“Do you Beatrice Hathaway take Abraham Urwin to be your lawful wedded husband?”
Annabelle sucked in a deep, nervous breath as she waited for Beatrice to answer the dreaded question. She knew what her sister would say, everybody in the room did, but there was still a little moment of hesitation. Annabelle felt certain that Beatrice would not be marrying this man if she had a choice... but of course, she didn't. Their father had chosen Lord Urwin for her husband and that was the end of it. Otto Hathaway was not a man to be disagreed with about things, especially not when he thought he had his daughter’s best interests at heart.
He wanted his daughter to have a man who could financially support her and their offspring forevermore, and Lord Urwin could definitely do that. With his chain of banks to keep him financially afloat, they would never have to face any money issues.
The pair certainly did not match in Annabelle’s mind. Beatrice had flowing, wavy red hair which spilled down her back in a very pretty way. The lacy, bejewelled dress still managed to show off her svelte, curvy body which most girls would kill for. Beatrice did not even need a corset to make her figure appear that way, which Annabelle often found utterly infuriating. Beatrice’s youthful pale skin was flawless and her blue eyes piercing. In fact, her eyes were the only difference that her and Annabelle had. If Annabelle’s bright green eyes were blue, the girls could have been mistaken for twins, rather than sisters.
Beatrice was beautiful, no one could deny that, and Abraham was... something else entirely.
Abraham Urwin’s look was very different to his fiancées. His greying hair and sagging skin gave away his age, as did his terrible posture. Life had been good to him, but he had worked very hard to achieve everything that he owned, and that showed. Annabelle was not exactly sure of his age, she hadn’t ever thought to ask, but it was very obvious that he did not look good with her stunningly beautiful sister. They looked very silly together, more like father and daughter than husband and wife.
It was a shame to have Beatrice taken away from the world by this man, purely because of his wealth. As she stood in front of their family and friends looking spectacularly stunning, a pang of sadness tugged in Annabelle’s heart.
“I do,” Beatrice finally gasped with very little certainty. “Yes, I do.”
“Urgh, I certainly would not!” Annabelle’s best friend, Catherine Wakefield, whispered into her friend’s ear as soon as those words came out. “He is a terrible match for her. Everybody here can see it. She should be with a much younger, much more handsome man.”
“I know, but what can she do about it?” Annabelle shrugged, trying to shake off her moroseness as she did. “It has happened now.”
She could keep her tone bored and unbothered as she discussed marriage because it was an issue that seemed too far from her life. She had only just turned eighteen, whereas Beatrice was twenty years of age. It was a problem that was at least two years away. For now, Annabelle could continue on exactly as she was, without worrying too much about what the future might hold for her.
She would miss her sister, but she could still be glad that it was not her holding onto some man’s hands, agreeing to be his wife forever more.
“I wonder who your father will choose for you?” Catherine mused thoughtfully. “I bet he is already searching.”
“I do not think I shall let him pick,” Annabelle replied with an air of nonchalance. “I will choose a husband for myself.”
Catherine giggled at that idea. Lord Hathaway was the most terrifying man that she had ever met. Her own father had a powerful presence and he liked to control her life, but he was nothing like Annabelle’s father. There was no chance that he would allow her to make her own decisions. She was dreaming.
Annabelle did not care much for the laugh, she felt herself strong enough to do whatever on earth she wanted. She had always had a much more powerful will than her sister, her friends would come to see that in time.
“I do not want to get married anyway, I would much rather take care of myself.”
“Oh, I do,” Annabelle’s other friend, Edith Stanbury cooed on the other side. “I cannot wait to have a husband to take care of me. I am truly looking forwards to being a mother and a wife.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes in a not too discrete way. Edith and her older sister Harriett were great people, she had grown up with them and loved having them around, but their need to have a man do everything for them, only further put Annabelle off the idea of getting married. Who waited desperately to have yet another man to answer to? Who wanted their stomach invaded with an alien presence? What sort of person looked forward to having a babe attached to their breast? It did not seem right, not when being young could be so much fun.
