San Francisco, California
Late summer, 1895
Caroline Mae Irwin blinked sleepily in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. The powerful urge to yawn came over her, and she gave a quick toss of her blonde curls. Despite her movement, she felt just as hot and still as before, and she got to her feet after another moment had passed. Despite its close proximity to the bay, summers in late San Francisco could be absolutely brutal. Caroline had been so hot the night before that she’d barely fallen asleep. Despite the two open bay windows in her room, there seemed to be almost no breeze.
Caroline looked up to see her maid, Lucy, standing in the doorway. Lucy was pale and without eyelashes, with a shock of bright red hair that was always twisted into a military-strict bun at the nape of her neck. Her skin was a brilliant milk white, and her bright eyes always seemed to sense when Caroline was indulging in moments of idleness. Born and raised in Ireland, Lucy had a soft lilt and a gleam in her eye that made Caroline think she was not to be trusted.
“I didn’t hear the gong,” Caroline said. “I suppose it’s time for me to dress?”
Lucy nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, averting her eyes to the floor as she dropped into a curtsey. “I’ve laid out your very best, the satin and chiffon that bring out the green in your eyes.”
Caroline pursed her lips. “Are the Grangers expecting anyone for dinner?”
Lucy nodded again, and her cheeks turned pink. “The Schroeders and the Mailers.”
A dark cloud passed over Caroline’s mind, but she kept her expression even. “Yes, of course,” she murmured, again resisting the urge to yawn. “It must be Thursday. I’ve forgotten.”
With long, graceful strides, Caroline left the sunny warmth of the conservatory and went down the hall. The floor was panelled with dark wood, and it shone in the late afternoon sun like the colour of toffee.
At the base of a magnificent spiral staircase, Caroline put her hand on the banister and began to climb. At the top of the stairs, she turned left and went into a large, sunny bedroom. The curtains and counterpane were watered silk in light pastel shades – the very same curtains and counterpane that had hung fresh and new on the first day of Caroline’s stay with the Grangers.
At the age of twenty-four, Caroline had grown into a beautiful woman. Her blonde curls were so pale that they turned to platinum in the sun, and her hazel eyes sparkled green when she smiled. Her figure was good – a bit too slender, said Mrs Granger, but good all the same – and her arms and neck were graceful and rounded.
Caroline’s pale skin belied the fact that she had been in California ever since she was a little girl. Her parents, John and Lettie Irwin, had passed of typhoid when Caroline had been a small child.
She’d been living with the Grangers, in relative splendour, ever since. Lettie and Mrs Granger had been girls together. Despite this, Mrs Granger spoke of Lettie very little. Caroline guessed that the matter made her too sad. Once, when Mrs Granger had told Caroline of her mother, she had added: “At least she got to spend her last few years as a mother.” Caroline had presumed Mrs Granger was going to follow up with an endearing remark, but instead she’d looked at Caroline and sighed as if only just now remembering that they weren’t related by blood.
Caroline had only been in her room for a moment when Lucy entered with a bowl of water and a fluffy white towel.
“Thank you,” Caroline said automatically.
“To wash, miss,” Lucy explained as she set the bowl down on the small mahogany table beside the bed. “I thought you might be feeling warm after spending so much time in the conservatory.” Her eyes sparkled. “I can’t wait to see Miss Vera and Miss Pearl,” she gushed in her light brogue. “And their husbands, of course!”
Caroline raised an eyebrow but didn’t reply. The Irish maid’s implication, of course, was that Caroline herself didn’t have a husband because she spent so much time alone.
Caroline usually didn’t mind. She was used to comments like that … both from well-meaning help like Lucy and sharp-tongued Vera Schroeder, nee Granger. Today, however, the comment seemed to sting, and Caroline flushed.
“You mean Mrs Schroeder and Mrs Mailer,” she replied neutrally. “They’re both long since grown up,” Caroline added to underscore her point. Instantly, she felt a pang of guilt for speaking sharply to her maid – it wasn’t Lucy’s fault, after all! How was Lucy to know how sharply she felt her own unmarried status?
