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End of the Engagement

“End of the Engagement”

A Prequel Short Story

By Meredith Acker

 

 

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“End of the Engagement”: © 2016 by Meredith Acker

 

Cover design © Meredith Acker

 

Digital Edition 1.0

 

All rights reserved.

 

 

Published by Acker Books; distributed by Shakespir.

 

 

 

 

 

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Shakespir Edition, License Notes[
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**]This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Miss Pierce’s Protégées

[]

Short Story Prequel: “End of the Engagement”
Book 1: Planning on Passion
Book 2: Depths of Desire (June 2016)
Book 3: Ardent After All (Forthcoming 2016)
Novella 3.5: Seduction by a Stranger (Forthcoming 2016)
Book 4: Lessons in Love (Forthcoming 2016)

 

 

 

Table of Contents

Title Page

Series Page

End of the Engagement

Thanks for Reading!

Excerpt

Other Works by Meredith Acker

About Meredith

New York City, 1860.

Harriet closed the door quietly behind her as she slipped away into the dark street. Only a few years ago, sneaking out like this would have been impossible—the family’s servants would have questioned her actions or stopped her with only a look. Fleetingly she thought that she would never have anticipated this happy consequence of her family’s loss of fortune; now they had only a day maid, and no one noticed her absence.

She met William in a dark bar, hood pulled tightly around her face. The other patrons studied her shamelessly, and Harriet fidgeted, hoping William would arrive soon.

When he finally arrived, she wanted to kiss his face in relief… or maybe, she admitted to herself, the urge was due to something other than relief. She did lay her hands on the table, palms facing him, and was relieved when he reached out and grasped them, his expression softening at the sight of her.

“Miss Pierce,” he said softly. Her heart fluttered a little at the way he seemed to savor her name. “Did you have any difficulty in getting away?”

“‘Harriet’,” she insisted.

“Harriet,” he repeated. She knew, then, that he had come here to say the words she’d hoped he would say.

She shook her head, delaying the moment; now that she faced it, she was suddenly nervous. “It was simple,” she said. “No one suspected, so no one was watching for me to leave.”

He grinned. “What do you think your parents would think, if they knew you were sneaking out to meet with me?”

Harriet flushed. “They would probably be pleased,” she admitted. “I know my father has great respect for you. If you went to him…” She trailed off, uncertain what to say. It was at William’s insistence that they kept their meetings secret. The implication was that his father would not be pleased to know of his son’s connection with her.

William frowned slightly, an indication that he knew what she was thinking—but perhaps didn’t want to agree aloud. Whatever he might have said was interrupted as a barmaid came to their table. William ordered ale for both of them, not relinquishing her hands as he did so. He turned back to her, looking nervous.

“Harriet,” he said again, more loudly this time. He gave her hands a squeeze. “I want you to be my wife. But I fear my family will need persuasion. Will you agree to a secret engagement, for now?”

“Yes!” Harriet exclaimed, her heart seeming to leap within her. “William, I don’t care about your family—I’ll do whatever is required to be with you—” She stumbled over her own words as she tried to assure him of her devotion.

William pressed his lips to the back of her hand, and then they both jumped, separating, as the barmaid brought their drinks back to the table. They exchanged nervous smiles as she walked away again.

“How long will we have to wait before we can marry?” Harriet asked, trying to sound reasonable and not pleading.

“I don’t know,” William said somberly. “I hope it won’t take long to bring my family around. Until then—” He leaned towards her. “We’ll have the secret to give us sustenance.”

He walked her to the street outside her father’s house. To Harriet, William had always seemed to stand out from everyone and everything around him with a special glow; tonight, watching his bold stroll down the street, she reflected on the fact that here, he truly did stand out. Harriet’s family was comfortable, if not to the level that they’d been before, but even before her father’s financial difficulties, they would have been blown away by William’s riches.

He, it seemed, was once again following her own line of thought. “How I long for the day when I can take you away from this place,” he said quietly, pausing outside her father’s humble home.

“So do I,” Harriet responded fervently.

William nodded, and then he swiftly leaned over and planted his lips against hers. They were dry, and his was clammy in the chill of the summer night—but it was the most thrilling sensation she could imagine, nonetheless.

He stepped away and the breeze that filled the space he’d been in made Harriet shiver. “There’s something I want you to have,” he said. “Even if you can’t wear it yet.”

He slipped something cold into her hand and then retreated. “William—” she called, stepping one step down, but he didn’t turn around. She shivered again, and decided that, as she wasn’t going to chase after him, she might as well go inside.

It wasn’t until she was safely ensconced again in her room that she unfolded her fingers to see the token he had given her: a bright, delicate gold ring. She rolled it around in her palm, watching it glint in the lamp light, and daydreamed of the day when it could encircle her finger, sparking in the sunlight instead.