A scathing comment rested on the edge of Annabelle’s tongue, but before she could get it out her aunt turned in her seat and hushed the girls angrily. As her red rage filled face turned to shut the group up, Annabelle felt her cheeks flame and her throat bubble with a desperate need to laugh.
She always found herself that way, needing to giggle at the most inappropriate times. It felt like a curse most of the time, but more than ever at her sister’s wedding.
“Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Urwin,” the vicar concluded in a grave tone, bringing Annabelle’s attention back to the action happening in front of her. “Abraham, you may kiss the bride.”
All the girls had to force their expressions to remain blank while Abraham dipped his face down to kiss Beatrice. Annabelle couldn’t help putting herself in her sister’s shoes at that moment and it was something that she really wanted to avoid. She wanted to get married only if it was for love. Or at the very least, like. She would have much preferred to at least have some attraction to her husband. She certainly could not imagine a world where she was stuck with a man like Abraham Urwin.
Poor Beatrice, she thought a little helplessly to herself. Poor, poor Beatrice.
Beatrice and Annabelle had never been particularly close growing up. Annabelle found her sister to be much too uptight, she did not appreciate the way that she always followed the rules, and how she liked to get Annabelle in trouble if she decided not to. There were times when she wished that she could have been an only child or that she could’ve been blessed with a younger sibling rather than an older one, but in that moment, she felt desperately sad for Beatrice.
This time, following the rules, had not panned out for the best at all. Beatrice had a lifetime of misery in front of her.
"I hope the party afterwards is more fun than the ceremony," Catherine grumbled, quietly now so Annabelle's aunt did not hear. "That was incredibly dull."
“I hope so too.” Annabelle was not convinced. She had wanted her family to hire out a hall for the after party, but her father wanted to keep with tradition. He insisted on using the grand hall in the family home for the event, which made it feel much less like an adventure to Annabelle.
With her wild nature, Annabelle loved the idea of an adventure very much.
“Thank you very much, everybody, now it is time to celebrate the union of Mr. and Mrs. Urwin.”
The music started up and the couple slowly walked back down the aisle hand in hand, leaving the church as husband and wife. Their eyes fixed forward as they moved, they did not glance at anyone. Annabelle expected that, it was considered uncouth to look at anyone sitting in the church, but she wished that she could meet Beatrice’s eyes for just a second.
People clapped, and the girls joined in but not all of them were feeling happy about it. Annabelle experienced another unexpected pang in her heart as her sister left. She had not truly considered it before, but it was the last time she would really get to spend with Beatrice. Just because they had not always been the best of friends, did not mean she was happy for their sisterly time to end.
She should have known this feeling would happen, she should have spent more time preparing herself. Instead, in a slightly selfish way, Annabelle had been more concerned with what dress she would wear for the occasion and how boring and long the day would be. She spent so long choosing her wine coloured satin dress, with a white under layer, and lacy ruffles at the sleeve and neckline, that she had not thought about too much else.
“Are you alright, Annabelle?” Edith asked her while slipping a hand around her waist. Maybe she was slightly annoying in her ways, but she had a very perceptive, caring nature. "It is a big change, is it not?"
“I suppose it is.” Annabelle tried her best to keep her voice natural, but a little emotional crack appeared regardless. “It is just very strange.”
“I am lucky that I have not had to lose Harriett to a husband yet, but I am sure I will feel the same way when the time comes.”
“Probably worse.” Annabelle smiled thinly at her friend. “You two are much closer than me and Beatrice. But yes, prepare yourself.”
Once the couple finally exited the church, it was time for everyone else to go. Annabelle and her friends waited patiently for the parents of the bride and groom to leave first. As others made a move, Annabelle clung onto Edith tightly.
“Let us wait, we should leave last.”
