Heiress | Chapter 7 of 31

Author: Susan May Warren | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1914 Views | Add a Review

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Chapter 1

With the wrong smile, her sister could destroy Jinx’s world.

“Loosen your breath, Esme, and the lacing will go easier.” Jinx sat on the ottoman, watching Bette pull the stays of Esme’s new corset as her sister hung onto the lacing bar.

The corset, a silk damask with embroidered tea roses, pale pink ribbons along the heart-shaped bustline, and a polished brass busk, had arrived only yesterday in a shipment from Worth’s of Paris.

Esme didn’t deserve the beautiful undergarment, not with her gigantic twenty-one-inch waist, the way she fought the corsetiere during the fitting, and now held her breath instead of exhaling to lose yet another half-inch.

Jinx, still in her training corset, had long ago shaved her torso down to eighteen inches. She deserved a damask corset, in the new S-shaped style, the way it erected the posture, protruded her hips, and forced her body into the elegant shape of a society woman. But her own corset wouldn’t arrive until her mother ordered her debut trousseau, hopefully after the end of this year’s society season. After all, she’d already turned seventeen, would be eighteen when the season started next November.

She should have been born first.

Esme closed her eyes, as if in pain. “Mother, I can’t breathe. I will faint during the quadrille.”

“Perhaps you will be recovered by someone of significance.” Their mother Phoebe sat on a gold-foiled Marie Antoinette chair, the red plush velvet like a throne as she perched upon it, surveying her eldest daughter’s preparations. “It wouldn’t hurt you to be found swooning during a waltz, into the arms of the Astor heir.”

Esme frowned. “More likely, I’ll find myself discarded in the sitting room, one of the Astors’ maids fanning me to consciousness.” She released the lacing bar. “Please, Bette, that is enough.” Letting her arms fall, Esme cast a look at their mother, who hesitated briefly before assenting with a flick of her hand.

Jinx bit back a huff of disgust. It simply wasn’t fair that, despite Esme’s almost militant repulsion to securing a husband, men lined up to call on her during her at-home days, appeared after church to walk her home, vied to be seated beside her at dinner parties, and begged her to partner with them in golf and tennis. Most of all, they bedecked her with bouquets of dark red Jacqueminot roses or deep pink Boneselline rosebuds before every ball.

Jinx blamed Esme’s exquisite beauty—her straw-blond hair, too-blue eyes, a form that frankly, needed no corset to enhance—because Esme had interest in none of her suitors, despite their pedigrees. Worse, her sister almost purposely confused the etiquette of dinner, refused the language of the fan to signal suitors, and occasionally wandered out onto some dark balcony to view the stars while the after-dinner German dance was called, leaving her suitors with no one to present their flowers or party gifts to. Jinx had no doubt her sister wouldn’t hesitate to attend Caroline Astor’s January ball wearing a tea dress, uncorseted, while she pressed her nose into some dime novel.

God had been so unfair.

As if Esme could read Jinx’s thoughts, she turned to her mother, even as Bette followed her to fasten her stays. “Really, Mother, are you sure I must attend tonight’s ball? I’m exhausted. Tea today at the Wilsons’, and last night dinner at the Fishes’, and the opera the night before? I am simply wasted to the bone—”

“That’s enough, Esme.” Phoebe’s clipped tone could draw even Esme up straight, silence her. “You are a ‘bud,’ as you well know, which means you have responsibilities. We have confirmed our attendance to Mrs. Astor’s ball, and she expects us. Imagine, for a Price to cut one of Caroline’s parties—we might as well move to Philadelphia, or perhaps Baltimore, for all the invitations we’d receive. I am sure Mrs. Astor would see to it that all of society turned their backs on us.”

“It’s one ball, Mother.”

Esme’s sardonic attitude about society would be the ruin of them. Jinx wanted to cheer when her mother scoured her with a look that—at least for now—silenced Esme and her whining.

“It’s Mrs. Astor’s annual ball. The most lavish, elite society event of the season, and the first in Caroline’s new chateau. Do you know what social favors your father and I had to promise to acquire this invitation? And, do I have to remind you that this is your second season without a match—not that there weren’t plenty of suitors last year. It’s time you married. I’ll not tolerate one more word of complaint from you. Bette, help her into her knickers.”

The former chambermaid had turned into a first-class lady’s maid. She was quiet, efficient, and discreet.

Jinx smoothed her simple skirt, her tucked shirtwaist with the high neck and mutton-chop sleeves, and tried not to watch as Bette attached the stocking suspenders to Esme’s corset then assisted her sister into her silk and lace knickers.

