Can true love transcend death itself...
1859, Bellantaine Plantation, Virginia
From the edge of her four-poster bed, Frances stared out the window at the smattering of sunlight on the manicured grounds. From a distance, the echoes of raised voices, the crack of a whip, and the faint throb of singing from the slaves working the cotton field met her ears.
With each passing moment, her attention flittered from one raised voice to the other like a bee in her mother's rose gardens. Which of those working had told her secret? Who would betray her so?
Her father's incensed roar drifted up the stairs to her chamber-the tone enough to send a shudder of fear through her.
"Why?" she whispered and plucked at the lacy thread of her nightshift.
In the distance, the local church bell rang, drawing guests for the wedding from every plantation that fell within range of the brass-toned clangs. She shivered, her heart pulsing, roaring like thunder in her ears as each toll struck like the lash of a whip against her soul. Ding-dong. The musical knoll heralded not a wedding...but her very demise.
A soft creak of the hinges drew her attention. For the first time since she'd gotten out of bed that morning, the door swung inward to reveal her personal slave.
"Good morning, Mammy." She turned from the window, a slight but warm smile lifting her lips. As welcome as the autumn rains after a drought, Mammy had, simply by coming to her, settled her to some extent.
"Mornin', Miss Frances." Mammy offered a sympathetic smile, the gap between her front teeth showing. She nudged the door closed with her well-rounded hip, her worn black dress hugging her ample bosom. Waddling over to Frances' chest, she opened drawers. "Why, the ballroom be all filled up! Got more guests than I ever seen in the house. Miss Frannie, you's got a pretty kettle of fish, if'n I do say so."
"Oh, come now, Mammy, surely you're jesting. Father couldn't have invited that many people, could he?" Frances swallowed against the rising tide of fear. It was hardly a bit of truth, he wouldn't...no, it wasn't possible for him to humiliate her in such a manner. Not when he wanted to keep the reasoning behind the marriage so quiet. "Why, that would mean he invited nearly the entire county."
"Now, Miss Frannie, you done know your daddy will do as he sees fit. Ain't no sense to worrying yourself grey." Mammy pulled out the pale satin gown Frances would wear and hung it on the hook on the wall. With practiced speed she set Frances' stay, petticoats, pantaloons, and stockings on the bed. Her petticoats rustling, she laid out the grooming tools she would use to prepare Frances' hair. She gestured to the cushioned bench with an ornate silver hairbrush. "Come sit down, child."
Her stomach twisting with dismay, Frances shuffled from the bed to her dressing table. "I simply don't see-"
"You'd best recall the mas'ers words." Mammy rapped her on the head lightly with the brush. In the mirror her dark eyes held sympathy and understanding. "He could have done worse..."
"I've no desire to wed Robert," Frances whispered tightly. "Does that not matter? I love Nathaniel. Why can't I marry whom I wish?"
Mammy sighed, and Frances hunched her shoulders against the old woman's opinion. She stared at her hands in her lap. Young, handsome, Nathaniel didn't care about money or wealth. His simple concerns freed her. Was there enough wood to warm the house, to cook the dinners? Was she happy? Oh, yes, Nathaniel always wanted her to be happy. They'd had so many plans, so many dreams of their own.
She loved that Nathaniel wanted her-Frances Elizabeth. Not her dowry. Not her father's business alliances, or land, or any of the numerous reasons Robert had agreed to marry her. No, Nathaniel had simply loved her. It would have been better to run away together than to have to endure this.
"Yer daddy don't want no tainted blood in the family." Mammy tugged the brush through Frances' long hair. A short nod of satisfaction preceded her setting the brush down. "You be knowing that, and that boy ain't nowheres as well off as Mas'er MacKenny." Her fingers worked feverishly to untie all the laces of Frances' pale nightdress and slide a satin chemise over her head. With the short stay in place, Mammy smoothed it over Frances' breasts before tugging on the lacing along the back.
"Hmph. What is money? Ain't worth a damn to me." Frances tightened her fingers around the bedpost before her. She glanced over her shoulder, her eyes locking onto Mammy's. "I loved Nathaniel, and I am not ashamed of it. Why, if he'd wanted to run off and get married, I'd have gone-"
"Quick!" Mammy tensed, her head swiveling toward the door. "Sounds like herself's coming. Best put aside those words and get into this here delicates."
