A marriage of convenience. A secret that she can’t hide anymore. How will two opposites resist their feelings when they can help but attract each other forcefully?
“That kiss had changed it all. It had changed everything. It had changed Alex himself.”
Susan lives a happy life with her wealthy parents as a promising musical talent. But after she accidentally finds out that all her life was a lie, she needs to act fast. A wealthy businessman twice her age pays for her music school, and he wants to marry her in exchange. Susan has no other choice but to answer a mail-order bride ad and flee West in the middle of the night. But will she manage to trust a man she doesn’t know when the only people she trusts betray her?
The ranch and his sheriff’s duties don’t leave him much free time to take care of his house, so Alexander needs someone to help him around and a marriage of convenience sounds like the perfect plan. But, Susan is nothing like the hardworking woman he imagined. In fact, she seems like she hasn’t worked a day in her life. How will he open himself to his new wife when he can sense that she is hiding something from him?
The truth isn’t something anyone can hide for long. When Susan’s past comes to claim her, will Alexander manage to save the woman he is starting to fall for fiercely?
1870 Elizabethtown, Virginia
Susan studied the glossy brown smoothness of the closed door before her eyes fell to the richness of the carpet at her feet. It wasn’t lost on her that she’d never paid either of them much attention until now, but then how often did one find oneself listening in at one’s father’s door?
She leaned gently against it, careful to breathe as quietly as possible. The last thing she needed was to make a noise and give her presence away. She could almost imagine the scene… her father would wrench open the door to find his eighteen-year-old daughter standing there. Her mother’s face would flush and she would turn away in embarrassment. And Edwin Collier, the esteemed and ever so wealthy Mr. Edwin Collier, would stand there looking down his haughty nose at her.
For weeks, her parents had been behaving strangely. At first, she thought that maybe they were planning a surprise for her. But when letters had begun to fly thick and fast between her parents and Mr. Collier, Susan had realized that pretty lockets or new dresses weren’t the subjects of their whispers and concerned stares.
She shifted her weight between her feet as the noise of a carriage rumbling by drowned out all sound from within the study. As the sound died away, Susan began to make out the voices within.
“And she has no idea?” The voice was so smooth and practiced, Susan knew she was listening to Edwin Collier. Her stomach tightened at the sound of him, each word dripping in arrogance.
“None whatsoever, I can assure you,” replied her father. His tone was strange, and Susan frowned. Her father was a businessman, a merchant by trade, and as such, was used to all manner of deals and people. But in his voice right now was a level of respect that seemed reserved for Edwin Collier. The obsequiousness turned her stomach and made her feel ill at ease.
“It isn’t that I intend for it to remain a secret,” continued Edwin Collier. “I want the arrangements settled before we approach her with it.”
Approach who with what? thought Susan. Something about this entire meeting felt off. To her knowledge, her parents rarely, if ever, had private meetings behind closed doors. And never with Mr. Collier. Tension moved through her shoulders.
“Absolutely,” said her father, his voice filled with forced amicability. By the sound of it, he was sitting in his enormous leather armchair, behind the grandiose desk that seemed more fitting for a king than a man in trade. “And as you know, we’re intent upon ensuring a positive outcome.”
“I should hope so,” muttered Edwin Collier. “I’ve certainly sunk enough money into the deal.” Susan sucked in a quiet breath.
Was this all it was? A business deal? She sighed quietly. Why then had they been unable to share it with her?
“I’ve thought of everything,” said Edwin Collier smugly. “I’ve ensured my future bride comes from a well-to-do family. Granted, that required more than a few injections of money into your business. I’ve even ensured her level of accomplishment.” Susan felt as if her head were spinning.
“If you’re referring to her…” said Mr. Swanson.
“I am referring to the piano tutor I pay for,” said Edwin Collier. “If that’s what you were about to say.” Susan’s spinning head was replaced by a roaring in her ears.
“Susan will make a beautiful bride,” said her mother carefully. Susan felt as if the floor beneath her feet were about to give way. It was true; at eighteen, she was of marriageable age. But until now, not one word had been said about a prospective suitor. Her mother had discussed it in an abstract manner only. One day, when you get married… But to be faced with it suddenly was confusing. It was more confusing that a man so wholly removed from her was involved.
“True, Mrs. Swanson,” came Edwin Collier’s response. “I have long been certain of it. Susan is a striking young woman.” Susan felt her skin crawl at his compliment and self-consciously raised a hand to her hair even though there was no one there to see it. With her dark hair and eyes and alabaster skin, she’d often been compared to a porcelain doll.