Indeed, if her sister didn’t accept an offer of marriage soon, they’d have to travel overseas to find a mate—some homely duke or a widowed baron. Then Jinx’s debutante year would be further delayed. If only her father weren’t so old-fashioned, determined to marry off his eldest daughter before presenting his second daughter into society.

“You will wear the white tulle tonight,” Phoebe said. Bette had already retrieved the dress from the cedar closest, bound in muslin and stuffed to retain its shape. The perfume of the lavender sachets used to preserve it scented the chamber, along with the rose-scented lotions and talc powder from Esme’s bath and preparations. “You have yet to wear this costume, and you need a dress never before seen for this evening.” She glanced at Jinx, a smile tweaking her lips before she dismissed it. “I believe it may be a special one, for many reasons.”

Esme met Jinx’s eyes in the mirror. Jinx raised a shoulder, but her mother’s words, the way she glanced down at her hand then worried her sapphire wedding ring, sparked hope.

Perhaps her parents had already arranged a match for Esme. Perhaps, by this time next year, Jinx would have her own satin gown, and be bedazzled with diamonds from head to toe. Maybe even a cadre of society’s bachelors gifting her with bouquets, requesting appointments on her dance card. Vying for her hand in marriage.

Please, Esme, cooperate.

Esme settled herself on an ottoman as Bette helped her into her ivory satin slippers, tying the bows. Then she stepped into her new crinoline, something even the newest buds had discarded from their trousseau, according to the gossip at Misses Graham’s Seminary for Young Ladies. But Phoebe Price wasn’t taking any chances on society’s disdain.

Bette tied the tapes then went to retrieve the gown.

Phoebe rose, graceful despite her portly curves. “I need to attend to my own toilette. I will meet you in the front hall for our carriage. Do not keep me waiting.”

“I feel as if I am already ill,” Esme said as Bette attended to the dress. “I heard that Mrs. Astor is serving duck croquettes. It’s bad enough that I must taste everything, but to know its origin! I swear I cannot eat another serving of creamed oysters and terrapin or I will lose my supper into one of Mrs. Astor’s potted ferns. Not that I have any room for food.” Her hands brushed over her corseted stomach. “Still, I have no doubt that tomorrow I will only be able to survive tea and toast.”

Jinx couldn’t hold herself back. “Please be on your best behavior, Esme. The season is at its height and you have the power to usher us into the inner chambers of society, if you choose.”

Esme seemed not to hear her as Bette gathered up the tulle, opened the bodice, and helped her dive into the finery. Oh, to have such a lovely dress, the way the gold thread shimmered under the bright gas lit chandelier in Esme’s boudoir. Esme stood like a statue as Bette secured her dress. It draped over her, fitted to her body, cascading off the shoulders with seemingly only pearled straps to secure it. A teardrop trio of pearls fell from the apex of the tulle bodice, stitched with white glass beads and paillettes to make it shimmer. A white satin band secured her waist, then the garment fell into trained ruffles at the hem, fanning out behind her.

The dress and Esme’s demi-parure of jewels for tonight’s ball probably cost as much as Father’s new yacht.

“I love that dress,” Jinx said, mostly to herself.

Esme scowled into the full-length mirror, gilded at the edges. “I hate tulle. It scratches my skin, and I believe I must be allergic to it.”

The mirror captured the immense room—the red velvet divan and gold-edged chairs, the polished oak dressing tables, Esme’s writing desk, and beyond that, the windows that overlooked the city.

When the Price family built their mansion on Fifth Avenue, only blocks from the Vanderbilt’s 660 Fifth Avenue palace, Esme had asked for the room with a view of Central Park. Never mind the walnut wainscoting, the green, floral damask wallpaper, the seventeenth-century tapestries, or the Marie Antoinette gold-gilded canopied bed built on a platform like a throne. August Price hadn’t spared a penny on his eldest daughter.

Jinx’s room, however, overlooked the private garden. She would have enjoyed seeing the street instead, with its parade of traffic—the landaus, motorbuses, delivery wagons, automobiles, and bicycles. She loved watching the mounted policemen directing in the middle of the street, the drivers attired in livery colors and seated on the high boxes. The clanging trolley bells, shouts from the cabmen, clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobblestone, the growl of motorcars, and the shriek of railways made the city sound alive.

And, at night, sometimes Jinx retired with her mother in Phoebe’s third-story room, watching the stars sparkle over the park, a thousand diamonds almost within her grasp.

As soon as Esme was married, Jinx planned on moving into her boudoir.

“I hope the ball doesn’t last all night. I’m in the middle of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, although journalist Nellie Bly’s true-life account is vastly more exciting,” Esme said as Bette straightened the dress on her frame.