Frances glanced from her servant to the door. Following Mammy's urging, she lifted her arms and allowed the older woman to wrap a corset around her slim figure. Impatience tightened her nerves while Mammy set to work on the tedious chore of tightening the lashings. She adjusted the whalebone beneath her breasts, pushing them up so they spilled beyond the lace of her camisole.
Frances and Mammy both turned to the door as it swung inward with a gust of perfumed air. Compared to the simple gown Frances would wear, her mother had dressed lavishly. Grey and blue bows were sprinkled about the bodice of her gown, flowing into the wide, layered skirts that fell over her hoops. A delicately stitched snood held her mane of chestnut hair above her shoulders, and a slim, elegant choker adorned her throat.
"My daughter, you're going to make the most beautiful bride."
Frances couldn't help the bitter thought that darted across her mind. Trying to outshine the bride. Frances rolled her eyes at her mother's delighted tone. She shuddered at the ice in Josephina Willinton's dark eyes as they swept over Frances with eagle sharpness. Frances lifted her chin at the flare of disgust in her mother's gaze, unwilling to allow the older woman to intimidate or shame her.
"See that she wears the blue ribbons," Josephina ordered, her attention drifting to the collection of stockings and pantaloons on the bed. Dropping the folded stockings on the bed next to the others, she turned and smiled-a cold, belittling movement of muscle.
A chill raced through Frances and she shivered.
"All but a few fashionably late guests have arrived." Josephine clasped her hands before her. She raised a delicately shaped brow and smirked at Frances. No matter how hard Frances tried, she couldn't avoid shifting beneath the weight of her mother's disdain.
"The ceremony will begin shortly."
"Yes, ma'am." Mammy nodded, her fingers already tucking the loose laces of the corset out of sight. "I'll see to it for you."
"And prepare her for this evening." Her mother reached for the doorknob. "Although considering why this wedding is being rushed upon everyone, you probably only need to mention that her duty is to provide heirs...the â€˜how' is, of course, something the little harlot is familiar with."
Frances narrowed her eyes at her mother's cutting accusations but held her retort. It would do no good to argue. Her mother's sharp tongue hadn't dulled one whit in the weeks since her involvement with Nathaniel had been discovered-and when Frances found out which of the slaves told on her, she'd tan their hide or cut out their loose tongue.
"She'll be down within twenty minutes," Mammy promised. She slipped the heavy wedding gown over Frances' shoulders.
"See that she is." The door slammed shut on the command.
"I can't do this, Mammy," Frances choked out. "I can't stand before God and lie in such a manner. I don't want to marry him, and to lie would be-"
"Hush, child. You knows as well as me that your daddy'll have your hide a'fore he allows word to get out of your indiscretion."
"Surely you could help me? There must be something that would be of aid. Dear God above, Mammy, I've done nothing to..." Frances grasped Mammy's sleeve. Her heart raced, and she ran a finger beneath the lace at her throat, certain it had tightened around her neck. Frances gasped for air, each inhalation tripping over itself. Her head spinning, she stumbled to a nearby chair and sank down onto the padded cushion.
Mammy twisted the fold of her apron, the weathered skin of her brow puckering while she stared at Frances. "There be one thing." Her voice low, the old Negro woman glanced around as though expecting someone to jump out and cut her into bits. "You can't be a getting out of the wedding, but I's something that will help you with your nerves. Something that'll settle 'em down right proper to make what's a-coming a mite easier to deal with."
"Anything," Frances pleaded, desperation clawing at her like a beast.
Mammy hustled Frances to her bed and sat her down. "You wait here. I'll go get you a glass of water. If'n anyone asks, I've gone to get you a drink. I'll be but a minute, my child."
"Thank you." Frances pulled her servant close, hugging her tightly, and then released the old woman to her task.
The strains of the waltz filled her bedroom when the door opened and closed. A light breeze blew the smell of roses through the open bedroom window, filling the room with its sweet, intoxicating aroma.
