would love this wedding gown. Oh, please let the man she's corresponding with be the one.
Bouncing down one set of stairs and then the last, she heard her father's deep voice. Remembering Mrs. Fitterwall's hint about a birthday surprise, Ester slowed her steps in the hall outside his study and listened.
"Ester will marry on her birthday."
The world stopped turning. Papa's voice. His awful deal-making voice.
Unless the great actor, Arthur Bex, sat inside Papa's study, Ester was doomed.
"My daughter will be so pleased — an April wedding. Your son is getting a diamond."
Papa's commanding tone stole her breath, made Ester crumple to the floor.
Almost sitting on her beloved sketches, she steadied herself against the creamy canary yellow walls.
This was a mistake.
That's what it had to be. No arranged marriage for her, but something of her own choosing.
As the Croome wealth had grown, she'd become used to more extravagant presents — silver slippers, her coral necklace with a pearl, but not a man. Craning her ear, she heard Papa confirm his foul agreement, "Ester will be a good match for him."
Who was the "him"?
Scooping up her sketchbook, she stood as Father's thunderous laugh bellowed down the hall. No names had been offered. No voices other than Papa's could she discern. To whom had he promised her?
Fear and curiosity twisted about her neck like the jewelry she wore. She looped the heavy cord of beads about her pinkie and waited. Truth, even a horrible one, always came out, like Papa's affair.
"Yes, getting married to a respectable young man is all she talks about," he said.
Her sketchbook dropped again, slipping from the crook of her arm to the floor with a splat. She froze. Papa's study was several feet away, opposite Mama's parlor. Either could hear her, demand her time, further ruining her already ruined day, but worse, make her miss her appointment and let Frederica down. Her friend counted on her. It would hurt her heart too much to disappoint her.
But how could she leave and not know more of Papa's deal-making?
So Ester waited, clutching the milk-white trim at her back, her nails sinking into the raised plaster fleur-de-lis rimming the hall of the family's Cheapside townhome. It wasn't Cheapside proper, but as close as Father could move them. Croome money wasn't enough to erase the limitations of Papa's dark hands.
"Yes. My son, Charles will be pleased, too." The second voice was masculine, but lighter, without an ounce of richness or gravitas, just pure smugness. "He'll ask her tonight."
Mama's party was tonight.
Mother's special celebration to honor Nineteen Fournier was turning into an engagement party. Ester scratched her brow, resettled her trim gray bonnet over her thick locks. There was only one of Papa's business partners with a son named Charles. Could it be Charles Jordan? She shuddered at the notion of marrying the known womanizer. No. This engagement couldn't happen, not at Mama's party. Not ever.
Heart pounding like it would break free of her ribs, she risked it flopping out from her stays and bent to pick up her treasured book. She tugged the worn spine to her bosom like it was a shield and covered her soul. She was one month from one and twenty and hadn't considered marrying. Not seriously. She'd been more involved in helping her friend Frederica craft a newspaper advertisement for a husband. That girl needed a good situation in the worst way and was to meet her first serious candidate today, with Ester as chaperone.
There was hope. One always had to have hope. The Croomes had been blessed by hope. How else could the family business grow without it? How else could they have come up from living above a warehouse to having a home? How else could they have taken this rundown place and made it bloom into a fashion plate?
Maybe Ester could hope to change his mind. Papa was reasonable, and until Christmas last year they'd had a perfect, doting relationship. Clenching her fingers in and out, she hesitated then tapped on Papa's door. Before her fourth knock, he answered.
Josiah Croome was a tall man with thick, jet-black hair, parted on top. He tugged on the lapel of his sleek lapis-blue tailcoat. Endowed by God, he'd used his large dark hands and smart ebony eyes to build the family textile business from nothing. But Papa couldn't use those big palms to give her future away.
"Ester," he said with a toothy, winning smile. "Just the young woman I wanted to see."
He tried to claim her arm, but she stepped back. "Papa," she said in her honeyed tone. "Could you come out here for a moment?"
A frown appeared on his face, but he nodded. "Mr. Jordan, I'll be right back."
When he closed the door, Ester exhaled. "Father, no. I can't."
He folded his arms and stared way down at her short five-foot-four height. "You heard?"
"Yes, and I won't marry Charles Jordan, Papa. I can't."
"You met him once, Ester. You said the meeting was pleasant."
"I was being polite. He's horrible, and that evening cost me seeing Arthur Bex's last performance as Romeo."
With the wide span of his palm stretched over his face from ear to ear, he sighed. "Not the actor again. Ester, you talk about this Bex every day, as if he were truly your lover. Stop this. The man doesn't know you exist, and if he is as wonderful as you say, he isn't looking for a bride in the old Huguenot section of London."
Papa was being diplomatic, but it was his way of saying important men didn't go looking for Blackamoor brides.
A little unnerved by his use of the word "lover" and Bex in the same sentence, she clutched at the buttons of her short jacket. "You know how I love Bex's art. His theatrical performances are outstanding, and I missed one because of nasty Charles Jordan — a boy who never reads, knows nothing of Shakespeare, and needs a variety of women to stave off boredom. He cannot be a good husband to me."
"Ester, this is true life. You'll be one and twenty. I must make sure that you are well provided for, and Charles Jordan is a man you can build a life with."
"How can that be? Your choice is a womanizer. He's —" She bit her lip. Why would infidelity matter to Papa? The letters Ester had found last Christmas proved her father was an adulterer, too. She lowered her tone, looked to the polished floorboards. "He's not right for me."
Father claimed Ester's fingers, his big, meaty palms surrounding her thin ones. "You don't know what is right. You're young and sheltered. I've made mistakes, but this isn't one. The matter is settled, Ester. Tonight, at your mother's party, your engagement will be announced."