She thought it would be a good idea to pause for a moment, to give herself a second to adjust, but it turned out she was mistaken. Her father had something so important to say to her that he broke tradition for long enough to wait for Annabelle to start moving. “Annabelle, I would like to speak with you outside.” His commanding tone rang through the church, even though Otto spoke in a hushed tone. “So please hurry up.”
Annabelle felt a spike of ice cold terror racing through her as her eyes glued to her fathers. She recognised that tone well, it had haunted her for her whole life. It was the voice which led to a telling off. She was in some very serious trouble.
Catherine recognized it too, she had seen it happen to her friend enough times to understand what came next. “Uh oh, Annabelle, what have you done?” she hissed quietly as Otto moved outside. “What has happened?”
“I do not know,” Annabelle replied with a sharp shake of her head. “But I guess I will soon find out.”
The festive mood zapped from the girls as they finally moved out of the church, none of them were thinking about the wedding reception now. They were all afraid for Annabelle, they knew how little she liked to be yelled at. None of them wanted the girl at the centre of their friendship group to be upset or the afternoon would not be anywhere near as fun.
If Annabelle was happy and upbeat, they all felt the same way. Edith and Harriett exchanged anxious glances as a tension circled the group.
“Do you want me to come and speak with your father with you?” Catherine asked, despite the fact that she really did not want to face off with Mr Hathaway. “If he is going to shout at you for talking through the wedding, then I should take some of the blame too.”
Yes! Please, do not leave me alone, Annabelle thought desperately, but she had no intention of saying that aloud. She did not want the humiliation of being yelled at in front of her friends... again.
“No, I shall be fine.” She squeezed Catherine’s fingers gratefully. “It will be nothing.”
Annabelle felt like she was walking to her doom as she made her way towards her father. His arms were already folded across his chest and his blue eyes flashed with annoyance. Against the backdrop of the pink and red flowers decorating the church building he somehow managed to look even more terrifying. Otto stood away from the rest of the wedding party to ensure that they could speak in private which only terrified Annabelle further.
“Y... yes, father?” Annabelle asked nervously. “Is everything alright?”
“I would appreciate it if you take things a bit more seriously,” he snapped back through gritted teeth, his temper shining through. “This is a very big day for Abraham. For your sister as well, I do not think it is right for you and your silly friends to wreck it with your childishness.”
Silly, childish, those were the words that angered Annabelle the most. She did not see herself that way at all, she felt herself to be in control and very adult. It annoyed her that her father did not see her as she wanted to be seen.
But it was not the right time to start an argument about that. She did not want to be yelled at in front of their friends and family, she did not want to upset Beatrice, there were more important things than ensuring her point of view was recognised.
“Yes, father,” Annabelle eventually replied through pursed lips. “I understand.”
“So, I trust that you will behave at the celebration this afternoon and evening? There will be many people there, a lot of eyes looking at you. You are representing our family and your behaviour affects our reputation.”
The family’s reputation was what Otto put above everything else. His concern about what others thought about the Hathaway family was astounding. Annabelle knew for certain that he put that above his children’s needs, but there was not anything she could do to change him. She had tried over time but had never been successful.
“Yes, I understand. I will behave.”
“And you will ensure that your friends do too.”
“Yes. I will.” Annabelle ducked her head in a sorrowful gesture. “I promise.”
Even Annabelle could not keep the grumpy expression on her face as she spotted the wonderful way that the grand hall of her home had been decorated. The house staff had worked tirelessly all through the previous night and morning to create what looked like a magical room filled with mysteries and wonder.
The candles flickered and danced in the light breeze, creating swaying shadows across the walls. Intricate flower designs weaved along the sides of the room as if they were held there by magic; the long table filled with food, enough to have the stomach of every guest in the room growling with hunger. Abraham was right when he insisted their wedding go against tradition, having the food after the ceremony was so much better than a wedding breakfast. The high ceilings, the large windows, the wonderful artwork on the walls all added to the wonderful, happy atmosphere. It shifted the black cloud above Annabelle’s head in an instant.