“You can’t be serious. You have an invitation to the most exclusive ball of the season, and you are pining for a book?” Jinx turned away, staring at the lacing of frost creeping up the sill. Despite the central heating and the fire in Esme’s marble fireplace, the winter crept through the windowpane, chilling the room. By the end of winter, the frost could choke out the view entirely, except for a breath blown into the middle. “You shouldn’t spend so much time reading. You know it’s simply fantasy. I don’t know why Father allows it.”

“He fancies that I might be like him, a newspaper man. That’s why he allows me to visit him at his offices. He knows I like the smell of the ink, the hum of the presses, the clicking of the typewriters. I would love to be a journalist like Nellie Bly, to see the world, to research asylums and sweatshops. To see my name in print on the front page of Father’s Chronicle.”

Jinx rounded on her. “Are you mad? You are not Nellie Bly. She is a working woman! You are a debutante, destined to marry William Astor, or perhaps a Fish, a Morgan, or a Rothschild. What a shame society doesn’t yet have a Vanderbilt within marrying age. But you will have a fashionable seaside estate in Newport, a home on Fifth Avenue, a life in the social court. You will live a life of prominence and influence. A life of blessing.”

Esme’s mouth opened.

Jinx stood and walked to the dressing table. “Don’t appear so offended, it doesn’t become you.” She ran her fingers over her sister’s jewels—a dog collar strung with a cascade of diamonds and pearls on silken threads that would cover Esme’s décolletage, a cluster of diamond and pearl earrings, and a filigreed rosebud tiara, encrusted with diamonds, pearls, and shimmering emeralds.

Drawing in a breath, Jinx schooled her voice. “Nellie Bly is a disgrace. She travels unchaperoned around the world, often lunches with men, and pretends to be insane to secure a berth in a psychiatric hospital. Some might call that living a life of deceit. She will marry poorly, if at all, and die without acknowledgment.”

“She’s made her own way. And spoken the truth. Perhaps she doesn’t need to marry.”

Jinx met Esme’s blue eyes in the mirror, so naive for all her bookish ways, her fluency in French and German, her ability to dance the quadrille. “Father would never let you write for the newspaper.”

Esme stiffened as Bette touched up her hair. The maid had parted Esme’s hair in the center, heated the front into the shape of water-waves, padded the rest of it with matching blond rats, then swept the loose tresses up into tight curls atop her head, secured finally with diamond-encrusted barrettes.

Jinx had already required her maid, Amelia, to begin experimenting with her own—sadly unremarkable—dark hair, and collecting and washing the loose strands that would create her hair rats.

“Perhaps he doesn’t have to know,” Esme said quietly.

Jinx froze. “What are you talking about?”

Esme lifted her creamy shoulder, mischief flashing through her eyes. She blinked it away. “I am simply suggesting that there are other ways for a woman to have her voice heard.”

“The way to be heard is to influence your husband, give him a voice in society,” Jinx said. Oh, she knew it. Her sister had always been out of hand, too vocal. Now, she’d even begun to believe the things she read in Godey’s Lady’s Book.

“For now. But soon, perhaps, we’ll have a real voice. One in politics and the workplace.”

Jinx walked to Esme’s desk, picked up a copy of the magazine, and opened to where a piece of writing paper marked the Employment for Women section. She could have guessed. “I thought mother cancelled our subscription.”

“I’m twenty years old, with my own allowance. I ordered it myself.”

Jinx closed the magazine, tempted to throw it in the trash receptacle. It only filled her sister with rebellious, untoward thinking. Someday she would be forced to reveal to their parents where Esme hid her stash of dime novels, everything from Maleaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter to a stack of DeWitt’s Ten Cent Romances. It was time her sister started behaving as her status demanded.

She easily found her mother’s tone. “You have fooled yourself into the world of your dime novels, where women decide their own futures, choose their own husbands, and pursue careers. Continue this, and you will disgrace us, cause us to be ostracized from society, and ruin any chance of either of us marrying someone with the proper name.”

“I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t want to marry. I’m a journalist—”

Jinx rounded on her. “You’re the daughter of a journalist, born to wed, not become some stringer, rooting around dark alleys for a story. You have been trained to be a wife, to run a household, to keep your husband’s name in the conversation of good society. Father and Mother are—we are—expecting you to make a match this season, to marry well. To usher the Price family into society’s elite, to behave in a manner befitting the heiress of the Price family.” She drew a breath, cut her voice low, glanced at Bette. It mattered not that the servants were handpicked for their discretion. Of their thirty-five house staff, not everyone could be trusted.

