Julia was home — and widowed yet again as well. Three husbands and each one had died in a manner that left the physician shaking his head, both in amazement and disgust. She had not killed them in the usual sense of the word — and at least they had gone to their reward quite pleased, each with a sickening smile on their lips. Julia had played the dutiful widow; worn black as was expected; wept at the grand funerals of each, then read with pleasure how the press perceived her — so innocent, so pure, such great beauty withstanding all the sorrow. She, as always, would survive, and she had, returning to her family’s estate with more wealth than before, with a trail of new suitors following in her wake as well as her third husband’s sister — a tall, lovely redhead from one of the distant continents.
“You will have a marvelous time,” Julia had declared as she encouraged Nicole to return with her for an extended holiday. “My father has always kept a wonderful house and…well…I think…I am quite certain…you would find him a most charming man, even at his age….You…would not find an older man distasteful, would you?”
Nicole had simply smiled and upon meeting the elder Benjamin, made him feel he was in love again, especially when she serenaded him with one of the seemingly numerous love songs that she knew. She also quickly learned to treat Belle as her siblings did, and — when she, Julia and Gwyneth were alone — they plotted and schemed regarding getting the youngest girl out of their way.
“Not that we have anything to fear from her,” Gwyneth had told them one evening as they sat before the drawing room fire, waiting until Belle had served their tea and departed for her own chamber. “Never once have you seen anyone appear at this house in search of her.”
Julia nearly snorted, burying her face in her handkerchief before a laugh she could not rid herself of — one that combined that of a hyena and a neighing horse — emerged and embarrassed her before her dearest sister-in-law. “I have no idea why they would. Look at her! One could hardly imagine that she is a member of our family.”
A smirk came to Nicole’s lips. There were things about Belle that her sisters obviously overlooked, likely purposefully, but she could see them and if the girl had known how to use them, she could be the most influential of all. Fortunately for me…she does not…. Realizing that Gwyneth and Julia were awaiting her wisdom, she took a sip from the white china cup and sweetly replied, “Indeed…I would not have thought so. She is incredibly unlike any of you. I have even seen the portraits of your dear late mother and there is barely a resemblance there…let alone to your dearest, precious father whom I admire so much.”
“I believe she bears some similarity to our maternal grandmother,” Gwyneth explained. “We have paintings of her tucked away…oh…” She waved her elegant hand to one side. “Somewhere in the house.” She glanced about to make certain they were the only ones who could hear her. “Isabelle is so…We simply wish we were rid of her.”
“Is she not even a decent serving girl for you then?” Nicole inquired. “On those occasions when your wonderful father is not present?”
Julia sighed and shook her head in frustration. “She is utterly hopeless, Nicole, utterly hopeless. We have told her and told her that as her elder sisters she has no right to speak back to us the way she does….”
“Or to hold such lofty ideas. She believes, because she has read more books than we or knows who is king of what and president of this-and-that, and cares nothing for the more important things in life…”
“Such as which of our social status are marrying another…”
“Or marrying far beneath them.”
“Or what is the most fashionable or the most popular. Did it matter to her when our sweet dear Benjamin was so devastated over losing that woman?!”
“That woman who broke his heart as she has broken so many others. The witch.”
“Indeed,” Nicole agreed. “Her weddings barely appear in the newspapers before she is pleading to the courts for a divorce…”
“Or an annulment,” Julia chimed. “She would have destroyed our beloved little brother as she has the others.”
“So Isabelle is…unconcerned with things that are important to both of you?”
“And to Benjamin as well. The nerve of her,” Gwyneth whined, “to scold him and demand that he behave like a real man and quit sniveling like a child. She had no right.”
“No right at all. His heart was wounded – wounded beyond repair and Belle behaved as though it meant nothing.”
“She has always thought that she was superior to us and she’s simply a child herself. A silly, selfish, ugly child. She is ugly don’t you think, Nicole?”
“Well…” It was time to be diplomatic. “She is not quite…ugly…but she does not equal either of you in beauty.”
“Or you,” Julia complimented her sister-in-law and the threesome beamed. After all, they had — on separate occasions — been chosen as the three most beautiful in the kingdom, if not the world, and Benjamin the most handsome. Isabelle’s name was never mentioned — in fact, it was as though she did not exist for her siblings never chose to make her known.
