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  • Becca Whitham

American Heiress in England, Part 2

I sat down and wrote again yesterday. I have no idea where this story is going or how it's going to get there, but I promised to incorporate Kristen Joy Wilks' suggestion about who Debra was. I've included the entire chapter so you don't have to go back to the original post.


Here you go...


CHAPTER ONE


Why yes, there were worse things than living with parents who hated each other so much they never spoke except through an intermediary…usually her.


Elizabeth Carver wrapped her arms around her waist, the diamonds sewn into her bodice cutting into her flesh. Gilt mirrors reflected a thousand candles from three massive chandeliers lighting a ballroom filled with swirling, shimmery pastel silks and winking gems that made her eyes hurt. The smell of clashing perfumes, hair pomades, and sweating dancers combined to curdle her stomach. Stifling heat made breathing difficult yet couldn’t penetrate the cold in her bones.


And the noise. Gracious, the noise! The string ensemble played every note full force to be heard over chattering, laughing, and the occasional drunken shriek.


Yet her small corner was silent. No one crossed whatever invisible barrier surrounded her to ask her to dance or draw her into a conversation.


They stared though. Oh, how they stared, the questions in their eyes as clear as if they’d shouted. The men wondered who among them was desperate enough to marry the dowdy American heiress, while the woman wanted to know whether the mousy girl against the wall had enough gumption to ruin their social aspirations should she—like many a Yankee heiress before her—marry a duke or earl.


If only they knew that all she wanted was to marry a man who loved her, and she didn’t care if he was a duke, a parson, or a chimney sweep. She was tired of living in luxury suffocated in bitterness. And she wanted out of London. As soon as possible. Were someone brave enough to approach her, she would offer her entire dowry for a simple carriage ride back to the house her mother had rented for the season.


As though the thought had conjured her up, Mother appeared on the edge of the dance floor. She frowned then immediately fixed a smile on her face. As soon as she was within range, she whispered, “What are you doing hiding over here?” Her mother’s question was full of the coldness Elizabeth associated with this woman who was supposed to love her. “I didn’t pay Charles Worth an exorbitant amount of money for that”—Mother swept her gaze over the white satin gown which, in spite of the renowned dressmaker’s skill, couldn’t disguise Elizabeth’s dumpling-like figure—“for you to disappear into the wall.”


Elizabeth cast a glance over her shoulder. “I don’t think the Duchess of Suffolk would appreciate you disparaging her walls in such a way.” Indeed, the skillfully painted murals interspersed between the giant mirrors depicted forests, gardens, and meadows. They were in no way plain, drab, and white.


“Do not be insolent, child.” Were they home, the command would have been punctuated by a slap. “I will not tolerate any insubordination from you. You will dance and smile and be the perfect debutant, or I shall drag you out of this room by your ear, your father’s wishes be hung.”


Elizabeth almost laughed. Her father wanted to broaden his shipping business to England, that was true, but he didn’t need to marry his daughter into the English aristocracy to do it. That was mother’s idea, and she would do nothing to ruin her daughter’s prospects.


The knowledge lifted Elizabeth’s chin. “Go ahead. Drag me by my ear. It couldn’t be any more embarrassing than dressing me up like a doll and dropping me into a society with rules I don’t understand but threaten my ruin should I fail to follow them.”


For the three months it took to cross the Atlantic, Elizabeth was drilled on the varying depths of curtseys afforded to the prince versus a duke versus a mere baron, the proper way to pour tea, and the vital necessity of a chaperone to preserve the reputation—and marital prospects—of a single lady.


Truly, the important matters of life.


And all to impress people she found as intolerable as the weather on this wretched, little island filled with wretched, little-minded people who despised their need for outsiders’ money to maintain their wretched, little lives. If there was a single person in this social class who looked beyond their own comforts, she’d eat the ostrich feathers poked in her tightly wound hair bun.


The sound of her mother’s voice penetrated the haze of disillusionment filling Elizabeth’s mind. “…follow me to meet him now.”


“No.” The refusal fell from her lips when Elizabeth meant to only voice it inside her head.


Red filled Mother’s cheeks. “Do not cross me girl, or I will make your life sheer misery.”


An empty threat, if ever there was one.


Mother’s eyes narrowed. “And I shall make Debra’s life a misery as well.”


Elizabeth held her rigid posture, though inside her spirit deflated like a pricked balloon. Poor, dear Debra. Were it not for the great love Elizabeth held for her lady’s made, she’d not be in Lady Sefton’s ballroom. In truth, she’d not be in England at all.


It was not Debra’s fault that Mother demanded more and more outlandish outfits to adorn her daughter, as though an abundance of ruffles or taller feathers would somehow counter Elizabeth’s short stature and rounded cheeks. She was neither fat nor thin but a comfortable in-between, except she appeared heavier because she barely topped five-feet, one inch and refused to wear high heels because they hurt her feet. Debra, a skilled dresser, managed to outwit Mother’s fashion suggestions for two years but, as Elizabeth’s American marital prospects cast their interests—and their money—elsewhere, the maid succumbed to threats of dismissal without a reference. Elizabeth didn’t blame her maid, not even for the final humiliation.


It was Mother’s idea. not that she’d admit it afterwards. True to form, as soon as one of her ideas went awry, she found someone else to blame. But honestly, what possessed her to insist that Elizabeth wear a large-brimmed hat decorated with an abundance of feathers and accented with a small bird’s nest…complete with a live bird? The poor warbler had been secured to the nest via a sharp wire around his scrawny wrinkled leg. In Mother’s imaginings, the bird would chirp happily drawing crowds to hear its dainty song. In reality, it screeched its indignation for almost two hours before, in a fit of rage, severing its limb to fly away. It might not have been so bad except that its path to freedom took it straight over Mrs. Vanderbilt’s carriage, dripping blood on that formidable matron’s white blouse.


