Authors: Ann B. Keller
Tags: #romance, #england, #historical, #danger, #victorian, #intrigue, #obsess
Ann B. Keller
By Ann B. Keller
Copyright 2014 by Ann B. Keller
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Kate Overton leaped from the little cart
before the driver could pull the horse to a complete stop. She
raced up the front steps of their home, already anticipating her
father’s pleasure for what she’d been able to accomplish.
Somehow, Kate had negotiated a good price for
the Overton family’s sheep and grain. The money she’d been able to
make today would see them through the winter. It wouldn’t be a
comfortable existence, but Kate was certain that they would manage
Of course, her sister Dorothea would be
unable to purchase the three new gowns she’d ordered only last week
and Helen’s tour of the Continent was now quite out of the
question. Kate could well imagine Helen’s objections when she was
informed of the cancellation of her plans. Still, it couldn’t be
Kate’s mother would be no help at all, of
course. Lady Penelope Overton moved in only the best social
circles. Dressed in her finest, she glided through her days in a
host of expensive, frilly gowns which had long ago strained their
finances to the breaking point. Still, her father loved Penelope to
distraction. For her sake, if for no one else’s, Lord Edgar Overton
attempted to keep up the appearance of their former wealth.
Kate pasted a smile upon her pale features as
she ascended the last two steps to the front door. The butler
opened the portal for her and clicked his heels together as he
leaned over her proffered bonnet and cloak.
“Thank you, Jacobs,” Kate murmured.
“My lady,” Jacobs acknowledged with a slight
bow of his gray head.
“Is my father in his study?” Kate asked,
smoothing her dress with her hands.
“Yes, my lady,” the butler agreed. “As is the
rest of the family.”
Kate frowned. “Oh? How strange.”
Indeed, it was a little odd. The only time
the family congregated in one place at the same time was for a
dinner party. It must be something quite important to bring all of
them together in the middle of the afternoon.
Kate eyed the aging butler expectantly, but
the man was as silent as the grave. With a weary sigh, she removed
her gloves and handed them to Jacobs. The butler disappeared around
the corner without another word and Kate was left standing in the
For a moment, she allowed her eyes to roam
over the once opulent entry of the Overton estate. The gilt on the
wallpaper was fading badly and showed wear along the bottom near
the baseboard. There were numerous small cracks on the steps, as
well, and one of the treads seemed to groan in protest whenever
they trod upon it. Most of the staircase had been hastily mended to
maintain the outward appearance of quality, however, Kate had to
admit that the entire structure needed a facelift.
Even the marble floor beneath her feet showed
definite signs of age and neglect. There were several stains which
no amount of scrubbing and buffing could remove and Kate’s mother
had tried her best to situate two of the side chairs and a huge
potted plant over the largest of the chipped tiles.
Indeed, it seemed that the foyer was a
statement of their current state of affairs. Their once beautiful
and wealthy family had slowly degenerated, losing its luster to the
gray winds of fate.
Biting her lower lip for courage, Kate
resolutely strode toward the rear of the house. Halfway to her
destination, she heard the sounds of weeping and quickened her
pace. Kate knocked once on the door to the study, but after
receiving no reply, simply opened the portal.
What Kate saw inside the darkened room
shocked her. Dorothea sat on the settee, her face buried beneath
her crossed arms as she wept. Penelope Overton and Helen clung to
each other by the windows, weeping in anguish. Helen’s eyes were
red and puffy and Penelope’s tears had carved tracks through her
white face powder.
“What is it?” Kate inquired, her eyes
flicking from one family member to the other. “What has
Kate’s innocent question brought on another
fit of weeping. Clearly, she’d get nothing out of the three
Anxiously, Kate scanned the room for her
father, Edgar Overton. As usual, she found him sitting behind his
massive mahogany desk, but the man seated there bore little
resemblance to her parent. Normally the bastion of the family,
Edgar slumped in his chair, his broad shoulders drooping with
sadness. Edgar’s face was gaunt and his cheeks haggard and drawn.
Listlessly, her father’s blue eyes stared at a fixed point halfway
across the room.
“Father?” Kate tried again. “What’s wrong?
Has someone died?”
“We have!” Dorothea wailed. “Oh, dear, I
shall be a laughingstock!”
Kate stared at her sister in puzzlement. The
girl hardly looked afflicted. Dorothea’s pale blue gown was the
height of fashion. Her pert blonde ringlets framed her beautiful
face and offset the startling blue of her eyes. Even in tears, she
was quite lovely.
Helen, too, was a stunning beauty in her own
right. Her sweet, heart shaped face framed her lovely green eyes
and her dark brown hair was a perfect foil for her flawless
complexion. Helen was very tall for a woman, as was her sister, and
the new high waisted gowns showcased their willowy figures to
Helen stood of a height with their mother,
whose pale blonde hair and porcelain complexion had once made her
the toast of the ton. Penelope never tired of relating the details
of her last season, in which a string of conquests and offers of
marriage finally culminated in her acceptance of their father’s
Still, Kate couldn’t help but be a little
dismayed by her sisters’ attire. Dorothea’s gown was made of pure
pink silk, accented with tiny rosettes of gold thread. Her bodice
was cut rather low, clearly defining what little bosom she did
possess and a string of expensive diamonds glinted merrily at her
Penelope, too, was dressed in an elegant gown
of dark purple toile that clung to her slender arms with almost
indecent aplomb. Although nearly forty years old, Penelope Overton
had somehow maintained her girlish figure through six difficult
pregnancies and the birth of three healthy daughters.
