Awash in several glasses of Champagne, Mabel Graham was whisked across the lavish parquet floors of Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt’s opulent salon. She giggled madly and clung to her dance partner, very nearly losing the gilded comb from her hair. It was New Year’s Eve, 1915. In a few short minutes, May, as she was known to her closest friends, would be ringing in 1916 with her beloved. She glanced up into his deep brown eyes as they slowed to a stop in the middle of the room, surrounded by furniture, handcrafted of ebony and silks. Smiling broadly, the nineteen year-old reached up to brush a lock of Frank’s dark hair from his forehead. It had come loose in the humid ballroom they had escaped moments before.
“Do you think she’s noticed we’ve gone?” Frank asked, beaming as he dipped his head to plant kisses down the side of May’s neck. Tilting her head opposite his embrace, May sighed happily and rubbed across his shoulders.
“If she has, she will be here shortly,” her eyes fluttered closed as his lips found her collarbone, which was just barely visible through the black velvet scooped neckline of her gown. His grip tightened around her waist and she bit down on her lower lip, heart pounding in her chest at the thought of how incredibly improper the moment felt.
Moonlight spilled through the room’s tall windows, illuminating her golden curls, piled high atop her head. Her rosy cheeks rivaled the wine-tinted silk organza that wrapped around the length of her dress, cinched at the waist with a band of the finest seed pearls. She breathed in the very scent of him as he held her close; whiskey and tobacco with the slightest hint of leather.
Frank Barclay was a young, handsome attorney from Delaware and her tuxedoed date for the evening’s festivities. Together they had just managed to ditch May’s tipsy aunt Margot back in the jam-packed ballroom of the home known as the Petit Chateau. The languid music floated in heavy echos through the salon, where cooler air helped May clear her head just a fraction more than she had been able all night.
May laughed with delight as Frank swung her around once more, her back arching to press her body tightly against his. The pair were dancing much closer than they would have been allowed at the party, under the watchful eyes of her chaperone.
“They say that in Argentina,” he whispered against her skin, his breath hot in contrast to the temperature of the room, “they do a dance called the Tango.”
“Mmm,” Mabel responded wordlessly, a shiver running down her spine before she could speak, “How does it go?”
Frank chuckled and dragged his fingertips down the side of her body, feeling the gentle curve between her slender waist and her hip. With a swift movement, he grasped the back of her thigh, lifting her knee up to rest against his own waist. May gasped, clawing at his shoulder to avoid losing her balance. Her eyes widened, and she searched his eyes for an explanation. The position of their bodies was that of greater intimacy than May had ever imagined she would have with any man prior to her marriage.
“Frank --” she hissed, trying desperately to regain control of her limbs as he dipped her backward. Her gown was most definitely not made for this kind of movement, and she felt the delicate fabric straining hard against her skin.
He laughed and let her leg drop. May slumped in his arms, her balance severely off-kilter, but he caught her by the waist and walked her backward to a chaise. Taking a seat, May took the opportunity to gain her bearings. The unexpected movement had a sobering affect; the room coming into focus a bit more clearly than before.
“I’m sorry, I should have warned you, Darling,” he cooed against her ear, brushing her pale blonde hair away from the side of her face. “You want me, don’t you?” She cringed and shook her head, leaning away from him.
“Perhaps we should return to the party,” she suggested, her voice quiet, moving to stand up.
Frank’s arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her back down to the sofa. “What’s your hurry?” He asked, tugging her body closer to his. “We’re alone. We haven’t had the opportunity to truly get to know one another, you see.”
“Please,” May’s heart pounded in her chest as she pressed her hands against him. He was all over her, large and intimidating and suffocatingly warm. She cringed every time his hands touched her. “Let’s go back to the party so no one thinks the worst.”
“The worst?” He asked. The music downstairs grew louder, and Mabel knew they must be nearing midnight. “It’s hardly the worst. Just a little fun.” He climbed over her, hands pressing against her shoulders, her body bending against its will. She struggled as much as possible and shook her head quickly.
“No,” May pleaded, “No. I said no!”