Lucy’s cheeks turned dark pink and she nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” she said. She stood patiently by the door as Caroline washed her face and hands, and then sat down at her dressing table. Lucy came over and began to ease the pins from Caroline’s mass of blonde curls. Her expert fingers plucked and scratched Caroline’s scalp painfully, but she sat still and quiet as she waited for Lucy to transform her into a polished and beautiful woman.
When Caroline’s hair was dressed, Lucy helped her out of her afternoon dress with its wide collar and bright colours and into her evening gown, a confection of mint chiffon and satin that made Caroline look radiant.
Normally, the dress was reserved for the most special of occasions. But Caroline wondered if perhaps Vera or Pearl had thought to bring a spare bachelor along with them, in hopes of flinging him at Caroline.
For the first time, the idea didn’t sound like a horrible one.
Caroline’s mind wandered as Lucy did up the minute buttons down her back. In all of her years, she’d never thought seriously about marrying. She’d just assumed that when she came of age, it would happen.
Mr and Mrs Granger had made it clear to Caroline that they considered her a real daughter. The only problem, Caroline suspected, was that they already had three daughters. Pearl, Vera, and the youngest, Tara. Pearl and Vera had both been classic fair beauties, much like Caroline. They all three had fair blonde hair, light eyes, and pale skin.
But that was where the similarities ended. Caroline was shy and fond of books and horses and hours spent curled up while daydreaming. Vera was sharp-tongued and preferred gossiping. Pearl, the middle sister, was silly and girlish – Mr Granger often called her a flibbertigibbet. Only in Tara, the youngest, had Caroline found a true friend. Tara was sweet and earnest, much like Caroline herself. And unlike her elder sisters, she had dark looks befitting a barmaid, with a sense of humour to match.
Pearl and Vera had come out and found husbands shortly thereafter. When it had been time for Caroline’s debut, she had entered society with little success. San Francisco was a grand city full of loud people, intricate architecture, and fabulous parties.
Caroline had felt very unable to keep with it all.
Lucy’s lilting voice brought Caroline out of her mind, and she glanced up with a flush on her cheeks. Before Caroline could ask, the dinner gong sounded. She felt her teeth rattle as the whole house seemed to shake at the loud clang.
“I see,” Caroline said. She checked her face in the glass one more time, then tossed her head and began the long descent down the spiral stairs.
The sitting room was filled with people. Caroline’s guardians, the Grangers, stood by the fireplace talking animatedly to Vera, their oldest daughter, and her husband George. From what snatches of the conversation Caroline heard, she gathered they were discussing a recent trip abroad.
Caroline turned to see Pearl. They kissed each other’s cheeks, and then settled down comfortably at one end of a long leather sofa. The heat of the day had not yet dissipated, and Pearl’s face was flushed. Like Caroline’s, her upper lip was damp with perspiration.
“It’s been far too long,” Caroline said with real feeling. Despite Pearl’s vapidity, Caroline liked her. She meant well, at least. “Now that you’re married, the house feels so empty!”
“I can hardly believe that,” Pearl said. She giggled as if Caroline had made the city’s cleverest joke. “Coming home feels so strange – the rooms are so small!”
Caroline glanced around politely as if seeing the sitting room for the first time. “I can believe it,” she lied. “I bet your home is unbelievably grand.”
Pearl sniffed. “Well, it’s an improvement, at least,” she said.
Mr Granger cleared his throat, and the room fell to a hush. “Shall we go in?” he asked as he gestured through the set of French doors to the dining room. The table was laid with shining silver flatware and utensils, with candles flickering brightly over every surface. As always, the sight filled Caroline with intense yearning. She longed to have a table just like that – not for the grandness, but for the family that sat around and smiled at each other.
Caroline was just sitting down as Tara rushed into the room, breathing hard. Her dark hair was mussed, but Mrs Granger gave her an indulgent smile.
“Father!” Tara cried. “Mother, I apologise.” She flashed a brilliant smile at her parents, then turned to Caroline and winked. “I lost track of the afternoon; it simply ran away with me. If only I had a maid, like Lucy, to keep me on time …”
Mr Granger cleared his throat. “When you are older,” he said firmly. “That is the end of the discussion, pet.”
Tara flushed, but then she turned to Caroline and rolled her eyes when her father couldn’t see. Despite herself, Caroline giggled softly.
