Chapter One (Part 1)
WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY: 1888
The magician stood unmoving as a statue, his hand raised and concealed with a silken handkerchief. The crowd watched with rapt attention, a hush overcoming them all. "Oooh! Ahhh!” they cheered as he whipped the handkerchief from his hand to reveal a snow-white pigeon.
Stuffing his hands in his pockets, John Baldwin shifted from foot to foot. Attending a foul smelling, congested state fair was bad enough; feigning interest in an overly dramatic illusionist before proposing to Caroline Hubbard felt like agony. But magic and lantern shows were her favorite, and whatever she liked, he liked. At least that’s what he’d told himself over the past few weeks.
He stole a glance at the angel standing beside him, her buttery-blonde ringlets spilling across petite shoulders, enormous hazel eyes glued to the stage with intrigue. She was beautiful, and she was one of his closest friends—but he wasn’t ready for this type of commitment. Unfortunately, he no longer had a choice in the matter.
An absurd blast of sparks and smoke returned John to the moment. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the magician announced, “for my final act, I’ll need a brave volunteer from the audience.”
John pulled the brim of his bowler downward as Caroline, her Aunt Felicity, and most of the crowd thrusted their hands eagerly into the air. Judge Brockmire’s voluptuous wife was chosen as the lucky victim. Maybe the magician would make the eighty pounds of gemstones adorning her neck disappear into his pockets—now that would be entertaining. But alas, no such luck. The show ended with a predictable levitation trick.
The crowd dispersed quickly, shuffling towards tents, games, food stands, and any other entertainment the fairgrounds had to offer. A group of young ladies made shy glances in John’s direction as they passed. When he smiled, they giggled and whispered to one another, quickening their steps. Caroline’s aunt mentioned something about the cake contest, but John couldn’t focus on her chirpy voice—not with the imaginary clock pounding down the seconds of his dwindling future inside his ears.
No more reckless behavior. Father had threatened to permanently cut John’s funds if he didn’t settle down by the end of the year. And after that last bill had arrived from the carriage repair shop, seemed the old man meant it this time. John hadn’t meant to steer off the road and into a lamppost. He also hadn’t planned on getting too drunk to drive at Michael Talbot’s stag party. Damned drinking games.
“Oh, Auntie, how I’ve missed Clark’s Fair, and how we used to go together every year until we moved away.” Caroline opened her pink parasol and gave it a twirl over her shoulder. Bright-eyed, she marveled at the colorful, bustling attractions surrounding them. “It appears to have grown quite a bit over the years.”
“I have the fondest memories of you and your sisters skipping around in your bonnets, holding candied apples,” replied aunt Felicity in a warm voice. “And now look at you. Three grown nieces I have the privilege of calling my friends.” She turned to John. “Didn’t your family join us at the fair that last summer, John? Before the girls moved to Iowa?”
He smiled through tightly closed lips. “We certainly did, though I shamefully recall running off to the livestock tent to join my friends. I was at the age where being spotted in public with one’s parents led to embarrassment—”
“The livestock!” Caroline’s outburst made him flinch. “Let’s go there now, shall we? I propose we name the chickens and see whoever comes up with the most ridiculous one, like Colonel Red Crest, or Reginald Upper Crust the Third.”
John choked out a laugh. Caroline Hubbard certainly was a breath of fresh air among clouds of toxic perfume. Her chaste, innocent nature never affected her sense of humor. God, he could no longer handle the anticipation. If he didn’t propose now, he’d explode.
If only there were a romantic spot to do so. Too many people milled about, gorging themselves on carnival food, kicking up clouds of dirt, and attempting to reign in their rambunctious children. Then he noticed the entrance to Briar Rose’s Garden just off to the left—a temporary botanical display with weaving paths and a white gazebo. Romantic enough.
He adjusted his yellow necktie and cleared his throat. “I’d love nothing more than to name a fat hen Bertha Crumpleton, but the roses look particularly lovely at this hour in the day.” He grinned at Caroline’s aunt. “Don’t you agree, Mrs. Williams?”
“Hmm, quite charming indeed.” The handsome older woman studied him, pursing her lips and fluttering her fan across her impressive bosom.
Caroline arched a fine, blonde eyebrow. “The lady wants to see the livestock, and the gentleman wants to stroll among the roses. Something about that feels a bit backward, doesn’t it?”
He offered an arm to each woman. “I like backward. It keeps things interesting.”
