Authors: A.B. Michaels
The generously proportioned, heavily made-up Madame LeFever arrived at the appointed hour and was shown to Lia’s upstairs sitting room. “I am gratified you were able to reschedule your appointment,” the modiste sniffed. Two female assistants trailed in her wake carrying tailoring supplies and two oversized garment bags. Lia said nothing as the assistants bustled about, helping her to undress and try on the dramatic embroidered silk wedding gown that she was to wear in two weeks’ time.
“I don’t like to boast,” Madame LeFever said in a conspiratorial tone, “but because of my, shall we say,
, the gown you are wearing is quite similar to that which will be worn by Princess Maude of Great Britain for her wedding, mere days before your own.” The dressmaker looked smug. “You will be in the height of fashion, I can assure you.”
Lia was standing on a bench having her hem pinned when the door opened and her sister Emmaline Grace entered the room. Emma was twenty-nine years old and a stunning, golden-haired version of their mother—a sharp contrast to Lia, who, like her father, was short in stature and a brunette.
“Ah, Mrs. Sizemore,” Madame LeFever trilled. “Will your sister not make, if not a statuesque bride, at least a most radiant one?” She made a show of presenting Lia to Emma.
The look on Emma’s face made Lia want to howl at the injustice of it all. She could see the sadness, the longing, and the envy in her sister’s eyes. And she could see the tension as Emma fought to not dissolve in tears for something she could never have.
“Yes, she is certainly beautiful,” Emma replied in a soft voice. Her eyes brimming with tears, she gave Lia her best smile, one Lia knew was hiding a broken heart.
“Madame, your matron of honor ensemble is almost complete. It only awaits your final fitting for the hemline. Will you be so kind?”
Emma nodded and changed into the royal blue, Grecian-style gown.
Lia’s breath caught at her older sister’s loveliness. “Oh, Em, you are magnificent.”
“It is a lovely dress,” Emma agreed.
The two sisters waited patiently while the assistants finished marking the hems of the bridal wear. Afterward they changed back into their gowns and the dressmaker and her entourage took their leave. Emma was preparing to follow them downstairs when Lia touched her sister’s arm. “Please stay, just for bit,” she asked.
“Really, I must be getting back. Hiram will—”
“Hiram can wait,” Lia said. “We need to talk.”
Emma looked into Lia’s eyes and finally nodded. “Just for a minute,” she said.
Lia took her sister’s hand and brought her to the settee in the room. They sat down together and Lia took a deep breath. “Em, I really don’t think I can go through with this.”
“Oh, but Lia, you must!”
“Why must I?” Lia’s voice sharpened. “This is a farce and you know it! George doesn’t love me. He loves you—”
Em reached out as if to physically close Lia’s mouth. “You mustn’t say that. It’s not true, and—”
true and you must think I’m a fool if you think I don’t see it. Look, Father wants this to happen for his own selfish reasons, not the least of which is probably money. He married you to Hiram for it, and he no doubt wants to do the same with me. But what I don’t understand is why
going along with it too. My God, Em, you’re asking me to marry the man you have loved your entire life—it just doesn’t make sense. I need to know why you’re doing this.”
Emma sat silently looking down at her hands. She nervously twisted the large ornate wedding ring that she’d worn for the past twelve years. When she looked up again, tears had returned, poised to fall gently down her cheeks. “I made a decision when I was seventeen that destroyed any chance of a relationship with George. He has moved on, and I don’t blame him for that. I want him to be happy, and I want you, my beloved sister, to be happy too. You are both wonderful people. I…I can’t think of a better prescription for your happiness than if you two were to join together.”
Lia threw her hands up. “That is utter
, Em. First of all, you had no real choice in the matter of your marriage. We both know Father is much better at spending money than earning it. He got himself into a bind and he told you the only way out of it—the only way to salvage the family’s so-called honor—was to secure an influx of Hiram Sizemore’s cash.” She pointed her finger at Em. “And the currency he used was you.”
Emma looked up, showing the first trace of annoyance Lia had seen in some time. “He didn’t hold a gun to my head.”
“No, he did something worse: he played on your loyalty and your guilt.”
“Yes. Your guilt. If you didn’t comply you’d be the one who’d let the family down, who’d engineered our disgrace. And you couldn’t let that happen.”
Emma sighed. “Perhaps there’s a bit of truth in what you say…but it’s water under the bridge now.”
“Yes,” Lia said. “A lot of water can flow by in a dozen years. And so you’re stuck with a satyr and a libertine who’s three times your weight and more than twice your age. How you’ve stood him—”
“Stop right there,” Emma said, holding up her hand. “Hiram may be all of those things, but at heart he is a good man. He has provided well for me and cared for me, despite the fact that I have not upheld my part of the bargain.”
“Your part of the bargain?”
“Yes.” Emma sat up straighter as if ready to face a firing squad and wanting others to view her with dignity rather than pity. “He wanted children and I couldn’t give them to him…despite many attempts on our part to conceive.”
Lia felt her face redden; that was one aspect of Em’s situation she’d never wanted to contemplate. Yet it would be part of her own future as well. “I don’t know about that. All I know is you should never have had to marry the man.”
“I…I see it a bit differently,” Emma countered. “In a way, things worked out for the best. George is the last of his line. He needs to produce an heir. If we had married, I wouldn’t have been able to do that for him and eventually it may well have torn us apart.”