“So, Caroline,” Vera said loudly. “Are you finding a way to occupy yourself this season?” She raised an eyebrow and made it clear that she thought Caroline was both idle and boring. “Some charity work, perhaps?”
Caroline forced herself to smile as she took a small sip from her glass of wine. “Yes,” she said. “In fact, I’ve found several new projects to devote myself to. There’s a new hospital being built, and I aim to volunteer there once it is completed. They wish for ladies to come speak to the patients who are from … less fortunate circumstances,” she finished.
The room was silent for a moment. Then, to Caroline’s surprise, Vera smiled.
“I see,” she said curtly. “Like yourself.”
The silence returned, and it was louder than ever before. Tara gasped, but that was the only sound. Caroline’s lips went white, and her mind began to race.
“Vera, how inappropriate of you!” Mrs Granger said. She looked horrified, although not as horrified as someone who wouldn’t have been expecting such a comment. “Caroline is like a sister to you!”
“Yes,” Vera said thinly. “And she lives here, with my parents, while I don’t stand a chance of inheriting this house!”
Caroline felt as if someone had thrown a bucket filled with ice water over her. It had never occurred to her that Vera resented her that deeply. It wasn’t as if she’d ever inherit the house from the Grangers!
“There will be no more of this talk,” Mrs Granger snapped. Her eyes flashed, and she stared at Caroline for a long moment. Insecurity blossomed in Caroline’s heart, and she bit her lower lip.
Did Mrs Granger think that Caroline was out for their house? Was that why she had tried too hard to marry Caroline off?
Caroline felt like crying. She wanted to sink down into the plush carpet of the dining room and melt forever or at least until after she no longer had to look the Grangers in the eye, ever again.
Conversation resumed, but Caroline couldn’t keep it. She stared down at her plate with her utensils held poised and ready in her hands. Dinner was one of her favourites – roast duck – but she could hardly eat more than a mouthful. The food turned to acid in her mouth, and her cheeks burned with shame the entire time.
It was a relief when Mrs Granger stood up. She eyed the women at the table and smiled uncertainly.
“Shall we go through?” Mrs Granger pointed to the sitting room. “I should let my girls clear these dishes.”
Caroline stood uncertainly. “I’m really not feeling well,” she said. It wasn’t a lie – she felt terrible. “I think I’ll just go to bed.” She half-expected someone to intervene – Tara, or even Pearl – but she was only met with a kind smile from Mrs Granger.
“You feel better, dearest,” she said with real warmth that Caroline was grateful for. “I’ll have one of the kitchen girls come up with some warm milk for you.”
Caroline shook her head. Warm milk was Mrs Granger’s cure – all for things ranging from menstrual cramps to headaches. The idea of drinking anything other than a sip or two of water was nauseating.
“No, thank you,” she said. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Caroline,” Pearl said softly as Caroline passed.
Once upstairs, she lay down on the fluffy bed without even pulling the pins from her hair. She was sure that Lucy would be up as soon as the table was cleared, and while she could have undressed herself, she did not have the energy. At the sound of the door swinging open, Caroline sat up.
“It’s me,” Tara replied. She frowned and sat down on the edge of Caroline’s bed. “Are you all right? That was a dreadful thing of Vera to say.”
Caroline pressed her lips together. She felt ashamed that Tara – a girl of only seventeen – had taken it upon herself to comfort her.
“I’m fine, really,” she lied. “I’m just tired.”
Tara didn’t believe her, she could tell, but nodded all the same. After a few moments, Tara left, looking even more worried than before. Caroline, however, was glad to be alone. She lay back down and closed her eyes.
More than anything else in the world, she wanted a family of her own. Not the Grangers, as much as she loved them with the exception of perhaps Vera. She wanted to be capable and smart and run her own household, just as Mrs Granger did.
But at twenty-four years old with not a prospect in sight, it just did not seem likely.
Eventually, Caroline cried herself to sleep.
In the morning, Caroline felt just as poorly as she had the previous night. She was fine, physically, but she burned with shame at the recollection of Vera’s comments. There was a pervasive sense of guilt that made Caroline feel she needed to atone for something, and she went to the small chapel on the first floor of the house for a long time after breakfast.
