Authors: Astrid Jane Ray
VIRTUE & VANITY
Astrid Jane Ray
Copyright © 2016 Astrid Jane Ray
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or shared in any form, including, but not limited to printing, photocopying, faxing, or emailing without prior written permission from the author.
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
The names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Edited by: Monique Fischer (
This book would not have been written without the help of musical inspiration. All of the songs and compositions that inspired my writing can be found
This is not your typical "hearts and flowers" romance story. It will contain strong language, disturbing situations and in some parts non – consensual sexual content. Please don't read this if you are under the age of 18, or find such things disturbing!
I winced from the sickening fear he evoked within me and I lost all of my control. He had won. Heavy tears spilled from my eyes and rolled onto my cheeks, forming a wet stream as I tried to breathe through the fierce sobs that emerged from the depths of my body. His gaze roamed along my probably red and puffed face, pausing at the edge of my eyelids. The longer he observed my tears, the more his face turned into an unreadable expression like he was taken aback by my undeniable display of weakness. Unexpectedly, the darkness in his eyes was replaced by a glimmer of light that was hanging on a thread. For a ridiculously short second it almost seemed like he wanted to tell me that there was no need to cry. His eyes lingered on my face, burning an impression that would haunt me for the rest of my life. Taking a deep breath, he parted his lips and just when he was about to speak, something within him shifted and he turned his head away from me. When his eyes focused on me again, his cruelty returned with a vengeance. The glimmer of light was dead and gone, the darkness ten times stronger than before.
“Do you remember what I told you about crying?”
I flinched when he spoke in a deep voice after the long break of silence. At that moment, I knew my tears meant nothing to him…
The light from the computer screen glowed on my tired eyes, but I was determined to keep on typing. The story I had replayed in my mind for months had to come to the surface, and I was so inspired that even after hours of writing, I still felt the drive that kept me going. My mother’s words—that I was a foolish dreamer who needed to start living in the real world sprang to my mind and even though she had a point, nothing seemed to be able to dampen my motivation. I was so wrapped up in reading books and writing my own stories that I’d sort of become oblivious to the world around me. But that was alright, because the reality that surrounded me wasn’t even a bit alluring, so it felt good to escape into the exciting world I’d created in my imagination.
I had lived in Rosemont my entire life. It was a small, rural town in the middle of nowhere. Come to think of it, I wasn’t quite sure that one could even locate it on the map; it was that irrelevant and tiny. If one wanted to get out of Rosemont and achieve something, it was anything but easy. But staying wasn’t all that great either. With few job opportunities and even less chance of getting a decent education, people were stuck in one place, waiting for something to change. Needless to say, I hated living there, and all I wanted was to leave and make something of myself. I had just finished high school and I was looking forward to starting a new exciting life, but things hadn’t gone as smoothly as I planned. I had a dream of studying literature and becoming a famous writer. Of course, nobody in Rosemont understood my
ambitions, least of all my mother.
To the outside world, she tried to come across as a caring and sacrificing single mother who would do whatever it took to stand by her three daughters, but the truth was quite different, because she had been anything but supportive when it came to our dreams. To expect a glimpse of love and affection from her was like asking for rain in the hot desert. I tried my best, but I couldn’t get past her cold walls. Before my father died from liver cirrhosis, she had been somewhat more affectionate and caring towards us, but it was only because appearances meant everything to her. Back then, she thought that her reputation as a loving mother could make up for my father’s embarrassing conduct in public. But even then I knew he wasn’t as bad of a person as my mother portrayed him to be. It was more that living with her had been so challenging for him, that he sought comfort in the vice of alcohol and it had completely destroyed him. In time, things had only taken a turn for the worse. Memories of when we were children and he would play with us and make us laugh would always return to my mind, and I couldn’t accept the fact that it had been the same man who would come home drunk and aggressively attack us. I guess I held a little resentment towards him, to say the least. Because of his weakness, I’d lost him when I was only ten years old. Not to mention that he was the sole reason I hated alcohol, and because of him I had almost no friends. One could say that my father’s behavior turned us into outcasts in an already isolated town.
Ever since he died, my mother’s frantic obsession to make the small community of Rosemont forget her late husband was a failure and an alcoholic had spiraled out of control. Sometimes people would share different kinds of embarrassing stories about my father’s behavior in town of when he would make a fool out of himself and it had only contributed to her constant need to impose her feeling of self-worth to everybody around her—and we were no exception. Somehow, she believed that because we were her daughters, she owned us, and she would always make decisions which regarded our lives without even trying to get our consent. Standing up to her wasn’t an option. Either we obliged or we would be manipulated into doing what she wanted. Later I would find out that it was a trait I should have feared a lot more than I had.