“You don’t know that,” Lia argued. “And for that matter, I might be as barren as you.” The moment she said the words, she gasped. “Oh, I’m sorry, Em. That came out wrong. I—”
“No, it’s all right. We’re speaking the truth here, aren’t we? I am barren, but the chance that you suffer the same malady is miniscule. I’m glad George now has a chance to have a family…and you too. I am glad for you both. Truly I am.” With those words Emma rose gracefully from the sofa and gathered her belongings. “It’s too late for me, Lia, but it’s not too late for you. George is an exceptional man and he will make you happy if you only let him. I am sure of it.”
After Emma left, Lia took one of her many sketch pads and a pencil, and sat by the picture window of her sitting room. The sun had set and the grounds outside the window were shrouded in a milky, purple hue. The loss of light didn’t matter, because what Lia longed to capture on paper originated in her mind, not in the world at large. Yet it was no less real for all that. It was a vision of Emma, contemplating a life that was so much less than she had hoped for, accepting the imperfection of what was.
Lia began to sketch rapidly, as if an unseen hand were guiding her own. She let it move of its own volition while she contemplated her own situation. In her heart, Lia knew that her sister was putting the best possible face on a horrible situation. Em had sacrificed for the family, but in Em’s mind, Lia was making no sacrifice at all.
Of course she’d feel that way; she’s in love with
. But this was not the Middle Ages when love was a luxury no one could afford. In four short years the world would be entering a brand new century. Brand new! No more clinging to outdated traditions, no more obedience to the status quo. Lia examined her sketch and saw that she had indeed captured her sister’s pain. But it didn’t have to be that way. No one would be holding a gun to Lia’s or George’s head either. All it required to solve this problem was for common sense to prevail. She’d known George all her life and he’d always seemed both smart and level-headed. Surely he also had common sense in abundance. She would appeal to that aspect of his nature tomorrow, because time was running out.
’m here to see Mr. George Powell…the younger.” Lia stood in front of the executive secretary at Powell Industries headquarters in lower Manhattan.
The secretary looked down at her appointment book. “Miss Bennett, is it? I don’t seem to have you down on Mr. Powell’s schedule.”
“Tell him it’s rather important that his…fiancée…see him immediately.” Lia began tapping her foot, but the sound was muted by the thick Aubusson carpet. With its mahogany paneling and gold-flocked
patterned wallpaper, the reception area spoke volumes about the family’s success. The secretary excused herself to tell George that Lia was there to see him, and he followed his assistant back out, a puzzled expression on his face.
“Lia. Um…darling. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Lia was determined to see this through. “George, we need to talk…privately.”
“Of…of course. Miss Penreddy, please reschedule my eleven o’clock meeting. I’ll be back after lunch.” He took his coat and hat from the hall tree and ushered Lia out the door.
“You look flustered,” he said with a hint of a smile. “I was thinking it might not be a good thing for you to have a tantrum where everyone could hear you. Shall we walk?” Without waiting for a reply he began strolling down the street.
Lia nodded, walking quickly to keep pace with his much longer legs. He was long and lean and in very good physical shape. He didn’t seem to have a care in the world, as if it meant nothing to him to marry a woman he didn’t love. It seemed as though men were much better at compartmentalizing things like this than women…
or at least me.
It was now or never.
“George, this is completely insane. What are we doing?”
He didn’t answer immediately, but the tension in his jaw told Lia that he knew precisely what she was talking about. “Let’s dip into the park and find a bench,” he said.
“Fine. Let’s,” she replied.
At the end of the block they turned into a small community park which featured a picturesque manmade pond inhabited by a family of ducks. A young woman pushed a stroller along the path circling the pond while her toddler skipped nearby, tossing pieces of bread which didn’t quite make it to the water. Lia and George quickly found a vacant bench. He didn’t waste time on small talk.
“I assume you mean our marriage,” he said. “Are you having second thoughts?”
“Second, third, fourth, the thoughts are endless,” Lia told him. “I know my father engineered this ‘arrangement’ and I think I know why. His reasons are both pragmatic and overly sentimental, and he’s adamant about them. But he’s not alone. Even my sister wants us to be together.”
“She does?” The expression on George’s face gave his heart away, even if Lia hadn’t already known where it lay.
“George, Emma loves you beyond reason. Still, after all these years, though she tries hard to deny it. I think it takes some of the pain away for her to think you’ve fallen out of love with her—which you and I both know isn’t true.”
George began a half-hearted protest, but Lia stopped him. “Please. I’m young but I’m not naive…unlike my sister. To the extent she can be, she’s actually happy that the two people she loves most in the world—whom she thinks are the most wonderful people in the universe—have ‘found’ each other. It makes me want to shake her.”
George sighed, looking out at the deserted pond. “She is a saint,” he said quietly.
“No, she’s a martyr,” Lia countered. “Do you know what else? She’s actually glad she can’t marry you, because she thinks she’s barren and knows you need to have children.”
“That is preposterous,” George said.
“Is it? She’s been married to that hulking husband of hers for over a decade—”
“Twelve years, four months, and two days,” George clarified.
“You make my point,” Lia said. “Knowing your father, I can’t imagine this marriage taking place if he didn’t wish it. I don’t understand why he would want it, and I
don’t understand why you would go along with it. Why, George?” Lia took her gloved hand and gently turned George’s cheek so that he faced her. The bleak look he bestowed upon her gave her courage to speak the words she needed to say. “I love you, George, but as a brother, not as a woman should love her husband…or her lover. You feel the same way about me. Why are you agreeing to this farce?”