End of the Engagement, p.1
"End of the Engagement"
A Prequel Short Story
By Meredith Acker
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
"End of the Engagement": (c) 2016 by Meredith Acker
Cover design (c) Meredith Acker
Digital Edition 1.0
All rights reserved.
Miss Pierce's Protégées
Short Story Prequel: "End of the Engagement"
Book 1: Planning on Passion
Book 2: Depths of Desire (June 2016)
Book 3: Ardent After All (Forthcoming 2016)
Novella 3.5: Seduction by a Stranger (Forthcoming 2016)
Book 4: Lessons in Love (Forthcoming 2016)
Table of Contents
End of the Engagement
Thanks for Reading!
Other Works by Meredith Acker
New York City, 1860.
Harriet closed the door quietly behind her as she slipped away into the dark street. Only a few years ago, sneaking out like this would have been impossible—the family’s servants would have questioned her actions or stopped her with only a look. Fleetingly she thought that she would never have anticipated this happy consequence of her family’s loss of fortune; now they had only a day maid, and no one noticed her absence.
She met William in a dark bar, hood pulled tightly around her face. The other patrons studied her shamelessly, and Harriet fidgeted, hoping William would arrive soon.
When he finally arrived, she wanted to kiss his face in relief… or maybe, she admitted to herself, the urge was due to something other than relief. She did lay her hands on the table, palms facing him, and was relieved when he reached out and grasped them, his expression softening at the sight of her.
“Miss Pierce,” he said softly. Her heart fluttered a little at the way he seemed to savor her name. “Did you have any difficulty in getting away?”
“‘Harriet’,” she insisted.
“Harriet,” he repeated. She knew, then, that he had come here to say the words she’d hoped he would say.
She shook her head, delaying the moment; now that she faced it, she was suddenly nervous. “It was simple,” she said. “No one suspected, so no one was watching for me to leave.”
He grinned. “What do you think your parents would think, if they knew you were sneaking out to meet with me?”
Harriet flushed. “They would probably be pleased,” she admitted. “I know my father has great respect for you. If you went to him…” She trailed off, uncertain what to say. It was at William’s insistence that they kept their meetings secret. The implication was that his father would not be pleased to know of his son’s connection with her.
William frowned slightly, an indication that he knew what she was thinking—but perhaps didn’t want to agree aloud. Whatever he might have said was interrupted as a barmaid came to their table. William ordered ale for both of them, not relinquishing her hands as he did so. He turned back to her, looking nervous.
“Harriet,” he said again, more loudly this time. He gave her hands a squeeze. “I want you to be my wife. But I fear my family will need persuasion. Will you agree to a secret engagement, for now?”
“Yes!” Harriet exclaimed, her heart seeming to leap within her. “William, I don’t care about your family—I’ll do whatever is required to be with you—” She stumbled over her own words as she tried to assure him of her devotion.
William pressed his lips to the back of her hand, and then they both jumped, separating, as the barmaid brought their drinks back to the table. They exchanged nervous smiles as she walked away again.
“How long will we have to wait before we can marry?” Harriet asked, trying to sound reasonable and not pleading.
“I don’t know,” William said somberly. “I hope it won’t take long to bring my family around. Until then—” He leaned towards her. “We’ll have the secret to give us sustenance.”
He walked her to the street outside her father’s house. To Harriet, William had always seemed to stand out from everyone and everything around him with a special glow; tonight, watching his bold stroll down the street, she reflected on the fact that here, he truly did stand out. Harriet’s family was comfortable, if not to the level that they’d been before, but even before her father’s financial difficulties, they would have been blown away by William’s riches.
He, it seemed, was once again following her own line of thought. “How I long for the day when I can take you away from this place,” he said quietly, pausing outside her father’s humble home.
“So do I,” Harriet responded fervently.
William nodded, and then he swiftly leaned over and planted his lips against hers. They were dry, and his was clammy in the chill of the summer night—but it was the most thrilling sensation she could imagine, nonetheless.
He stepped away and the breeze that filled the space he’d been in made Harriet shiver. “There’s something I want you to have,” he said. “Even if you can’t wear it yet.”
He slipped something cold into her hand and then retreated. “William—” she called, stepping one step down, but he didn’t turn around. She shivered again, and decided that, as she wasn’t going to chase after him, she might as well go inside.
It wasn’t until she was safely ensconced again in her room that she unfolded her fingers to see the token he had given her: a bright, delicate gold ring. She rolled it around in her palm, watching it glint in the lamp light, and daydreamed of the day when it could encircle her finger, sparking in the sunlight instead.
* * *
William woke the next day feeling like he was floating on air. From the moment he’d first met Harriet Pierce, he’d been unable to get her out of his head. Now, at last, she was his.