They strolled into the makeshift garden, joining the handful of lovers scattered along the paths. The sweet, almost sickly smell cut through the acrid scent of the fair, and he found himself wondering which fragrance was worse. Aunt Felicity recognized a couple farther ahead and hurried off to greet them—a fortuitous turn of events—granting John the only privacy he might get. Releasing his arm, Caroline tiptoed from bush to bush, touching the roses and smelling each bloom as if it held a different scent than the previous one.
“I’m so glad Clark’s fair came early this summer,” she said, returning happily to his side. “My last day in New York will certainly be a memorable one, thanks to you and Aunt Felicity. I cannot believe how quickly two months have gone by, can you?” She squeezed the crook of his arm. “I trust you will continue to write to me often, because if you don’t, I’ll have half a mind to—”
“Marry me,” he blurted. Dammit, that wasn’t how he intended to say it at all.
She stared. “I beg your pardon?”
He released the breath he’d been holding. “Marry me, Caroline?” Three words this time. But why was it a question? This couldn’t count as progress.
A perplexed, almost amused look washed over her face. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am very serious.”
“John Baldwin, you must be out of your gourd!” As if suddenly remembering they were in public, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “Marry you? For years, all you’ve written about is boycotting domestication and living the uncharted life of a bachelor. Since when do you want to be married?”
Damn—why did she have to know him so well?
Glancing around, he took her gloved hand and led her to the gazebo. “People can change their minds, can’t they? You can’t tell me you’ve felt nothing between us, not after all we’ve shared this summer. I can give you a future, Liney.”
“A future of more wealth, twice the amount of social obligations, and a handful of spoiled, bratty children?” She gave a lighthearted shrug. “A lot of men could. What makes you any different?”
“Our written correspondence, for one.” His eyes darted to her oblivious aunt. “Liney, I’m certain you know me better than any other man because of it—”
“Tell me, John, what would my family think if they found out I’d spent my last summer as an innocent cavorting with you? Or that we’ve shared hundreds of letters since I was a child? I turn nineteen next month. My parents have arranged a week-long party in honor of my coming out, and every bachelor in Iowa will be there.”
He raised an eyebrow. “A party? You hate parties.”
“I know.” She rolled her eyes. “My father is trying to gain as much local support as he can before his campaign for the governorship. It is simply one of those things I must grit my teeth and bear.” She looked up at him in a pitiful way, as if he were an old childhood toy she planned to dispose of. “Please, don’t think I’m not flattered by your proposal, Johnny. In fact, I sort of expected it. When I first wrote you ten years ago, chiding you for destroying my sister’s happiness, I never would have expected gaining a dear friend out of it. I care about you deeply…” she blushed, “more than a girl should care about a boy before she’s of proper age. But after tomorrow, you must compete for my hand just like everyone else.”
Compete? Surely, he was losing his hearing. This couldn’t be happening. No woman had denied him before, yet somehow, this virginal, nineteen-year-old debutante didn’t desire him.
He placed his hands on his hips, ignoring the bite of rejection. How strange it felt.
“And yes, I do know you better than any other man,” she added, pulling him out of his cloud of frustration. “I’ve known you since I was born… but, that doesn’t mean you’re the man with whom I imagine sharing the rest of my life.” Leaning against a gazebo post, she sighed. “John Baldwin, you’re witty, dangerously handsome, and the kindest soul I’ve ever met, but I fear you don’t take life seriously.”
He opened his mouth to laugh, but she stopped him with a raised palm.
“May I be direct?”
“By all means.” He couldn’t wait to hear this.
Just then, a lone gentleman entered the gazebo, eating from a bag of roasted almonds, invading their private moment. John stepped aside, allowing the man to pass. A minute later, they were alone again.
Caroline made a glance over each shoulder before speaking. “You’re twenty-seven years old and still living beneath your father’s roof. Your daily activities consist of gallivanting with your friends, indulging in luxurious purchases, travelling the coast, and avoiding all forms of responsibility.”
“I believe that is called privilege—”
“And that’s fine if it suits you,” she whispered, her words clipped and short. “But just because I was born into an identical situation doesn’t mean I don’t want something different. I’d rather be a spinster with twenty cats than marry a man who will grow bored with me in a few months and stray.”
Damn his lewd reputation as a bachelor. Even if he did grow bored, John would never be unfaithful to a wife. The Baldwin men respected the sanctity of marriage. The last time he’d given his heart to a woman, well, he would have died for her. He nearly did.