With a growl of anger, Frances slammed the window shut and sank back onto bed. "Oh, drat," she huffed.
Frances whipped around with the creak of the door opening, relief flooding her. Mammy slipped into the room, carrying a silver tray with a tall glass of water. A small pouch hung from her apron pocket.
"You'd best drink this. It'll help you relax." Mammy poured the white powder into the glass and handed it to Frances. "Drink it all down."
Frances grimaced at the bitter taste but drank it all down. She handed the glass back and swallowed against the faint aftertaste. "Is that it?" She coughed into a delicate lace handkerchief.
"By the time the vows be exchanged, you'll be relaxed, maybe even a bit sleepy. I be thinking that is what you're a needing. Not like you want to remember this night anyway." A sly smile curved her lips, and her dark eyes sparkled with mirth.
"No, I don't." Frances stood and leaned on Mammy while the older woman slipped her shoes on and hooked the buttons into place.
Mammy smoothed Frances' gown, stepped back, and smiled. "Come. I'd best be changing into my fancy dress and such. I'll be at the party, don't you worry none."
"Thank you." Frances choked back tears of gratitude and love for her friend and leaned forward to press a kiss to her cheek. "What would I do without you?"
Mammy cackled gleefully. "Suffer the coming hours awares."
"Go, change." Frances pushed her out the door and closed it.
Her back pressed against the wood, she surveyed the room with a critical eye. Feminine and pretty, most of the lace would vanish when her husband moved in. Her childhood gone, brushed aside by her father in his bid to secure her a husband and all the while avoid revealing she had disgraced him...and yet only she knew the truth.
She pressed her hand to her heart, pain slicing through her at the knowledge of what she'd lost. With Nathaniel gone, there could be no going back. Her heart ached for the loss even though her mind rebelled. The future uncertain, she clung to the faint hope that maybe someday he'd return for her.
* * *
The wedding was done, the ceremony a blessed blur in her mind. No one had seemed bothered or even aware of her lack of emotion or barely muttered response. Her mother had smiled and cried while her father had beamed proudly. And all the while, Frances had swum in a sea of wonderful oblivion.
Frances smiled weakly when a glass of wine appeared in her hands. She swayed slightly, thankful when her father wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. His voice muffled, he whispered in her ear, his words swallowed by the blissful hollowness of her mind. Whatever Mammy had given her proved a blessing...if only she could have more of it to get through the coming night.
"How's your champagne, my dearest?"
Her new husband's query drew her attention to the glass she held. Without a thought, she gulped her wine and smiled when another was offered. When Robert wrapped an arm around her waist Frances brushed aside her vague, half-formed irritation.
She cast a glance through the crowded room in search of Mammy. Spotting her, she raised her champagne in a silent toast. Whatever she'd concocted had worked well. Frances barely felt anything except a mild sense of revulsion at Robert's touch, and even that quickly faded.
"Soon enough we can slip away from this madhouse," Robert murmured in her ear. "We'll be alone, Frances, as all married couples should be."
* * *
Frances struggled to stem her giggle at the tickle of her husband's warm breath across the back of her neck. His hands tightened around her waist, his thumbs brushing along the undersides of her breasts, he nudged her up the stairwell. His coarse whiskers rasped over her neck while his lips toyed with her ear. She shuddered at the tendrils of desire that laced through her body.
"Nnn...Robert." Her breathy moan filled the shadow-enshrined hallway.
He paused on the landing, pressing a hot, open-mouthed kiss to her throat. "You have no idea how much I want you," he groaned.
One hand rose to cup her breast through the layers of silk and whalebone. The fingers of his other hand plucked at the buttons that flowed along the curve of her back, sending a shiver of lust racing up her spine. The bodice of her wedding gown slipped from her shoulders, and Frances gasped as a wave of cool air whispered against her bared back. The delicate lace brushed against her heated flesh, teasing, tickling with its rough edges when he pushed it aside.
"Robert, please." Turning in his arms, she pressed her lips to his, desperate to feel more than the drunken loss of inhibitions necessary to tolerate her husband's touch. She squeezed her eyes shut against the longing for another while her heart cried out for Nathaniel.
