The Heiress Gets a Duke – Harper St. George

A feminine wail floated through the crowded ballroom of the Bridwells’ newly built Fifth Avenue mansion. The soft cry hovered beneath the notes of the waltz, its ghostly fingers touching everything it passed. The efforts of an army of musicians did nothing to drown out the sorrow inherent in the sound. It settled like a fog of despair over the glamorous evening, dusting it with melancholy. August Crenshaw shivered as if the icy fingers had stroked down her spine. Before her eyes, the engagement party continued in full swing, not the least bit concerned with the rather unremarkable fact that the bride-to-be was not a willing participant in the festivities. There was a momentary hitch in the happy amusement—a brief pause in conversation, a minute hesitation in the steps of a few of the couples twirling on the dance floor—but not one of them stopped. No one appeared willing to acknowledge the cry. In fact, they all seemed livelier, propelled forward by a new purpose to appear as joyful as possible with the intention of hiding the depth of the sadness upstairs. August glanced up at the frescoed ceiling as if she could see Camille in her bedroom, but instead a bright-eyed cherub stared back at her, a silent witness to the atrocity that was about to occur. The champagne went flat on her tongue and slid down her throat to settle heavy in her belly. The sad fact was that no one cared about Camille’s reluctance. New York Society thrived on financial and social matches made in marriage, and one unwilling bride wasn’t going to change anything. A hundred unwilling brides wouldn’t change anything. August’s stomach churned, so she set her unfinished champagne on the tray of a passing servant.

There was something unspeakably disturbing about the scene. A compulsion to do something to stop it pushed her forward, but a sharp bark of laughter pulled her up short. Camille’s fiancé, Robert Emerson, seventh Duke of Hereford, stood inside one set of open balcony doors, glass of champagne in hand, his gray whiskers impeccably groomed in the muttonchop style. The apples of his cheeks were pink as he laughed at something Camille’s father had said. The two had been thick as thieves the entire evening. The impoverished duke stood to make a fortune on his marriage to Camille, while Mr. Bridwell gained a much-needed social ally. Rumors were that the duke would be given one hundred thousand dollars outright on the marriage, with an annuity of ten thousand dollars. It was hardly surprising that he was in such good spirits. He probably hadn’t noticed that his fiancée had yet to make an appearance.

She was the least important aspect of their agreement. Camille was the only one who stood to suffer from the arrangement. She was also the only one who’d had no say in the matter. There could be no mistaking the anguish in that wail. Turning from the maddening scene, August made her way through the crowd to the wide hallway that bisected the house and led to the front rooms, nodding to the small groups of people she passed. An insistent sort of panic had begun to claw at her as she walked, pushing her forward until she was almost running. At the mansion’s elegant front doors, she turned abruptly, grabbed a handful of her silk skirts, and took the wide marble staircase to the second floor. The mahogany-paneled doors to Camille’s bedchamber swung open when August reached the top of the stairs, revealing the debutante in full evening apparel. She was gorgeous in pale pink silk embroidered with golden thread. Her gold curls had been arranged atop her head with elaborate diamond-encrusted combs, and a few curls had been left to cascade over a partially exposed shoulder.

Her neck and fingers dripped in diamonds, making her look every bit the American princess her parents wanted her to be. But the comparison ended there. From her red-rimmed eyes to the sallowness of her complexion, it was obvious that she’d been crying for hours . maybe days. This was madness. August opened her mouth to speak, to offer some objection on her friend’s behalf, but Mrs. Bridwell stepped out from behind her daughter, her expression dark and forbidding. Three maids along with August’s younger sister, Violet, spilled out of the room behind them to arrange her skirts. Camille looked as if she was only held together by the strength of her corset, ribbon ties, and grim determination. The last thing August wanted to do was to say something that would break down her composure.

“Come, my darling,” her mother was saying. “Make me proud tonight, and we can go over to Tiffany’s tomorrow and pick up that emerald you’ve had your eye on.” As if that alone could make up for selling her daughter’s future to a man who offered her nothing beyond social standing. Unable to hold herself back a moment longer, August said, “Camille—” Mrs. Bridwell’s stern glance cut off her words. Speechless, August stepped to the side as they shuffled past. Camille did not glance her way. She walked as if she were made of stone, spine rigid and gaze focused straight ahead. Violet followed close behind their lifelong friend, her hands out as if she wanted to help but had no idea how to go about it. “August?” Violet’s voice was a harsh whisper as she paused at the top of stairs, her face ashen and her wide eyes brimming with concern as mother and daughter descended.

