Abby Long is thrilled when she offers the winning bid for an antique desk at an auction. With its intricately inlaid woods and elegant style, the desk is perfect for Abby; it is the gift she promised herself to finally celebrate her thriving antique business. She has no idea that the antique desk holds a secret that will lead her on a fascinating, life-changing journey back in time.
When Abby discovers a hidden diary stuffed inside a secret compartment in the desk, she can hardly wait to read the spidery, faded script. As she carefully turns the tattered pages, she reads the captivating story of two remarkable women from opposite backgrounds who somehow manage to form an unforgettable bond against the backdrop of a fledgling America struggling to find its place in the world. Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, the wife of James Monroe, and Jasmine, a young slave girl, develop an extraordinary relationship as they are united by pivotal historic events, political intrigues, and personal tragedies.
From a bucolic Virginia plantation to the bloodied, starving streets of post-revolutionary Paris, this powerful tale follows the lives of two courageous women from the past as they quietly influence-and inspire-a woman of today's world.
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The Beautiful American
By Marilyn Holdsworth
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Marilyn Holdsworth
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGoing once; going twice." The auctioneer hesitated for dramatic effect, scanning the audience. "Any more advance on this exceptional piece? Ladies and gentlemen, look at the intricate carving, the magnificent craftsmanship," he pleaded. "Any more advance? Last chance," he threatened, waving his gavel in midair. "Sold!" The gavel banged, and scattered applause rippled through the crowd.
"Smart buy goes to the little lady in the third row. What's your number again?"
Abby hoisted her bidding paddle, her hands trembling and heart racing with a heady surge of excitement. "I got it," she whispered. "I got it." She picked up her shoulder bag and edged down the row of filled seats to the main aisle. Minutes later, she was standing at the cashier's counter writing out a check to pay for her purchase. She knew she had paid more than she had budgeted for the piece. A couple of aggressive dealers had pushed the price higher, but she was determined to have it, and she had offered the winning bid.
She had fallen hopelessly in love with the desk after seeing it at the auction's morning previews. Although its finish was age worn, its intricate inlaid woods and slender, tapered legs gave it an elegant, graceful style. And it was the perfect size for a lady—for her. It was the gift she had promised herself when her business was finally flourishing. And this had been an excellent year for her. Not only was her shop, Abby's Antiques and Collectibles, successful, but she had landed some lucrative decorating contracts as well. Finding and purchasing period pieces at affordable prices for customers had become her specialty, and demands for her services were growing. She had a special talent for tracking down and authenticating hidden treasures and loved doing it. But this morning's find was for her. Her hand still slightly trembled as she wrote out the check, signed it, and handed it to the cashier with her driver's license for identification.
The clerk smiled, glanced at her signature, and studied the picture on her license before handing it back to her. "Abigail Cecilia. Pretty name, not one you hear often these days," he commented.
"From my dear grandmother. Old fashioned name. Old fashioned girl." Abby laughed, pushing a strand of her long strawberry-blond hair back from her brow. Her thickly lashed, blue-green eyes and fresh, dewy complexion gave her a much younger appearance than the thirty-two years on her driver's license. And in her loose-fitting peasant dress with flat shoes, she looked much smaller than the five-foot-seven statistic. Even her hair in the picture was shorter, darker, causing the clerk to give her a final appraisal before dropping her check into the cash drawer.
"You gonna need delivery for this?" he asked, waving the receipt.
"I can manage if somebody will help me load it into my van. I'm parked right outside."
"Just hand the guys at pickup this slip, and they'll load it."
"Thanks." Abby beamed at him and turned away from the counter.
"Quite a buy ya just made." A short, chubby man with a baseball cap pulled down to his protruding ears pushed through the line to her. "Wanna sell it. I'll give ya a good deal. Make a quick profit. What do ya say?"
"It's not for sale," Abby answered, firmly turning away from the man.
"Ya ain't gonna get a better offer," he persisted, blocking her way, his hand reaching out to take her arm.
"Get out of the lady's way," a deep voice sounded from behind her, and the man took a step backward.
