Authors: Tracie Peterson
Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC014000
Â© 2015 by Peterson Ink, Inc.
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook edition created 2015
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any meansâfor example, electronic, photocopy, recordingâwithout the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.
This is a work of historical reconstruction; the appearances of certain historical figures are therefore inevitable. All other characters, however, are products of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Cover design by LOOK Design Studio
Cover photography by Aimee Christensen
In memory of Sharon Asmus,
a phenomenal editor and friend.
You will be missed.
Abrianna Cunningham's heart leapt to her throat as she jumped back against the wall. Her hand flew to her breast. Goodness. Why did people think it amusing or even desirable to frighten a person half to death on such occasions?
“Happy Birthday!” the crowd called in unison.
She willed her heart to slow. “I am deeply touched.” And she was. “But honestly, I think such surprises are quite a shock to one's system. I once read that a man died from just such a shock, though I think that was a bit dire. As I recall, he was startled by a burglar demanding he hand over his money. Nevertheless, it was a similar stupefaction, and he wasn't much older than me. Although perhaps he had a weaker heart.” Abrianna looked at the others. There were looks of joy mingled with confusion. It would seem that the entire Madison Bridal School had turned out to honor her.
“Nevermind.” Abrianna smiled at the two dozen people gathered for the celebration. “I fear I am given to digress, but I
am honored that you would plan such a wonderful surprise.” Several of the bridal school students clapped in joy and ushered her toward the table where a large cake awaited.
“We helped with the baking,” one of the girls announced, “but Mrs. Madison did all the decorating.”
Abrianna's three aunts stood behind the adorned table, each smiling in her own way. Miriam Madison, owner of the Madison Bridal School, looked rather severe, but she always did. With her gray hair secured in a tight bun and her mouth almost always in a straight line, even when smiling, Aunt Miriam's appearance suggested she was never quite happy. However, Abrianna knew better. Aunt Selma, Aunt Miriam's dear friend, stood to one side, her closed mouth bent upward as a horseshoe might. There was a definite gleam in her eyes. Aunt Poisie stood on the opposite side. As the younger sister of Miriam Madison, she had the job of sharing all the emotions her sister held back. Her smile was given with great abandon and looked as though she had just heard a very humorous joke. All so different, yet so dear.
“Don't you love how beautiful it all is?” Clara asked. As one of the more outspoken and flirtatious of the bridal students, she was generally first to make her presence known. “Miss Poisie and I gathered the flowers.”
“Well, we all helped with the decorating, and Mrs. Gibson made the linens,” Elizabeth, another student offered.
Abrianna nodded. “I can see Aunt Miriam's beloved Minton china has been chosen for this affair.” She put her hand again to her heart. “I know just how special those dishes are to you, Aunt Miriam. I am honored that you would use them for my birthday. But I would be completely devastated should they be so much as chipped.”
“I believe everyone will be careful, Abrianna,” her father said,
coming forward. “Happy Birthday.” He put his arm around her and gave a squeeze. “You look a lot like your ma.” He winked. “Minus the red hair, of course. That is now and ever will be your mark of honor.” After being absent most of her life, Jay Cunningham seemed quite caught up in the moment.
“Thank you, Father. Although I hardly see my hair as something to bring me honor.” She touched her hand to the hastily coiffed gathering of curls. “Mostly, it has seemed a curse.”
“Nonsense. You are beautiful.”
“I keep trying to tell her that.” Wade Ackerman stepped up to join them while the bridal school students buzzed around them like bees in a hive, helping get the cake served and punch poured.
Abrianna felt her heart skip a beat at Wade's closeness. She had come to realize, just a little more than a month ago, that she was very much in love with her lifelong friend. To her surprise, he leaned over and boldly kissed her cheek.
“You are the prettiest girl here,” he whispered.
“Indeed,” her father said with a quick glance around the room. “But I'm prejudiced.”
“Mr. Cunningham,” Aunt Poisie said, coming to them looking worried, “I wonder if I could impose on you to help me bring in ice for the punch?”