It sounded like a commandment from on high in Papa's deep, Moses voice, but he'd have to part the Red Sea or the Thames to make her believe that Charles was her fate.
"Come, Ester. Do your duty for the family. Be nice to Mr. Jordan. We are a respected family, too. We need to act like it."
Her pride kicked in, and she stood up straight. She'd act the part of a submissive daughter until she could plan a way to stop this, to become her own Moses and find a space, a promised land where she could choose her own husband. Someone who'd be truthful and not mock their vows of faithfulness.
Her father opened the door to his sand-colored study. The etchings of the old Huguenot fleur-de-lis were in here, too, making it feel stately — and the decisions made inside, so final.
"Ester, say hello to Mr. Jordan."
She fixed her frowning face, hid her sketchbook behind her back, and followed her father in. "Hello to Mr. Jordan." Papa stepped near his walnut desk, a reward for when the mantua-makers had started ordering his fabrics for the new Burlingame Arcade. "My daughter, Mr. Jordan, is a treasure with a good sense of humor. She'll make any man proud." The man stared at her, reached for her, and Ester froze.
Bashfulness clamping her lips, she couldn't reply, not under Jordan's beady gaze. She lowered her gaze to Papa's orderly desk and spied the upside-down parchment that read Marriage Contract.
Now she truly couldn't breathe.
Mr. Jordan with his short height of five-foot-five, lowered his palm and tugged on his silken gray waistcoat. "My son, Charles, is made of quite good material, if I may say so to the fabric king." He bowed his balding head in Ester's direction, and she resisted the urge to look behind her for some other girl to be the recipient of this tragedy.
"Charles will be here tonight for your mother's party. He may have a question to ask you. Something that will change your life a month from now, on your birthday."
Gloating at her sentence of a horrid marriage was uncalled for. No matter how much she wished to believe this was a bad dream, that she still lay in her canopied bed, sketching dresses for Frederica, dreaming of reciting lines with Arthur Bex, Ester had to admit she was horribly awake and tonight she'd be horribly engaged to a womanizer.
"Ester, the Jordans are an honorable family. They've perfected gas-lighting as good as anywhere in London. My warehouses can run multiple shifts. More productivity, more jobs."
"And more money." Mr. Jordan winked and bared teeth in his crooked smile.
Papa chuckled. "It's a perfect match."
For the Croome business, maybe, but not for the business of her heart. Ester refused to nod, didn't want to give any form of consent. She tugged her gray-colored gloves tighter. "Well ... I ... I'm meeting a friend in town. Mr. Jordan. Papa ... pleasant meeting."
Her father picked up the spectacles he used for contract writing. "Ester, you should stay and become more acquainted with Mr. Jordan. There are ten-thousand reasons to be more acquainted."
Her dowry? The price on her head — and they said enslavement was finished in England. How could Papa expect her to want this? She wasn't like Mama. She wasn't like her sister Ruth, who had been happy with her arranged marriage in the country.
"Daughter, say something. I know you are terribly shy, but Mr. Jordan will be family."
Why did he expect a reply when he'd taken away her options? Ester had nothing for her father except a bucket of unshed tears. "Good day, gentlemen." She turned on wobbly legs and headed for the door. At least she stayed composed and held her voice even. Surely, she looked in order, not shredding apart like poorly tacked-on ribbons.
She put her back upon the door and ensured that it closed, that no one followed. The great actor Arthur Bex would be marginally proud of her performance. If only this were a play. Then that would've been the scene where the villains won, and her victory was bound for the last act.
"She'll come around, Jordan. Just like her mother, Ester is level-headed." The statement was harsh, vibrating the panel door as if her father knew she was still within hearing distance.
Like my mother?
The comment was a final slap, and it shook Ester more deeply than the idea of a bad arranged marriage. She wasn't like her mother, not in any way that mattered. It was an awful guilt-laden thought, but the sentiment was there, always there, more so since last Christmas.
Clancy, Papa's butler, slipped into the hall with a shiny silver tray of teacakes. "Miss Ester, you need to run on. You're going to be late. That Miss Burghley's going to start her trouble without you."
She half smiled at the man. He was tall and proud in his garnet livery. Papa had him powder his gray hair so he'd be as fine as the servants in Cheapside or even Mayfair. "Miss Ester, are you well?"
Ester wanted to say no, but that would make the man call a fancy physician and she'd not be able to go meet her friend. "I'm good. And you are right about Miss Burghley and trouble. I need to hurry. Can you see about the carriage, so I won't miss a moment? I'll take the tray in to Mama. I assume that's where these are heading. Father doesn't like the delicate treats. He says they are too small for his hands."
"You're not supposed to help me. Since you moved to this big house, you've been trying. It's not your place anymore. If I can't do it, there's an upstairs maid or Mrs. Fitterwall who can. I'll set these refreshments in the parlor for Mrs. Croome and Mrs. Jordan, then send the footman for your carriage."
She watched Clancy knock and then slip into the parlor. He worked too hard, but he seemed proud to be of service, proud that his employer, a man of color, could achieve so much. But how could Clancy ignore the unhappiness that seemed to suffocate this place?
Ester pulled her sketchbook to her stomach and moved to the front door. From the side glass, she looked at the calm street, the occasional carriage trotting by. If she were bold, she'd hitch herself to the back of one. If I were bold.
Clancy came out of Mama's parlor. "Mrs. Croome is asking for you. I'll go send the footman for the carriage. You won't miss that trouble. Go to your mother." She nodded and went back into the small hall. She heard Papa and Mr. Jordan's laughter as she entered the adjacent parlor. The rich room of burgundy-papered wall was devoid of sound, so different from the room next door. Ester walked inside to the tapestry-covered couch where her mother sat.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bashful Bride"
Copyright © 2018 Vanessa Riley.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.