"Okay, okay, ya don't need to stick your nose into nothin', buddy. I was just offerin' the lady a cool deal. That's all. Piece of junk ain't worth it anyhow. She paid too much for it anyway." The man scowled as he pushed his way through the crowd and disappeared into the auction warehouse.
"I hope he didn't alarm you too much. Sometimes these dealers just can't let go of an item. I think he's pretty harmless, but just to be careful, I'd be happy to escort you to your car."
"I'm sure I'll be all right. But thanks. He's gone now, and I'm going to leave too as soon as I can pick up my desk and get some help loading it." Abby smiled up at the tall young man facing her. He was dressed in a pair of hip-hugging jeans, a T-shirt, and athletic running shoes. A shock of wavy, dark brown hair fell across his forehead, giving him a casual, boyish look, but his intense hazel eyes showed his concern for her. And as she moved toward the sign indicating the pickup station, he fell into step beside her.
"Sorry, I should have introduced myself sooner. I'm Nathan Edwards," he offered apologetically as they walked out of the warehouse onto a wide concrete loading dock, where numerous items were lined up waiting to be claimed.
"And I'm Abby Long," she responded, anxiously scanning the various pieces of furniture and artwork for her desk. "Oh, there it is," she said, relief sounding in her voice. "Just as beautiful as I remembered from the previews. Thank goodness I got here early and was able to see it up close. Sitting in the audience, even in the front rows, it's hard to see the details of a piece. And that auctioneer kept up such a furious pace, I thought for a minute there I was going to be caught in a bidding war." She handed the stock boy her pickup slip. "Did you buy anything?" she asked as she watched her desk being carefully lifted down off the dock.
"Not today. I didn't find quite what I was looking for. If your desk had been two or three times bigger, you might have had a real battle taking it away from me," he said, laughing. "It's perfect for a lady, but my long legs wouldn't begin to fit beneath it."
"You're looking for a desk? Any special period or style?"
"Just one I like. Big enough, roomy enough, and preferably with a leather insert on the top. I saw one a couple of months ago I liked, and I could kick myself for letting it get away. Didn't make my mind up fast enough, and it sold right out from under my nose. Auctions are fun, but you have to move quickly or you lose out," he said ruefully.
"You'll have to come by my shop. I have a couple of desks, one in particular you might like—beautiful mahogany finish with a leather top like you were describing." Abby dug into her bag and handed him a card.
Nathan took the card, pocketed it, and followed her out to the parking lot. When her desk had been loaded into her van, Abby turned to him smiling. "Thanks again for rescuing a damsel in distress. I really did appreciate it," she said, offering her hand to him. "And, Nathan—it is Nathan isn't it?"
He nodded, still holding her hand.
"Don't forget about the desk. It might be just what you're looking for. We're open weekdays nine to five and Saturdays ten to three."
"I might just do that. Like to see it," he said, smiling warmly at her as she slid behind the wheel and started up the motor. He watched her van turn out of the parking lot into the busy intersection and disappear down the street.
Chapter TwoAbby turned the van into the long driveway, drove down to the garage, and parked. From the house, she could hear loud, welcoming barks and scratching at the door as she hurried up the steps. "All right, all right, I'm coming," she called, fumbling with her key in the sticking lock and pushing on the old, warped wood.
A moment later, she burst into the kitchen and a large, tail-wagging fur ball catapulted across the floor at her, almost knocking her legs out from under her. "Yes, yes, I'm glad to see you, too." She laughed, stroking the joyous animal's head, scratching behind the silky ears. "Come on, Muttie; let's go out for a quick walk. You've been cooped up long enough." From a hook inside a utility closet, she took down a leash and fastened it to the dog's collar, and they both bounded down the back steps, two at a time.