Any chance of Elizabeth securing an American titan of industry disappeared with Mrs. Vanderbilt’s rage.


How ironic that a several months later—just when Elizabeth had begun to breathe because her mother had finally given up all hope of marrying her off—a letter arrived from Mrs. Vanderbilt’s daughter. Consuela Vanderbilt had married the Duke of Marlborough two years earlier. Now living in England, she was the toast of the aristocracy and had arranged several introductions of her American friends to dukes, earls, and barons in need of large quantities of cash to prop up their failing estates.


And now she wanted to help her dear friend, Elizabeth Carver.


Why? It made no sense. She and Consuela had attended the same boarding school, but not at the same time. No one issued an invitation for a season in London out of school loyalty, because they were never friends and certainly not dear friends. For two weeks, Elizabeth held firm against her mother’s pleas, threats, and demands. She wasn’t going to England. Not for all the tea in China and India! It wasn’t until after Mother dismissed dear Debra without a reference that Elizabeth capitulated.


Which was how she ended up in Lady Sefton’s ballroom standing against the wall even more overlooked than she had been in the great houses of America.


Whatever her faults, Debra didn’t deserve to be fired without a reference in a foreign country where no one knew her excellent work history. At least in America, society matrons who’d fought to obtain her services might still be willing to take her on. Here, not only would she be stranded, she had no family to turn to for help.


The glint in Mother’s hard, brown eyes and crocodilian smile on her rouged lips said she knew she’d won. “You will follow me to meet the Earl of Sandringham now, if you please.”


The last three words were added solely to twist her victory like a knife though Elizabeth’s steel-boned corset. She swallowed down the useless rejoinder that sprang to her lips, opting instead for a meek, “Of course, Mother.”


They weaved through a maze of bodies, passing a group of chittering girls casting none-to-subtle glances at a tall, handsome man running a hand though his windswept black hair as though he’d just arrived from outside. In the grand foyer, their host and hostess stood in a receiving line awaiting last-minute guests. After chatting for a moment, they crossed the foyer into a series of rooms connected with gilded doors until they reached a vast library complete with a roaring fire. A crystal goblet and a decanter of amber liquid sat on a silver tray at one end of a brown leather couch situated enticingly in front of the marble fireplace. Books lined every wall save one with floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors opening to the outside.

Despite her apprehension at meeting the Earl of Someplace-or-Other, Elizabeth sighed. The aristocratic males of this little island had one virtue: they all had beautiful, well-stocked libraries. Had the earl chosen this spot? Anyone who valued the written word couldn’t be all bad, could he?


But this was the Duke of Suffolk’s home, not the earl’s. Still…if he wanted to meet in the library for a discussion, it must be a place where he felt at home.


Elizabeth had no illusions as to the point of this meeting. Her mother had secured the hand of an impoverished aristocrat willing to overlook the unfortunate matter of any number of faults in order to secure a fortune. Well… if any part of her money went to save a library similar to this one, she’d have done the world a favor.


Her mother stretched her neck to look left and then right. “Oh Earl,” she called in a sing-song voice. “Where are you?”


Elizabeth closed her eyes and hung her head. Could her mother make the introduction in a more embarrassing way?


As though God heard her silent plea for some semblance of dignity to accompany what amounted to a mercenary transaction, the earl was not in the library.


Mother tapped her finger to her lip. “I wonder what’s keeping him.”


Something in the mannerism stirred apprehension in Elizabeth’s tight stomach.


“I’ll just toddle off and find him.” Mother infused her speech with British anachronisms every chance she got, as though it would make them more acceptable to the hoity-toity society. “You stay here”—she pointed at the floor—“and don’t go anywhere. Do you hear me?”


Tempted to say respond with, “Huh? What’s that you say?” Elizabeth nodded.


With a glare that silently repeated her threat to Debra, Mother pivoted with a swish of silk and disappeared.


Elizabeth sighed with relief. She held her spot for a full minute—maybe two—before the glint of a title captured her attention. She glanced around the library, which was ridiculous. No one was in the room, and even if they were, it couldn’t be a breach of protocol to browse a library shelf. Then again, this was England where everything an unmarried female did was scrutinized for scandal.


A giggle bubbled through the tightness in her chest. It would serve her mother right for leaving her unchaperoned in a duke’s library. Would outrage at the social faux pax chase away the money-grubbing earl?


One could hope!


Emboldened, Elizabeth crossed the room to browse the shelves. The duke’s tastes were eclectic, to say the least. Everything from Aristotle to Austen graced the mahogany shelves. She pulled out an original copy of Sense and Sensibility, touching the leather cover with reverence. After another guilty glance around the room, she drew the book to her chest and walked to the couch. The worn leather welcomed her with a sigh. She opened the well-loved story and began to read.


The little gold clock on the mantle chimed eleven. Elizabeth didn’t look up until it chimed twelve. Where was her mother?


Perhaps the earl had reconsidered after another encounter with his prospective mother-in-law. If true, the man might have something other than cotton between his ears after all.


Eyelids beginning to droop, Elizabeth returned to the story. At half-past midnight, she gave up all pretense of reading and closed her eyes. Her corset kept her from slumping sideways into the comfortable couch, so she did the unthinkable. She laid down on it. Being only a little over five-feet tall had its advantages, and the ability to stretch out on a sofa was one of them.


She vaguely heard the clock chime one before succumbing to the lure of sleep.

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Becca Whitham

 

 

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