Since we had a lot of financial issues, her secret dream was to get rich and show off her lavishness in front of everybody. We thought that her ridiculous attempts to get her hands on large amounts of cash were simply ridiculous. My younger sister Ashley and I often observed her excitement right after she played the lottery, because every time she was convinced it was her lucky ticket out of Rosemont. It had been both sad and fun to watch her write all of her plans on a piece of paper in case she won a lot of money. Her dreams of luxury would probably never come true, but she dreamed nonetheless. We were kind of similar in that, because I also had dreams of my own and I wanted to fulfill them so eagerly.
I returned to the love story I was writing and started a whole new exciting chapter. The story was a complete cliché, but being a hopelessly romantic soul, I didn’t care about that. It was the kind of story where a knight in shining armor saves his damsel in distress and they live happily ever after. Although it wasn’t the type of story that would turn into the greatest literary success, I thought it was cute and it held a lot of sentimental value for me. The muse in my head warned me to stop writing when I heard someone walking in the hallway. The light brightened the room and hurt my exhausted eyes.
“Isabelle, what on earth are you still doing here?” I heard my mother’s upset voice.
“Mother, I was just writing something,” I said defensively.
She sighed and shook her head in disapproval. I didn’t understand why she was annoyed or why she’d come to the living room in the middle of the night in the first place. She never did that. Given her status of a deeply religious and humble woman—which was nothing but yet another ridiculous pretense that helped her build her false persona—she preached how she hated the computer and everything that went along with it. Sometimes, in front of the church community, she would call it the devil’s tool which would destroy us, and I was amazed that all those people failed to see through her shallow act of deceit. But all that resulted in was us having only one computer, which was in the living room, and access to the Internet was strictly limited. Mother was the only one who knew the password that could grant us the luxury of being in touch with the outer world. We weren’t allowed to have access to any social media sites and ever since Ashley had tried to trick her by making a
account, Mother blocked those sites and only allowed us to use the Internet for school purposes. Her biggest worry was that we might get in touch with boys; and dating was strictly against the rules. She often told us that she would only allow us to date once we found someone who was serious enough to marry us, because as she would interestingly put it, nobody wanted to buy damaged goods. Even a fool could understand that she was protecting herself from the possibility of yet another public humiliation, so she wanted us to gain the status of moral saints in the Rosemont community.
“Go to sleep. I need to use the computer for a while.” She arched her eyebrows, a sign that she was waiting for me to comply.
Surprised by her unusual request to use the computer in the middle of the night, I noticed she looked away from me and I knew there would be hell to pay if I didn’t disappear into my room immediately. I hurried out to the hallway because I didn’t want to anger her, and I went up the stairs, but once I reached the door to my room, the curiosity to find out what she was doing took hold of me. I decided to risk my mother’s outburst and I tiptoed back down the stairs, making sure that I didn’t make a single sound. When I came to the door of the living room, I noticed that the light was out again and the room was illuminated only by the computer screen’s light.
I leaned around the door and saw my mother typing an email to someone. I didn’t even know she had an email account. But what actually caught me by surprise was seeing her chat with somebody on
. I moved my foot, accidentally causing the wooden floor to creek underneath me, and it caught my mother’s attention. She looked around her and I held my breath next to the door, hoping she wouldn’t discover that I was spying on her. Luckily, she got a reply on her email, and she focused all of her attention on the computer screen again. Relief washed over me as I realized that I would be able to walk back to my room without her noticing me.
That night, I lay awake for hours, thinking about knights in shining armor, damsels in distress and Mother’s motives to use the Internet in the dead of the night.
Only a few days after I had caught her chatting with someone in the middle of the night, Mother was frantic about making everything in the house look perfect. For a moment, I thought that maybe she had met a man, but that thought quickly left my mind, because I knew her character all too well. A cold and calculated person like her would only pay that much attention to something when it meant that it could result in some personal gain. I didn’t know what the big fuss was about when I walked into the living room looking for the book I’d left lying around, until she addressed me with a very serious tone that could only mean one thing—something was very wrong.
“Isabelle, it’s so nice that you’re here. I was just about to go look for you. Please, sit down, honey. We have to talk,” she said with a fake smile on her face.