 

  • * *

 

William woke the next day feeling like he was floating on air. From the moment he’d first met Harriet Pierce, he’d been unable to get her out of his head. Now, at last, she was his.

At least… She would be soon. A cloud settled over his thoughts as he contemplated the task of getting his father to agree to his marriage.

He knew his father had met Harriet before—and more to the point, he’d met Harriet’s father, whom he disliked intensely. The truth was that William himself also disliked Harriet’s father, but it was irrelevant to his feelings towards his betrothed herself.

His fears came to pass when he went downstairs for breakfast. His father, who had usually retreated to his office by the time William emerged for his meal, was standing by the window and sipping from his cup of coffee.

“Father,” William said tonelessly, hoping to avoid sanction by speaking up promptly, and disguising his surprise.

His father turned. “William,” he said heartily—never a good sign. “Good morning. I come bearing an invitation for your consideration.”

“An invitation?” William repeated.

His father made an impatient motion. Don’t repeat, his father’s voice scolded him in his head, and William cringed. Fortunately, it seemed whatever was causing his impatience today distracted him from criticism. “A gentleman of my acquaintance has come to New York to do business, and brought his daughter. We’re going to a party tonight that they will be attending, and I expect you to be polite to his daughter. Anything that will strengthen our relationship with that family is to be pursued.”

“Strengthen your relationship?” William said, and cringed again when his father frowned. “Are you expecting me to marry this girl?”

His father raised an eyebrow, and William felt ashamed at questioning his father’s motives. Maybe his own impending (he hoped) wedding had put marriage on his mind. “Just be polite, William. Keep her entertained, and be sure that she views our family in a friendly manner. Is that too much to ask of my eldest son?”

“Of course not, Father,” William murmured, and spooned food onto his plate.

The party was hosted by a man of his father’s acquaintance—and was clearly irrelevant to his father’s schemes. The location didn’t matter; all his father cared about was wooing this man, this visitor from the south. William watched him warily. A potential investor? A potential blackmailer? He wouldn’t put either past his father.

He was introduced to Mr. Bennett Heyward, and shook his hand firmly. “A pleasure, Mr. Heyward,” William said, and turned his attention to the young woman standing at his side.

She was lovely, so lovely that he was taken aback in surprise. His father’s mouth curve in a satisfied smile as he took in William’s reaction, and knew that his suspicions about his father’s intentions were correct. But at least the duty of keeping this girl entertained would not be an onerous one.

He took her hand and bowed over it. “William Dumire,” he said, wishing his voice had not cracked just the slightest bit.

“Miss Heyward,” she said, and then giggled. “Lavinia.”

“Then you must call me William,” he responded instantly.

“Why don’t you two young people find something more interesting to do than listening in on our business?” Mr. Heyward suggested firmly, turning to William’s father without waiting for an answer. Their voices went low, and William strained to hear what they were speaking of, but his efforts were in vain. Giving in to necessity, he escorted Lavinia away from the pair and towards the buffet, where drinks were being served.

“I only heard of you and your father this morning,” he admitted. “Where do you come from?”

“We own a plantation in South Carolina,” she answered with a soft southern lilt.

The words sent a jolt through William. Anyone who followed the news knew that war was coming to the south, and sooner rather than later. Enough of the nation’s citizens had turned against the scourge of slavery to make it inevitable. Was this related to what Heyward and his father were discussing? It was a troubling thought. He studied Lavinia’s golden curls and his stomach twisted at the thought of this delicate creature stranded amongst battles and bulwarks. He thought, briefly, of asking her what the atmosphere was where she lived…

“I’ve never been to South Carolina,” he commented instead. “What is it like?”

She smiled big and bold, showing her teeth and cracking her façade in a way that would be frowned upon in New York society. William, though, was charmed by it.

“I had thought that the southern states were hot, but at least at home, you can find a bit of breeze to give you relief. In the city, it’s so crowded that the heat seems magnified tenfold.”

“Have you visited Central Park yet?” he asked.

“No,” she said, her lips curving up mischievously. “Maybe you would be so kind as to give me a tour.”

“It would be my pleasure,” William responded automatically. Then he felt immediate guilt; here he was, flirting with a beautiful stranger, when Harriet was probably at home, being faithful and loyal. He should be trying to extract himself from Lavinia’s presence, not agreeing to spend more time with her.

But she was pleasant enough company, so far, and a stranger to the city—and his father had asked it of him. He excused himself for the lapse; he couldn’t, after all, be seen with Harriet in public, so it was not precious time with her he would be sacrificing. Indeed, a jaunt in the park with Lavinia would not only allow him to escape his father for a few hours, but it would also put his father in a more accommodating mood, for when William told him their plan.