“Don’t be afraid,” He grinned and kissed her hard, his hand grasped a fistful of her luxurious skirts and lifted them quickly up around her waist. She gasped against his lips, feeling exposed to the world. Furiously, she pushed at his meandering hand, then tried to pull her skirts back down, but to no avail. She protested, shaking her head quickly, her heart racing in her chest. With one quick movement, his open palm connected soundly with her cheek. The sound echoed in the room, bouncing dully from the walls as the party raged on without them. He pressed her down into the chaise, rendering her completely prone. One of his hands was then on her wrists, which he pinned above her head. She cried out in pain as his other pressed at her flesh, his elbow digging hard into her knee to keep her legs apart. “Just enjoy yourself…” he sneered, his belt buckle clinking below. Mabel closed her eyes and cried out for help amongst the deafening ten-second countdown which dully sounded from the floor underneath them.
“Has the doctor come?” It was barely six o’clock in the morning, and the entire Graham household was buzzing with activity. Mary Baxter was below stairs, hurrying through the halls with a bundle of blood-stained bedsheets. She had carefully removed them from beneath her sobbing mistress before whisking away to handle her duties and avoid the graphic scene above stairs.
“He’s here,” a housemaid answered as she pulled the bundle from Mary’s hands. “Just went up to Miss Graham’s room. Is she going to be okay?”
As Mabel’s ladies’ maid, Mary was closer to her than any of the household staff. In fact, the pair had been playmates as children, when Mr. and Mrs. Graham were still living. With a deep, shuddering sigh, Mary swiped at her reddened eyes and nodded. “She’s stronger than you know.” Stepping up to a large, steaming cauldron of water for the laundry, she dumped the sheets inside and poured in extra soap as the blood bloomed out of the fabric, turning the water a pale red.
There was no way her maid would be permitted in the room while the doctor performed his examination. All Mary knew was that Mabel had tried to put up a fight when that blaggard had attacked her. As a result, she had taken quite a beating.
Shoving hard on the door to the alleyway behind the Graham house, Mary exited the stifling hot hallway near the kitchens and stepped into the snow-covered silence of winter. The chill in the air was more than welcome as she sucked in a deep breath, doing her best to eliminate the fire in her belly. She was filled to the brim with rage and murderous thoughts about Frank Barclay.
“It’s ‘er own fault, you know,” came a voice from the other side of the doorway. Mary jumped slightly, startled from her malice.
“What?” The tall brunette’s brows furrowed as she turned to look at the older woman in the alley.
Tapping on a hand-rolled cigarette, the woman chuckled slightly. She picked a bit of dried tobacco from her lip and raised the cigarette to her lips once more. “It’s ‘er own fault. What d’you suppose she thought, goin’ off in private with ‘im? Girl does that, she gets what comin’ to ‘er.”
Mary’s gaze narrowed at the woman. Hattie Molloy was Miss Vincent’s maid, and the two of them had never gotten along. She supposed Molloy, as was her proper name around the Graham estate, had been somewhat of a looker when she was younger, but the years had been hard on her. Rumor was that she had given up a daughter, many years ago, before entering service. Perhaps that was the reason for her venomous tone.
“Miss Graham did not deserve this. She had no idea what he intended to do,” Mary spat back, kicking at a clod of dirty snow beneath her feet. “Don’t you dare say it again.”
With a chuckle, then a dry, raspy cough, Hattie nodded. “I’m just tellin’ ya, a man’s not to be trusted. Thinks only with what he’s got in his trousers.”
Nodding slowly, Mary took in another breath and pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. “You’ve got that part right.”
It was nearly a month before Mabel would again leave the house. Despite all of the promises, Mabel had not heard a single word from her attacker since that night; it might have been a bane to the plans of her desperate Aunt Margot, but May felt it to be a huge blessing. Her body had mended, with most of the stitches having been removed and the bruises on her face having faded. She feared, however, that her nightmares would not ever cease.