“We must marry up if we want to continue our ascent in society. Father has bought us that opportunity, and you owe it to him to honor his wishes. If Father—or any eligible men—caught you writing something, even anonymously…” She closed her eyes, her frustration huffing out of her. “I should have been the firstborn.”

Yes. Then Esme could have done as she wished, the requirements of the firstborn—acquiring a man with a pedigree—happily borne on Jinx’s shoulders. She opened her eyes, held up her hand, as Esme made to speak. “It doesn’t matter. I suspect Mother has already found you a match.”

Esme drew in a breath then rose from her chair. She stared at herself in the mirror, submitting to Bette’s adornment of the dog collar, the earrings. Finally, she bowed her head for the tiara. Certainly she appeared regal as the jewels captured the light. A Price, waiting to be won.

Esme turned to Jinx, her blue eyes cool, glittering. “It doesn’t matter. I will not submit to their arrangements and marry for the sake of society, for the sake of privileged invitations to teas filled with gossip and insufferable dinners where I must choose my fork correctly or be cut from a Vanderbilt matinee. Or balls where the incorrect flutter of my fan condemns me to a dance, or even more. I loathe this life and all it requires, and if I marry, it will be for love.”

“Love? Please. How will you tell the difference? You’re a Price, not some scullery maid. You will never know whether you are loved for your money, or your beautiful mind.”

The words seemed to slither out, and Jinx tasted in them the poison she intended.

Indeed, Esme flinched, as if afflicted. “I will know because my husband will respect me, hear my mind, allow my freedom.” Her words emerged stiff, with an edge.

Even as Esme said it, her maid had begun to sheath her fingers into her kid gloves, ordered a size smaller so as to curve the hand into a delicate pose. Jinx had tried on the gloves and lost the feeling in her fingers within an hour.

Jinx picked up Esme’s vellum dance card and pencil. She handed it to Bette, who slid it to Esme’s gloved wrist. “Power, wealth, prestige—all give us freedom. You’re blind not to see that,” Jinx snapped.

“That is prison. And you are blind not to see that.” Esme allowed Bette to drape upon her shoulders her silk brocade evening cape, trimmed in mink. Her lady’s maid tied it in front then moved behind her to valet her charge downstairs.

Esme stood for a moment, towering over Jinx. “And you weren’t born first, I was. You must wait until I marry.”

“Only until you are shipped off to Europe and married to some titled, decrepit baron in need of an heir and a spare. Don’t forget your fan.”

Esme’s face knotted and she scooped up the fan from her dressing table. She found her retort, however, by the time she reached the door. She turned, smiled, her voice sweet. “If I tarry in marriage, perhaps father will delay your debut yet another year. Sadly, by then, Mrs. Astor will most likely be too senile to host her annual soirees. Shame. Have a lovely evening.”

Jinx wanted to throw one of Esme’s dime novels at her, or perhaps the array of gifts on her bureau—fans and cigarette cases and even a pearl-inlaid broach, received from too many adoring suitors who hadn’t a clue they were courting a budding suffragette.

But her throat tightened, her chest burning. Esme just might refuse a match. Turn down the hand of a blue-blood. Then she’d see her name in print, all right, right on the front page of Town Topics, or on Page Six of their father’s New York Chronicle.

Jinx might as well begin packing for their trip abroad to escape the scandal.

She walked to the window, watching as Esme and her mother exited the front doors of their home, across the carpet rolled out by the footmen, liveried for the evening in eighteenth-century style with knee breeches, silk stockings, and shirts, their royal blue waistcoats and tailcoats rich with golden embroidery.

Her mother knew how to make a Price entrance. Tonight, she’d even required the footmen to powder their hair.

The group waddled out to the street where first her mother, then Esme, and finally their father, regal in his top hat, his ermine-trimmed greatcoat, white silk scarf and gloves, disappeared into the closed carriage, their lady’s maids and Father’s valet following in the carriage behind them to attend them at the ball.

Across the street, electric lights from Central Park twinkled through the trees, winking. Snow began to drift from the sky, like flakes in a globe, bedazzling the wonderland of New York.

Jinx pressed her palm to the window, letting the chill seep into her skin. When she pulled it away, her handprint remained.

She watched it fade slowly into the night.

* * * * *

Esme might be playing a game, but she’d do well to play by her own rules.

She was like Nellie Bly, undercover journalist.