She leaned her head against the wall, the wood paneling cooling her face. She needed air. There was a window mere steps away, hung with heavy golden curtains, but she couldn’t step away now for fear she would miss something.
“Striking and accomplished,” her father added. There it was again. That wheedling tone that he reserved for either the wealthiest or the most powerful, both of which described Edwin Collier.
“That’s exactly what I want,” Edwin told her parents. “I wasn’t prepared to settle down with just anyone. I wanted a woman who’s my equal in every way.” He paused, and Susan held her breath. “I believe that’s what I’ve found in your daughter.”
Susan’s blood ran cold. Edwin Collier was the suitor? Cold, ruthless, arrogant Edwin Collier. She felt her hands begin to shake, and her breath came in short, sharp gasps. This couldn’t be. Her parents wouldn’t do this to her. A loveless match was one thing. But a loveless match with a man she abhorred was another thing altogether. She took a sudden step back, shattered at the news.
Edwin Collier was fifteen years her senior. She found him distasteful. His arrogance and disdain for others had long made him the last person she desired to associate with, but given the connection to her parents, she’d been forced to treat him with civility. As she smoothed the front of her dress with her now clammy hands, she stepped forward and tried to focus once more on the conversation within the study.
“We understood your desire to keep this private when Susan was younger,” said her father. “But surely it’s time that we can share the happy news with her?”
Susan felt the sharp bite of betrayal. That her parents had planned this without consulting her was devastating. Moreover, she had first met Mr. Collier when she was fifteen years of age. Knowing he’d had this in mind for three years nauseated her. Susan wracked her brain, trying to recall the words she might have spoken to him. Had she been party to it? Had she unknowingly encouraged him? She heard her father clear his throat, something he only did when he was uncomfortable.
“Mr. Swanson,” began Edwin Collier.
“Louis,” said her father quickly.
“Mr. Swanson,” continued Edwin Collier, as if her father hadn’t said a word. “I believe my investments have afforded me a voice. Am I wrong?”
Investments? What investments? And why would business investments give Edwin Collier ANY say in my future?
“You’re entirely correct, my good man,” said Susan’s father quickly. His voice betrayed him. Whenever Louis Swanson was anxious or worried, his British accent sounded stronger. “Your voice is an important one.”
“I believe it’s the only one,” said Edwin Collier. “At least as far as Susan is concerned. You may have raised her, but soon, I will be responsible for her.”
“Mr. Collier,” said Susan’s mother. It sounded as if she had gotten to her feet, and Susan waited, wondering if she should run away now or continue to listen. “Neither myself nor my husband disputes your stake in this.” Her words were odd given the circumstances. Edwin Collier was a businessman. And Susan was his potential bride, not a racehorse he was purchasing. Why would he have any stake?
It was not something she would learn tonight, because Susan heard footsteps descending the staircase. She walked on shaky legs toward her bedroom. Upon reaching it, she collapsed onto the armchair in the corner of her room. All thoughts of deportment and etiquette were gone as her mind swirled with all she had heard.
She, like any woman, had always dreamed of a love match. Of meeting a handsome suitor and agreeing when he asked for her hand in marriage. Edwin Collier was not that suitor. His age alone separated him from any of her daydreams, and his personality disqualified him entirely.
Susan walked through the door of the study, her heart pounding fast in her chest. Louis Swanson sat in his large leather chair behind his desk. It dwarfed the bookshelves and reduced the art to inconsequential paintings on the wall.
His wife sat in one of the armchairs beside the fire. Neither one of them looked happy.
“Sit down, darling,” said her mother. She reached forward and patted the armchair beside her, a smile on her lips as she gestured for Susan to sit down. The green-and-gold cloth on the armchairs echoed the hunter-green curtains, and combined with the dark wooden furnishings, it gave the room a masculine air.
At 36, Kathryn Swanson still cut an eye-catching figure. Susan had inherited her slender physique and her beautiful eyes. Right now, both were aimed at her daughter. Taking a deep breath, Susan walked across the room and settled herself beside her mother. Her own lilac gown blended beautifully with the deep rich maroon gown that her mother wore, and for a moment, she wondered what her father thought of them both. He’d often commented on their beauty with pride. He’d made it clear that the manner of their dress and the quality of the clothes reflected upon him and his position.
“You remember Mr. Edwin Collier?” asked her mother. She paused as if carefully selecting her words. Susan eyed her. There were two ways to deal with her current predicament. One, she could act as if she were entirely unaware of all she’d just heard, or two, she could admit to having eavesdropped and confront them.