“Shall I describe to you some of the points of interest you’ll see, or do you prefer to be surprised?” he said, putting thoughts of Harriet out of his mind.

“Oh, surprised, please!” Lavinia responded earnestly. He tucked her hand under his arm and led her towards the corner, where he saw a few of his acquaintances loitering. From across the room, he saw his father watching him with approval as he introduced her to them.

 

  • * *

 

Harriet had never been to the Dumire mansion before. It loomed above her larger than physical size could explain; it represented all the differences between herself and William, the differences that had the potential to tear them apart forever.

She approached the front door nervously. Her knock seemed to echo throughout the street, though in reality, it was soft enough that no one came immediately to answer it, and she had to knock again.

She wished she could simply send a note, but William had told her his father might go through his mail; their previous assignations had been arranged by notes he’d sent to her. She had neither seen nor heard from him in more than two weeks, and was growing desperate—and worried. Had something happened to him? Or had he (the fear took up residence in her mind) forgotten about her, or changed his mind? She fingered the gold ring that felt heavy in her dress pocket.

The door finally swung open, and Harriet jumped back. An impeccably-dressed butler peered at her suspiciously.

“I’m—I’m looking for Mr. Dumire,” she stuttered. “The younger Mr. Dumire. Is he at home to visitors?”

The butler studied her for a moment longer before responding. “I will inquire. Who may I say is asking for him?”

“Tell him it’s—” Harriet paused. “Harriet. Just Harriet.” Her given name alone would likely inspire suspicion, but not nearly as specific as it would be if someone overheard her family name. A gamble that she desperately hoped was the correct one.

She could hear her heartbeat echoing in her ears as she waited for the butler to return. She scanned the lawn around her—a rose garden was blooming immaculately to the right, where it curved around the side of the mansion. Behind it grew hedges and an assortment of young trees. As she looked at them, she thought she heard laughter coming from the side of the house and, curious, she began walking in that direction.

The source of the laughter was a beautiful young woman with hair that shone as brightly in the sunlight as the ring she clutched in her pocket. She was leaning over the bed of roses and smelling one particularly bright flower; her pale, embroidered dress looked as though it had been created for this scene, and Harriet immediately felt self-conscious of her plain apparel. Next to this woman, she could never gain the advantage.

A man stood behind the woman, his face obscured by her figure. She held his hand as she turned away from the flower to face him and spoke. Harriet had almost turned away from them again when the young woman shifted her position enough that she could make out the features on the man’s face—

William. Harriet gasped, and a moment later the couple had turned to face her. The woman looked no more than innocently quizzical, but William’s face went pale and he immediately dropped the young woman’s hand.

Harriet had taken a step back, but before she could flee, William strode over to her. He paused hesitantly a few paces away; he did not gather her in his arms, as he had a few times before, nor did he take her hand or even speak.

“I’ll wait for you inside, Willie,” the young woman called, her tone restrained. Harriet might have felt better had there been a note of triumph in it, but it seemed that she didn’t even see Harriet as competition for William’s affections.

“Harriet,” William said, finally. “It’s nothing—she’s only the daughter of a friend of my father’s.” He reached out for her, but let his hand drop before it touched her.

Harriet nodded numbly. “You haven’t written to me in weeks,” she whispered. He grimaced.

“I’ve been caught up in my father’s business. Please forgive me, beloved.” His expression softened with affection, guilt disappearing, and Harriet thought that perhaps she might have been mistaken—perhaps she truly had misread an innocent situation. Then why did he hold her hand, but not yours?

“Of course I forgive you,” she said. “But when will we see each other again?”

He was silent for a moment. “Can you get away the evening of Tuesday next? We can meet in the same place as last time. I may not be able to spare much time, but—we could at least see each other.”

“I can,” she agreed eagerly.

“Until then,” he said, and started to turn away from her, then hesitated.

“Will you not even kiss me before you go?” she said in a low voice. Without responding, but with an agonized sound, he moved towards her and embraced her. Harriet felt all of her doubts disappearing as their mouths met.

The sound of footfalls behind them disturbed their reverie. She whirled to see the butler who had answered the door staring at them, his expression disapproving. William stepped back, straightening his posture. “I was just coming inside,” he said vaguely.

Harriet fled, her face burning, and tried not to think what the butler must think of her.

 

  • * *

 

 

William knew it was bad news when his father called him into his study. He had hoped that Reynolds might chalk the scene in the garden up to philandering, rather than a true attachment, and as such beneath his father’s notice. He should have known that was unrealistically optimistic; his father liked to know everything that went on in his household, savory or otherwise.

William braced himself for the disdain on his father’s face to be reflected in his speech. He was surprised, then, when his father’s first words had nothing to do with Harriet.