After she had finished praying, her mind felt clearer, and Caroline felt a little lighter. She walked into the parlour only to see Mrs Granger dressed and writing a letter at her small desk.
Caroline blinked in surprise. Normally, Mrs Granger did not rise before noon.
“I know, it’s a surprise,” Mrs Granger said. She laughed self-consciously. “But I’m going to luncheon.” She blinked at her foster daughter. “You know, it would actually be lovely if you were to come with me. It’s for the hospital. The new one,” she added.
“Ah,” Caroline said. The mention of the hospital all too quickly brought back memories of the disastrous dinner the night before. Normally, she detested charity luncheons. But if this was a possible chance to prove to Mrs Granger that she was trustworthy, Caroline decided to seize it.
“So, you’ll come with me?” Mrs Granger looked over Caroline’s casual morning dress. “Could Lucy help you dress?”
“No need,” Caroline said. “I’ve got a tea dress that would be the perfect thing. I won’t be long,” she added hastily as she turned around and walked quickly out of the room.
An hour later, Caroline and Mrs Granger made their way over to the home of Mrs Philomena Warton. An elderly lady who had survived three husbands, Mrs Warton held fabulous lunches … and donated fabulous sums of money to businesses around the city.
Mrs Warton spoke first, then Mrs Granger, and a few other ladies whom Caroline did not recognise. As soon as Mrs Granger was seated next to her once again and the food was served, Caroline took a deep breath.
“Mrs Granger, may I address something with you?”
“Of course, dear,” Mrs Granger replied. She was a bit distracted with an hors d’oeuvre. After popping it into her mouth and chewing with satisfaction, she turned to Caroline. “What is it?”
“Vera’s remark last night,” Caroline said. She hated being so blunt, but with Mrs Granger there was simply no other way to be heard. “She couldn’t have been more wrong. The last thing I want is for your daughters to worry that I’m after their inheritances.”
A strange look came over Mrs Granger’s face. After a long moment, Caroline realised that it was a mixture of guilt and relief. So, she did suspect me, Caroline thought. A lump formed in her throat.
“Of course, dear,” Mrs Granger said. The remark seemed rather automatic. “I know that.” She giggled. “Vera has always been a bit terse; you know that.”
“Yes, well, I just … wanted you to know how deeply grateful I am to you and Mr Granger,” Caroline said awkwardly. The gears of her mind churned and buzzed as she desperately tried to think of what to say next. “You’ve done everything for me.”
Mrs Granger bit into a lemon tart. “Lettie was such a dear friend,” she said. “So dear.”
Caroline blinked. She felt a rush of hot guilt – it had been so long since she’d even thought about her parents. They’d been dead for twenty-one years, and she had only the vaguest inklings of memories involving them.
Often, she went for days at a time without even remembering that once, she’d too had a family.
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Caroline said softly. “I only have that one photo of her. I don’t see the resemblance.”
“She was a great beauty,” Mrs Granger said. She sighed contentedly and began working on a large piece of roast that was in front of her. “Very kind, too. And strong.”
Caroline felt the guilt again. She wasn’t brave – she was the furthest thing from brave, a girl who spent her days hiding in the conservatory with books about people who led more exciting lives. It was her fault. If only she’d tried harder at balls! Oh, if only she’d tried to be sparkling and bright and witty, just like Pearl or Tara. Or even confident and dry like Vera.
“I don’t feel strong,” Caroline said finally. Mrs Granger didn’t hear her – she was deeply invested in a cherry tart that had just been served.
After luncheon, Caroline and Mrs Granger walked outside into the bright sun. The day was just as hot as the day before, and Caroline was soon soaked in sweat. Despite the breezes from the bay and the ocean, Caroline’s heavy layers of cotton and lace made her feel like she was walking under the heat of a griddle.
“Why, Caroline Mae!”
Caroline’s head lifted, and she put her hand to her forehead to block out the rays of the sun. She saw a slim, smart woman picking her way through the crowd towards her.
“Hello, Edith,” Caroline said. She smiled. “How are you?”
Edith took a fan from the small tasselled bag she held around her wrist and unfolded it. She began to fan herself, sighing as if it was the most pleasant sensation in the world.