Her words and demeanor screamed that I should run away from her because she obviously had something terribly sinister on her mind. If I’d learned one thing about my mother over the years, it was that she was never nice and she never displayed any sign of love to her children. I was nineteen, and she had never once called me ‘honey’ or told me how nice it was to see me. Also, if there weren’t any personal interests involved for her, she wouldn’t want us to talk to her at all. So it was understandable that I was more than wary to accept her feigned sign of kindness.
“What do you want to talk about, Mother?” I asked with suspicion visible on my face.
“Sit down, Isabelle. What I’m about to tell you is very important.” She made a brief pause, not knowing how to continue. Then she smiled and took one of my hands between her palms. “A woman contacted me a few days ago. She works for the Everett’s. They are a rich family from New York, you see,” she spoke matter-of-factly and her tone of voice raised every alarm in my body, but I knew I had to remain calm.
“Yes, and?” I asked with dread in my voice as if I knew that nothing in my life would ever be the same again.
Obviously, I’d observed her while she was e-mailing with that mysterious woman.
“She sent me a photograph.” She was stalling, which wasn’t a good sign.
“A photograph?” I asked, confused.
“They have a son, you see.” She paused again.
“Okay?” I said insecurely, because I didn’t know where our conversation was going.
“Yes, like I’ve said. They have a son—a young heir. His name is Sebastian and he needs to get married. They are looking for a girl from Rosemont,” she said calmly, in the same tone she would use to tell us what’s for dinner—like it was normal for a rich guy from New York to look for a wife in Rosemont.
“Why would they look for a girl in Rosemont?” I was beyond curious.
The fact that a rich heir from New York would come to Rosemont to look for a wife didn’t make any sense at all. Even residents of Rosemont didn’t want to marry one of their townspeople. Some of them would say they had a good reason, since incest wasn’t exactly unheard of around there, but still.
“What difference does it make? Does it really matter why?” She started scowling at me.
I didn’t reply, instead I simply gazed at her in disbelief. Of course it mattered why. If a rich, young man had to come to Rosemont to find a wife, something had to be seriously wrong with him. He was probably fat, ugly, and completely crazy if he would settle for a Rosemont girl.
“Honey you should be counting your blessings instead of analyzing why God has given you this wonderful opportunity.” Those words were my sentence.
“Why should I count my blessings? What does any of this have to do with me?”
At last, she continued and put the final nail in my coffin. “Why, you are the first candidate for his new wife. Isn’t that great Isabelle?” She burst with excitement.
I didn’t even get a moment to process the information she had given me. I started shaking in shock because I knew when she got that excited about something, she wouldn’t let go until she got what her mind was set on. Still, I refused to give in without a fight.
“Mother, you can’t be serious. You can’t expect me to marry a man I have never even met. For all I know, he could be some demented serial killer. I will not go through with this. I just... I won’t!” I raised my voice at her which was something my mother wouldn’t tolerate.
“Now young lady, you listen to me and you listen well. You will not ruin this chance for us because of your selfishness.” Her voice was steady, but it was obvious that she was very annoyed.
“My selfishness?” I yelled. “You’re calling me selfish because I won’t accept your diabolical plan to sell me to this man? Because that’s exactly what you would be doing—selling me to the highest bidder.”
“How dare you?” The outrage was visible on her face. “How dare you accuse me of something like that? I have given my life to raise you girls and all I want is to secure a good life for you and your sisters. And as for me, don’t you think you owe me something in return for all the sacrifices I’ve made for you?” She was furious because I wasn’t cooperating.
“Of course—money,” I said as anger seeped through me. “That’s all you ever think about. You don’t care about how I feel or what will happen to me.” My voice rang with fury and desperation as I hoped to get to her at some level.
“This is so typical of you. You would have more than any other girl could ever wish for. Do you know how many girls fantasize about marrying the gorgeous Sebastian Everett? Your dreams would come true. But no, that’s not good enough for you,” she said mockingly and the attribute about him being gorgeous didn’t escape me.
“You are not a little girl anymore, Isabelle. You have to wake up from your dream world of fairytales and realize what this opportunity means for your family. You are my eldest daughter. Ashley and Jane are too young to be married. You are not. Please, be reasonable.” She would try anything to convince me to go along with this awful plan.
“Mother, I am nineteen!” I stressed the words as much as I could, to make her realize what she was doing to me. “And you don’t know anything about my dreams. I want to go to school, find a job, enjoy my life and
not get married
. I don’t care that he’s rich. And why on earth would he want to marry me? Why can’t you see that—?”