“It’s a travesty.” August mouthed the words, so that no one would hear. August slid an arm around her sister’s waist, and they both watched solemnly as Camille glided gracefully toward her fate. The girl had not yet reached her nineteenth birthday, but her future had been sealed. A future that would see her ensconced on some estate in the English countryside, far away from her family, friends, and everything that she knew. Aware of the maids who had lined up at the railing to observe their mistress, August made eye contact with one of them. She could not have been older than Camille, but her eyes reflected pity. The maid, who was forced to work for her living, pitied them and their Society marriages. August could not maintain the eye contact. “It’s horrible of me, but I cannot help but be grateful that Mother and Papa would never do such a thing to us,” Violet whispered as the pair turned at the bottom of the stairs and disappeared from their view.

August tightened her arm around her sister’s waist, but she couldn’t forget that pitying look. She turned her head to discreetly look at the maid again, but the trio had disappeared back into Camille’s room to tidy up. She told herself the maid had no reason to pity them, but a niggling doubt in the back of her mind refused to go away. Their grandfather, Augustus Crenshaw, had made the Crenshaw fortune in the railroad and iron industries. Their family would want for nothing for generations to come, so they would never be forced to marry for money. But status was something else entirely. Railroad money—new money—closed more social doors than it opened. The Crenshaws, like the Bridwells, had never set foot into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, the only ballroom that mattered to the Knickerbockers of old New York. No matter how much money one family possessed, dirty money recently earned wasn’t welcomed in those established social circles.

Augustus’s ostentatious reputation had further confirmed their family’s status as outcasts. He’d been rumored to be a drunkard and a philanderer. His most renowned fete had involved a traveling troupe of French dancing girls clad only in petticoats for entertainment. If there had been any spark of hope for the Crenshaws to achieve respectability after that, he’d extinguished it when he’d married one of those dancers. A duke in the family could open up doors that had been sealed tight for decades. Mrs. Bridwell had confided in them only last week how Mrs. Astor had paid a surprise call and discreetly hinted at an invitation to the engagement ball. In fact, the woman was downstairs now with everyone else, blissfully ignoring the atrocity. It wasn’t very often that a duke presided over a Fifth Avenue ball, social classes be damned.

That revelation had created a gleam of interest in her mother’s eye that August couldn’t forget. But would their mother do this to them? Would she marry one of them off to a stranger old enough to be their father? August knew very little about the English aristocracy, but she knew there weren’t very many dukes among them. The odds were that they would all be as old as Hereford, or worse. August glanced at her sister’s pretty face, for if one of them would be forced to that fate, it would be Violet. She was everything August was not: charming, graceful, biddable . a lady. Sensing an underlying meaning in her hesitance to answer, Violet glanced over at her. “Our parents would never do that . would they?” For the first time in her life, she lied to her sister. “The Crenshaws have no need for a d u k e in t h e fa mily.

” I f A u g u s t s aid it wit h e n o u g h c o n vic tio n , it w a s b o u n d t o b e t r u e. Chapter 1 Independence is happiness. SUSAN B. ANTHONY LONDON APRIL 1875 Sneaking out for a late-night assignation had not been on August’s London itinerary. Yet here she was in a hired carriage being whisked through the dark streets of the city at midnight. “Don’t look so vexed . please?” Camille managed to appear contrite from her side of the hansom cab. Her wide brown eyes took on a faintly desperate glow that went a long way toward soothing August’s temper. But, really, how could Camille expect her not to be irritated? She had arrived unannounced at the Crenshaws’ rented townhome off Grosvenor Square not a quarter hour ago, looking fairly pitiful as she’d pleaded with August to come with her. The entire time she had refused to say where they were going, only that August must come this instant.

August had only agreed to put away the financial reports she had been poring over because the girl had appeared so wretched and dispirited. Now she found herself traveling at a breakneck speed through the streets of a city she barely knew while hoping for the best. “That’s asking a lot,” August said. The brightness of Camille’s smile shone through the murky darkness. “But you’ll do it because you’re such a good friend.” August rolled her eyes and settled against the lumpy seat. The streets were growing noticeably darker. The cheerful and dependable gas lamps that lined the lanes of Mayfair had long since disappeared. Streetlamps here were spaced farther apart, and most of them didn’t work anyway. The buildings appeared to be actively crumbling before her eyes as they passed.

Worse, down the alleyways she caught glimpses of open fires with shadows huddled around them. Wherever they were going, it did not appear to be in a safe area. She’d been naive to assume that Camille wouldn’t take them off to somewhere dangerous. “Very well.” August sighed. “But please tell me where we’re going. And why am I wearing this?” Camille had presented August with a black cloak identical to her own as she’d ushered her out the servants’ entrance. She had assumed it was to hide them as they made their escape; now she wasn’t so sure that was the only reason. “Never.” Her friend’s mischievous smile returned, reminding August of the child that she still was in many ways.