“I had a dream about you,” Edith said. She raised an eyebrow at Caroline.
“Edith!” Caroline chastened. She looked around for Mrs Granger, only to learn that she was nowhere in sight – or earshot, thankfully. “You’ve always been so scandalous!”
Edith giggled. “But I bet you’re thankful that I got us removed from the Red Cross planning,” she said.
Caroline flushed guiltily. Three years ago, she and Edith had been tasked with gathering supplies to donate for the Red Cross. A cholera epidemic was sweeping the globe, and it had been Caroline’s first foray into charity work. Edith’s saucy personality, however, had gotten them both taken off the committee, much to Caroline’s shame.
“Not really,” Caroline confessed. “But I am glad we met.”
Edith smiled. “I am, too,” she said. “We should really visit more often; it’s such a shame! I’m only in San Mateo. We’re practically neighbours!”
“Say, your birthday’s coming up, isn’t it? How fun,” Edith gushed.
Caroline had the urge to gasp but managed to restrain herself. How had a whole other year passed? And what had she done in it?
She knew very well that the answer was nothing, but she forced a smile for Edith’s sake.
“Five and twenty, wow,” Edith said. She was still laughing. Her high colour and the sweat on her face made her look as young as a girl, and Caroline burned with a sudden envy that ashamed her.
“Oh, there’s Mrs Granger,” Caroline said. She felt grateful to have an excuse to leave the conversation. But before she could dart away, Mrs Granger smiled at the sight of Edith and bustled over.
Sweat dripped down Caroline’s neck.
“Edith!” Mrs Granger called. “How nice to see you!”
“Mrs Granger!” Edith said happily. “What a surprise to run into you and Caroline.” She waved her hand in the air, and for the first time, Caroline caught the glimmer of an engagement ring.
“You haven’t told us your good news,” Mrs Granger said slyly. Aside from tucking into a large meal, the thing she liked best in life was cooing over younger generations as they grew up. “What a beautiful ring,” she added.
Edith blushed, an act that Caroline had not thought her friend capable of. “Mr Dawkins is ever so nice,” she said. She held out her finger, and Caroline blinked down at a large diamond, set in a square-claw setting. It was the first time another woman had boasted so openly about such an achievement, and Caroline admired her friend for her boldness although she had a feeling Mrs Granger did not.
“I’ve never seen something so beautiful!” Caroline gushed. “Mrs Granger, look! Isn’t that setting beautiful?”
Mrs Granger gave a cool smile. “Very nice,” was all she said.
Edith smiled. “I was just telling Caroline,” she said to Mrs Granger. “Her birthday is soon to arrive. We should celebrate!”
“Ah, yes, of course,” Mrs Granger said. “I can’t believe it.” She smiled fondly at Caroline. “It’s hard to believe that she’s been with me and Mr Granger for all of these years. She’s just like a member of the family!
Her inclusion of the word ‘just’ did not escape Caroline’s mind, nor did her mention of ‘all of these years.’ The words echoed ominously in Caroline’s head, reminding her that she had almost made a full quarter-century of time around the sun. A full twenty-five years in which she had barely done anything.
“Caroline?” Edith asked. “What’s the matter?”
Caroline nodded. “Yes,” she said. When Edith looked at her strangely, she realised that she hadn’t even answered the question. “I mean, nothing is wrong. I’m fine. Just hot,” she said. “It’s punishing out here.”
To her relief, Edith nodded, and Mrs Granger looked faint. “Yes, dear, we should be getting on,” Mrs Granger said.
Edith opened her mouth as if she had something to say, and then closed her lips. Caroline was not fooled.
“You were about to say something,” she said. “What is it?”
“I’m just so happy for you,” Edith said. The words sounded strangely thick as they emerged from her mouth, as if she was suddenly very emotional.
“Happy?” Caroline squinted. “What for?” You’re the one who’s going to be married, she thought. You should be the happy one.
Edith cleared her throat, and again, looked almost a touch nervous. “Because,” she said in a patient way, “you seem so much more at home than you did years ago. Like you’ve settled in.”
Caroline frowned, not understanding.