A mighty chill was in the air as Mabel exited a dressmaker’s shop on Fifth Avenue, arm-in-arm with Margot. Her aunt had insisted that a handful of new frocks would certainly cheer her up, and it would most definitely help her make a grand return to the New York social scene.
The automobile was waiting for them at the curb. May loved the new way of getting around town, but her Aunt seemed to favor the horse-drawn carriages she had used for her previous thirty-some years. She always imagined herself zipping around corners in the countryside, driving the vehicle on her own. For now, however, she was relegated to remaining a passenger. Their driver, Richard, was waiting just past a small mound of shoveled snow.
“Successful trip, madam?” The middle-aged, pot-bellied man asked, smiling brightly at Margot.
“Very well, Richard,” Margot crooned as she fluffed her fox fur stole, “without you breathing down my neck, I can manage to accomplish a few things.”
May smirked and watched as her Aunt took a step over the mound of snow to enter the back seat of the vehicle. She was ready to make the same step herself when she heard giggling just over her shoulder. Turning her head, Mabel was met with a pair of young women who leaned against the outside of a stationer’s shop. Her brow furrowed as she turned her full attention to the two girls.
“Can I help you with something?” May asked, tucking her hands back into her muff.
“Nah, love, just good to see you out and about after your big night with Harlow, eh?” One of the girls spat on the pavement and May cringed at the crude gesture. Her sidekick giggled and doubled over, ash from her cigarette falling to the frigid ground.
Blinking slowly, May cocked her head and glanced back at Margot, who had hurried to her niece’s side to grasp her by the arm.
“Let’s go, May,” Margot hissed, dragging May to the vehicle and helping her inside before roughly shutting the door.
“Margot, what…?” the question hung in the air as Mabel watched Richard admonish the pair of girls and urge them to return to their places inside their shop.
Margot was already deep into her handbag, plucking out a handful of paper bills to hand over to Mabel. “Now, we’ve found your frocks. They should be ready for Mrs. Grey’s ball in the next week or two, after the proper alterations. When we return to the house, make sure you put in a call to the haberdasher for a couple of matching hats.”
The attempt to distract her was clumsy and over-done. May glanced out the window at the giggling girls as they faded from her view. It was clear: she was ruined.
It had been an average Friday evening in Dartmouth, on the Southern coast of England, just ten minutes after the dock’s evening shift had let out, that Mr. Arthur Davies, Esquire, had come into Thomas Smith’s life. The nervous-looking man with frizzy ginger curls and round tortoise-shell spectacles, which always seemed to be sliding down his nose, had walked into the pub nearest the docks in Plymouth. Thomas was seated at the bar, toying with the empty pint in front of him. He had been batting around the idea of ordering another, but even those few pence would eat into his rent for the next month.
“E-excuse me, are you Mr. Smith?” Mr. Davies had asked, pushing his glasses upward on his nose. A black umbrella was tucked beneath his arm, and he held a bound bunch of documents in the opposite hand.
“Mr. Smith was my father,” Thomas smirked, shaking his head. “Whatever it is, I’m sure I’ve settled my debt.”
Mr. Davies took a seat next to Thomas and placed the documents down on the bar. “Um, Mr. Smith, my name is Arthur Davies, and I’m an attorney. I’ve come from New York. Your cousin, The Most Honorable Bertram Alton, has passed away, I’m sorry to tell you.”
Glancing over at the man, Thomas’s eyebrow raised. “New York? Didn’t know I had a cousin Bertram in New York.”
“He was the son of your mother’s estranged elder brother. Your cousin was merely visiting New York at the time of his death, actually, and had recently drafted documents to secure his estate. I was given the task of finding the heir to his title and estate,” Mr. Davies continued, “And you’re the next in line, it seems.”
Thomas eyed the empty pint. “Buy me a pint and go on, Mate,” he was intrigued.
“You what?” Hefting a large box up onto the dock, Thomas’s best friend William paused. He leaned against the docks and scratched at the back of his head with dirty hands. “Are you joking with me?”
“No,” Thomas laughed. He shook his head and shifted nervously on his feet. “I put in my notice. This is real, Mate. I’m moving to Derbyshire, and I need someone with me. Might go mad if I try to fit in with all the society folk on my lonesome.”