“I appreciate the time you’ve been spending with Miss Heyward.”

“Lavinia is a pleasant companion,” William said cautiously. “It’s been no hardship to show her around New York.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” His father gestured to the seat across from him at his desk, and William took a seat, still hesitant. “My negotiations with her father have been going relatively well, though it would be useful to smooth the way further. I’d like to ask something of you, to facilitate that.”

“I’m happy to do anything that helps you, Father.”

“Good.” His father studied him. “I want you to marry Miss Heyward.”

“What?!” William exclaimed, rising to his feet.

“You’ve already said you enjoy her company. The match will be advantageous to me financially. What surprises you about the suggestion?”

“I enjoy her company, but that doesn’t mean I love her.”

“We’re speaking of marriage, not love,” his father said with contempt.

“Father, I—” William heard a roaring in his ears. “I cannot marry her. I’m engaged to someone else.”

If he’d expected shock, he was to be disappointed. “To the Pierce girl? Yes, Reynolds told me, and it was trivial to discover her identity. A secret engagement is not legally binding, in any case, and as it’s not public—there can be no public repercussions to breaking it off.” His father leaned forward, resting his hands on the desk. “William, it’s absurd to think of you marrying her in any case. She’s not an appropriate bride for a man of your background.”

“You don’t know her,” William persisted stubbornly. “She may not be wealthy, but she is a good person. I believe that will contribute more to my happiness in the long run. I don’t need to marry for money, in any case.”

“You are correct in that; you do not. But does she?” William said nothing. “I’ve met this girl’s father, the elder Mr. Pierce. Never have I met anyone more determined to raise himself above his current station. Do you truly believe he’s made no suggestions to the girl that if she married you, her life would be much easier?”

“I cannot believe that of Harriet,” William said, but even he could hear the resolve wavering in his voice.

“Then think of Miss Heyward, instead. Is she not lovely and kind? All I’m asking is for you to give her a chance before you decide to marry a girl who might well ruin your life. And if you refuse her…” He paused portentously. “Think of what will happen to such a sweet girl when war breaks out in the south. You know as well as I do that it’s inevitable. Heyward is willing to consider her marriage to you for one reason: her safety can only be assured if she’s far away from her current home when the war reaches them. You can be sure, otherwise he would never consider your suit; even I, after this conversation, am forced to consider you in many ways beneath her notice.”

He did enjoy Lavinia’s company, and William himself had feared what consequences the coming war would wreak on her. “Very well, Father,” William surrendered. “I will consider the match. I promise nothing more than that.” His heart broke at the thought of abandoning Harriet—but maybe if he went along with this farce for a few weeks longer…

His father stood, rounded the desk, and clapped a hand on William’s shoulder. “Thank you, son. Perhaps it is not too late after all for you to make me a proud father.”

 

  • * *

 

Every threat in the night seemed somehow more harsh, the second time Harriet wove her way through the streets to the bar where she’d agreed to meet William. Everyone seemed to be watching her.

She ducked into the same booth where they’d sat before, shaking her head nervously whenever the barmaid approached to ask whether she wanted anything to drink.

Even more than the previous time, every moment seemed to take hours to pass. Other patrons wandered in and out of the bar, and occasionally one approached Harriet. She shrank back into the seat when they did, pulled her cloak tight about her, and hoped desperately for them to go away. Eventually, all of them did.

And eventually, Harriet had to face the fact that William wasn’t coming.

As it got later, the clientele became more and more disreputable—not to mention louder and ruder. A man leered at her and grabbed at her arm when she finally decided there was no point in staying longer; William would not expect her to stay where she was uncomfortable, and undoubtedly would send her a note the next day explaining why he had been prevented or detained from coming. She avoided the man’s arms and choked down a sob as she escaped into the night.

She lay awake in bed all night, rolling William’s ring between her fingers. The sounds of the house creaking around her, normally soothing, made her wonder whether William, too, was lying awake listening to the sounds made by his home. Or was he sleeping soundly, with no idea of the agony she was experiencing because of him?

It wasn’t until the next morning, of course, that she got her answer, but she didn’t have to wait long.

Emerging bleary-eyed from her room, after a wakeful night, she found her father sitting at the kitchen table, their day maid serving the simple breakfast to which they’d become accustomed. He greeted her distractedly, his attention mainly on his toast and tea, and on the newspaper he had spread across half the table. He’d always insisted that being well-informed was important for anyone who wanted to rise above his station.

“An interesting marriage notice in the paper today,” he said absently, and shoved a page towards Harriet. “Didn’t you have a flirtation with him recently? I suppose it’s no surprise that he went for an heiress rather than a Pierce, though I say it speaks poorly of him.”