“I mean, it’s so kind of you to care for Mrs Granger,” Edith continued. “And I know she appreciates your companionship so much.”
Caroline felt stunned. So, this was her life now. All talk of ageing and companionship, while her contemporaries wed and had babies. Was this to be her life? Caring for her benefactor?
Caroline deeply loved the Grangers, but she had always been reminded – rather rudely by Vera, and gently by Mrs Granger, Pearl, and Tara – that she was not a member of their family.
“Yes,” Caroline said thinly. “I suppose I have.”
When Caroline and Mrs Granger got home to their large Victorian, Mrs Granger went to lie down. Caroline was tempted by her favourite pastime – taking a book into the conservatory and ringing Lucy for tea – but then she recalled Edith’s words, and her chest grew cold. She went to her room and sat there until the dinner gong sounded before hastily changing into a dress and rushing downstairs with her hair half-pinned and no trace of rouge or pencil on her brow.
At dinner, Tara chattered endlessly about her day – she and some other girls had gone to visit their old governess, Maud, in the hospital. All the talk of governesses and schooling made Caroline ruminate on her accomplishments in life – or lack thereof –and she stayed quiet.
Ever since she had been a little girl, Caroline had been deeply interested in books and reading. She had done well under the tutelage of several governesses, including Maud for French and Latin. Caroline had loved studying and had wished to go to university. The Grangers had even indulged her for a short while, saying that it was, of course, an option. But then Caroline had been presented to society, and all talk of university had ceased.
In retrospect, Caroline suspected that the Grangers had never been serious about furthering her education. That was fine – most women didn’t have any formal schooling at all, and she couldn’t resent them for agreeing that this way was best.
But it did make her sad sometimes.
“Caroline and I ran into Edith today,” Mrs Granger said. She took a long sip of claret. “She’s doing quite well for herself!”
“The girl whom I worked with on the Red Cross charity,” Caroline said. Tara still looked confused, but she nodded along anyway. “She’s engaged.” Caroline winced – once the words were out of her mouth, they sounded much harsher than she’d intended them to.
“Yes, with a real whopper of a ring,” Mrs Granger said. She raised an eyebrow.
Caroline flushed. “Yes, I’m sure her fiancé is quite generous.”
“And lucky,” Mrs Granger replied. “Edith has such spirit!”
Caroline nodded. It was true – you could see Edith’s vivacity reflected in her bright brown eyes and eager smile. She was not a particularly pretty girl, but she had the unique ability to captivate a room with a giggle and a toss of her head and a smart comment.
As much as she was loathe to admit it, Caroline was rather jealous.
At any rate, regardless of her own looks, no one would have made the mistake of calling Caroline Mae Irwin ‘spirited.’
“It was so nice to see her,” Caroline said. Despite how she felt inside, she really meant it. Seeing Edith reminded me of how lonely she was. Tara was a dear girl, but she was almost ten years Caroline’s junior. Caroline felt more like a doting older sister or a young aunt than a true friend.
“You must get out more, dear,” Mrs Granger said amiably. She reached for another sip of her wine. Her colour was high, and Caroline could tell that she had been likely drinking since their return. “You act so elderly sometimes!” Mrs Granger laughed.
Caroline laughed for the sake of politeness. “I suppose I do,” she said quietly.
Mrs Granger did not hear her, and the conversation was then steered in the direction of the coming season, for Tara wanted new dresses. Caroline tuned out the whines of Tara and the wheedling of Mrs Granger and took small sips of her own wine. She had been far too hot to eat at the luncheon, and the alcohol filled her empty stomach with fumes that were nearly strong enough to give her a headache.
After dinner, Caroline sat and read in the drawing room. Tara worked on a sampler, and Mrs Granger dozed off at the card table. Mr Granger got up at exactly ten-fifty, bid goodnight to the room, and started up the stairs.
“I can’t wait for when it’s my turn,” Tara whispered.
Caroline looked at her and cocked her head to the side.
“My turn to marry,” Tara said impatiently. “You know – like your friend, Enid.”
“Edith,” Caroline corrected automatically.
“Edith,” Tara repeated. She had a dreamy look in her dark eyes, and she sighed contentedly, slipping down on the couch in a most unladylike pose. For a moment, Caroline was about to rebuke her. She wished she remembered what it felt like to be seventeen.