It was a warm, sunny afternoon, and Abby enjoyed the walk almost as much as Muttie did. She watched the dog playfully dive under bushes, pushing her nose into piles of leaves hoping to flush out a bird or squirrel. Abby had never been sorry she had taken the animal home with her the day it had turned up at the shop. A skinny, frightened stray with a hurt paw, but with the most beautiful, big, soulful brown eyes Abby had ever seen. It had been love at first sight for both of them. Abby said the dog looked like a shepherd crossed with a spaniel. Max and Mildred, her helpers in the shop, both said she looked like a big mutt. Muttie. The name had stuck, and Muttie had become Abby's constant companion, always closer than a shadow. Today, she stood watching the dog sniff around the base of a towering oak tree barking, excitedly at a squirrel chattering and scolding from a limb far above her. Yes, she thought, Muttie came into her life like everything else-suddenly without warning.
When her grandmother had been stricken with a stroke and died unexpectedly, Abby had been devastated. Her grandmother had raised her, taken her in after the fatal accident that had claimed the lives of her parents. The old house on Oak Lane in Westfield had been the only home she had known, and she had stayed.
She had stayed not because she had to, but because she loved it and wanted to. Her years growing up there had filled her with happy memories. Her grandmother always had been there for her, guiding her through her shy, awkward stages until she blossomed into a bubbling, confident teenager. Always a good student with a keen love for learning, Abby was at the top of her class her senior year at Westfield High. She had been accepted to several Ivy League colleges, but in the end she had chosen State to be closer to home. She'd wanted to be able to spend weekends with her grandmother. And when, after four years, she'd graduated with honors, she again had chosen State for her master's degree. The art history department had offered a fine program focusing on antiques and period furniture design. But her grandmother had urged her to study abroad for a semester, and when she was accepted by the Sorbonne she reluctantly agreed.
The months she spent in Paris had been glorious. Every course at the Sorbonne opened her eyes to new wonders in art. Her days flew by, filled not only by fascinating classes but also with wonderful bicycling trips through the rural French countryside and sightseeing excursions to the many quaint villages outside the city. And of course, she spent hours and hours roaming through the Louvre, awed by the museum's vast collections of the world's most famous old masters. She never tired of exploring the many galleries and, on each visit, discovered something new to appreciate in some painting or sculpture. She marveled at the Titians, Rembrandts, and her special favorite, Leonardo da Vinci.
Writing home to her grandmother, Abby recounted her first glimpse of his most famous portrait. "The Mona Lisa is more captivating than I dreamed she could be," she enthused. "Her mysterious half smile fascinates me. I can stand for a very long time studying her enigmatic face, wondering what secrets hide behind her darkly veiled gaze."
But it was Paris, the enchanting city itself, that had captured her heart, and when the term was over she'd vowed to return one day.
Abby smiled ruefully remembering that vow today as she watched Muttie tugging vigorously on the leash, nose quivering with the sweet autumn scents in the air. "Paris. I haven't forgotten my dream. I'll get there. I'm just not sure how or when. But one day, I will, Muttie," she said aloud as she turned back toward the long driveway up to the house.
The phone was ringing when they bounded up the back steps, and Abby dropped the leash as she hurried to answer it.
Mildred's crisp Cockney accent came across the line. "Just checking to see if you need a bit of a hand, love—that is, if you've done the usual, packed the van with auction treasures."
"Oh, Mildred, you know me too well." Abby laughed. "Only one piece today—a gift from me to me. But it's a beauty, and I will need a hand getting it into the house. If Max is free, I'd be grateful for his help."
"Right. Send him along straightaway. And, Abby, I'm glad you got something for yourself this time. You deserve it. You work much too hard. A young lass like you should be steppin' out for fun," the older woman chided gently.
"You know I love my work. It's my fun. But I did splurge today, Mildred. Wait till you see it. I found my desk. It's just what I've been looking for—the period and style I wanted. And in good condition too. A real treasure. How soon can Max get here?"
"He's watchin' the tellie. I'll just pop along and ask 'im." Moments later, Mildred was back on the line. "Be over straightaway he says. And if you might be fixin' a cup of tea later, I'll be ridin' along with 'im."
"Perfect. Tea it is. Come as soon as you can. I can't wait to show you my find."