“This discussion is over. You are getting married to this man, even if it’s the last thing I do in my life.”
“I won’t.” I shook my head. “If you think I will go along with this, you’re crazy. I won’t. I won’t, do you hear me?!” I screamed from the top of my lungs and headed for my room.
Both Ashley and Jane were alarmed enough by the noise to leave their room and come after me. I punched the pillow in frustration before burying my head in it, because I knew that even though I’d stood up to my mother for the first time in my life, I still had no chance in winning this fight. Ashley was the middle sister and she was the one who was closest to me. She immediately hugged me and asked what was wrong, whereas Jane, who was a true copy of my mother’s character, giggled secretly because I’d made Mother furious and she knew she was about to witness a show.
“Isabelle, what’s wrong? Why are you so upset? Calm down, whatever it is, she will forget all about it in no time.” Ashley tried to comfort me.
I raised my head and flinched at the sound of the creaking stairs. It wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot. Nobody fought Elisa Walsh and came out a winner, not even her own daughter. Elisa Walsh would always get exactly what she wanted. Her blonde hair, blue eyes and fair complexion, complemented by her thin waist, would make you believe that she’s as good as an angel and that she never meant any harm. But I knew better than to expect compassion from my own mother. She would crush me without thinking, only to set her plan in motion. Her steps were slow and determined and as she approached my room. I could feel my heart pounding and I could smell her brutal determination. She opened the door and I buried my head back in the pillow. Ashley wanted to say something, but my mother cut her off.
“Girls, go to your room. Isabelle and I have to finish our conversation.” Her voice was made of steel.
Ashley gave me a gentle hug and followed Jane out of the room. I had no intention to face my mother. For a few short moments, she stood there observing me, and then she finally spoke.
“I don’t care if you’re listening or not. But if I were you, I would listen carefully because I will say this only once. I have no power in making you come to your senses and accept this wonderful opportunity,” she said and I raised my head to meet her gaze. I sensed there was a ‘but’ coming. Of course, I was right.
“But I do have the power to renounce you as my daughter and make you leave my house and everything in it. You will be homeless, Isabelle. As for your sister, if you decline this offer, you will rob her of an education and a future. I will be forced to forbid her from attending school, because this family cannot afford that expense anymore. Do you want that on your conscience, Isabelle?” She knew she had won this battle, because she exited my room self -assured and gloating.
I knew she meant every single word of what she had said. She wouldn’t hesitate to throw me out if I disobeyed her. What option did I have? I had no one to turn to and no one who could help me. My mother had managed to isolate us from everybody. I had no friends or family who would come to my aid. She knew I would be forced to accept her crazy demand, because being homeless in Rosemont was far worse than being thrown into a forest filled with wild wolves ready to tear you apart. And she knew that Ashley was my weak spot. I couldn’t allow Mother to do that to her. Of course, she’d left Jane out of her threats because she was her favorite. Jane was Mother’s carbon copy and would probably be thrilled to be married off to a rich stranger if she got the chance to do so. Since I was the epitome of my father’s looks—and as Mother often said, character—I could count on her despising me. A part of me wished he was still alive to protect me from Mother’s delirium. Even though I didn’t remember much of my father, I knew he would have never allowed her to marry me off like that. He had been an alcoholic and those times when he came home drunk and took his rage out on us or Mother were burned in my memory, but he’d had strong moral values when it came to his daughters. Yet he wasn’t there to protect me; he was dead because of alcohol. The day he died, I swore to myself that I would never take a sip of it, even though, in the situation I was facing at the moment, having a strong drink sounded quite appealing.
After staying in my room for a long time, I went downstairs to face my tormentor. She was reading a magazine with her legs crossed and swinging. Putting her magazine down, she turned to me with a sly smile on her face.
“Well, did you come to tell me you’ve finally come to your senses, Isabelle?”
She anticipated my answer and pure desperation covered every part of my being as I nodded in response to my mother’s question. It was my white flag, my surrender. It meant that my life was over.
“I knew you were a smart girl, darling. Now, all we have to do is get you ready for our guest!” She didn’t wait for my reply but continued talking excitedly. “We have so many things to do. We have to get you dressed properly, fix your hair, put the best makeup on and rehearse everything you are going to say when Mrs. Moran arrives. You have to be very presentable for your picture. I am so excited. I can’t even imagine how happy you must be.” She was on cloud nine and I could see the dollar signs were already forming in her eyes.