Penelope’s features were flawless – at least
it seemed so to the casual observer. However, Kate had once entered
her mother’s bedroom while she was in the midst of her toilet and
learned the truth. Penelope Overton wore more paint than a Drury
Lane actress. Without her makeup, tiny age lines were clearly
visible around her eyes, mouth, and lower still on her neck, where
no amount of creams and potions could lift the sagging skin.
Standing in the doorway, Kate watched a
single tear slowly slide down her mother’s powdered cheek, but no
words of comfort came from Penelope’s lips. Helplessly, Kate turned
back to her father for the answers to her questions.
“Father, please,” Kate pleaded. “What has
“We’re ruined,” Edgar mumbled. “Completely
Kate stared at her father in shock.
“But – I don’t understand. How?” she
Edgar Overton sighed with resignation,
heavily lifting his eyes to his daughter.
“Do you remember my telling you about my new
?” he asked.
“She went down off the coast of Madagascar
six weeks ago. I just received word today,” Edgar explained. “All
hands were lost.”
The Overtons had been counting on the profits
from the voyage to help fund Dorothea’s and Helen’s coming out
balls. Mentally, Kate added up the number of fans, elegant shoes
and expensive gowns which had been purchased by her sisters in that
amount of time. The figure was sizeable.
Blinking to maintain some measure of
composure, Kate attempted to reason her way out of their
“Surely, the ship was insured?” Kate
Slowly, Edgar nodded. “The ship was, yes, but
not the cargo. Everything we purchased is now resting at the bottom
of the Atlantic.”
Penelope, Helen and Dorothea wailed in
earnest and Kate slowly sank into the straight backed chair on the
opposite side of her father’s desk.
“What shall we do? How – How much was lost?”
Kate managed to ask.
Edgar Overton named a staggering figure. If
Kate hadn’t already been seated, she might have fainted on the
spot. Only the sale of the estate itself would cover such a huge
No doubt news of the disaster would travel
quickly. It was only a matter of time before creditors began
knocking at their front door, demanding payment for services
“How long do we have?” Kate whispered.
Dully, Edgar glanced up at her.
“Father, how long until we’re found out?”
With an effort, Edgar Overton cleared his
throat. “Luckily, the
wasn’t well known, nor was
her cargo especially remarkable. I’d say we have a week. Maybe
Helen erupted into tears again and Penelope
ineffectually patted her daughter’s back in a mild attempt to
comfort her. Mustering her courage, Penelope finally drew herself
up to her full height and sniffed back her remaining tears.
“Well, we – we shall just have to find some
way out of this, that’s all,” Penelope bravely declared.
Edgar chuckled wryly, his laughter bordering
on madness. Clearly, his wife had no conception of the size of
their current predicament.
“What do you suggest, Mother?” Kate
Penelope opened her mouth to make a
suggestion, then quickly reconsidered. Suddenly, her eyes sparkled
as a marvelous idea jelled in her mind.
“You must marry, of course!” Penelope
declared with excitement.
Dorothea gasped in shock and Helen coughed.
Kate stared at her mother as though she’d quite taken leave of her
“Yes!” Penelope affirmed, as the idea gained
strength. “One or two of you must marry, and quickly, too, before
word of our financial difficulties becomes known.”
“Do I understand you correctly, my dear?”
Edgar prompted. “Your solution to this nightmare in which we find
ourselves is to sell our daughters off to the highest bidders?”
Penelope clucked her tongue in annoyance.
“They must marry sometime, Edgar,” Penelope
“Well, yes, but – but these things take
“With a special license, it could all be done
within a matter of days,” Penelope announced. “Then you simply ask
our new son-in-law for a modest loan to tide us over until things
Edgar coughed from his chair. The idea was
ludicrous. Not only did Edgar refuse to entertain asking a younger
man for money, but the thought of securing suitable husbands for
one or more of his daughters within a few days was utterly
preposterous. Unaware of the train of her husband’s thoughts,
Penelope turned to her older daughters with purpose.
“Now, my dears, we shall need to move with
some haste. We’ll see whether the dresses we ordered for you might
be ready by Monday. Then there’s the Favershams’ ball, too,”
Penelope directed. “That might be just the thing you need.”
“I thought you said that we couldn’t go,”
Penelope smiled. “Of course you may go. At
all costs, we must keep up appearances. Besides, some of the
wealthiest men in the district will be there.”
Warming to their mother’s enthusiasm,
Dorothea’s and Helen’s faces glowed with new hope. Kate could see
that her sisters were already dreaming of ensnaring their future
“You must do everything you can to meet
someone of suitable wealth and obtain an offer as swiftly as
possible,” Penelope reasoned.
“He must be handsome, too,” Dorothea
“Of course,” Helen agreed.
“Pish tosh! You will marry him for his money,
not for his face,” Penelope countered.
Dorothea looked stricken. “But mother, you
always said -”
“He must be a man of substance. An older man,
one perhaps your father’s age might be appropriate,” Penelope went
on. “Maybe older.”
“Older?” Helen gasped in horror.
“Certainly, my dear,” Penelope confirmed.
“The older the man is, the fewer years you’ll have to endure before
his money and property belongs to our family.”