She stood at the edge of the ballroom, filing away every detail. For tonight’s article, she’d start with overstuffed and snobby Mrs. Astor greeting her four hundred ball guests, affecting the air of a royal in her black velvet dress with lace appliqués and tulle, bedazzled in a diamond tiara and an armada of diamonds. Then she’d catalog the ostentatious bevy of flowers and decorations, from the holly and ivy dripping from the standing chandeliers, the snowballs of white carnations eclipsing the candelabras, to the thirty-six red satin stockings stretched across the white marble fireplace, filled with toys and bonbons. A giant bough of mistletoe centered on the balcony, tempting would-be dancers while the orchestra warmed up for the after-dinner cotillion.Esme wouldn’t soon forget the buffet dinner, either, the way her stomach now gurgled. She tasted the sweetbread climbing back up her throat, although it might not have made it all the way down to begin with, what with the competition with the consommé, the pâté de foie gras, and the bonbons. She pressed her hand against her stomach, although it would hardly move, given the way Bette had strapped her into her corset.

She had even managed a glimpse of the fellow dancers, from J. J. Astor Jr., to Mr. and Mrs. F.W. Vanderbilt, to Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, names among names in society.

She’d catch it all, just like Nellie Bly, in a tell-all article, betraying the dalliances and follies of society.

She hoped Oliver caught their pictures. She spied him, assisting Joseph Byron and his son, Percy, as they posed society’s finest, capturing their images for Town Topics and their own prideful posterity. Oliver had taken her picture at her debut ball, and perhaps the truth had hit her at that moment, when she’d seen herself reflected upside down.

She didn’t fit in this world.

But she wasn’t sure, exactly, where else she might belong, who indeed she was supposed to be.

She heard Jinx’s voice, an echo chasing her to the party. Behave in a manner befitting the heiress of the Price family. What, exactly, might that be? She certainly didn’t feel like an heiress.

And, if Mrs. Astor’s high society knew who penned the articles featured on her father’s Page Six, highlighting their escapades, they wouldn’t treat her like one either. They would feel betrayed, and stamp her an interloper.

“There you are, Esme. Were you hiding from me?” Her mother appeared, her skin flushed, the sour hint of wine upon her breath.

“Of course not, Mother. I’m simply blistering. And tired. And, like I said, I believe I am allergic to tulle. Please, must we remain?” After all, she’d already seen enough to detail this night in her anonymous submission to her father’s paper.

“Bite your tongue. We are staying until Caroline Astor turns out breakfast.” Phoebe lowered herself to the settee beside her, her gown less cumbersome than Esme’s, a simple yellow satin edged in French lace with diamonds stitched into the bodice.

Across the two-story ballroom, in an alcove opening off the second story, the musicians in the gallery began to play an opening number. They played under the view of the gods and goddesses sculpted into the coved ceiling. Guests from all corners of the house returned to the dance floor.

“Truly, I feel unwell. My stomach is churning. Every time I dance, it threatens to betray me. I must escape this corset.” She wasn’t exactly lying. And the longer they stayed, the more her mother’s words about the night burned into her thoughts. I believe it may be a special one, for many reasons.

She needed to leave before her parents decided that tonight would be the night to sell her into marriage. She’d been playing the debutante’s game in order to secret herself into this world, uncover the excesses, the scandals. She wanted to reveal to the starving world stories about Christmas cards encrusted with diamonds, dogs eating from silver bowls, and the millions of diamonds on Mrs. Astor’s tiara, all while her servants netted less than five hundred dollars a year.

Someday, she might reveal her name. And then she’d be among the ranks of Jacob Riis, chronicler of the slums and tenements, and Nellie Bly, crusader for women. She’d be her father’s star reporter. Be commended by the President of the United States, have supper at the White House. Prove to the world that, although she’d been born into wealth, she hadn’t been born without a soul.

“Your upset stomach is simply nerves. I noticed you were inviting with your fan the attention of a suitor. To whom were you directing your invitation?” Her mother smiled, anticipation in her eyes.

“I was using the fan to cool myself, Mother, nothing more.”

Phoebe’s countenance fell. “That is not its purpose—you should know better.” She rearranged the smile on her face. “Did you see Harry Lehr dance with Elizabeth Drexel Dahlgren? She seems quite smitten with him.”

“He only wants her money.”

“Esme! Sometimes your tongue!”

“She’s a widow with a fortune. And he’s a flirt.”

“He’s the best social coordinator in the city. He plans all Mrs. Astor and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s parties. Please, stop talking.”

Laughter trickled in from doors open to the grand entrance off the ballroom, and with it the crisp allure of fresh air. Esme leaned into it, closed her eyes. With over four hundred dancers packed into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, the place swam with the odors and humidity of exertion. That and…oh, never again, sweetbreads.

“Let me see your dance card.”

Esme handed it to her and Phoebe perused it. “Yes, good. I am glad to see Foster Worth’s name for the waltz, and the lancer. Very good. But no one for the Mazurka?”

“The speed upsets my stomach. Why must they schedule that dance first?”