“Oh my goodness, Annabelle, this is wonderful,” Harriett exclaimed gleefully as she walked through the door. “It looks like something from a story. I cannot believe it, it is simply stunning.”
“How can you know what a story looks like?” Catherine interjected with a dramatic eye roll. “That is just words on a piece of paper. I admit that it looks great here, I am sure Beatrice will be very pleased, but do not get carried away.”
Annabelle did not say anything aloud, but she felt just like Harriett as her awestruck eyes drank everything in. It was just how she imagined story books in her mind, back when she was a child and her governess used to read to her. There was a fantasy style atmosphere in the room and it felt a lot like anything could happen. Within the rules, of course. Annabelle did not think that it was a good idea to cross her father today. Especially not having just been warned to keep herself in check.
“Come on, let us get something to eat,” she said instead. “I do not know about you girls, but I am very hungry.”
Annabelle picked up the bottom of her dress to prevent it from dragging along the ground as she made her way across the hall with her three closest friends in tow. As they moved, all of them discretely glanced their eyes over the other guests in the room. It was no longer just people from the wedding, other friends, business associates, and society people had come to join in with the celebration, and curiosity demanded that the girls needed to know who was there.
Knowing her father, Annabelle felt certain that he would have invited everyone within a radius with any sort of power. He loved to turn everything into an opportunity, it was how he had made such a big success of himself. This would not be any different, he would find a way to use everything to his advantage.
Annabelle saw her father as a ruthless man, but she did not know the story behind it. She had never cared to ask, so Otto had never divulged the truth.
Otto Hathaway had come from a long line of very successful men, the Hathaway inheritance was supposed to be a wonderfully huge one. It would have been too, Otto would have been given a very good start in his life, if his father had not gotten himself sucked into the deep, dark world of gambling. It was just one of those things that started off small, but soon consumed his entire existence. Otto’s father kept this side of his life a secret while he was living, but of course it could not continue on that way forevermore.
By the time he passed away, he left the Hathaway family with an almost inconceivable amount of debt that none of them were expecting. To say it almost destroyed the family from the inside out was putting it mildly. Suddenly having to deal with angry creditors thrust Otto into the deep end. He could have floundered, if he hadn’t been a strong man.
The shock killed his mother, Otto felt sure of it. She passed only a few months later, and he was certain it was all through stress. He tried to take control of everything, but it did not matter how hard he tried, he could not keep it away from her completely.
When her heart gave out and she simply stopped breathing, Otto knew that there was only one person he could blame. His father did not act with the best interests of his family, he did not behave in a sensible way. Otto knew with absolute certainty that he would not make the same mistakes with his own life.
With Otto at the head of the Hathaway family, a role he absolutely relished, he worked tirelessly, sometimes ruthlessly, he did whatever he needed to do to remain on top. With all his determination, he brought his family out of debt and he transformed them back into one of the wealthier ones in the city, all without any damage to the Hathaway reputation. He achieved that by controlling everything, which explained why he did not like to let anyone that he cared about make decisions for themselves. He had been through enough to know best.
“Oh my goodness,” Catherine hissed gleefully as the girls finally reached the food table. “Who is that?”
“Who is who?” Annabelle did not even bother to look. She was far too busy eyeing up the food. Her stomach twisted up in excitable knots as she tried to decide what she would taste first.
“That absolutely gorgeous boy staring at you as if you are the most beautiful woman on the planet.”
“Huh?” That got her attention. Much as she did not feel ready to get married, she still liked the idea of being seen. What girl did not want to feel attractive? “Who?”
"He is on your left-hand side, near the window." Catherine glanced rapidly, far too obviously in Annabelle's opinion. "He has dark hair and a stark black suit on."
“I will take a look now.”