At least… She would be soon. A cloud settled over his thoughts as he contemplated the task of getting his father to agree to his marriage.
He knew his father had met Harriet before—and more to the point, he’d met Harriet’s father, whom he disliked intensely. The truth was that William himself also disliked Harriet’s father, but it was irrelevant to his feelings towards his betrothed herself.
His fears came to pass when he went downstairs for breakfast. His father, who had usually retreated to his office by the time William emerged for his meal, was standing by the window and sipping from his cup of coffee.
“Father,” William said tonelessly, hoping to avoid sanction by speaking up promptly, and disguising his surprise.
His father turned. “William,” he said heartily—never a good sign. “Good morning. I come bearing an invitation for your consideration.”
“An invitation?” William repeated.
His father made an impatient motion. Don’t repeat, his father’s voice scolded him in his head, and William cringed. Fortunately, it seemed whatever was causing his impatience today distracted him from criticism. “A gentleman of my acquaintance has come to New York to do business, and brought his daughter. We’re going to a party tonight that they will be attending, and I expect you to be polite to his daughter. Anything that will strengthen our relationship with that family is to be pursued.”
“Strengthen your relationship?” William said, and cringed again when his father frowned. “Are you expecting me to marry this girl?”
His father raised an eyebrow, and William felt ashamed at questioning his father’s motives. Maybe his own impending (he hoped) wedding had put marriage on his mind. “Just be polite,
“Of course not, Father,” William murmured, and spooned food onto his plate.
The party was hosted by a man of his father’s acquaintance—and was clearly irrelevant to his father’s schemes. The location didn’t matter; all his father cared about was wooing this man, this visitor from the south. William watched him warily. A potential investor? A potential blackmailer? He wouldn’t put either past his father.
He was introduced to Mr. Bennett Heyward, and shook his hand firmly. “A pleasure, Mr. Heyward,” William said, and turned his attention to the young woman standing at his side.
She was lovely, so lovely that he was taken aback in surprise. His father’s mouth curve in a satisfied smile as he took in William’s reaction, and knew that his suspicions about his father’s intentions were correct. But at least the duty of keeping this girl entertained would not be an onerous one.
He took her hand and bowed over it. “William Dumire,” he said, wishing his voice had not cracked just the slightest bit.
“Miss Heyward,” she said, and then giggled. “Lavinia.”
“Then you must call me William,” he responded instantly.
“Why don’t you two young people find something more interesting to do than listening in on our business?” Mr. Heyward suggested firmly, turning to William’s father without waiting for an answer. Their voices went low, and William strained to hear what they were speaking of, but his efforts were in vain. Giving in to necessity, he escorted Lavinia away from the pair and towards the buffet, where drinks were being served.
“I only heard of you and your father this morning,” he admitted. “Where do you come from?”
“We own a plantation in South Carolina,” she answered with a soft southern lilt.
The words sent a jolt through William. Anyone who followed the news knew that war was coming to the south, and sooner rather than later. Enough of the nation’s citizens had turned against the scourge of slavery to make it inevitable. Was this related to what Heyward and his father were discussing? It was a troubling thought. He studied Lavinia’s golden curls and his stomach twisted at the thought of this delicate creature stranded amongst battles and bulwarks. He thought, briefly, of asking her what the atmosphere was where she lived…
“I’ve never been to South Carolina,” he commented instead. “What is it like?”
She smiled big and bold, showing her teeth and cracking her façade in a way that would be frowned upon in New York society. William, though, was charmed by it.
“I had thought that the southern states were hot, but at least at home, you can find a bit of breeze to give you relief. In the city, it’s so crowded that the heat seems magnified tenfold.”
“Have you visited Central Park yet?” he asked.
“No,” she said, her lips curving up mischievously. “Maybe you would be so kind as to give me a tour.”
“It would be my pleasure,” William responded automatically. Then he felt immediate guilt; here he was, flirting with a beautiful stranger, when Harriet was probably at home, being faithful and loyal. He should be trying to extract himself from Lavinia’s presence, not agreeing to spend more time with her.
But she was pleasant enough company, so far, and a stranger to the city—and his father had asked it of him. He excused himself for the lapse; he couldn’t, after all, be seen with Harriet in public, so it was not precious time with her he would be sacrificing. Indeed, a jaunt in the park with Lavinia would not only allow him to escape his father for a few hours, but it would also put his father in a more accommodating mood, for when William told him their plan.
“Shall I describe to you some of the points of interest you’ll see, or do you prefer to be surprised?” he said, putting thoughts of Harriet out of his mind.
“Oh, surprised, please!” Lavinia responded earnestly. He tucked her hand under his arm and led her towards the corner, where he saw a few of his acquaintances loitering. From across the room, he saw his father watching him with approval as he introduced her to them.