“And what do you suppose I’m gonna do there?” Crossing his arms over his chest, William narrowed his gaze at his friend. “You want me to be your servant or something?”
Shoving his hands into his pockets, he sighed. “Look, I thought maybe you’d like to work for me, but if you don’t, you can still stay. You wanted to drive those autos, didn’t you? Could probably use a chauffeur. It’s a right smart job, you know,” Thomas gestured over his shoulder. Sunday afternoon and the local middle class citizens were unloading from their cars into St. John the Baptist church. Their chauffeurs stood by the emptied vehicles, looking rather dapper in pressed livery and new caps.
Glancing up at the chauffeurs, William exhaled slowly. “What’ve I got to lose?”
With a grin, Thomas shook his friend’s hand and firmly. “Nothin’, mate. Neither of us have anything to lose.”
A few hours in a Post carriage, and Thomas had arrived at his new home. The towering limestone brick walls were green with a mix of mildew and overgrown ivy. He could vaguely see the glint of dirty windows through the twisted vines. Still, the place was more comfortable-looking than anywhere Thomas had ever lived. An elderly man appeared in the doorway, shuffling his way across the gravel drive toward him. A few more crunches of stone sounded behind him as Mr. Davies and William exited the vehicle. William gave a low whistle.
That evening in the pub, Mr. Davies had informed working-class Thomas Smith that he was the lone heir to the title of Marquess of Matlock. Along with the title came an estate in the Peak District, called Kentledge Hall. Despite a fancy title and a large home, his cousin Bertram had spent quite a lot of money in New York City, wasting away the profits of the estate and neglecting his ancestral duties. He had no direct line to speak of, considering most of his time was spent with whores and socialites of the less-than-desirable type. The old man had passed away in his sleep after a night of partying, leaving the estate solely to an obscure cousin in Devonshire. Thomas could have denied the meager inheritance and let his family’s estate languish further, as well as let the title go extinct. There was a sense of pride in him, however, that urged him into adopting the title and bringing the estate back to greatness. The only problem was money. A man of the nobility could hardly work to bring money to the estate, and it was unlikely that he would be awarded any money from any other sources.
The old man made his way out toward the trio. He gave a low bow.
“Your Lordship,” the man addressed Thomas. William snorted.
With a glance at his friend, Thomas glared, then looked back to the old man. “That’d be me. Uh, you can call me Thomas, though.”
“Hardly,” the man chuckled. He stood to his full height once more. “My name is Mr. Connelly. I’m the butler here at the estate. Welcome to Kentledge Hall.”
“Pleasure, mate,” Thomas grinned and offered his hand to shake. The old man looked down at it and cleared his throat before tentatively shaking it.
Mr. Davies stepped forward. “Connelly, would you be so kind as to take us to the study, please?”
With a bow of his head, Connelly turned and led them into the house. The interior of the large home was in no better shape than the exterior. Walls were cracked with age and wear, and the tapestries on the walls were faded. A few corners of the once-beautiful rugs were tattered. The furniture was mostly covered in white sheets, hidden from view.
“I take it that old Bertie hadn’t been here in a while,” Thomas muttered, following with the group of men toward an open door near the East side of the home.
“His Lordship preferred to remain upstairs and had very few guests. He had not the time nor willingness to host visitors,” Connelly replied, gesturing in through the doorway. “Would you like some tea, sir?”
Having stepped into the well-lit room, Thomas looked over the walls, shelved floor to ceiling with leather-bound volumes of exotic novels. He glanced at a dingy marble fireplace, in which a blaze crackled softly. The furniture in this room had been uncovered. It was ornate and lavish, with intricately-carved woodwork and velvety upholstered seats. After a moment, Mr. Davies cleared his throat. Thomas glanced back at him.
“Mr. Connelly asked if you’d like some tea, your Lordship,” Mr. Davies smiled awkwardly.