Annabelle spun slowly, looking at absolutely everyone as her eyes passed them. Whoever this person was, she did not want him to think that she was singling him out. She wanted to appear cool and collected as she finally saw him. Eventually, though, she found the only person that fit Catherine's description and as she did her heart unexpectedly stopped dead in her chest for a split second.
“Oh.” She could not even begin to find the right words to explain how she felt as she stared at the man in question. He appeared to be taller than her, with cropped black hair and deep brown eyes that chilled her to the bone. There was something odd about him that Annabelle really did not like. Not that she understood why. “I see.”
“He is gorgeous.” Catherine nudged her playfully. “You should dance with him.”
His lips twisted into a smile which only made Annabelle fear him more. She could not put her finger upon it, there was just something very unlikable about this person. “Oh my goodness, is he coming over?”
In a state of panic, she twisted her whole body around and she gripped onto the table in front of her. Annabelle’s lungs squeezed tight, her breaths fell raggedly out of her mouth, her pulse pounded so hard it caused her entire body to vibrate. She did not want to speak with this man, she did not want to dance with him, she just wanted to enjoy the celebration with her friends. Nothing more.
“He is,” Catherine squealed excitedly. “He is coming to talk with you. Oh, you are so lucky, Annabelle.”
“Do not leave me.” Annabelle stared defiantly at Edith, who she thought she might have more luck with. “Please stay by my side.”
“Hello there, ladies.” The chocolaty smooth voice which could only belong to him rang out behind Annabelle. She tightened her grasp so much that her knuckles turned a funny shade of white. “I am Lord Watson Ashdown, it is lovely to meet you all on this wonderful day.”
“Yes, I am Lady Catherine Wakefield and these are my friends: Edith and Harriett Stanbury, and this here is the sister of the bride; Annabelle Hathaway.”
That was her cue to spin around. Annabelle had to do it if she did not want to behave in a way that would draw any unwanted attention to herself. She had just promised that she would behave herself, and if that meant being polite, then that was what she would do. With only her reputation in mind (maybe she was more like her father than she first realised) she forced a bright smile on her face and she turned.
“It is lovely to meet you, Lord Ashdown.” Annabelle extended her hand out to him. Watson took it and kissed it like a perfect gentleman should. Only the gesture felt empty. “It is wonderful that you could be here to share my sister’s big day.”
“Yes,” he replied thoughtfully. “Although maybe it is a shame that you are here.”
“Pardon?” Annabelle felt her cheeks flame red all the way up to her ears. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, you are outshining her with your beauty,” Watson continued smoothly with a deep, throaty chuckle. “You truly are the prettiest woman in the room.”
Annabelle was utterly blown away, she felt like she’d been knocked off kilter and that the world was spinning beneath her, in the worst possible way. She did not want to hear compliments, she was not ready to deal with this much attention. She needed to make this Lord leave her alone in whatever way she could.
Just because Lord Ashdown was dressed the part in his black coat tail suit jacket, his silky waistcoat, and matching tie, did not make him the sort of man that she wanted to speak with.
“We are just going to the other side of the room,” Catherine jumped in. She wanted to give Annabelle and Lord Ashdown time to speak alone. She could not seem to sense just how upset Annabelle was. Maybe she assumed that she was feeling just a little bit shy. “Come on Edith, Harriett.”
Edith shot Annabelle a worried look, she did not want to leave her friend when she had been specifically asked not to. Annabelle gave her a sharp shake of the head, but Catherine dragged her away regardless of what she wanted. Annabelle looked hopelessly at the girls as they left, leaving her with absolutely no choice but to make small talk for long enough to at least seem polite.
“So, Lord Ashdown, how is it you know my father?” she started, figuring it was a safe place to begin.
“Actually, it is Lord Urwin I know,” he stunned her by replying. “He was a very good friend of my father’s and he was very kind to me when he passed away. He even offered to train me in business so I could take care of myself, despite my young age. I was only fourteen years of age at the time.”