“I bet she’ll have loads and loads of flowers,” Tara said in the same dreamy tone. “And a white gown of silk, and a long veil!”
Caroline giggled, and Tara looked hurt. “I’m sorry,” Caroline said. “I’m not laughing at you, I promise. It’s just that Edith has always been so impulsive. I wouldn’t be surprised if she showed up at the chapel in an evening gown with long white gloves.”
Tara giggled, too. “What a sight that would be,” she said. “Still, I prefer the more traditional way.” She cleared her throat and sat up straight. “I want my groom to lift the veil from my face after we’ve said our vows, and I want him to kiss me in front of everyone!”
Caroline’s eyes widened. She and Tara rarely talked to men. For one, Tara still called them boys.
And for another, Caroline had the unfortunate feeling that Tara was more experienced than she.
No man had ever paid court to Caroline, at least no serious man. She’d been dutifully escorted to balls and dances and soirees, but never swooned over. No man had ever tried to kiss her, and she blushed at the brief memory of holding hands with a man after a long ball. The sun had been coming up in the sky, and she’d thought he would try to kiss her, but he merely squeezed her hand and thanked her for doing him the honour of attending the dance.
“It will happen for you,” Caroline said.
From the card table, Mrs Granger awoke with a grunt and a gasp. Caroline blushed – she and Tara had gotten so excited, they’d forgotten to whisper.
“Good night,” Caroline whispered quietly as she got to her feet and went upstairs. She lay in bed, expecting to toss and turn for hours. Instead, she fell into a dark and dreamless sleep that was only interrupted the following morning.
From beneath the cover of a thin sleep, Caroline heard a soft knock on her bedroom door. She moaned softly and turned her face into the pillow. It had to be a hallucination – never anyone disturbed Caroline before noon, and she often spent hours each morning reading in bed.
Just as she was drifting off to sleep again, there was another knock.
“Just a moment,” Caroline called blearily. She sat up and balled both hands into fists before rubbing the last crumbs of sleep from her hazel eyes.
“Miss?” Lucy called. “I’m so sorry to bother you, but the Grangers are out.”
“Just a moment,” Caroline repeated. Her heartbeat quickened – what if something was wrong? What if something had happened to the Grangers? Caroline’s mouth went dry as she pulled on her dressing robe and rapidly tied the cord at her waist. When she went to the door, Lucy stood on the other side, blushing.
“I’m so sorry, miss,” Lucy said. She ducked her head briefly in a show of apology. “But there’s a visitor here for Mr Granger, and he’s quite insistent.”
Caroline breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank goodness it’s nothing more serious,” she said. She felt a brief flash of impatience at Lucy for waking her so unnecessarily, but it faded after just a few seconds. Lucy was just doing her job.
If anything, it just meant that Caroline was important enough to be included as a member of the family, rather than a tragic ward.
Lucy quickly dressed Caroline in a tea gown of cotton with lace panels on the front and sleeves. It wasn’t exactly appropriate for the morning, but it was almost noon, and at any rate, Caroline figured it was politer to appear quickly in an inappropriate dress than take an hour to dress while a guest was waiting.
“All right, miss?” Lucy cocked her head to the side.
Caroline nodded. “Of course.” She smoothed her hands over her blonde chignon, then walked out of the room and went down the stairs. She expected to see Vera’s husband or perhaps another friend of the family, but instead, she saw a vaguely familiar man in his late middle age. He had tufts of white hair on either side of his head, pince-nez on his nose, and a large checkered waistcoat that didn’t conceal his large belly.
“Mr Hobbes, correct?” Caroline asked softly. “I’m so sorry – Mr and Mrs Granger are out, and they’re not expected back for quite some time.”
The man grunted as he leaned forward in his chair and, with considerable effort, rolled to his feet.
“But you’re here,” Mr Hobbes responded. “And you’re just who I wish to speak with.”
Caroline couldn’t keep from frowning as her heart twisted nervously. What would a man like Mr Earl Hobbes want with her? Mr Hobbes had been the Grangers’ family lawyer for as long as Caroline could remember, although she hadn’t spent much time in his company. He had drafted the living wills of Mr and Mrs Granger, as well as overseen prenuptial agreements for both Vera and Pearl before they had married their respective husbands.