He had assumed the question was posed to Mr. Davies and not himself. It was not usual for him to answer to ‘sir’ in any circumstance. With an embarrassed smirk, he nodded. “Yeah, sure. Great. Thanks.”
Connelly shuffled off down the hallway and Mr. Davies gestured to a long table near the windows. The three men all had a seat in fairly comfortable chairs.
“Thank you for coming,” Mr. Davies smiled, again nudging his spectacles higher on his nose, “I had been kind of afraid that you’d deny your inheritance. It’s quite a lot to take in.”
“Not sure what man would turn down this,” Thomas chuckled, leaning back in his chair. He picked at his fingernails.
Mr. Davies looked at William and shifted in his seat. “I’m afraid…that you don’t quite understand the situation the estate is in. It’s almost destitute, Mr. Smith.”
“It’s what?” Leaning forward, Thomas folded his arms on the expensive mahogany table. “Sorry, I…”
“Poor,” William explained, speaking for the first time since they had arrived. “It means ‘poor’, mate. You inherited a big, broken house with no money to fix it.”
Thomas glanced to Mr. Davies for confirmation. Mr. Davies offered only a sad smile. “I’m sorry to say he’s right.”
Thinking for a long moment, the heir to the estate took in a deep breath. He stared blankly at the table. “So, what do I do?”
Opening his briefcase, Mr. Davies pulled out a newspaper and a few documents in a folder. “Well, I have an idea, if you would like to hear it.”
When Thomas looked to his friend, William shrugged. Again, what had they to lose?
It seemed no amount of insistence about the truth was going to remove the stigma from Mabel’s name. She spent night after night staring out her window, gazing at the burgeoning electric lights which spread daily from one building to another. It was a vibrant, exciting time in New York City, and yet Mabel was confined to her room with self-pity. It did not matter to anyone that the act Frank had committed upon her was entirely his doing and none of hers; the people of New York society were far too gossip-hungry and quick to dismiss the claims of a young woman.
There was a knock at Mabel’s bedroom door. Engrossed in a book she had mail-ordered, Mabel lazily groaned and called for the visitor to enter. Anna entered the room. She placed a few recently-pressed gowns into Mabel’s closet, then turned, smoothing out her apron.
“Ms. Vincent asked to see you for dinner tonight, Miss Graham. May I tell her you will be there?” Anna asked politely, as usual. Anna had always been more of a friend and companion than a servant. Protocol said she was to call the maid by her last name of ‘Baxter’, but Mabel found the practice antiquated. She would much rather refer to Anna by her Christian name. No amount of pleading, however, could coax the young woman to do the same for her. It was always ‘Miss Graham’.
“Yes, I’ll come down. What time am I expected?” Mabel asked, glancing at an ivory-faced clock above the crackling fireplace in her room.
“Six o’clock, Miss Graham,” Anna nodded. “I’ll advise Mr. Pasquale that a place should be set for you.”
“Thank you, Anna,” Mabel sighed and turned the page in her book, allowing herself to drift back into the story before her. The stubborn and independent Elizabeth Bennet reminded her of herself. She wished so much that she could go back to that night and deny Frank’s request to go to the Conservatory. She should have remained with Margot. Elizabeth Bennet would most certainly have denied the man and remained with her sister, Jane. Mabel considered herself a fool.
As the clock struck six, Mabel appeared in the dining room and gave a curtsey to her aunt, who sat at the head of the table.
“Mabel,” Margot smiled, patting the seat next to her. “Come, sit.”
Mabel flopped into her chair with much less elegance than she had previously exuded.
“Are you prepared for Ms. Gray’s ball tomorrow evening?” Margot inquired as the wine was poured for the two of them.
“You mean, am I ready to be incessantly judged by my peers?” Mabel inquired, a dull tone to her voice as she reached for her glass.
Margot rolled her eyes at her niece. “No, no,” she waved away the thought with a flick of her hand. “I am quite sure everything will be just fine.”
A footman served a plate of beef and some sort of vegetable in a creamy sauce. Mabel poked at it with her fork before looking at her aunt. “I’d really rather not go. Honestly, what’s the point?”