* * *
Harriet had never been to the Dumire mansion before. It loomed above her larger than physical size could explain; it represented all the differences between herself and William, the differences that had the potential to tear them apart forever.
She approached the front door nervously. Her knock seemed to echo throughout the street, though in reality, it was soft enough that no one came immediately to answer it, and she had to knock again.
She wished she could simply send a note, but William had told her his father might go through his mail; their previous assignations had been arranged by notes he’d sent to her. She had neither seen nor heard from him in more than two weeks, and was growing desperate—and worried. Had something happened to him? Or had he (the fear took up residence in her mind) forgotten about her, or changed his mind? She fingered the gold ring that felt heavy in her dress pocket.
The door finally swung open, and Harriet jumped back. An impeccably-dressed butler peered at her suspiciously.
“I’m—I’m looking for Mr. Dumire,” she stuttered. “The younger Mr. Dumire. Is he at home to visitors?”
The butler studied her for a moment longer before responding. “I will inquire. Who may I say is asking for him?”
“Tell him it’s—” Harriet paused. “Harriet. Just Harriet.” Her given name alone would likely inspire suspicion, but not nearly as specific as it would be if someone overheard her family name. A gamble that she desperately hoped was the correct one.
She could hear her heartbeat echoing in her ears as she waited for the butler to return. She scanned the lawn around her—a rose garden was blooming immaculately to the right, where it curved around the side of the mansion. Behind it grew hedges and an assortment of young trees. As she looked at them, she thought she heard laughter coming from the side of the house and, curious, she began walking in that direction.
The source of the laughter was a beautiful young woman with hair that shone as brightly in the sunlight as the ring she clutched in her pocket. She was leaning over the bed of roses and smelling one particularly bright flower; her pale, embroidered dress looked as though it had been created for this scene, and Harriet immediately felt self-conscious of her plain apparel. Next to this woman, she could never gain the advantage.
A man stood behind the woman, his face obscured by her figure. She held his hand as she turned away from the flower to face him and spoke. Harriet had almost turned away from them again when the young woman shifted her position enough that she could make out the features on the man’s face—
William. Harriet gasped, and a moment later the couple had turned to face her. The woman looked no more than innocently quizzical, but William’s face went pale and he immediately dropped the young woman’s hand.
Harriet had taken a step back, but before she could flee, William strode over to her. He paused hesitantly a few paces away; he did not gather her in his arms, as he had a few times before, nor did he take her hand or even speak.
“I’ll wait for you inside, Willie,” the young woman called, her tone restrained. Harriet might have felt better had there been a note of triumph in it, but it seemed that she didn’t even see Harriet as competition for William’s affections.
“Harriet,” William said, finally. “It’s nothing—she’s only the daughter of a friend of my father’s.” He reached out for her, but let his hand drop before it touched her.
Harriet nodded numbly. “You haven’t written to me in weeks,” she whispered. He grimaced.
“I’ve been caught up in my father’s business. Please forgive me, beloved.” His expression softened with affection, guilt disappearing, and Harriet thought that perhaps she might have been mistaken—perhaps she truly had misread an innocent situation. Then why did he hold her hand, but not yours?
“Of course I forgive you,” she said. “But w
He was silent for a moment. “Can you get away the evening of Tuesday next? We can meet in the same place as last time. I may not be able to spare much time, but—we could at least see each other.”
“I can,” she agreed eagerly.
“Until then,” he said, and started to turn away from her, then hesitated.
“Will you not even kiss me before you go?” she said in a low voice. Without responding, but with an agonized sound, he moved towards her and embraced her. Harriet felt all of her doubts disappearing as their mouths met.
The sound of footfalls behind them disturbed their reverie. She whirled to see the butler who had answered the door staring at them, his expression disapproving. William stepped back, straightening his posture. “I was just coming inside,” he said vaguely.
Harriet fled, her face burning, and tried not to think what the butler must think of her.
* * *
William knew it was bad news when his father called him into his study. He had hoped that Reynolds might chalk the scene in the garden up to philandering, rather than a true attachment, and as such beneath his father’s notice. He should have known that was unrealistically optimistic; his father liked to know everything that went on in his household, savory or otherwise.
William braced himself for the disdain on his father’s face to be reflected in his speech. He was surprised, then, when his father’s first words had nothing to do with Harriet.
“I appreciate the time you’ve been spending with Miss Heyward.”
“Lavinia is a pleasant companion,” William said cautiously. “It’s been no hardship to show her around New York.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” His father gestured to the seat across from him at his desk, and William took a seat, still hesitant. “My negotiations with her father have been going relatively well, though it would be useful to smooth the way further. I’d like to ask something of you, to facilitate that.”
“I’m happy to do anything that helps you, Father.”