Harriet froze. At the top of the announcements, a name she recognized jumped out at her as though it had been printed in blood red.

Mr. William Dumire, son of Mr. John Dumire, it read, of New York; to Miss Lavinia Heyward, daughter of Mr. Bennett Heyward, of South Carolina.

Miss Lavinia Heyward. That must be the blonde woman Harriet had seen William speaking to in the garden. She told herself she had known, even then, that his assurances were lies, but in truth she had accepted his word, because she didn’t want to admit that she had been taken advantage of.

“May I take the paper upstairs?” Harriet asked, her voice shaking. Her father didn’t seem to notice.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Take a pot of tea with you, if you intend on reading it in your room.” He smiled without looking up, and Harriet fled to her bedroom.

She tore the notice from the page and read it again, hoping to find that her eyes—and her memory—had betrayed her. The words remained unchanged, though they blurred from the tears in her eyes.

Harriet pulled William’s ring from her pocket, and wrapped it in the piece of newsprint. She tucked the small parcel into a drawer of her dresser. There, she thought; a reminder to never be so gullible again.

She spent most of several days sitting listlessly at the window, staring outside and wondering where William was. Moving with his wife (she detested the word, and made herself repeat it over and over as punishment) to their new home? Holding her as they lay in bed each night? Thinking of her, and experiencing even a twinge of regret? Or never thinking of her as he and Lavinia settled into their new life together?

Though she and William had few friends in common, eventually she learned that he and his wife had settled in Pennsylvania. It was the last news she had of him.

By then, she told herself she no longer cared. She had already sworn never to let herself be vulnerable like this again. But moreover, she had sworn to make her fortune; to be the kind of woman William would regret having lost.

And if she ever had the opportunity, she vowed, she would make him regret it.

 

 

 

 

Thirty Years Later…

 

When the house was quiet and still, Harriet always found her gaze drifting to the jewelry box she kept in a dresser drawer.

She had another jewelry box, an intricately carved thing her niece Frances had given her as a gift, shortly after moving into the venerable old mansion Harriet had bought as soon as her finances allowed it. It was already too late; anyone she might have impressed with her address had long ago left the city.

“Old maids like us should have some pretty things to enjoy,” Francie had teased, and Harriet had teased her back, though inside she hoped her niece—still young and pretty, however old she thought herself—would not end up an old maid like her, still longing for the days of her youth, unable to tear her thoughts away from the past.

She had achieved her revenge in the way she’d vowed to herself that she would; she’d made her fortune, and become the kind of woman who held the power, respect, and—sometimes—fear of almost everyone she met in New York Society. But it was an empty achievement, in the end. She’d never seen William again after that day in his garden, and she had to assume that he and Lavinia had happily grown old together, perhaps raising several children along the way. She, however, was alone, except for Francie, who had already been an independent adult before she came to live with Harriet.

She felt like a child sneaking into her parents’ room as she slid the top dresser drawer open, wincing at every creak, and lifted the lid of the box, removing the trinket she still kept inside.

William’s ring was now tarnished, never having been polished over the past three decades. The fingers that held it were thinner, and beginning to wrinkle. Still, holding it, she felt like a young girl again, and briefly remembered simple joy.

It was not that she’d led an unhappy life. Harriet had had many triumphs, and many contented moments. But the simplicity of the emotion she’d experienced when William had first slipped the ring into her hand—that was gone forever, destroyed by his betrayal.

A sound downstairs had Harriet hastily returning the ring to its hiding place and slamming the drawer shut. She was just in time; moments later, Francie pounded up the stairs and knocked on Harriet’s bedroom door. She breathed deeply, trying to slow her heartbeat, and swung the door open. As always, the sight of her niece’s face made her feel both proud and sad.

“I brought the mail,” Francie said, handing a pile of envelopes to Harriet. “There’s one thick letter from a Chisolm. A relation?”

Harriet inspected it quizzically, and it was some moments before realization struck. “A cousin,” she said. “I haven’t seen Susanna often since she married and moved farther from the city. She had several children…”

She ripped open the letter, curious what could have caused such a thorough missive to come her way.

“Oh, my dear,” Harriet breathed as she read the letter. Francie shifted impatiently, but did not ask for details. Harriet looked up. “Her husband was severely injured, and she’s written to ask for help.”

Francie scowled. “She doesn’t write for decades, and then calls on you when she requires money?”

Harriet opened her mouth to protest, but stopped short when her attention was caught by a particular passage in the letter.

My heart breaks, too, for my daughter Sadie, a young lady now, upon whose shoulders our burden weighs heavily. I had hoped for better things for her, but she has few prospects here in our small town…

Harriet’s heart seemed to contract. She immediately felt for this Sadie, a young woman she had never set eyes upon. Perhaps she, as Harriet once did, had a sweetheart—and perhaps she, too, would be kept from him by the turn of her family’s fortunes.