Chapter ThreeWhen Mildred and Max pulled into the driveway, Muttie bounded out the back door to greet them, and both smiled and waved to Abby as she came down the steps after the bouncing, barking dog. Max stooped down and rubbed behind Muttie's ears before walking over to Abby's van. He peered inside at the desk and then opened the door and climbed inside.
"I've made room for it in the living room, Max. Do you want a Dolley to move it? I have one in the garage."
"Nah. Not for this." His wide, flat fingers clamped securely around the ends of the desk, and easily, he lifted it from the van and then started for the house. Minutes later, the three of them were in Abby's living room admiring her auction find.
"It's just the right size," Abby enthused, laying her hand on the smooth, inlaid wood.
"French?" Mildred asked.
"Yes. I'll do a little research to be sure, but I'd say more neoclassical than rococo in style. The inlay and rosettes at the top of the legs suggest late 1700s or early 1800s. Also, it has straighter lines than the heavier Louis XV cabinetry. And this delicate pattern was popular in that French neoclassical period," she said, pointing to one of the tiny basket of flowers with a ribbon trailing from it that decorated each drawer front.
Carefully she removed one of the side drawers and showed Max and Mildred the desk's tongue-and-groove craftsmanship. She turned the drawer over and examined the bottom, her fingers tracing the wood grains. "Sometimes, these old pieces have a date or initials of the maker somewhere on them. I'll have to examine it thoroughly for any clues to its origin. But right now, let's see about that cup of tea I promised you both." She slid the drawer back in place and walked toward the kitchen.
Seated in the cozy breakfast nook, the trio breathed in the aromas from a steaming pot of tea and a plate of homemade scones on the table before them.
"My favorites," Mildred said helping herself to one of the small blueberry muffins before passing them to Max.
"Your recipe. I can't take the credit," Abby said, laughing. "Just another of the many good things you've brought to me." She beamed at the older woman affectionately. "English breakfast tea and scones—both have become an important part of my life."
Max settled back, easing his large frame away from the small table. "Nice, nice, I'd say, whoever's recipe it is. You plannin' on comin' into the shop later this afternoon?"
"Yes. I want to adjust the pricing on a few items. I got some ideas from that auction, and I think my Haviland china pieces are marked wrong. Also, I'd like to make some changes in our window display if you two can spare the time to help me."
Their conversation flowed easily as they discussed ideas for marketing and some of Abby's new orders from customers. Almost an hour later, the three of them finally left for the shop.
Located across town, Abby's Antiques and Collectibles was in the middle of the main block in newly restored Old Town Westfield. Wide, paned windows across the front and Tudor-style wood siding gave it the feel of a country English china shop. The printing on the sign over the door was in old-world script, and Abby had added window boxes filled with colorful flowers by the entrance. A bell tinkled over the doorway when it was opened, and the soft sounds of classical music always floated out to greet customers. The shop's interior was elegant but warmly inviting, and on many days, Abby offered English tea and freshly baked scones to visitors.
This afternoon, Abby was studying the shop's front window display with a critical eye. "I want to capture more of a European look. That lovely French tapestry we got in yesterday with its subtle shades of rose and soft greens would be a perfect backdrop for these antique books and porcelains. Don't you think so, Mildred?"
Mildred cocked her head to one side, appraised the space, and then nodded. "Some rich, brocaded fabric draped over that small gilt-framed chair in the corner might add another tad of color," she suggested.