She looked across at her father. He sat watching her with his hands resting on his portly belly. He appeared to be appraising her, and she quickly decided on option one.
“Of course, I know Mr. Collier, Mother,” she replied sweetly. “We’ve dined with him frequently.” Her father nodded in agreement and her mother clasped her hands together.
“Your father and I,” said Mrs. Swanson, “have decided the time has come for you to be married.” Susan stiffened. She swallowed down the fear rising in her throat as she looked beseechingly at her mother.
“But Mother,” she said. “Surely…”
“Surely nothing,” interrupted her father firmly. Susan looked across at him and found his usually calm and relaxed face was set in a stiff mask of resignation. “You will allow your mother to finish.”
Suitably chastised, Susan sat back and took a deep breath before pasting a calm smile on her face and turning to face her mother. She held on to a slim hope that she’d misunderstood the words she’d overheard. They would explain now, and her worrying would be for naught.
“As I was saying,” her mother said pointedly. “Your father and I believe it’s time you take the next step into adulthood.”
Her own accent was decidedly proper, as she’d held on to the last vestiges of her English roots far longer than her husband.
“When selecting your husband, we measured your potential against your prospects. It can therefore come as no surprise that we’ve selected only the best.” Susan held her breath, desperately hoping she’d heard wrong or misunderstood. Perhaps her mother was about to tell her she was matched to the son of one of their acquaintances. There was still time…
Her father got to his feet.
“You’re to be Mrs. Edwin Collier,” he announced with an expansive gesture, as though he were telling her something he knew would make her very happy. His facial expression was quite different, however; it revealed an emotion that Susan never would have associated with her father. It was shame. She nearly choked on the bile that had arisen in her throat, and she turned away from him.
“Edwin Collier?” mumbled Susan. She got to her feet, looking around her as if an avenue of escape would magically open up before her.
Her mother reached out to touch her as if the gesture would settle her, but it simply confirmed what Susan had already known. That she was more than well aware of how undesirable this match would be to her daughter.
“Sit down, my dear,” said Mr. Swanson. The term of endearment was at odds with his tone. He was looking down at her disapprovingly with none of his usual warmth or pride. “I believe we’ve made an error.” For a brief moment, Susan felt hope surge through her. He had come to his senses! She sat back down.
“You seem to be under the impression this is a choice,” he said, and as he said it, it seemed to Susan that he had grown larger. “We’ve ensured that you will not only be well taken care of but that you’ll be a woman of consequence.”
“I don’t want to be a woman of consequence,” Susan whispered so softly that her father frowned. Hot tears pricked at her eyes and a cold wash of unfairness flooded through her limbs.
“Excuse me?” he asked her.
“I thought I’d marry for love,” she said. Her mother raised a hand to her mouth. The words seemed to have affected her, and the action gave Susan a measure of hope.
“Mother,” she said. “Please. Is there no one younger? Someone closer to my age?” Her voice cracked with desperation.
“It’s done,” whispered Mrs. Swanson. Susan’s father stepped forward to take control.
“We have much to be grateful to Edwin Collier for,” he said stiffly. Susan frowned. “Both in terms of my business and our way of life.” Beside her, Susan’s mother leaned back in the chair and lowered her hand, as if she felt calmer.
“Mr. Collier has been kind,” continued her father. “Suffice it to say, he’s done a great deal for us and will continue to do so, no doubt.” Susan opened her mouth to interject, but her father once again held up his hand.
“He will continue to do so, as long as we hold up our end of the bargain,” he finished. “The business, my business, endured thanks to his generosity. A conditional generosity.” He glanced across at Susan’s mother and shrugged as if to say, ‘there, I said it.’
“Darling, I know this is hard,” said Mrs. Swanson. “But look around. You’ve loved the life we’ve given you. The house, the clothes, that beautiful piano out there.” She gestured toward the door of the study. The piano in the morning cost more than some people would earn in a lifetime.
But you haven’t given it all to me, she wanted to scream. Edwin Collier did! Suddenly, the truth of it overwhelmed her. Her upbringing, their lifestyle, the very clothes she wore. It had all been built upon a lie. Her father was not the success he portrayed himself to be. Her parents were not her faithful protectors.
Susan found herself between her two beloved parents, feeling trapped. Her chest tightened, and she struggled to breathe. Just when she thought she might faint, she saw the curtain behind her father’s desk move in the breeze. The curtain covered a door to the garden outside, and suddenly, nothing seemed more important than escape.