“She has a daughter, a young woman,” Harriet said to Francie to explain her sudden silence. “A poor girl in a small town—her options would necessarily be limited.” She paused. “Perhaps,” she said slowly, “I should invite her here to stay with us.”

Francie quirked an eyebrow. “You’ve given up on marrying me off, and now you need a new project?” she joked. Harriet gave her a look.

“It would be good for us, too,” she mused, “to have company, instead of rattling around in this big house by ourselves. What do you think, my dear?”

Francie shrugged. “I will welcome any guest of yours to the house, of course, aunt.”

Harriet cleared away the debris on her desk and settled down to write a response to the letter. She enclosed a few bills to ease them through their immediate troubles. But it was not the main intention of the letter.

She wrote, But there is something more I can offer you, or rather, your daughter Sadie…

 

 

 

 

Thanks for Reading!

 

You’ve just read “End of the Engagement,” a short story prequel to the Miss Pierce’s Protégées series. I hope you enjoyed it!

There will be four full-length novels in the series. Read on for an excerpt of the first, Planning on Passion.

Book 2, Depths of Desire, will be available in June 2016.

If you liked “End of the Engagement,” you may want to sign up for my mailing list, where you’ll get updates on new books (and other exciting news). You can also visit my website or follow me on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

Planning on Passion

[]

Book 1 of Miss Pierce’s Protégées

Chapter 1

Marrying a rich man is the solution to untold numbers of financial problems, but it’s easier said than done in a town of fewer than a thousand people, most of them farmers. Sadie sat in a corner of her parents’ parlor, wondering how to salvage a plan for one’s life when even the most basic steps were impossible to achieve.

Here were the undeniable facts:

Her father could not work; in fact, he couldn’t get out of bed.

Her mother was not making enough money to support all five of them.

Evelyn and Jimmy were too young to work.

Sadie herself had few useful skills, beyond cleaning or cooking for someone too desperate to pay for better—neither of which were in much demand in her small hometown.

Five people ate an awfully lot of food.

Food cost money.

Sadie sighed. No matter how she added it up, the result came out the same. Either she learned to do something someone would pay her for, or she found someone to marry who was willing to support not only her, but the rest of the family. And that meant someone almost absurdly rich, someone for whom buying produce sufficient for two growing children was barely a blip on the account sheets.

Her current circle of acquaintance, however, provided a distinct dearth of rich men upon whose pity she could throw herself—or even tolerably employed or incomed ones. She stared out the window and tried to figure out an equation that didn’t equal all of them starving in a few months.

The view out their living room window was one of the most familiar sights in Sadie’s memory, along with the faces of her parents and siblings. Raymond’s home, which he lived in with his grandmother, was just visible down the lane. Gently rolling hills, thriving green and brown weeds, trees swaying in the strong breeze. She couldn’t imagine seeing anything else out of her front window. But it was a sacrifice she’d have to make for the sake of her family.

“Sadie,” her mother said softly from over her shoulder. She looked up and smiled, trying to erase the tense look from her brow. “Worrying again?”

“Nothing to worry about,” she lied glibly, knowing that her mother would never believe her, but not wanting to add anything else to her mother’s own store of worries if she could avoid it. Her mother had probably thought, twenty-some years ago, that all of her worries were over, when she married a young, strong man with plenty of savings to his credit. She never could have imagined this: that with an adult daughter and two dependent children, she’d be mopping floors to support her husband, felled by an injury and a fever that the doctor couldn’t confidently say would ever go away.

Her mother’s expression softened, anyway, and Sadie suppressed the urge to squeeze her tight, as though she was no older than Jimmy. If her mother could be so stony, Sadie had no excuse not to follow in her mold.

“I received a letter today,” her mother said, changing the subject. “I’d like to talk to you about it.”

“A letter?” Sadie asked wonderingly. She glanced at Evelyn and Jimmy, playing with jacks in the middle of the rag rug, their voices soft. Evelyn was old enough to know that Jimmy needed distracting and their mother couldn’t always do it, and Jimmy was old enough to know to always keep his voice down, inside, since loud noises caused their father even more pain. They didn’t react, lost in their game. “Is it bad news?” She couldn’t imagine why else her mother would want privacy to discuss it.

“Not bad,” her mother clarified. “Just…” She trailed off, looking at Evelyn and Jimmy herself. “Let’s go for a walk,” she suggested.

They bundled up against the March weather. The frost on the grass had not yet melted in the morning sun, and made Sadie’s stockings damp as it melted.