But Caroline couldn’t think of why he was there to see her. Had the Grangers finally decided to throw her out of their home? Had Mr Hobbes come to escort her?
Caroline’s frown grew deeper as she led Mr Hobbes into the parlour.
“We may speak here, I assume,” she said before settling herself down on a large sofa.
Mr Hobbes looked around. His nose twitched, and Caroline realised that the man was almost … nervous. Yes, that was it. He was nervous about something.
“Is there anywhere in the home that’s a bit more private?” Mr Hobbes asked. He leaned forward as he spoke. Caroline saw that there were beads of perspiration on his forehead. Despite the fact that Mr Hobbes was a large man, and the weather outside was sultry, Caroline had a hunch that something more than the heat was making him sweat.
Mr Hobbes dabbed a handkerchief at his forehead and looked at Caroline expectantly.
“Yes, of course,” she said. She got to her feet, smoothed her skirts, and led Mr Hobbes into Mr Granger’s office. It was an imposing room – masculine and dark, with leather accents and dark wood everywhere. Caroline felt intimidated just by the sight of the huge desk, but she summoned her courage and sat in the large leather chair.
Mr Hobbes took a seat in front of the desk. “There’s a matter that has recently come to my attention,” he said. “And I feel it is my duty to inform you as quickly as possible.” He cleared his throat. “Shall we proceed?”
Caroline nodded wordlessly.
“As you are well aware, you are an orphan,” Mr Hobbes said.
Caroline blinked. She knew it was the truth – and the correct term – but it never failed to make her wince. She nodded again, blushing slightly.
“And it was thought that you have no living relatives,” Mr Hobbes continued. “Correct?”
“The Grangers have been more generous to me than I can say,” Caroline said softly. Her heart was pounding, and she could all but hear the words out loud: And now they’re evicting you, and you must find a way to make your own path in life.
But what Mr Hobbes said wasn’t that.
He cleared his throat and took a folded piece of paper from his pocket.
“And you’ve never heard of a Mr Hank Remus?”
Caroline shook her head. She narrowed her eyes as her confusion mounted.
Mr Hobbes swallowed. “He was your paternal uncle,” he said slowly. “And he’s recently deceased.”
Caroline’s eyes widened, and she gasped. For a moment, she was too shocked to remember to cover her mouth. “Oh!” she cried softly. “How terrible!”
“He’s left you something,” Mr Hobbes said. “A ranch, in Arizona.” For the first time since their encounter, he smiled at Caroline. “You, madam, are to be a very wealthy woman.”
Caroline felt as if a very heavy weight were on her chest, pressing her under cold murky waters. She struggled to breathe, and her hands flew to her throat as her gasps became more laboured.
“Miss Irwin?” Mr Hobbes leapt to his feet in alarm. “Are you all right?”
Caroline’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she fainted.
“The Courageous Guardian of Her Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Caroline Mae Irwin, orphan since a tender age, spends most of her time curled up with a book or sitting in the conservatory of her guardian’s sprawling Nob Hill mansion. However, deep inside, she is suppressing a yearning for adventure and excitement. Unbeknownst to her, her life is about to change, when a long-lost uncle, left her with a dubious fortune in the West. There is only one condition; in order to inherit the ranch, she must move and live there for six months. Alone… When Caroline accepts the challenge, she could never imagine what life in the ranch will compel her to deal with…
Jack Charley is a man’s man. Trying to get over a painful past, he has been working on a ranch in Bonita Canyon for the past few years. When he finds his way to Caroline’s door, he is enchanted by her and he sets a new life mission; to keep her safe. Being a lone-wolf himself, he avoids giving much explanation to her and makes a proposal that could help them both. Will he find a way to conquer his own demons and give himself a second chance to love? Will he eventually give in to the chemistry that has been built between them all this time?
Tangled up in a situation she would never expect, Caroline must make life-critical decisions. Will she find love in the eyes of her unsolicited guard? Or will the hurdles that came along with her inheritance tear them apart before they had even begun to live?
“The Courageous Guardian of Her Heart” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 90,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.