She moved swiftly. Getting to her feet, she walked forward and pulled the curtain aside, reaching for the door handle. It was turning in her hand before her mother even had a chance to call out her name. And then she was out. The study was behind her, and the sunshine was all around her in the garden.
For a moment, she squinted her eyes in the glare.
Their gardens were well-established and extensive. Susan walked forward in a daze, past the perfectly manicured hedges and the fountain. She stumbled around the tree with the swing and found herself standing amid the rose garden.
She stood there, looking at the exquisite white blooms that surrounded her, and suddenly, the reality of the situation sank in.
Thirty-three-year-old Edwin Collier. The man who sneered at those less fortunate and boasted about his wealth and holdings. Was this to be her future? Of one thing she was certain—she would be less of a wife and more of a trophy. Expected to stand beside him and nod and smile without owning an opinion or deciding anything for herself.
Susan reached down and plucked a bloom, raising it to her nose and drawing in a deep breath of perfume. She winced as a thorn pierced her skin, and she stared down at the small drop of blood that welled up on her finger.
It was all the sign she needed. They might think she was a rose, but she had thorns, and no matter what Edwin Collier and her parents had planned, she would not stand for this.
1870 Wild Mountain, West Virginia
The night air wafted slowly through the open window, carrying the scent of jasmine and the sound of a lone owl. Susan lay staring at the curtain as it moved. Mary, the housemaid, had closed the window tightly before she’d prepared the bed. Susan had taken one look at it and opened it the moment she left. After the revelations earlier that day, she felt trapped and suffocated, and the open window was all that stood between her and not being able to breathe.
She rolled over and clutched the blanket to herself, seeking the safety of its softness.
They don’t own me.
She had muttered the words to herself a thousand times since she’d spoken to her parents earlier that day. It had become her mantra.
Dinner had been silent. Susan had attempted to eat, but the food simply wouldn’t go down. Her mother had tried to make polite conversation but had lapsed into silence when it became clear that Susan wouldn’t reciprocate.
“It isn’t what you think, dearest,” Mrs. Swanson had said. “This is all for you.” At that point, her mother had looked helplessly at her father. Mr. Swanson had cleared his throat and placed his knife and fork down upon his plate.
“Susan,” he’d begun. “Sometimes in life, we are faced with a reality that might be hard to stomach. But we are all slaves to reality. Living with our heads in the clouds will not change that. Now, it would be best if you dispelled any notions of love matches. Edwin Collier is a grand match. Many young women will envy you.”
Then he’d picked up his cutlery as if his speech had settled the matter. Susan watched as he speared a piece of roast lamb and put it in his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully, a small frown on his face. His evening jacket was perfectly tailored, and the shirt and waistcoat beneath it were delicately sewn. A large gold signet ring sat upon his finger, and the overall picture was one of money and plenty.
He’d sat and watched her play the piano, pride suffusing his face. He’d told her often how beautiful she was, and how she’d make a lucky man very happy one day. At the time, Susan had thought these were compliments. But now she saw them for what they were. They were what he really thought of her. She was nothing more than a possession, to be traded when it suited him.
Her father was not the head of this household—Mr. Edwin Collier was. He had paid handsomely for the privilege. He held their business, and Susan, in the palm of his hand.
The hopelessness of it was more than Susan could bear, and she scrunched her face into her pillow and wept. Great sobs wracked her body, and her tears wet the pillow beneath her head. She cried for what she’d lost—that perfect picture of her parents that she’d held all her life. She saw them now for who they truly were: two people led by avarice and intent upon cementing their good standing, no matter the cost.
How was she to escape this? She could run away. She could go now and get as far away as possible. But with no money, and no help, she knew that it wouldn’t be long before they caught up to her.
The warm tears continued to flow as she cried, but suddenly, Susan felt a strange sense of certainty flow over her. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath, pushing back the covers of the bed as she got up and walked toward the window. Moving the curtain, she looked down at the garden outside. The same garden she’d fled to that afternoon.
The sound of the fountain reached Susan’s ears. She’d always loved it. The lyrical sound of the water splashing soothed her and she had often sat on the bench beside it and lost herself in her thoughts. But tonight, the fountain held no peace. It was just another ornament in a life that favored appearances over love.
Genevieve will know what to do.
The thought came to her suddenly and Susan sighed in relief. Genevieve Fletcher. They’d been best friends for years. She would go to Genevieve tomorrow and together they would figure this out. She stepped back from the window and walked back to her bed, shifting herself into place as she pulled up the covers. Her breathing slowly returned to normal and she closed her eyes, hoping for the safety of sleep.
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