“You mean to tell me that you turned down a partner’s request?”

“I will sit it out. It will not be a snub.”

“Esme, the sooner you are married and your rebellious ways corralled, the better.”

No, the sooner she figured out how to turn her anonymous articles unwittingly published by her father into a full-time job, just like Nellie Bly, the better.

Her father had no idea that by publishing her anonymous social commentary, he had begun to set her free. Yes, she still had to rely on Oliver to submit her opinions of society high life along with his photographs of their soirées. Sometimes, he’d also described for her the photographs he captured as he patrolled the streets looking for crime. His heartbreaking shots of orphans sleeping under doorsteps or the illegal five-cent beds in the tenement house or the pictorials of the misery of life in Hell’s Kitchen moved her so that she’d taken his impressions, put words and opinions to them, then he’d submitted those pieces with his photographs.

They’d even made money. Stringers, he called the two of them.

The paper had published those shots, those opinions, and named her byline simply… Anonymous Witness.

Indeed, she might never get married. Simply travel the world, writing stories about foreign places. Europe. China. The American West.

And, someday soon, no longer anonymous.

Once her father discovered her pen, the articles she’d published, he would welcome her into his world with her own editor’s desk. She would wrest herself out of her corset stays and into a life with her own byline. Maybe someday she might even run the paper.

“At least you will dance two with Foster,” her mother was saying, still perusing Esme’s dance card.

“Only because he is an old friend of the family, Mother. I have no interest in him.”

“He is the son of Frederic Worth, and he’s just returned from Europe. Of all the bachelors in this season, Foster is the most eligible. He would be a suitable match and you would be fortunate to receive a proposal from him.”

“I am not going to accept a proposal from anyone, Mother, especially not Foster. Yes, he’s handsome, in a way that good breeding begets, with his dark hair slicked back, his broad shoulders. But he has clammy hands, and there is something rather…unsettling about the way he looks at me, as if I might be something edible. And, worse, he has cold eyes. I mentioned to him once the plight of the newsies—the orphans sleeping below the steps of Father’s paper, pandering the daily for a nickel, and he actually said, ‘Where do you expect them to live?’ Like that kind of life might be acceptable.”

“For their class of people, it is to be expected.”

Esme’s mouth opened. Closed. “Have you not read Jacob Riis’s book? The plight of the poor? He asks, ‘How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man?’ We need to take care of the poor—”

“Henry Riis is not appropriate reading for someone of your stature.”

“Mother, it is our Christian duty to care for the underprivileged— it’s not just the noblesse oblige, Jesus commands it. Did you hear nothing of D.L. Moody’s speech last year?”

“I did. He said to obey your parents. Which is to be married. Have a family.”

“I love children, but mother, I have other plans. I want a career, something besides hosting parties and raising children and running my husband’s household. That’s Jinx’s ambition, not mine.”

Phoebe stared at her, a spark of warning in her eyes that should have silenced Esme. A year ago, before she had heard Mr. Moody speak, before she’d heard him say, “We can stand affliction better than we can prosperity, for in prosperity we forget God,” it would have.

She had forgotten God, until that night when she’d stared at her upside-down figure reflected in Oliver’s lens. Had forgotten that she had a duty to love justice and be merciful. That day of her debutante ball, a light turned on in her head as bright as Oliver’s flash, and she realized that she could use her debutante season to be like Nellie, go undercover, tell the truth.

Perhaps shame would wake up high society.

“A career? You will stop that thinking immediately. I don’t know where you get it from.”

“I get it from Father.”

“Hardly. You get it from those books you bring home.”

“Father respects my ideas.”

“Your father laughs at your ideas.” Her mother turned to her, her dark eyes sharp. “He puts up with your whimsy because you have always been his favorite. But mind my words, Esme, he wants you matched well. It wouldn’t hurt your father’s resources to have you married to a shipping magnate, one who owns department stores around the world. Imagine the advertising they would buy. Foster Worth has shown an interest in you, and you will reciprocate.”

“He could have anyone, Mother. Didn’t you hear the other buds in the dressing room tonight? His name was on everyone’s lips, including Carrie Astor’s. He doesn’t want the girl who beat him in tennis when she was twelve.”

“I daresay he let you win.” Her mother reached out, took Esme’s hand. “The Worth boys have always had a special eye out for my daughters. I’m just thankful that one of them turned out with marriageable qualities. With all Bennett’s womanizing in Europe, Mamie needs her eldest to restore the family name, pick up the reins during her husband’s decline. Yes, you will be kind to Foster Worth. It’s time to let him win.” She squeezed her hand. “There’s your father.”