“Oh my goodness, I am very sorry to hear that your father passed away.” Despite herself, Annabelle felt badly for this man. He looked sad, and no one deserved sadness. “That must have been a difficult time for you.”
“It was a decade ago now, I am doing just fine.”
Annabelle felt like she could hear a vulnerability in his tone, despite the fact he wanted to come across as strong. In a way, that reminded her of herself. She did not want to find anything in common with this Lord, but there certainly was that.
“Your father has thrown a lovely celebration for the happy couple. It must make you think about your own wedding.”
Watson wiggled his eyebrows at her, suggesting that he was only teasing. The gesture felt too forward, it caused Annabelle to instinctively take a step backwards. Any gossamer thin connection that she had felt with Lord Ashdown shattered in a heartbeat. She was behaving like a Lady in public, why could he not offer her the same courtesy?
“I do not think so,” she replied coldly. “I am not thinking of marriage just yet.”
“A beautiful woman like you?” Watson ran his eyes over Annabelle’s body as if he wanted to devour her whole. It made her very uncomfortable and caused her arms to wrap protectively around her chest.
Lord Ashdown did not seem to mind that he had upset Annabelle however, he laughed to himself as if he had an inner joke circulating in his brain. If Annabelle was not under strict instructions not to make a scene, she might have asked him why he thought it acceptable to treat her in such a way.
“Would you like to dance?”
Annabelle had always hated dancing. She despised the hours spent with her dancing teacher as a child. It did not help that her father got annoyed with her until she got it right and that her sister seemed to take to it so naturally. Now, with this man who she instinctively despised, the idea of moving to music sent a shudder racing up and down her spine.
“No, I do not think so.”
She turned her head away, trying to end the conversation, but Lord Ashdown did not know how to be refused. It simply was not in his nature.
“You cannot turn me down; your father wishes me to dance with you.”
“He has not mentioned that to me.” Annabelle’s heart thudded so loudly she could feel it in her ears. “He usually lets me know if there is something that he wishes me to do.”
Watson narrowed his eyes at Annabelle, the rejection stung him to the core. Of course, he knew as well as Annabelle did that he could not make a scene about it, but that did not mean he was done.
“Fine,” he announced with a coldness to his tone. “Save our first dance until our wedding day, I do not mind that.”
As he stalked off, Annabelle felt sick to her stomach. There was no way she would be made to get married to that man, especially not now, it was much too soon. But fear crept through her veins anyway. She did not know what her father would do, with her ‘best interests’ at heart, and that terrified her.
“It is not right, is it?” Annabelle asked as she paced Catherine’s oversized bedroom the following morning. The cream and pale blue décor was designed for calm, but she could not feel that way today. After a night of barely any sleep, Annabelle still had unbridled terror racing through her system. “Lord Ashdown will not ask my father for my hand in marriage, will he?”
Catherine flickered her eyes over to the Stanbury sisters who immediately shook their heads. Catherine was much better at delivering bad news than them. She seemed to have a better way with words.
Catherine sighed loudly as she searched her brain for the right words to calm her friend down. “He might do, if he has taken a liking to you. He might also be interested in the dowry you come with.” Annabelle shot her friend a terrible look, that was not what she wanted to hear. “I know you might not like that,” Catherine did her best to defend herself. “But I feel it is better for you to be prepared for what might come next.”
“Maybe I should speak with my father today, maybe it would be better for me to tell him in advance that I do not want to marry Lord Ashdown.”
“I do not think that is a good idea,” Catherine shook her head rapidly from side to side as she disagreed with Annabelle. “I do not believe your father will appreciate your opinion on the matter.”
“I cannot have an opinion on the man I am going to marry? The father of my children? The person I have to spend the rest of my life with?”
Catherine did not even bother to answer that. They all knew the answer, once Otto Hathaway had made a decision, it would happen no matter what.
Edith shuffled uncomfortably in her seat, she did not know how to deliver the knowledge that she had balling up inside of her, but she felt compelled to get it out somehow. She did not wish to make her friend feel worse, but it didn’t feel right to keep secrets from her either.