Despite her misgivings, August was relieved to see it. When the invitation had come from Camille, Duchess of Hereford, requesting the Crenshaws join her for a few weeks in London, August and Violet had seen it for the plea for help that it had been. Camille had been lonely since her wedding in November and needed her friends around her for the Season. They had arrived to find her thinner and paler than she had been in New York. It was plain to see that marriage had not agreed with her. She was friendless in a foreign country with a husband who seemed to spend all of his time elsewhere, though possibly that was for the best. He had not seemed very pleasant company the few times August had met him. Thankfully, Camille’s disposition had slowly improved in the fortnight since they had arrived. Tonight was the first time she had shown a spark of her former mischievous self, so August resolved to try to humor her and her adventure. “You’ll have to tell me at some point.

” A grin tugged at her lips. “Where are we now?” “We’re near Whitechapel.” Camille made the declaration with all the enthusiasm of a child who saw only an adventure with none of the danger. “Whitechapel!” “Trust me, August, you won’t be disappointed.” “It’s not my disappointment I’m concerned about.” Thank God she had come along. Someone had to keep Camille from her own self-destruction. “I brought a footman along for protection.” Not comforted in the least, August reached up to rap on the trapdoor to direct the driver to take them back home but the vehicle came to an abrupt halt before she could. They were in the middle of a dark, nondescript street surrounded by deserted buildings.

A huge warehouse loomed across the road. One of its large doors had been thrown open to reveal a crowd of rough-looking people mingling beneath a swirling cloud of cigarette smoke. Some of the men had their shirtsleeves rolled up as if they had come in from a day of labor, while the few women she could see were wearing gowns that were less than respectable. She had the sneaking suspicion that they had arrived at their destination. “Are you mad? We could be killed in that crowd.” Camille shook her head. “We’ll be fine. You’ve been sheltered too long. Besides, I said near Whitechapel.” August knew she looked stunned when Camille laughed and continued, “On this side of town I am not a duchess and you are not one of the Crenshaw heiresses.

We are no one. Make up any name you’d like. I’m partial to Delilah. Only, please, pick something that’s not boring. No Annes, Marys, or Sarahs.” August had no intention of assuming any identity. If it were found out that she had traipsed across town in the middle of the night, her reputation would be ruined. Not that she cared much for that—marriage was not in her immediate future—but Crenshaw Iron Works could suffer. However, before she could respond, the carriage door was opened by Camille’s footman. He cut a lithe figure in a dark suit with strong shoulders, a kind face, and light brown hair.

He’d helped them into the carriage back in Mayfair before taking his post. His gaze gentled when it settled on Camille, whose face lit up when she saw him, her eyes lingering on his as she gave him her hand. He looked at her as if no one else existed, and in that moment, August was certain that no one else did exist for him. He was obviously smitten. Despite how inappropriate it was, August felt a twinge of longing in the pit of her stomach. No one had ever looked at her that way. No one probably ever would. Once he helped Camille out of the carriage, he managed to pull himself away long enough to offer his hand to August. The pungent odors of fish, damp earth, and decay indicated they were near the river. This was a terrible idea, but they were here, and Camille wouldn’t be dissuaded.

Sighing, she took his offered hand and disembarked. “Have you been here before?” Camille shook her head and stood on the tips of her toes as if to get a better look into the large brick building across the crumbling road. “No, but doesn’t it look exciting?” It didn’t look exciting at all. In her work with her family’s company, she was often charged with evaluating the possible rewards of taking on a particular new investment. She was very good at identifying risk, and this had danger written all over it. If this were a business proposal that had crossed her desk, she would have written R-E-J-E-C-T in block lettering across the top and underlined it twice. The footman turned and pulled out a small drawstring purse from inside his coat to pay the driver. August took the opportunity to lean in to Camille. “Are you and he . involved?” The idea seemed far-fetched, but that look had been full of things August shouldn’t have witnessed.

Camille laughed, but it lacked humor. Her hungry gaze roved over his athletic form in admiration as she spoke, “Henry? Not like you mean. Hereford made it quite clear that I must give him a child before he’ll tolerate anything like that.” August gaped. “You spoke with the duke about this?” “On the contrary. He spoke to me about it on our first day home when he informed me that he planned to carry on with his mistress regardless of my feelings on the matter. He said that I was free to do the same discreetly, but only after he had his child.” At the blank look August gave her, she shrugged. “It is how things are done here.” August drew back in shock, not so much at the words but at the bitterness in Camille’s eyes.

It had been clear from the beginning that theirs would not be a love match, but to have her feelings so callously disregarded by her husband had to smart. August understood then what this outing was all about. It was Camille’s way of rebelling against the unfairness of her fate. It was irresponsible and dangerous, but it was all she had. At least she’d had the foresight to bring her footman for protection. In many ways, this reinforced August’s own views toward marriage. It wasn’t worth the loss of independence. She worked with her brother and father running Crenshaw Iron Works, and she wasn’t yet willing to give that up for what Camille described. No husband on earth would be willing to allow her to keep working like she wanted. “I am so sorry, Camille.

How horrid that sounds.” “It’s not that terrible.” Her friend waved away her concern and glanced back toward the warehouse. “So far he’s only been able to complete the act a handful of times. It was over quickly.”

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