“Of course.” He too kissed Abrianna's cheek. “Duty calls.” He then extended his arm for Aunt Poisie to take. “Lead the way, dear lady.”
James Bowes Cunningham wasâin spite of his difficult lifeâa rather handsome man who had returned to Abrianna after a lifetime absence. She and her aunts had long thought him dead. Having been falsely accused of murder and imprisoned for almost twenty years, Jay, as he preferred to be called, had allowed his family to think him deceased to spare them shame.
Abrianna found his reappearance in her life to only add to the confusion of her age.
And that confusion, this mastery of intricate exhaustion, culminated with Wade Ackerman. She braved a sidelong glance at the young man she'd known all of her life. He had been a brother and dear friend to her in his association with her aunts, but nowÂ .Â .Â . oh, now things were ever so different.
She felt her cheeks grow hot when Wade caught her glance and winked. Ducking her head, Abrianna fought her emotions. Now she was in love with Wade. What in the world was she to do about that?
“I'm so happy for you,” Elizabeth declared. “Everything will change for you now that you are of age and in love.” She giggled and added in a whisper. “Love changes everything.”
Abrianna frowned. Just what she was afraid of. Her friendship with Wade was a foundation that she understood and counted on. Her aunts were most precious, but they were old, and their ideals and concerns harkened back to another age. Wade, on the other hand, had been privy to her innermost secrets and ambitions. Their friendship was the one thing she didn't wish to see change.
“Mr. Ackerman, I am so pleased to find you here tonight,” Clara said, sidling up to him opposite Abrianna. She batted her eyes and fanned herself. “My, it is warm tonight. Maybe a little stroll in the garden would be nice.” Her expression betrayed her desire that Wade offer to accompany her.
“As low cut as that bodice is, I'm surprised you haven't taken a chill.” Abrianna shook her head in disapproval.
Clara giggled. “Oh, Abrianna, you do go on. The bodice isn't at all scandalous. It's quite fashionable.”
“Not by Aunt Miriam's standards. I'm surprised you were allowed downstairs.”
Clara gave a coy smile. “Well, she didn't realize I planned to wear this particular gown. I only purchased it yesterday. What say you, Mr. Ackerman? Don't you think it quite lovely?”
Wade looked to the ceiling. “I know little about fashion, but I do know Mrs. Madison's rules about modesty.”
“Oh, that's just because she's old.” Clara gave a twirl. “I'm young, and I want to attire myself in the latest fashion to enhance my beauty.”
Abrianna noticed the way the bodice strained against Clara's well-endowed bosom. “I'd be careful about moving too much or too quick. Maybe you should retrieve a shawl.”
“No. Clara needs to go change her gown altogether.” They all turned to find Aunt Miriam looking on in disapproval. “We shall discuss this further tomorrow, but for now you will go upstairs and make a better choice.”
Clara pouted, pursing her lips. “But I shall miss the party.”
“You should have thought of that before making such a display.” Aunt Miriam fixed the girl with one of her looks that Abrianna knew only too well. With her arched brow and narrowed eyes, Aunt Miriam could look quite imposing. She would not be moved by Clara's childish moping.
“Well, fine!” Clara's tone of exasperation and crestfallen expression put closure on the matter as she turned and stomped out of the room.
“You two need to get a piece of cake and some punch,” Aunt Miriam said in a more pleasant tone. “After all, it's not every day that one celebrates her twenty-first birthday.”
“It certainly isn't,” Kolbein Booth declared. He and his wife, Lenore, joined the trio. “Happy birthday, Abrianna.” He lifted her hand and kissed it.
Lenore, her longtime friend, waited her turn and then
embraced Abrianna. “Happy birthday. This is such a grand occasion, and you certainly deserve it.” She leaned closer and whispered, “I was glad to see you get rid of Clara. That dress was positively scandalous.”
“Indeed. But it is just one of many shocks I've had tonight.”
“I'll get us some cake,” Wade said. “How about it, Kolbein? Join me?”
