Once an Heiress – Renee Ryan

Gigi Wentworth pulled the bulky, oversized cloak tightly around her shoulders and stepped into the early-morning foot traffic. A cold gray mist snaked around the hem of her skirt. The frigid air was a stark reminder that winter would have the city fully in its grip before long. Wrapped inside the heavy black wool, Gigi took comfort in her shrouded anonymity. No one would recognize her in the ugly garment. They would certainly never suspect she was the missing daughter from one of the wealthiest families in America. That was, of course, the point. For nearly a year, Gigi had put forth great effort to create an ordinary, forgettable persona. Reaching up, she stuffed an errant strand of faded blonde hair beneath the hood of her cloak. She increased her pace, quickly rounding the corner of Thirty-Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue. With no small amount of relief, she spotted the three perfectly round, golden spheres suspended above a weathered awning up ahead. The time-honored symbol beckoned her forward, giving her a glimmer of hope that soon she would be able to go home. Soon, she vowed silently. Home. The word brought a bittersweet mixture of pleasure and apprehension.

A year was a long time to be away from the people she loved. Would her family welcome her return? Not if you arrive without the pearls. Certainty took hold. The trials of the past eleven months were almost at an end. One final task lay before her. Gigi had scraped and saved for this moment, hiding her true identity in a quiet life of servitude. Not by choice. No. She’d been driven by something far more powerful. Shame.

Shame for what she’d done. For the people she’d hurt. For the pretty lies she’d clung to with willful obstinacy. Gigi drew to a stop outside Ryerson’s Pawnbroker Sale Store. This was not the first time she’d visited the pawnshop in Herald Square. Assuming everything went according to plan, it would be her last. Heart pounding wildly against her ribs, she looked over her shoulder. The eerie sense that she was being followed had her looking right, left, back to the right. No one paid her any attention. Nerves, she told herself.

Nothing more. She twisted the brass doorknob and all but stumbled into the building. She held perfectly still, waiting until her eyes adjusted to the darkened interior. Once her vision cleared, she scanned her surroundings. She was alone. Not for long. A skeleton-thin, dark-haired young man materialized from behind a red velvet curtain. Dressed in an ill-fitting suit that hung awkwardly on his skinny frame, he greeted Gigi with a head-to-toe inspection. On the trip back up, his gaze landed on the velvet satchel tucked beneath her arm. “You have merchandise to sell?” Gigi shook her head.

“To redeem.” His gaze dropped to the satchel once again. “I assume you have a claim ticket.” Hand shaking, she dug into one of the cloak’s pockets and clutched the item in question. A sense of calm enveloped her. The sensation lasted only a moment. Icy sweat broke out on her forehead. Something about this shop clerk, with his haughty smile and superior attitude, made her uneasy. He hadn’t even had the decency to introduce himself. “I would prefer to conduct my business with Mr.

Ryerson.” “Your name?” “I am Gi—” She swallowed, then began again in the flat Midwestern accent she’d adopted months ago. “My name is Sally Smith. Mr. Ryerson will know who I am and why I have come.” To his credit, the clerk didn’t show any signs of questioning the veracity of her statement. He did, however, take his time giving her another rude head-to-toe assessment. At last, he nodded. “Wait here, please.” Spine ramrod straight, he disappeared behind the red velvet curtain.

Gigi took the opportunity to pace along the collection of display cases. She ran her fingertip over the beveled glass, studying the treasures relinquished by desperate people for a fraction of their original value. There were a few exceptional items, though not many, and nothing like the pearls she’d forfeited. As if to mock her attempt at calm, past folded over present, dragging her mind back to that awful day. The morning had dawned gray and dreary, much like this one. She’d been beyond desperate, nearly destitute, facing the real possibility of jail. There’d been few options left at her disposal. You could have gone home and admitted your sin. She could have, and been promptly turned away. Her father had made that clear.

Harcourt Wentworth was not an easy man, or a forgiving one. He’d given Gigi an ultimatum. Abandon her friendship with Nathanial Dixon or suffer the consequences. She could not have both the man and her inheritance. Gigi had been naïve, believing surely—surely—her father would change his mind. Surely, once she and Nathanial were married all would be forgiven. The faulty rationale had made sense at the time. And so she’d slipped out of Harvest House in the dead of night to be with the man she loved. Had it only been eleven months ago that she’d stolen away with Nathanial? Though barely twenty-two years old, she’d lived three lifetimes since, each far different than the one she’d created in her dreams. With no small help from Nathanial.

“We’ll be married,” he’d whispered in her ear. “I’ll make you my wife and keep you by my side for all eternity.” Gigi had made him say the words again and again. He’d been happy to oblige. She’d given him everything of herself, only to receive false promises spun by his silver tongue. “We’ll spend our days reading Shakespeare and Byron.” It had sounded so wonderful, so delightful and idyllic. “We’ll while away our nights at the theater. Then we’ll come home and play Bach or Beethoven on the piano. Mozart, if we’re feeling especially passionate.