Esme glanced at her, but Phoebe had already risen, taken August Price’s hand. In public, they appeared the adoring couple.

He placed a kiss on her mother’s cheek. What it cost him, he didn’t betray. He nodded to Phoebe, and then Phoebe glanced at Esme, a smile tugging at her mouth.

August pressed his wife’s hand to his arm as the music began for the Mazurka. Debutantes took the floor on the arm of their partners, began the triple-meter polka dance to a Chopin piece.

Heat rose to Esme’s neck. Especially when her mother caught her eye from the dance floor, her words raking up to fill her mind. I believe it may be a special one, for many reasons.

Oh, Mother, you didn’t… Her stomach roiled, now coating her throat.

She pressed herself to her feet, wove through the crowd, and exited the ballroom. Already the air seemed lighter, and she crossed the corridor toward the front doors.

No, she shouldn’t be unchaperoned, but perhaps a few moments of brisk air would settle her stomach, keep her from pitching to the parquet floor during the waltz.

She could simply refuse the marriage request, right? She didn’t have to marry…

She wasn’t really a debutante. No.

The footman at the door must have read her mind, for he opened the massive gilded bronze-and-glass doors. “Miss, may I get your cloak?”

She shook her head, not slowing her pace until she reached the front step.

The brisk January air swept her breath from her lungs, prickled her bare arms, shoulders. But she closed her eyes, losing herself to the cool lick of fresh air. Along Fifth Avenue, the chateaus lit up the street, turning the soft-falling snow ablaze, puddling light into snowdrifts along the cobbled, almost magical street. Landaus and motorcars lined up to retrieve the guests at their leisure, yet across the street, a man bundled in rags chipped ice from the sidewalk with a spade. She wrapped her hands around her upper arms as a chill stole through her.

“Esme?” Her name emerged on whispered sibilants and she glanced up.

Oliver. He must have seen her exit the house. He stood away from her, tall, broad-shouldered in the glow of the house lights, the snow like diamonds on his coal black hair, catching in his long, almost mesmerizing eyelashes. His shaven whiskers had begun to scuff his chin. He shucked off his tailcoat. “What are you doing out here?”

She glanced at the footmen nearby, some of them smoking, others stamping their feet to keep warm. Others had sought refuge inside the carriage room, to the back, where most of the livery waited. Still, no one should see her talking so freely to her former footman, the butler’s son.

Even if they had grown up together.

Even if he now worked for Joseph Byron, society photographer.

Even if her father had arranged for his job.

Especially because Oliver was her partner in crime.

“I don’t feel well. My head hurts, and my stomach is woozy.”

“Let me take you home.” He draped his jacket around her shoulders. His smell—husky, yet bearing an exotic sweetness, probably from the chemicals he used for his plate development—lifted, and she pulled the warmth around her.

“I—I can’t. Mother would be furious.”

He tightened his mouth, as if biting back something more.

“Actually, I—I think my mother is trying to betroth me to someone.”

Oliver stared at her, his face stony. For some reason she searched his eyes, not sure what she might be hoping. He looked away, blew out a long breath. “I see.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I should have expected that. Congratulations.”

“You know that turning him down would mean scandal for my family.”

“When has scandal stopped you?”

Her mouth opened.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. But…” He stared at her, hard. “Do you love him?”

“I don’t even know him, really. We were childhood acquaintances.”

We were childhood acquaintances, and you’re not marrying me.”

She sucked in a breath. “That’s different.”

“Is it, Esme?”

He looked away, and she knew him well enough to see hurt on his face. Why… “What are you getting at, Oliver?”

A muscle tensed in his jaw. “You can’t have both worlds, Esme. Choose one.”

She flinched. “Maybe the air out here isn’t as fresh as I thought.”

“You stay, I’ll go.”

“No.” But she winced at the need in her tone as she said it. “I—I don’t want to stand alone.”

He considered her a moment. “I’m sorry, Esme. But I never thought this was a game to you. Perhaps that was my mistake.”

She looked down, at the snow soft upon her gown. “Do you ever dream of leaving New York? Of going out west or traveling the world?”

He let her words dissolve in the frosty air before he answered. “I used to. I wondered what it might be like to travel back to Ireland, the home of my mother. And yes, I read the dime novels you smuggled me. I would like to see Oklahoma, become a cowboy, maybe.”

She pulled his jacket around her tighter. “I want to go to Montana.”

“You would make a fabulous Annie Oakley.”

She glanced at him, trying to hide her smile. “Did you deliver this week’s article?”

He didn’t look at her, matched her lowered volume. “Yes. Yesterday, to the op-ed desk when I turned in my photos.”

“Maybe it’ll go into tomorrow’s paper.”