Margot eyed her niece. “I have heard that a few eligible young men may be present.”
Her fork dangled a bit of the roast beef as she turned her head to stare at her aunt. “And you really believe they will not have been notified of my...tarnished reputation?”
“I’m sure not everyone has been listening to the gossip,” Margot said after a moment, keeping her tone gentle as not to stir up the furious cyclone of anger and sadness she had seen in her niece over the past few months. “It is entirely likely you have a chance at making a suitable match.”
“Excellent. ‘Suitable’ is exactly the quality I look for in a husband,” Mabel rolled her eyes and took a bite of the beef, making a face. The food had not been stellar at home as of late. Perhaps it was her appetite.
“Mabel, listen,” Margot urged her, leaning forward as the servants poured more wine for both of the women. “Getting back out into the social scene is your best chance of showing everyone you have moved on from this senseless act. Plus, if you do find someone, you’d be a married woman in no time, I’m sure.. And who, honestly, can say a married woman is…”
“…Ruined?” Mabel finished for her, dropping her fork to the table with a loud clamor. She dabbed at her mouth with the napkin and stood, grabbing her glass of wine. She turned to the footman behind her and took the decanter from his hand, raising both her glass and the decanter to Margot. “Parade me around all you want, but I’ve decided on spinsterhood, thank you very much.”
Margot leaned back in her chair and watched Mabel storm off to her room. With a heavy sigh, she rubbed at her temples and shook her head. There had to be a way to help Mabel settle, suiting her sensibilities.
In the past, the extravagant splendor of a society ball would have spurred May Graham into fits of excited chatter, but as she exited the automobile at the Plaza Hotel, Mabel merely sighed. She glanced toward her aunt, who exited behind her.
“Must I?” She whined, shifting in her ankle-length, tiered taffeta gown.
“Humor me, please,” Margot sighed, “I know it must seem like the end of the world for you, my dear, but believe me. Giving up on love so soon is a mistake.”
The pain in her aunt’s eyes made Mabel take in a deep breath and turn, climbing the steps into the hotel.
The ballroom was vibrantly lit with electric bulbs, spilling artificial light into every corner of the room. The overall brightness of it actually calmed the young Mabel as she tugged her black gloves higher onto her arms. She cringed at the memory of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s darkened salon.
Glittering gowns of all colors filled the room, and young men and ladies laughed carelessly into their champagne glasses. May waved off the offer of a glass of her own, having sworn off champagne since the evening of the New Year’s party.
“Please do try to have some fun,” Margot muttered to her niece, grabbing her own glass from the tray as the waiter walked by. “I’ve so hated to see you sulk over the past few weeks.”
May rolled her eyes and stepped to the side of the room, where she sat carefully in an empty chair, not wanting to wrinkle her gown too badly at the beginning of the evening. As she watched the various goings-on in the ballroom, she idly wondered how long her aunt would make her stay.
A thin young woman with pale blonde hair approached, dragging a young man behind her. She beamed ear-to-ear as she released her grip on her companion and flung her arms around Mabel.
“Hello, Lillian,” Mabel forced a smile and wrapped her own arms tentatively around the young woman.
“I’ve been so worried about you! You never responded to my letter,” Lillian Wright had attended school with her at Miss Porter’s Preparatory. “Are you quite well?”
Mabel’s eyebrow raised slightly as she pulled back from the embrace. “I’m...as well as can be expected.”
“I hope you informed the police,” Lillian said, lowering her voice considerably.
For a fleeting moment, she believed her old friend had not heard of her New Year’s scandal. With a heavy sigh, she nodded. “Not much they can do, but I did, yes.”
“And you’re...not in any...further trouble, are you?” Clearing her throat, Lillian glanced down at May’s stomach, and then back up to meet her gaze.
“Absolutely not,” May forced a smile. “Would you please introduce me to your companion?”
“Oh! Yes!” Lillian threw her gloved hands into the air and released a high-pitched giggle. “This is George Naylor of Boston.”