Excerpted from The Beautiful American by Marilyn Holdsworth Copyright © 2012 by Marilyn Holdsworth. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Two stories are delightfully intertwined. One set in today's time in New England; the other in late 18th Century America and France. Beginning with an antique dealer, Abby, who purchases a desk at an auction and then meets an architect, Nathan, a romance prevails. What makes this narrative fun is including Abby's employees, (one of whom who is English, hence playing off the Continental connection between America and England,) and Abby's faithful pooch, Muttie. Both Nathan and Abby discover a diary inside the desk, thus leading into the second story. Although told from the viewpoint of a slave girl, Jasmine, this narrative includes the lives of James Monroe's family before Monroe became the fifth president. What I enjoyed most about the book: 1.) The dialect. Starting with Jasmine who writes in first person, the reader gets a sense of her transformation while she learns along side of the Monroe's headstrong daughter, Liza. Two other servants from Britain, Polly and Michael later join the Monroe's household. Each character has their own method of speaking based on their background. The author does a fine job expression this. 2.) Ole Gab. After reading the book, the reader later finds out that a slave named Gabriel was a real person who started a slave revolt. I liked the conflict he presented with Jasmine and later, the foundation of the emerging new country shortly after the revolution. 3.) The comparison of American culture to that of the French culture after France's revolution. True to the historical accuracy of when the Monroes were stationed in France, the reader is engaged with the aftermath of France's war. Including the release of Thomas Paine and Madame Adrienne Lafayette, the reader gains a swift education about American politics in France. 4.) The writing style. It was a savvy read that was written well and that one could finish within a week. What I wished to have seen in the book: I would have liked to seen more tension among the characters. Even if everyone got along well, living under the same house and later sailing on ship would have rattled some nerves, especially among husband and wife. Although with Liza's quick temper and strong will, and there was tension between her and Jasmine, I still would have liked to have seen tension between James and Elizabeth, between mother and daughter, and perhaps even between Polly, a free servant, and Jasmine, a slave. Conclusion: All in all, it is a very charming story and I enjoyed reading it. The characters are likable, and demonstrate strength and humor. I can see two markets for this book- both historical fiction and as well as YA.
The Beautiful American, by Marilyn Holdsworth is mainly a historical novel told in a diary entry by a slave owned by James Monroe. The story details through the relationship between the wife of Monroe, Elizabeth Knight, and the slave, Jasmine. The first and last part of the book deals with Abby, an antiques dealer, who finds the diary and is captivated by the story within. I’ll say first and foremost, American History fiction is not my most favorite, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t decent, well-researched books out there. And frankly, this appears to be one of the latter. I won’t say I did a ton of follow up research on the book, but I will say that Holdsworth appeared to have done her homework when tackling the time-period and content of the book. It was definitely easy to follow, and the characters were in depth, which I appreciated right away. She has definite skill as a writer, and the book flowed really well. There were a couple of rough spots which pulled me out of the story, but nothing I couldn’t move past quickly. All in all, it was a great read and I would recommend this to anyone interested in this American History genre. Four solid stars, and I would be on the look out for any of Holdsworth’s future works!
"La Belle Americaine" is a phrase often repeated in this story. It appears in the diary which Abby Long finds hidden in a beautiful antique desk she buys at auction. But it isn't used to describe the person I believe is the truly "Beautiful American" in this story. Jasmine is a slave who providentially comes to live on the plantation of James Monroe around the time he serves as ambassador to France. This story is about slavery only incidentally. Mostly it's about true freedom. The polar characters Gabriel and Jasmine exemplify two kinds of bondage. Gabriel rebels violently. He has reason to be bitter. But Jasmine serves cheerfully and dutifully. Jasmine asks for nothing but is given clothes, an education, and a privileged place in the household. The mesmerizing, powerful Gabriel seeks to take what he wants by force. Gabriel insists Jasmine is "his girl" and he is coming for her someday. Andre is a charming example of the right kind of man, a rare thing in modern fiction. His master demands a hole in the roof to get the right lighting for his artist's work. But Andre isn't above climbing up to plug it when they need to keep out the rain. He is a gentleman even while being a persuasive wooer. He has plans, and he's not just dreaming about them, he's working to make them a reality. His possibilities in the midst of Jasmine's insistence on impossibilities make the story that much sweeter. The frame tale in modern times also includes a good man, Nathan Edwards. He's also a hard worker, decisive, able to make dreams come true and lead Abby to find a new life. James Monroe is also a good man, loving his wife, calling her his "champion," finding ways to make his whole family stronger and wiser and happier in subtle ways.