“Is it Papa?” Sadie blurted out before they’d even moved away from the front door. That was the no thing none of them could plan against. His injury could take a turn for the worse at any time. Already he’d faded from the bright, robust man they’d known to a grey shadow of his old self.

“No,” her mother said, drawing out the word in a peculiar way. She didn’t look at Sadie as she spoke. “Have you heard me speak of my cousin Harriet?” She was holding a piece of paper in one fist, clenching it tightly.

“The name is familiar,” Sadie hedged, unable to recall anything else.

“She is my mother’s cousin, and we were close once, until she moved to New York.” New York City—just the phrase brought sparkling visions to Sadie’s mind, of bright lights and rich people and expensive clothes, not to mention crime and filth and crowding. “I’ve kept in touch with her by writing now and then. Once a year, at most. She knew about you children…” Her mother paused. “I’ve been writing to her more… recently.” She didn’t need to fill it what was left unspoken: since their difficulties had begun the year before. “In my last letter, I told her how difficult things had become, and I’m not ashamed to admit I begged for her help.”

“You shouldn’t be,” Sadie assured her mother, who smiled wanly.

“To my embarrassment, she sent some money, which…” Her mother gripped the letter until it nearly crumpled. “Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. She also sent a question for you.”

“For me?” Sadie asked, astonished. “But I’ve never met her.”

“You haven’t, but she’s heard about you. Every year since you were born. She said she feels as though she knows you already.”

“What is the question?”

“She says that, given your age, she can imagine that this… situation is causing you difficulties of a personal nature.” Her mother hesitated again. Clearly, this subject was one she would prefer not to broach. “She offers to have you come and stay with her, in the city, and promises that she could arrange for you the acquaintance of any number of wealthy and eligible young men, in the hopes of making a match.”

Sadie’s ears seemed to be ringing. This was beyond anything she’d ever suspected. It could be the solution to the problem that had been tying her into knots for weeks. But… “I don’t want to leave home,” she admitted.

“There’s no need for you to,” her mother said hastily, yet firmly. “We’ll make do. We always have.”

Sadie stopped walking, and clutched her mother’s hands in her own. “Mama, you know it’s not as easy as that. As long as Papa can’t work—you and I can’t make up the difference. But if I were married—if I married someone kind—maybe he would be willing to provide for my family, too. It has to be something you’ve considered.”

Her mother’s eyes were pained. “I had thought of it. But Sadie… I don’t want you to jeopardize your future for our sake. You shouldn’t marry someone simply because they’re convenient. I don’t want you to be unhappy.”

“Nothing could make me happier than knowing that I had some part in providing for my family,” Sadie said. Tears filled her eyes and she threw her arms around her mother—never mind acting like a grown-up. “I have to at least try it. And if it doesn’t work out, well, maybe I can find a job in New York.” The very words felt strange and exotic on her lips. She shivered, and tried to hide her reaction.

“I won’t stop you going,” her mother said, her words muffled in Sadie’s shoulder. “But, love, know that any time you want to, you’ll be welcome back here. Don’t do anything that makes you unhappy.”

“I won’t,” Sadie promised, then took a deep breath, hoping to stifle her tears.

  • * *

Sadie clutched Harriet’s letter in her hands as the train shook its way along the track. A piece of paper seemed a flimsy thing on which to make a decision that would affect the rest of her life—but the contents of this particular letter were momentous enough to have forced her hand.

It was a short letter to change at least one life. Though it began with a salutation to her mother and a wish for good health, it wasted no time in getting to the point. I have enclosed some money, which I hope will ease your way, her mother’s cousin had written. But there is something more I can offer you, or rather, your daughter Sadie…

She knew relatively little about this cousin, whom she’d never met, but she gathered from the letter, and from the few stories her mother had vouchsafed her before her departure, that Harriet was old and very rich. With me as chaperone, she can seek out the husband a small town could not provide. I may be unmarried, but my reputation makes me no one to be trifled with.

Trifled with. It had been easy, in her parents’ parlor, to think of this journey as one with predefined steps and a guaranteed outcome. She would meet rich men, determine which were amenable to marriage, make her selection, and be home to tell her parents the good news within a month. But, of course, New York was infamous for its confidence men, its criminals. It was just as likely she might find herself taken advantage of, abandoned, and left in a worse situation than just struggling to make ends meet. She tried to force down the terror by taking deep breaths and watching the scenery fly by, still green and populated with trees enough to seem like home.

The train pulled into the station and broke Sadie from her reverie. She stood to gather her two small valises; they’d shipped her trunk and it would arrive the next week.

