Excerpt from The Seduction of the Duke
With all the malice she could muster, Francesca Winthrop whacked the wooden croquet ball beneath her foot, sending her mother’s ball careening across the manicured lawn, over the edge of the Newport cliffs, and possibly into the blue-gray waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Pity, it wasn’t her mother’s head.
“Really, Francesca, that show of spirit was entirely unnecessary.” Alva Winthrop signaled one of the dozen servants standing about for just such an occasion to search for her ball at the rocky base of the cliff, before feigning laughter for the benefit of the other society matriarchs watching the match. “Most women would be positively thrilled to learn they were about to marry a Duke.”
“Most women have at least met the man they are to marry, or had a say in the selection,” Fran replied, careful to keep her voice low and her smile in place. Never show emotion, or risk the scorn that follows. She’d been fed those words in infancy along with her pabulum. An only child, raised in a lonely edifice to enormous wealth, she learned her lessons well. A tear, a stutter in public earned her a slap across the face from her mother in private. Thus to the others in the game, Francesca Winthrop maintained a calm façade. Deep inside, however, she screamed her protest.
“I won’t do this, maman.” She glanced away, bracing herself for her mother’s anticipated reprimand. “I’m…I’m in love with someone else.”
“Nonsense.” Alva smoothed her hands over her white muslin skirts. “Love has little to do with the stewardship of great families. You’ve known since birth that your destiny was to bring a title to the Winthrops. With your father’s money and your new husband’s title, you’ll be received into the best households on both continents.”
“No, maman, with the influence of your new son-in-law, you’ll be the one received in those best households,” Fran said, trying to ignore the stabbing pain caused by her mother’s lack of consideration. Yet, it had always been that way. Her opinion in matters of her own future were … insignificant. Reality constricted her throat, making words difficult. “I shall be the one tied to a man I don’t know and whom I don’t love.”
“We all make sacrifices, dear. You’ll learn to adapt. He’ll arrive in two days. We’ll announce your engagement at the costume ball this Saturday.”
Three days! Her mother had been planning that ball for two months, and Fran had been dreading it for at least as long. Now she would not only have to find the fortitude to face a room full of people, but an unfamiliar fiancé as well. Dread, as hard and as solid as one of her painted croquet balls, fisted into a tight knot in her stomach.
An errant honey bee buzzed Alva’s hat, perhaps mistaking one of the silk roses for the real thing. Alva’s waved a gloved hand to chase it away. “I don’t know why you insist on maintaining those ridiculous beehives. I certainly won’t miss them when you move to London.”
London! Fran hadn’t quite digested news of her imminent engagement before encountering this second cannon volley. She’d have to move to London and live among total strangers. The comfortable solitude that she’d maintained her entire life would vanish. The knot in her stomach leapt to her ribcage, inhibiting breath. She was dizzy, light-headed.
Alva squinted disapproval toward Fran for a moment, then shifted her gaze, her face brightening. “Look Simpson has found my ball. I’ll just go see to it’s proper placement.”
Francesca forced words past her constricted throat. They emerged in a harsh whisper, a testament to the unexpected blow dealt to her future. “Why now, Maman? You must have known of this earlier. Why not wait to tell me in private?”
Alva Winthrop stopped and turned, her glance stern and sharp. “ Do try to aim for the wickets, dear. It’s the winning that matters, not the course one takes to get there.”
Francesca stood paralyzed. For a moment, she contemplated hitting her bonus ball directly toward her mother’s heel. The resulting injury might give her pause over the injury she was causing her daughter. In her saddened heart, however, she knew that it would be a worthless gesture. Her mother was impervious to another’s concern.
Not only had her mother not asked about her love interest, she hadn’t even acknowledged the difficulty and reluctance Fran had experienced in sharing that information. Obviously, her only daughter’s personal desires were of less import than the advantageous placement of a croquet ball.
Francesca gazed beyond the lawn to the familiar tranquil Atlantic. A few sails billowed in their escape from Narraqueswt Harbor. The Fall River steamer, a tiny spot on the deep blue horizon, chugged along on its daily foray between Newport and Long Island.
“Randolph,” she whispered with all the yearning in her heart. “Where are you? Why haven’t you written?” If ever she needed his comfort and advice, now was the time. They had only managed to share a few brief moments upon her return from Paris as he was leaving for Germany the next day. Still, he had promised to write every day while he traveled on behalf of her father’s business. Yet not one envelope had arrived since his departure three months ago. Now she would be pitted against her mother over plans for her future without even the written assurance of his devotion. Did he even know what maman had concocted? If only she could go to Randolph, speak to him directly.
Facing the vast expanse of the ocean, even her father’s gift of height failed to protect her from feeling small, insignificant, and utterly alone. Three days! What if she couldn’t abide the Englishman? Her mother might not have cared about such things, but this was not her mother’s life. She must take action. She must formulate a plan.
“Francesca, stop dawdling. We’re all waiting on you,” her mother called from the lawn boundary.
For the sake of her mother and appearances, Fran composed her expression, then turned back toward the game. Leaning over her mallet, she did as she was told and aimed her ball for the wickets, but her thoughts focused far away, on the other side of the ocean.