May gave a curtsey, bowing her head. As she stood, she glanced awkwardly at the young man’s outstretched hand, and then diverted her gaze with as much poise as she possessed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Mr. Naylor retracted his hand and nodded. He seemed a man of few words.
“George, May is in the market for a husband. Do you know any beaus who may suit her fancy?” Lillian teased, clinging to Mr. Naylor’s arm.
“None so worthy of a beautiful girl like her,” he smiled as he spoke, and May’s shoulders dropped slightly in relief. She returned the expression and turned her head to attempt to hide the redness of her cheeks.
“Thank you,” she replied quietly. As she gathered herself to ask a question, a gaggle of young women passed by, clinging to one another. May’s attention was diverted from her conversation as salacious giggles found her ears.
“I…” May tried to force a sentence from her lips but found the room spinning. It mattered not what the group had been discussing. Her insecurity fed only a perception of gossip about herself.
“May?” Lillian reached for her friend’s hand. “May, you look…”
A collective gasp filled the air as Mabel Graham collapsed onto the polished floors of the ballroom.
Aunt Margot sat upon the side of the bed as May woke from her fainting spell. She opened her eyes for a second, but the moment that she recognized her own bedroom, she closed them once more.
“I’ve made a fool of myself,” she whispered.
Margot shook her head and sighed. “I’m simply glad you’re alright.”
“No use in trying it again. I’ll merely keep up here and live a solitary existence,” the young woman muttered, grasping a pillow to press against her face.
“Listen, May,” Margot took the pillow from her and brushed the backs of her fingers against her niece’s cheek. May opened her eyes again and took a look at her aunt’s solemn visage. “Please don’t make the same mistake I did.”
In all of the self-pity she had been inflicting upon her own tragedies, May suddenly realized how selfish she had been. Her predicament was unsettling, to be sure, but it was nothing in comparison to the heartbreak her aunt had suffered years ago.
As a young woman, Margot Vincent was engaged to a young man named Roger Ingalls. Mr. Ingalls was a financier, and the match had been the pride of the family. The wedding was one of the most anticipated, lavish events to occur in Manhattan that particular year. Fine carriages from all over had emptied guests into Saint Patrick Church. The newspapers had sent handfuls of reporters to cover the high-society event.
Margot was nestled deep within the church, drinking champagne and readying herself for the ceremony, when a telegram arrived. Roger Ingalls had not waken that morning. The doctor declared him dead. Six hundred guests waiting inside the church, and her fiance was dead. The love of her life was gone. Margot had never recovered from the tragic event, and she poured all of her energy into a move to Philadelphia. The escape provided little relief, and the never-ending mourning followed her wherever she went.
Offering a sad smile to her niece, Margot sighed. “Listen, if you cannot bring yourself to go back out into society...you do have another option.”
May’s fair brow furrowed as her Aunt produced a copy of a small periodical. Taking the thin booklet from her, May glanced down through the columns of advertisements.
“Matrimonial Arrangements?” May whispered, incredulously. She frowned and shook her head. “I needn’t be the bride of a widowed banker.”
“It’s not quite as bad as it sounds. I considered it, once upon a time,” her Aunt blushed and shook her head. “Just wasn’t in the cards, unfortunately.”
“I don’t even know where to begin,” May sighed, her mind racing at the idea of agreeing to marry some man she had never even met.
“This one...caught my eye,” Margot turned the page and pointed to a section she had circled.
A young man of thirty years, with considerable title and estate to his name, is seeking a bride of some wealth to join him in matrimony. Must be willing to travel to Derbyshire, England, and bring with her no children. Natural poise and grace is a plus.
Looking back up at her Aunt, May shook her head. “You want me to sell myself to a man in England?”
“He has an estate and a title. You could end up as a Countess of some kind,” Margot urged her. “With your permission, I would like to write in to the solicitor listed below the advertisement. Perhaps we can meet with the fellow, first. It would be an opportunity to leave New York, regardless.”
Mabel swallowed hard and gave a careful nod. As there was little chance the New York social scene could tempt her again, this seemed a plausible opportunity. Even if she did absolutely hate it.