“I will. That cake looks much too good to pass up. I heard someone say it has strawberry preserves in between the layers.” He patted his stomach. “If I keep eating like this I'll be a fat old man in no time.”
Abrianna stepped back as the men made their way to the table.
Lenore took hold of her arm. “You mentioned shock. I do hope nothing's wrong. Your aunts were quite excited to plan this celebration for you.”
Another friend, Militine Patton, joined them. “I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but you have to know this party has completely occupied your aunts since the Fourth of July party was completed.”
Abrianna smiled. “They are dears. I suppose it isn't every day that your ward turns twenty-one. It was very kind of all of you to join in the festivities. I feel quite beloved. I have never had so much attention put upon meâwell, at least not this pleasant type of attention. Goodness, I've had more than my share of unpleasant attention, as you both know, and often by no fault of my own.”
“Well that's of little concern now.” Lenore patted her arm. “It's a wonderful party, and of courseÂ .Â .Â . there's Wade. Has he proposed yet?”
Abrianna bit her lower lip. Word had gotten around rather
fast that Wade and Abrianna had indeed admitted feelings for each other that went far beyond the friendship they'd known. Lenore and Militine had been her immediate confidantes. To them she shared her confused emotions where Wade was concerned. Both assured her that this kind of change was no cause for alarm. They further suggested she enjoy rather than dread the change. Lenore put it in most eloquent words: “Love is always a mixed bowl of fruit. Some pieces are tart and others sweet.” Abrianna didn't bother to add that some also could be full of worms.
The men returned with the cake. She sampled a forkful and found it a wonderful concoction of strawberries and whipped butter frosting layered between moist white cake. Across the room the bridal students got up a game of charades, and the party atmosphere was soon alive with whimsical laughter as each lady vied to act out her secret. From time to time someone came up to congratulate Abrianna and wish her well. It was a lovely party, but Abrianna found it hard to concentrate. Everything was happening much too quickly. Her father's return. Her change of heart toward Wade, and now coming of age. Could life become any more complicated?
“I would like to speak to you in the parlor,” Aunt Miriam declared in her authoritative manner. “You may join us as well, MilitineÂ and Lenore.” She looked to Wade and Kolbein who were now discussing something with Militine's husband, Thane. “You three, as well.”
She led the way to the parlor while Abrianna began to fret. What was this all about? Why was Aunt Miriam sequestering them away from the others? Abrianna bit her lip and made her way into the parlor to find Aunt Selma and Aunt Poisie, as well as her father, already waiting. She scanned her memory for
something she might have done to cause reprimand, but it seemed unlikely that Aunt Miriam would confront her on her birthday.
“Please come stand here, Abrianna,” instructed Aunt Miriam.
Every gaze was now upon her, and Abrianna felt her face flush. Goodness, but this was enough to put a person into a state of apoplexy, although she'd never been in one before and really wasn't at all certain what the symptoms would feel like.
Life could be full of extremely vexing and embarrassing moments, and this definitely appeared to rate right at the top of her list. Of course, that time earlier in the summer when she'd had to discard her skirt and swim to safety when the great Seattle fire threatened to consume both her and Wade was probably her most recent humiliation. Thankfully, her aunts had been understanding.
“As you know, Abrianna became our responsibility upon the death of her mother,” Aunt Miriam began.
“God rest her soul,” Aunt Poisie declared.
“Amen,” Aunt Miriam and Aunt Selma offered their customary reply.
“We had thought her father to have perished, as well,” Aunt Miriam continued, “but are happy to realize that he had not.” The aunts looked to Abrianna's father and gave a brief nod.
“In taking charge of Abrianna, we devoted ourselves to benefitting her throughout her life,” Aunt Miriam added. “We worked to give her a solid education, teaching her ourselves rather than allowing her to be misled by public schools.”
Aunt Poisie bobbed her head in her usual manner and gave a toothy smile. Aunt Selma looked quite satisfied, no doubt congratulating herself on the fact that she had spared Abrianna a lifetime of unlearning what she considered to be outrageous, ungodly claims by leading educators and scientists of the day.