He sighed. “Have you considered what might happen if you get caught?” He hazarded her a look, and the concern in it tugged at her.

“Maybe—maybe I should tell him. Maybe he should know that his daughter is—”

“Anonymous Witness.”

“Just like him. A journalist.”

“Indeed.” His eyes twinkled, and for the first time this night she saw his dimple emerge. She loved that little indentation that so matched the sparkle, the way he looked at her.

A ripple of heat went through her.

“Miss Price, what are you doing out here in the cold?”

She stiffened, and she watched as Oliver turned away, becoming invisible as Foster Worth stepped out onto the stoop. Too many years as the Price’s footman, perhaps.

Foster peered down at her, void a smile, seemingly irritated. “I was looking for you for our waltz, but you had disappeared.”

“Did it begin?”

“I’m afraid it is over.” Foster reached out, slid Oliver’s coat from her shoulders. Without looking at him, Foster handed the coat back to Oliver. Like he might be a coat rack.

He slipped off his own jacket, draped it upon her. Into her settled the odor of his many dances, the cigar smoke from the after-dinner gathering with the men in the library. And a line of sweat from his collar.

“I’m sorry,” she managed without shivering, “I needed some fresh air.”

He stuck out his elbow, and she took it, glancing at Oliver. He didn’t meet her eyes.

Foster escorted her inside, the humidity of the hallway dense against her skin. “I need to talk to you.”

From the ballroom, the lively romp of Tchaikovsky suggested she’d also missed her polka with Colin Rutherford.

Oh, mother would be incensed. Perhaps Jinx had been correct—she should have been born first. Then Mother would have her debutante, her escort into high society. Jinx could speak French with a Belgian count, dance the quadrille or the Muzant with a German duke, and counsel an English butler on correct table-setting placement. She could probably even make Foster Worth crack a smile with her witty banter.

And Esme? She’d be free to write for her father. He’d always said that he expected great things from her.

Any forthcoming engagement was all her mother’s doing, Esme knew it in her bones. She’d simply explain—

“Let’s go in the drawing room.” Foster had her by the elbow, directing her toward Mrs. Astor’s white-paneled salon, with the gilded boiseries and mirrored doors. As they entered, she stifled the urge to hide amidst the clutter of bowers of roses and towering apple blossoms in gold-etched pots, the Victorian staging of busts of Shakespeare and Wagner, stuffed birds in glass domes, Louis XIV-style gilded divans and chairs. But how could she escape the eyes of the immense portrait of Mrs. Astor, the mistress of the manor, peering down on her?

Suddenly, she felt it, everything Jinx had been trying to tell her. The dictum of society and its import to their future. From the next room, the music ended, and a lancer began. Everyone turning in step, schooled for their role in society.

Foster escorted her to an ottoman. She sat, her heart lodged in her throat.

Oh. Wait…

He took her hand as her brain scurried to keep up.

He lowered himself onto one knee. She stared at her curved hand in his, unable to meet his eyes, tasting her heartbeat.

“Esme, your parents have agreed to allow me to ask for your hand in marriage. I believe we would make a winning match. I know we haven’t yet had the opportunity to deepen our friendship since our youth, but I am confident that in time we will come to care deeply for each other.”

She glanced up at him, caught his eye. He gave her a quick smile. “Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

Perhaps he could be labeled handsome. Brown, wavy hair, a stern brow, deep gray eyes, a confidence about him that said he would work hard, provide. Perhaps even remain faithful.

She hadn’t expected the rush of emotions, the heat in her chest, her eyes. Hadn’t expected the unfamiliar thrill that cascaded through her. Wife.

Someone’s wife.

She looked up at him, words netted in her chest.

She saw herself in a moment, hearing Foster’s proposal then turning him down to the din of Chopin.

Or not. What if she said yes? What if she became Mrs. Foster Worth, the world at her fingertips?

Couldn’t she change it that way also?

Over Foster’s shoulder, she spied Oliver, entering the room to gather his equipment. Invisible. Anonymous.

Oliver looked up, then, and for a blinding moment, met her eyes. You would make a fabulous Annie Oakley.

“Esme?” Foster said.

She drew a breath. No. She could say it. No. Simply explain to him that she wasn’t ready, that she wanted more out of life, that she wanted a man who loved her, who believed in—

“Yes.”

She looked over at the voice. Her father stepped into the room, regal in his coattails, cigarette smoke curling over his head, a smile on his face as if he’d just scooped Pulitzer. He settled his hand on her bare, cold shoulder, hot, heavy. “Of course, her answer is yes.”

Foster slipped a ring on her numb, gloved finger as Oliver shouldered his tripod and walked from the room.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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