If this affected her future, then she deserved to know.
“Annabelle, I think there is something you should know,” Edith told her quietly. Regret laced her tone, but the weight shifted from her shoulders just the tiniest bit. “I do not think Lord Ashdown is the one for you, I think you should find whatever way you can to get out of marrying him.”
Annabelle rushed to her friend’s side and she gripped tightly onto her arm as she stared desperately into her eyes. “What do you mean? What do you know?” she begged.
“I do not know anything about him at all, but our elder brother used to work with him at the bank a few years back.” Edith glanced over to Harriett who gave her a helpless shrug. She did not know what was the best thing to do. In the end, Edith continued on. “I mentioned Lord Ashdown to Edmund this morning when he was visiting and his opinion of him is not positive.”
Annabelle slid backwards and tried to catch her breath. She knew that there was something wrong with Lord Ashdown, she could just sense it. Still, she was not sure how she felt to have that confirmed. “What did he say?”
“That he is a brute.” Edith bit down guiltily on her bottom lip. “And that he likes the company of courtesans.”
Annabelle instantly felt her whole body still. There was no way that would be invented, it just was not the sort of thing that one would lie about. And she knew Edmund well, he was a man who took life very seriously. He would never say something unless he had seen evidence of it himself, he did not gossip
“Oh my goodness. I was not expecting that.”
Edith threw a comforting arm over her friend’s shoulder, but Annabelle shook it off as she raised back into a standing position.
“Well that simply confirms it, I have to find a way not to marry this man. I have to somehow stop my father from allowing this to happen.”
“It still might not happen,” Catherine tried to reassure her friend. “He might have only said that to try and rile you up.”
“I suppose so, I just do not want to turn a blind eye to it in case he was being serious.” Annabelle’s brain spun, she did not know what to think anymore. It was all so confusing. “What do you think I should do?”
“I would leave it,” Catherine said confidently. “I do not think you truly have anything to worry about.”
“Maybe you should try speaking with your mother?” Edith suggested helpfully. “She might have some idea of what your father is planning.”
“Maybe she could stop him too,” Annabelle agreed with a nod. “She is the only woman in the world that he ever listens to. Not all the time, but it is worth a shot.”
Harriett was not convinced. She knew that Annabelle needed to consider every option, just in case she could not control life in the way that she hoped. “You know, I think a lot of men involve themselves with courtesans. Many society women turn a blind eye to their husband’s affairs, that is common knowledge. If you do end up having to marry Lord Ashdown, maybe that side of him will work to your advantage.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes dramatically. That was the last she needed to hear. “But I do not want to marry him, I do not want to be a wife whose husband has affairs. I would much rather have a husband who wants to treat me well.”
“I have faith in you,” Catherine said as she rubbed her friend’s shoulders comfortingly. “I am sure this is something that you will figure out. Your father will probably not want to see you wed until you are twenty years of age anyway.”
Annabelle nodded, but she was barely listening to her friend. A plan was forming inside her mind and it was one that heavily featured her mother. Annabelle had never relied on her mother for much, she usually preferred to be independent, but this was not something she could do alone.
She needed help.
As expected, Annabelle found her mother in the dining room taking her time over the endless courses of lunch that she was being served. Josephine never left her bedroom without looking like she was about to attend a society event, even if she had no intention of even leaving the house. Josephine Hathaway was always a Lady, no matter what. She had her red hair twisted up into a complicated looking chignon with jewels decorating it, her face was painted with full makeup, and her lilac silk gown pinched in at her hips and showed off all of her curves.
“Good afternoon, mother,” Annabelle said, much too brightly, giving herself away. She usually did not have much to say to her family, so she was being very obvious. “How are you feeling today?”
“I am feeling good, thank you.” Josephine eyed her youngest daughter curiously. “And how, may I ask, are you?”