She craved the touch of the man who had claimed her heart so long ago, but her father's word bound her to this fate. Shame washed over her along with her husband's roughened breath against her neck. It wasn't Robert's fault he wasn't the one she desired.
"My sweet, innocent Frances, I'm going to take you over and over, make you burn for my touch. Make you scream and plead for me to give you my seed. Oh, yes, tonight will be filled with passion. I'm going to send you to heaven, straight up to the pearly gates, my sweet." His lips descended, bruising in their intensity, his tongue darting into her mouth. Hot, slick, it dueled with hers. Rubbing, teasing, he devoured her mouth. The sharp bite of his teeth in the softness of her lip brought a moan of protest from Frances, and uncertainty darted through her.
Robert pushed her back against the cool wall, ripping his lips from hers to trail biting kisses along her jaw and down her throat. His fingers tore at the front of her gown, shoving it off her shoulders and imprisoning her arms at her sides.
Robert ground his hips against her, his weight forced forcing her harder against the wall. With a muted moan, Frances wiggled against him. When his hard length pressed against her belly, she sucked in a quick breath. Her heart pounded in her ears like thunder, and she shuddered at the weight of his hand cupping her breast. The slow, maddening shift of his thumb over her nipple wasn't enough. She craved his touch on her flesh.
Desperate to touch, to hold her new husband, she arched closer to him. With her eyes squeezed shut, she imagined someone else in her arms, pretended it wasn't Robert. Whimpers slipped from her lips when he suckled at the skin of her throat.
A slight sound drifted from the base of the stairs, stirring Frances to act. She squirmed against him, her breath a harsh wheezing as she struggled to focus, to point out something important. "Not here," she whispered in his ear.
He grunted in acknowledgement and, reaching for the doorknob beside her, he pushed the door open. The heat of his palm against her back soaked through her pores, searing her soul. He ushered her through the door and into the dimly lit bedroom. Inside, he walked her backward to the bed, stealing kisses with each step as the latch clicked into place. Frances snickered drunkenly when the edge of the bed touched the backs of her knees.
Suddenly uncertain, embarrassment flickered to life within her. Her husband bolted the door and moved across the room to light a lamp. Her gaze followed every movement, every shift of muscle while he poured two flutes of sparkling champagne. Her hand trembled while she reached for the wine, and he turned to pour another.
The pale golden liquid swirled in her glass, and she lifted it to her lips, sipping the cold, bubbly liquid. Happiness effervesced within her like the fine flute of wine she held in her fingers. Robert straightened and smiled at her. If his hair hadn't had the sun-streaks and fell a bit longer, over his collar-she could always pretend. His eyes were too pale, but the champagne helped her to imagine.
"To us," he whispered and touched his glass to hers with a tinkling of fine crystal.
Frances tipped the glass up, letting the contents glide over her tongue and down her throat, the effects of too much spirits dulling her mind. Robert reached for the bottle and filled her glass again, his own flute sitting untouched on the dresser. Why hasn't he taken a drink of his champagne?
With a saucy grin she met Robert's gaze, catching the cold smirk on his face, the bitter hatred in his gaze. What is this? Why has his passion changed so?
A veil of mist settled over her mind. Blinking rapidly to clear the fog, she struggled to control the rising tide of panic that welled within her, crashing in waves that caused the room to spin. Her throat tightened, her lungs burned with the need for air, and she whimpered in pain.
Her numbed fingers loosened on the delicate crystal, and the glass slipped from her fingers, smashing on the floor. She gaped at her husband. A half apologetic smile crossed his face. Terrified, clawing through the darkness swirling around her, she crumbled to the floor in a tangled heap of lace, satin, and spilled champagne.
A slight sound behind him drew her gaze. The door swung inward, and a familiar figure slipped into the golden cast of the lamp. From what seemed out of nowhere, shimmering gold sleeves wrapped around her. The warmth of the embrace penetrated the increasing cold that coiled through her.
"Rest, Frances. Rest for now at least."
The gentle words pushed the fear back, and the darkness of death wrapped Frances in its shroud.
Her mind raced as her life slipped away. Why? Why would they do this?