Taking in their surroundings, she shook her head. “Did you even plan any of this? Judging by your choice to propose in a makeshift fair garden behind my aunt’s back, I’m guessing no.” She plucked a freshly fallen petal from the ground, one that matched the pink in her cheeks. “You don’t take anything seriously, including me.”
That was not true.
“I’ll admit my words and choice of location were ill prepared.” He folded his arms across his chest, glancing at the sun to cover his frustration. “But Liney, give me a chance and I’ll prove my devotion. Throw the stick, and I’ll fetch.”
Christ, was he groveling?
“Friendship is one thing, but marriage is another beast entirely.” Taking his hand and turning it upward, she placed the petal into his palm, and closed his fingers around it. “That said, if you care enough to prove yourself to me, then I cannot rob you of the opportunity. Come to Des Moines. The party begins on September twelfth.”
“To ‘compete’ for you?”
She shot him a wry look. “I must be very picky, John. I’ve witnessed the submission and neglect my sisters have endured with their husbands, and I refuse to join their ranks. I want to maintain ownership of my mind and not have to lock my opinions away for the sake of a man’s pride. I’m worth far more than an obedient wife.”
Recovering from the initial shock, he considered her words. Caroline had always possessed an independent spirit, and he respected her for that, but he’d never really heard her articulate it until now. “Who said I wanted an obedient wife?” he asked. “I promise to embrace your whims wholeheartedly. You had once said you wanted to travel the world. I love to travel.”
“Yes, I know.” She smacked his shoulder lightly. “So, will you come?”
A tightness centered in his chest. Not heartbreak, but disappointment. He hadn’t anticipated it going this way, but what choice did he have? “If I do, you will give me a fair and ample amount of your time? I’ll need your attention if I’m to prove myself.”
“I promise,” she said, her voice sweet with earnest.
He shrugged off the lingering bite of defeat; her friendship meant too much to lose to sour behavior. Besides, a week away from home and Father’s reprimanding lectures sounded grand. “You’re really going to make me travel to a landlocked state in the middle of the country?”
“If you deem me worth it, yes.” They shared in a smile, and she took hold of his arm as they continued their lazy stroll. “A state without a coastline isn’t as bad as you think. Besides, you’ll be too busy engaging in the festivities to notice—just be sure to avoid Nellie.”
He eyed her askance. “You sister still hates me?”
“Can you blame her after what you did?”
“It’s been nearly a decade.”
“Time matters not when it comes to a woman’s delicate heart.”
Delicate? John scowled as the memory of Eleanora Hubbard assaulted him. That little spitfire was about as delicate as a bee sting. Two years his senior, she’d teased him mercilessly while growing up in Harrison. One day, when John had “borrowed” his father’s bottle of twenty-year-old brandy to impress his friends, Nell had ratted him out. For three weeks straight, he wasn’t allowed to leave the house.
“Come now,” he said lightly. “She’s a married woman with children.”
“Widowed,” Caroline corrected, giving him a nudge with her elbow. “Her late husband was a tin soldier. Had she simply married your brother Teddy as intended, she might have had a much happier life. But you made sure that didn’t happen.”
He snorted. “I did them a favor. Both would have been miserable.”
“Regardless, I don’t know how she would react to seeing you, John.”
“Then I’ll avoid her, as you suggested.” And he would happily do so. Securing Caroline’s affection outweighed the risk of unearthing some old grudge with her sister. Nell had been all wrong for Teddy anyway, clinging to his arm like a parasite at parties, her little up-turned nose in the air, parading him around like some sort of prized trophy.
“She’s been spying on the local bachelors for weeks,” Caroline said with a sigh. “My sister only has the best intentions, bless her, but it feels a bit too much. I suppose weeding through my prospects gives her a sense of purpose in an otherwise dull life.”
John grinned, trying not to let his reaction show. Typical, loony Nell. At least she was doing him a favor. “Perhaps I should grow a mustache as a disguise, just in case.”
“I’d imagine you’d look quite handsome with one. Older, too.” Caroline smiled up at him. “So, does this mean you are coming?”
He breathed in slowly and expelled a long, heavy sigh. If marriage was nailed to the table, Caroline would certainly come closest to keeping him sane as a wife. She was heaven to look at, poked fun at society, laughed at his terrible jokes, and practically felt like family.
Who else had spent an entire summer with her? The competition didn’t stand a chance. He’d make sure of it. Yes, some pride still remained along the border of the blow. “You win, little Liney. I humbly accept your invitation.”