“And is it true that she has never been introduced into society?”
Gwyneth giggled. “Why would we give her a debut into fine society when she has no comprehension of it? It would be a waste, a complete waste for Father to even encourage such a thing. Oh he’s hinted, hasn’t he, Julia?”
“As some…dying wish to our mother to make certain each of us had the Season we deserved, but Belle…It would be ridiculous to give her such a thing, and I’ve told Father as much. He still says that he will, especially now that she is nineteen, but – as I explained once more when he mentioned the matter just the other day – ‘Isabelle is actually at a point in her life when she is too old to have such a privilege. Better to marry her off and be done with it, while we can find a man to take her.'”
“Although I am not certain who we would saddle with such misfortune. She will be handful for the man she weds. The dowry will be the only thing to maintain his interest.”
“I…” Nicole began, but then she paused as though to increase the anticipation, watching as her two worshipers sat forward, the eagerness on their faces.
“You…?” they asked simultaneously.
“I was only thinking…that perhaps…I know of someone who might find Isabelle interesting enough that he would…”
“Do we know him?”
“Is he a friend then?”
Nicole shrugged her white shoulders and sighed knowingly. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Julia nudged Gwyneth, who was sitting beside her on the sofa. “What did I tell you? Isn’t she the most marvelous thing? You can see why I brought her to meet Father.”
“Father is completely delighted by you.”
“You think?” Nicole’s eyelashes fluttered in the manner known to leave most men devastated.
“He has not ceased to speak of you,” Gwyneth informed her. “I think he is honestly bashful about making a closer acquaintance with you, like a schoolboy when one thinks about it, which is so sweet, but…we should not mind…having you both as a sister…”
“And…a dear friend in our home. We…”
“I AM APPALLED! APPALLED! ASHAMED! I HAVE NO DESIRE TO CALL YOU MY SON ANY LONGER!“
The three women carefully set down their china, their mouths dropping in surprise at the sound of the elder Benjamin’s voice. The footsteps drew closer, as did the voices.
“There are no excuses! I have coddled you long enough, permitted you to have your way in matters, but no longer! This is the end. The end I tell you!”
Moments later, the Father stomped into the room, closely followed by his son, who wore a hangdog expression upon his slightly long features.
“Ladies – please excuse the interruption,” the older man said as he bowed slightly and moved towards the fireplace to warm himself, “but you would have heard it all at any rate. Every servant in the house has heard it. Everyone in the town – from my contemporaries down to the beggar in the street has heard the news as well! Everyone in England will have heard it – BUT ME! I am the last to hear of this…disaster. And from whom? From one of those blighters that write for the social rags. Do you even comprehend how that made me feel, Benjamin? Can you even imagine the hurt you placed upon me, in addition to the surprise of learning that the engagement between you and Lady Jennifer was at an end?”
“I asked you not to make the arrangements,” the young man sniveled.
“You begged me to make them! She was the one for you, you declared. Remember?!” And the merchant rammed a finger into his son’s chest. “You would die rather than be without her! Remember?! And do not lie to me about you being the one to end the betrothal! I have spoken to Her Ladyship – and she was appalled, appalled to learn that you were gambling…”
“And womanizing a month before the day of your wedding. Of course she would end the relationship!”
“It is not as you think, Father,” Benjamin attempted to explain, glancing at his sisters and their friend as though to encourage them to come to his defense. “There is a very good reason for all of this and if you would calm down enough to…”
“Father…it is not all Benjamin’s fault,” Julia soothingly said, easing to her father’s side. “The Lady Jennifer has not always had the most innocent of reputations, but gentlemen seem to find her…” She paused, trying to think how to say the next words.
“They seem to find her assets…” Gwyneth tried to continue.
“She has deceived all of you, I think,” Nicole added, also standing and approaching the patriarch, the coyness of her walk proving an enticing distraction. “This is clearly her way of not accepting her obligations to marry your extremely kind and dutiful son of whom I think the world.”
“I am kind and dutiful, Father, you know that.” But when Ben saw the scowl from his father, he decided that perhaps he had said more than enough.