” She’d blushed then, caught up in the romantic picture he’d painted of their future together. A future that would never be hers; she knew that now, had discovered the truth mere days after running away with him. Gigi slammed her eyes shut at the memory. Humiliation flooded through her, hotter than any emotion she’d ever felt before meeting Nathanial Dixon. All her life, she’d longed for such a suitor. Handsome to the point of beautiful, blessed with tousled, sandy-blond hair, piercing gray eyes, and a gift with words. He’d known exactly what to say to win her heart. The scoundrel had devastated her good sense with poetry and piano duets and secret, notquite-innocent assignations in the dark. Gigi had happily followed Nathanial through his web of lies, straight to New York City. Straight to her ruin.

A heavy price to pay for love. Nathanial had taken her money, but he hadn’t known about the pearls. Keeping them hidden until her wedding day had been Gigi’s one smart move among the dozens of missteps she’d taken. Sighing, she forced open her eyes. Only to discover the clerk had returned and was looking at her with a smirking expression. “Mr. Ryerson will see you now.” Gigi managed a regal nod. “Thank you.” “Follow me.

” He turned on his heel. Gigi blinked, her mind racing, her heart bursting. This is it. The words swept through her mind. At last, at last! Heart in her throat, she hurried after the clerk. He led her behind the curtain, into an open office area where a series of large, high-top desks sat in a neat row. All three were teeming with stacks of papers, books, and ledgers. There was a sense of respectability in the organized clutter, as if important business took place in this room and there was no time for something so inane as properly filing away papers. Peering around her stiff-backed escort, Gigi spotted Mr. Ryerson sitting behind the center desk.

Even though he had his head bent over a thick ledger, she recognized him immediately. She could never forget the way he held his writing instrument in a white-knuckled grip as he made furious notations across the page beneath his hand. The constant, even ticking of a wall clock beat in stark contrast to the pawnbroker’s manic scribbling. Gigi silently ticked off the seconds in her head until Mr. Ryerson acknowledged her. He was close to her father’s age, perhaps a shade older. He’d discarded his suit jacket. The knot of his necktie hung loose and slightly off-center. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, revealing a pair of beefy forearms. When he failed to greet her, Gigi cleared her throat.

The pawnbroker lifted his head. Bored indifference played across his fleshy face. He studied her with an unwavering stare but made no attempt to gain his feet. After several endless seconds, he dismissed the clerk with a curt “Leave us.” A final look in Gigi’s direction and the young man quit the room. “Miss Smith,” the pawnbroker began once they were alone. “Your appearance this morning is . unexpected.” She said nothing. What could she say? Of course her appearance was unexpected.

She’d come about a month ahead of the deadline he’d given her. “I wish to redeem my property.” True. Yet not completely accurate. “Ah, well then. Let’s proceed.” The pawnbroker reached out a hand, swept it in the general direction of the area in front of his desk. Gigi stepped forward, then paused, not sure if he was motioning her to take the empty seat or simply to come closer. She took the seat. Wanting this transaction over as quickly as possible, she didn’t remove her gloves or her hat or the suffocating cloak.

She placed the satchel on her lap and waited. When Mr. Ryerson remained silent, she reached inside the bag and pulled out a small stack of bills arranged in order of denomination, least to greatest. Chin lifted, she set the entire pile on the desk. “That should cover the cost of my pearls.” No, not her pearls. Her great-grandmother’s pearls, a family heirloom worn by generations of Wentworth women on their wedding day. Gigi couldn’t go home without them. Mr. Ryerson stared at the stack of money for a long moment, considering.

Familiar with the tactic—her father was a master at pausing for intimidating effect—Gigi once again made the next move. She retrieved the claim ticket from her pocket, then placed it on top of the money. After setting aside the slip of parchment paper, the pawnbroker took his time counting the bills. “Where did you manage to come by this much money a month ahead of schedule?” Granting him her most pleasant smile, Gigi called forth all the charm she’d once been lauded for among the gentlemen of her acquaintance. “Does it matter?” A series of creaks and groans was his initial answer as he leaned back in his chair and tented his fingers beneath his chin. “To be perfectly candid, yes, it does matter. Quite a lot. I cannot accept payment acquired by unlawful means.” She resisted the urge to sigh. Mr.