While she was gathering her bags, someone collided with her from behind, causing one of the valises to go sprawling down the aisle, the clasps popping open. Sadie whirled, furious, to face her assailant.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said; “let me help you pick that up.” It was a young man, his hat at a rakish angle; Sadie thought at first that their collision had knocked it awry, but the fact that he didn’t immediately straighten it suggested otherwise, as did the rest of his appearance: the man was dressed in clothing that was well-made and stylish, but somewhat sloppily kept, the jacket and vest partially unbuttoned and the tie askew. He clearly had no man—or wife—to help him dress, and was too impatient to take the time to care for his appearance himself.

As Sadie made her observations, the young man was already reaching beyond her. “Oh, no,” she said, propelled back into action by the thought of him rummaging around among her own clothing. “It’s no trouble at all. Don’t let me delay you.”

“Don’t be silly,” the young man said, and with no further discussion heaved the valise onto one of the seats. Sadie reluctantly moved aside while he gathered the items that had fallen out in order to allow other passengers to move past. As soon as the way was clear, she darted forward just in time to watch the stranger deftly close the lid of her valise and fasten the clasps. He lifted it up and, instead of handing it back to her, swung it once as if to test its weight.

“What’s your destination?” he asked.

“Fifth Avenue—but—” she said, confused. “You needn’t carry my luggage. I am going to hire a hackney.”

“Let me at least walk you to the street,” he said. “As an apology for nearly knocking you over.” He smiled and hoisted the other valise up from the seat, and Sadie was left trailing behind him, feeling helpless.

She was glad enough to have company as they fought their way through crowded Grand Central Terminal. Sadie had never ridden on a train before today, and while she was sure she could have navigated the station on her own, it would have taken longer and left her exhausted. The young man conveyed her across the building so quickly she was barely aware of its enormity, let alone the sheer number of people who shared the space with them. Before she knew it, they were out on the pavement.

The city was less noisy than the station, but being open to the air, it seemed it must be even more clamorous to produce so much disorder. Sadie found her steps faltering as she took in the racket, the smells, the massive wall of humanity that now faced her. She had to force herself to keep up with her companion.

“First time in the city?” he asked with an understanding grimace.

“Yes,” Sadie replied, her voice little more than a whisper. She tried again. “I’ve come to live here, with a cousin, but I’d never before been out of my home town.”

“You’ll get used to it,” he said.

“Have you visited many times?”

“Naw,” he said, with a strangely appealing drawl. “I’ve never been here before either! I’ve just been in enough places to figure out my way around.” His eyes were roving, searching the street for, she assumed, some signal she could not recognize that meant a vehicle was unoccupied. “Here!” he shouted, and a moment later he was ushering her into a carriage.

“Thank you, Mr.—” Sadie said hurriedly.

“Slater,” he told her, “Charley Slater.” He swept his hat off his head for a little bow, and replaced it even more cock-eyed than it had been before. He waited expectantly.

“I am Miss Chisolm,” she said, feeling it was rude to deny him her name after his assistance, though knowing it was improper to offer it.

“I hope you enjoy New York City, Miss Chisholm. Perhaps we’ll encounter each other again.” He stepped back and the driver flicked his whip, causing the horse to surge forward into the tumult and Mr. Slater to disappear from her site. Sadie felt oddly disappointed, perhaps because she was now entirely without friends in this city, having lost the only person she knew at all—even if their acquaintance had lasted for only a few moments.

 

 

 

 

Other Works by Meredith Acker

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Novels & Novellas

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Miss Pierce’s Protégées

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p<>{color:#000;}. SHORT STORY: “End of the Engagement” (May 2016)

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p<>{color:#000;}. Planning on Passion (March 2016)

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p<>{color:#000;}. Depths of Desire (June 2016)

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p<>{color:#000;}. Ardent After All (Forthcoming 2016)

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p<>{color:#000;}. NOVELLA: Seduced by a Stranger (Forthcoming)

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p<>{color:#000;}. Lessons in Love (Forthcoming)

Novelettes & Short Stories

h2<>{color:#000;}.

Christmas at College

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p<>{color:#000;}. “All Wrapped up in You” (December 2015)

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p<>{color:#000;}. “Snowed in with You” (December 2015)

 

 

 

 

About Meredith

A southern transplant to New York, Meredith fell in love with an Italian boy from Long Island, and now she’s stuck here. They live in Brooklyn, where she is shadowed by a faithful and affectionate girl cat. She works in midtown in a big fancy office by day, then comes home and writes stories about other people kissing.

 

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End of the Engagement

A prequel short story to the Miss Pierce's Protegees series, set thirty years before. Contains a secret engagement -- and betrayal! This is a 5,000-word short story that leads directly into book 1 of the series, PLANNING ON PASSION.

  • ISBN: 9781311738646
  • Author: Meredith Acker
  • Published: 2016-05-26 04:20:09
  • Words: 7839
End of the Engagement End of the Engagement