The elder Benjamin snorted and was about to let loose with yet another tirade, when he glanced towards the entrance and the open double doors to find that Isabelle was standing there. Taking a deep breath, he ran a hand through his hair and muttered, “Kind and dutiful, eh? Benjamin…you’ve hurt me for the final time son, you truly have….Belle – come in, come in my dear…although you shall find your parent in a foul mood indeed.”
“Father?” Lifting her skirts ever slightly, she hurried across the hardwood floor and stood before her father, ignoring her siblings and their particular guest. “I didn’t realize you were home until I heard…What happened?” She linked arms with him and assisted in guiding him to the most comfortable chair nearest the hearth. Once there, she helped him in sitting down, realizing only then that he looked much older than she remembered when he had left on business two weeks before. Kneeling just beside the chair, she took his hand and softly said, “Father?”
“Besides Benjamin destroying an opportunity at carrying on our family’s name and proving himself deserving of being my heir…”
“She had been married twice before, Father and those did not last…” came the son’s defense yet again.
“And proving himself of being my heir,” the merchant continued without missing a beat, “I learn of the news by the most sordid of means and….Belle…did you know this already? About Ben and the Lady Jennifer?”
Sighing, Isabelle looked up at her brother, but on seeing the coldness in his eyes, she glanced away. “We had all heard the news, Father…while you were away and there was no way to get word to you of what had happened. I’m sorry.”
“This…in addition to all else…” he mumbled, running a hand over his face.
“In addition to all else?” Julia began, her eyebrows creasing. “Father…?”
“Perhaps…this would be a wise time for me to leave,” Nicole softly said, beginning to ease away from the small group. “I feel that you are about to discuss family matters that would be of no…”
The patriarch shook his head, raising his right hand to indicate she should not move. “No…no, Lady Nicole, no. You will hear of it at any rate and besides, I consider you as much a part of our family a I do my own flesh and blood. You shall remain, dear friend.”
Nicole returned to her place just to Gwyneth’s left.
“I am afraid…that we are at a crisis, my children.”
“What sort of…?”
“What do you mean, Father?”
“I mean that the reason I was so long in London is that….” He paused, the words catching in his throat, and swallowing hard he finally confessed: “The reason….Our ships….Our ships are lost.”
“Mon dieu,” Gwyneth whispered.
“Lost?” Julia barely managed as Gwyneth snatched at Nicole’s arm for comfort and Benjamin’s eyes grew wide. “What do you mean lost, Father?”
“Lost! Lost! What else could I possibly mean, Julia? They are lost! If ever a dark cloud hung over my business, it is now. The twelve ships sailing from the East…we’ve had word that they were not only attacked, presumably by pirates or some other mercenaries, but they then met with a storm of such magnitude that…I doubt any survived.”
“But how did you learn of this?” Benjamin finally managed.
“We received news from a small vessel that managed to escape. It only arrived in Portsmouth a few days ago, and…I had to stay in London…I had to stay so that we…so that we could consider all of our options.”
“So we are…destitute?” Julia softly asked, a sinking feeling in her throat. She was thinking of all her new suitors, for although the death of her three husbands had left her quite well-off, the scandal of her family’s ruin would hardly suit any future prospects.
“No, no, not destitute – not yet anyway. I have emergency funds set aside that should see us through for the time being.”
“But how long will that last?” questioned Gwyneth, for she – having never been married – was depending upon a fine dowry to catch her future husband. Beauty alone meant nothing when there was no endowment to sweeten the pot.
“It will last several months if we economize, wisely economize and watch ourselves until I can work matters through.”
But Benjamin was looking puzzled, shaking his head in a most incredulous manner. “Economize? Father! I have…”
“You have what, sir?”
“Uh…well…uh…debts and…and…and…needs…and…Surely…Father…with me being your heir…you might give me a larger portion than…Well…Julia is well taken care of because of my late brothers-in-law. Gwyneth can manage, can’t you, Gwyneth?”
“Anything for you dear brother.”