Ryerson hadn’t been this skeptical during their first meeting, or so unfriendly. “I earned every bit of that money with hard, honest work.” “Is that right?” His tone suggested disbelief. Hating that he questioned her integrity, especially when he hadn’t done so before, Gigi chose her words carefully. “I found a position as a lady’s maid.” Actually, after settling her debt with the Waldorf-Astoria, she’d worked for three separate women in various private homes. Her current place of employment—the third—was much smaller than the others but no less grand. Each of her employers had needed Gigi as much as Gigi had needed them. She’d grown to care for the women, connected in something resembling friendship and yet . somehow .

not. She became aware of a painful hollowness inside. When she spoke, her voice was hoarse with pent-up emotion. “I have been fortunate in my choice of employers.” They’d treated her kindly and had paid her well, nearly twice the wages she’d received at the Waldorf-Astoria. Mr. Ryerson’s lips pressed into a hard, thin line. “I see.” Gigi feared he saw things far too accurately. He probably thought she lacked a strong moral fiber.

He would be half right. She’d committed more than her share of sins. And although she hadn’t stolen the pearls, she had taken them without permission. She went stiff at the thought. Nathanial hadn’t been the only guilty party in their brief time together. Gigi had allowed the line between right and wrong to blur. She had much to atone for when she met her Maker. The pawnbroker consulted his ledger. He flipped one page, another, then at least ten more until, finally, he halted. Gigi clasped her hands tightly together in her lap and held her breath as he slowly ran his finger down a long, narrow column.

A wistful ache gathered in her throat. So close. She was so very close. After what she’d done, she could endure ridicule, material loss, even physical pain. But to fail here, now, when she’d come this far, that she could not accept. “You are short fifty dollars.” Short? Fifty dollars? That couldn’t be right. She’d counted the money herself, several times. Twenty times. A hundred.

“But . ” What sort of game was this man playing? “That is the exact amount you gave me for the pearls.” She indicated the stack of money with a jerk of her chin. The sum hadn’t been enough to cover the hotel bill Nathanial had left her to pay, but it had been enough to keep Gigi out of jail. Thankfully, the hotel manager had taken pity on her and allowed her to work off the rest of her debt. “Miss Smith, you are clearly uneducated in the ways of commerce. The additional fifty dollars is interest.” The man was a crook. Gigi nearly said as much but knew better than to risk his ire. Hands sweating inside her gloves, she appealed to the sense of fairness he’d shown her eleven months ago.

“That wasn’t our deal.” For a moment, Mr. Ryerson refused to meet her gaze. “Perhaps not. However, I have an interested buyer who is willing to pay three times what I’m charging you, interest included.” It was still a fraction of their worth. “The pearls are my property.” “At the moment, they belong to me.” He picked up the claim ticket to punctuate his point, flipping the thick paper through his fingers. “As I said, you are fifty dollars short.

” Cheat. Scoundrel. Thief! The words echoed in her mind. Here sat yet another man attempting to take advantage of her. But she voiced none of her indignation. What would be the point? They both knew Mr. Ryerson held all the power. Men always held the power. She contained her outrage behind a bland smile. “Perhaps, Mr.

Ryerson, you could explain something for me?” Politeness itself now that he had the upper hand, he inclined his head. “I will do my best.” “How does this supposed buyer know of the pearls’ existence?” It was a fair question. When she’d made the initial sale, the pawnbroker had promised to keep the necklace locked away in a secure place and only put the pearls on display if Gigi failed to meet the terms of their agreement. “The man in question is looking for a gift for his wife and is on a tight deadline. He wants a piece of jewelry of the finest quality. As you are aware, Miss”—he hesitated—“Smith, your pearls are of the very finest quality.” “I still have a month.” She was grasping, she knew, but he owed her the time. Somehow, someway, Gigi would get the fifty dollars.

She wasn’t completely without resources. She had connections now, though she preferred not to use them. She’d gotten herself into this mess. She must be the one to get herself out. Atonement would come no other way. “I will honor the terms of our agreement, plus the interest I quoted,” Mr. Ryerson said magnanimously. The brute. “But I will not give you one day past your original deadline.” The crushing disappointment eased a bit.

“I would like to see the pearls, if you please.” With no small amount of reluctance, he retrieved the necklace from the safe behind him and set it on the desk. Gigi studied the collection of four individual strands fastened together with three platinum braces covered with diamonds. Knowing better than to trust this man, Gigi counted the pearls on each strand—forty-two, forty-six, forty-nine, and fifty-four. She still carried the numbers in her head. Not trusting herself to look away from the Wentworth family heirloom, she asked, “The price you just quoted, the extra fifty dollars, you will honor that as well?” “I will, indeed.” The words lacked sincerity. She ran her fingertip along the shortest of the four strands, then looked up. “You vow not to charge additional interest when I come back in a month?” He nodded. Again, not quite meeting her eyes.

The gesture gave Gigi a bad feeling, one she knew better than to ignore. “I want your promise in writing.” He had the audacity to look taken aback by the request. Refusing to relent, she kept her gaze fastened on his face. “I’ll wait while you draw up the document.”

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