“Oh, Mother,” Annabelle panted desperately as she slid into the chair beside her. “I do not know what to do, I really need your help.”
Josephine’s heart skipped an excitable beat. She loved being needed, it made her feel much better than anything else ever could. All the money, all the dresses and jewels she owned, were nothing compared to the warmth in her chest when someone she loved needed her. It did not often happen, even less so now that her daughters had grown up. She felt herself jump on the opportunity desperately.
“You need help? What can I do?”
Annabelle paused for just a second, she hoped and prayed that this one moment of weakness would not backfire on her. “I met a Lord at the celebration last night...”
“A Lord?” Josephine leapt on this information with glee, taking it completely the wrong way. “Which Lord? A Lord you like?”
“No, nothing like that.” Annabelle shook her head rapidly. She did not want this to be misconstrued at all. “His name is Lord Watson Ashdown, a friend of Beatrice’s husband.”
“Lord Ashdown? I do not think I know the name.”
“Well he asked me to dance and when I refused him...”
“You refused him?”
Annabelle did not have time to deal with her mother’s shock at her rudeness. She needed to get the rest of the story out, so she continued to talk right over her. “...he told me that I would dance with him at our wedding.”
“He believes that he will marry you?”
“I do not know?” Annabelle shrugged helplessly. “But I do know that I do not want to marry him. I do not want my wedding to be for at least two years anyway, and I do not want it to be with him.”
Josephine folded her arms across her chest as she examined Annabelle. She got the impression that Beatrice was not immediately keen on Abraham Urwin but she had not ever complained. Her eldest child was fantastic at following the rules, no matter what was asked of her, even if she did not like it. She never put Josephine in a position where she would be forced to intervene.
But Annabelle was not like Beatrice, she never had been.
“Do you have reason for not wanting to marry him?”
“Yes, I do!” Annabelle’s eyes lit up, she felt like she was truly being listened to which was exactly what she needed. “I got a horrible feeling from him right away, before he even came to speak with me. Then he made comments that were not gentleman-like at all. He was very rude to me.”
“That might have just been a bad first impression. Maybe your feelings will change later on...” Josephine knew many people that did not adore their husbands at first, including herself.
“No, it is not just that. Edith and Harriett’s brother, Edmund, used to work with Lord Ashdown. He said that he is known for being brutish, and also for spending time with courtesans.”
Josephine held up her hands to silence her daughter with a relieved smile on her face. “If that is the case then you have nothing to worry about. You know better than anyone how important reputation is to your father. He will not risk it for some young Lord who asks for your hand. Even if he asks Otto, he will have his offer refused.”
Annabelle sunk into her seat, relief flooded her. She was right to come and speak to her mother, this was the best thing for her. Now she knew for sure that no matter what happened, she would remain unwed for the time being. This had only furthered the opinion that she shared at Beatrice’s ceremony... she did not want to get married for a very long time. Her life was just perfect as it was, there was no need to change a thing.
“Thank you, Mother,” she gasped with standing up to circle Josephine’s neck with her hands. “I appreciate you helping me.”
“You are welcome, sweetheart.” Josephine relished the moment of physical contact, it had been a long time since her daughter had shown her any kind of affection. “You know that I am here for you, whatever you need. I hope you will come to me if you ever need help in the future.”
But Annabelle was barely listening anymore, her head was soaring with happiness. The whole mess with Lord Watson Ashdown was all but forgotten. His comments dissolved in her brain, the ice-cold sensation he gave her vanished, the tension fell away from her muscles. Annabelle felt like herself again, which was utterly perfect.
“Of course, Mother. That I will. Thank you again.”
As Josephine watched her daughter flounce out of the dining room, she smiled to herself. She had distanced herself from her daughter as she grew up because it was what she wanted, but now she wanted to be fully involved in her life once more.
Maybe this would be a one-off, maybe everything would now go back to normal, but she hoped not. She hoped that she could help her child more. It felt wonderful.
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