“And Isabelle needs little or nothing; she can deny herself those ridiculous books of hers or her sheet music or…”
“Enough! Enough damn you! You selfish…” He threw both hands in the air and exhaled to calm himself, especially upon feeling his youngest child’s eyes upon him. “This is the very reason why the Lady Jennifer has severed all relations with you and is now being courted by some other….”
“Sir Mark Anthony,” Julia whispered into Nicole’s ear, as the latter nodded in understanding.
“You will receive what I feel you have coming to you, Benjamin, and I will not take from your sisters – any of them – to pay your creditors, your gambling debts, and whatever predilections you might possess, normal and otherwise. Oh yes…I heard of you bouncing biscuits upon the bare torso of some….Never mind – never mind.” That was not something he should have mentioned in the company of ladies, but he was so angry with his son, who was showing more selfish tendencies than ever. “It is all over with and I am plagued enough by other concerns.” He sat back in his chair. “I could not hide this from you, my children for we are all affected by it and I hope we can find a way to compromise, for all our sakes, until the initial state of affairs has passed. Please tell me you understand why we must take these steps.”
“Of course they understand, Sir Benjamin,” Nicole interjected sympathetically. “They are your children after all. Your health and welfare matter above all things on Earth.”
The older man huffed as if disbelieving. “Yes…I would hope that, my lady.”
“And let me be the first to offer my assistance if necessary in helping you to rebuild.”
“I could never ask…”
“But sir…your daughter has been so very dear to me when she was married to my late brother, and your family has taken me into your house as though I was a close relation, so…it would be my way of showing what that means to me. Julia, Gwyneth and Benjamin…oh and you of course…mean all the world to me.”
“And Isabelle?” He looked down at the child whose head rested upon his lap, her reddish blonde hair cascading about her. No, she was no longer a child, but a young woman and he wondered what would happen to her now. If his businesses failed, she would have no dowry and he hated to think of what might become of her.
“Oh! Oh – and Isabelle too…naturally.” She tapped the girl on her back as if offering some affection towards her. “Dear, dear little thing. I think the world of her as well.”
“So what will happen with us now, Father?” Benjamin interrupted, hoping that the urgency in his voice had been missed for he was not prepared for another of his father’s tirades.
“What will happen is what I have already said, sir. We shall economize, much as I did many years ago before I married your mother and was attempting to make something of myself. The household budget must be reduced: no new clothing, new furnishings; more meals must be made of the food we have so I imagine more stews and such – Isabelle will know best.”
“Isabelle?” Julia nearly snapped, but bit her tongue.
“I shall explain to the servants about what is happening, although I imagine they know already – servants have a way of learning these things….And I’m afraid that for the time being, the parties and balls and teas must cease on our part.”
“But…” Benjamin had to speak up. “But…Father…I have already invited a number of my acquaintances to a masque I was planning. The invitations were sent a fortnight…”
“Then you must send your apologies and cancel.”
“Benjamin! Do you know understand the predicament we are…?”
“Father.” Everyone looked at Isabelle, who was now sitting up and quickly dabbing at her eyes.
“Let Benjamin have his celebration. I will find a way of making it as grand as he wishes and then…then we can economize afterwards. I would hate to deprive him of something he has set his heart upon and made such plans regarding. Let him have it, Father. It might be the last party we have for some time as it is. We all need the respite.”
Patting her cheek, the elder Benjamin nodded. “You may have your party then, Ben, but it must be the last…for now. Do you understand? Do all of you understand? Good – now…you may go…I…I have to think.”
The small group prepared to leave, but Nicole lingered momentarily to say a final word: “Remember Sir Benjamin…I am here for you, should you need a hand. Nothing would please me more than to help you dear sir,” and then she, too, was gone, leaving behind only Isabelle and her father.
“Oh Belle, Belle,” he said, collapsing in the chair once more, for he had stood while the ladies made their exit. “What are we to do?”
“We’ll do what we must. I’m not going to let us starve…or freeze…or anything else dramatic. As I promised, once Benjamin has had his masque we will become more serious about matters. That will give all of us time…”
“You mean give all of them time?”
Belle only grinned. “We’ll get by, Father.”
The patriarch chuckled. “So like your mother, eh, little one? She did teach you well….So…you are all right then, precious? The world is treating you decently when I am away?”
“As much as I can expect, sir.” She tried to brighten her smile, but even she could feel that it barely hid her hurt and anguish.
“Well, I know your sisters and brother don’t always…understand you, but you must be patient and hope they begin to make you their example. I know how good you are to them, even when they likely do not deserve your kindness.”
Her father could have no idea of what she often endured. He often laughed when she defended herself against their teasing, believing that she was quite strong enough to hold her own. But he had no idea of what occurred when he was not there; how even the servants complained that she was treated as if a subordinate in her own home. She could withstand their little taunts – but to be slapped or shaken or locked in her chamber with little or no food was entirely different.
“Are you hungry?” she asked him, hoping to change the subject.
“Famished, but I do not know if I can eat or not.”
“You’ll eat once I bring it to you, I’m certain,” she smiled. “A glass of wine…some Cheddar and bread…and meat….We have some cold roasted pork I could have sliced for you…and Mrs. Hathaway and I fixed some broth earlier and there is plenty leftover.”
Her father nodded his consent. “I imagine that whatever you bring me, Belle, will be just the thing.”
“I’ll be right back then,” she told him, but before she left, she stood tiptoe and gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek. “I’m glad you’re home, Father.”
“So am I, Belle – so am I.”
The moment she closed the double doors behind her and stepped into the hallway, Isabelle felt one wrist snatched in a tight grasp and gasping in shock, she emitted a small ‘mmph’ when she was heaved into the oaken finish of the wall to her side. Rubbing her shoulder and upper arm, she turned to find her siblings glaring at her, while Nicole said a quick “I’ll be in my apartment” and disappeared, obviously having no desire to witness what might happen.
“What did he tell you?” Benjamin sneered.
“What did he tell you?” her brother repeated.
“I said ‘nothing.’ He told me nothing.” Isabelle was trying hard to keep the tears out of her voice, but it was becoming impossible.
“Why do you persist in lying to us?” Julia growled, cupping the youngest’s face with one hand, right after slapping one side of her head as if to box her ears. “Father tells you everything. What did he say to you? Answer me, Belle! What did he say to you?”
“Our funds. He’s going to cut our funds, isn’t he?” Gwyneth yammered. “This was all an excuse to transform us into paupers.”
“I repeat – Father told me nothing other than what he has already said. He is worried, do you understand that? Worried for the future of all of us.” Isabelle felt a trickle ease from her brown eyes, and she blinked them quickly, hoping no one would notice.
“He should be more concerned about me. I am his heir – I have obligations. That’s what he’s always telling me right. ‘Benjamin,'” he mocked, “‘you have obligations to this family,’ and now he threatens to reduce my allowance, postpone my entertainments for my friends and me, and for what? So that our precious baby Isabelle can have another damn book. Well, be hanged you little bitch. I will not sacrifice a thing on your behalf.”
“I neither,” Gwyneth informed her. “Why should I after all? Why should any of us? You are nothing to this family, Isabelle. You are simply some extra little mouth to feed when you should never have existed at all. I blame Father and Mama for that.”
“She has been trouble since the day she was born, hasn’t she?” Julia said to no one in particular. “Always putting on airs.”
“Thinking she’s as good as you or me, sister.”
“Spying on us and reporting back to Father. Who told him about the…” She paused, not wishing to repeat a rumor which had spread throughout society. “Well, who told him that if not you.”
“I did not need to,” Belle snapped. “The whole of England has heard the story. Father was likely to at some point.”
Julia rolled her large vivid eyes. “What did he tell you, Isabelle?”
“Not a thing – I have already told you that. Now…may I go – please? I promised Father something to eat….Julia?”
The moment the oldest sister released her, Isabelle hurried away, praying to God that when she returned, not only her family would be gone, but that her parent would not notice the redness on her face or the fingerprints temporarily imprinted on the bare skin of her arm.
“She’s lying,” Gwyneth grunted. “She’s always lying.”
“He has something in mind for all of us, that is certain,” Julia surmised, “and I know he has confided in her.”
“I cannot believe Father was threatening to call off my party,” Benjamin groaned and on hearing him in near tears, his sisters immediately encircled him for an embrace. Isabelle might have been out of their thoughts for a little while, but it would never last….