A Man to Call My Own
MORTIMER LATON WAS BURIED that morning in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the town where he had been born and lived his whole life. Actually, the town was newly named Haverhill in 1870. It had been known as Pentucket when he was born and raised there.
His wife, Ruth, was buried in one of the older cemeteries that was no longer available, having filled to capacity soon after she was interred there. She wouldn’t have minded that her husband didn’t rest for all eternity in a grave near her. Actually, she would probably have preferred it that way, since there was no love lost between them.
The large marker that had been ordered for Mortimer was going to read: Here rests Mortimer Laton, beloved father of Amanda and Marian. Amanda Laton had prescribed the short sentiment, and for her it was most fitting. She had adored their father, and he, in return, had been the perfect father to her, providing everything a child needs in order to feel loved and secure. Marian, had she been asked, would have left out the beloved part.
The funeral had been a small gathering, and dismal as most funerals were, despite the fine weather that morning and the spring blooms that filled the grounds. Only Mortimer’s servants, a few of his business associates, and his two daughters had attended.
The service had been notably quiet. No hysterics or loud tearful wails that morning, unlike Ruth’s funeral seven years ago where Marian had made a spectacle of herself, crying uncontrollably. But then she’d felt that with her mother’s passing she had lost the only person who had ever really cared about her.
Something similar should have happened today. Amanda, who had been her father’s favorite from the day she was born, should have been crying her heart out. But since the sisters had heard the news that their father had died on the way back from the business trip he’d taken to Chicago last week, somehow falling off the train as he passed between one car and the next, Amanda hadn’t shed one tear of grief.
An odd form of shock, the servants whispered, and Marian might have agreed, except her sister wasn’t denying that their father was gone. She spoke of his death and discussed it without emotion, as if she were discussing some mundane event of little concern to her. Shock? Maybe, but of a kind Marian had never witnessed before. On the other hand, Amanda was a self-centered person, just like Mortimer. She was probably more concerned with how his death was going to affect her than with his actually being gone.
Mortimer had been capable of loving only one person at a time. This was a realization Marian had come to at a very young age, and, eventually, she’d stopped hoping it could be otherwise. And she’d never seen her father behave in any way that indicated she was wrong.
Her father hadn’t loved her mother. Theirs had been an arranged marriage. They were merely two people living together,
sharing the same house, sharing some of the same interests. They got along well, but there was no love shared between them. His parents had died before Marian was born, so she’d never seen how he behaved with them. And his only remaining sister had moved away when Marian was still a baby. Mortimer never spoke of her, an indication he could care less what had become of her.
But their father had loved Amanda. There was absolutely no doubt of that in anyone’s mind. From the day she was born he’d been charmed and had showered her with attention, spoiled her rotten actually. The sisters could be in the same room yet he’d only see Amanda, as if Marian were invisible.
But he was gone now. Marian could stop agonizing over it. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen to her material needs all these years. In that, the sisters had always been treated equally. It was only Marian’s emotional needs that had been neglected.
Her mother had tried to correct that and had succeeded somewhat while she’d been alive. She had seen how much it hurt Marian to be excluded from Mortimer’s affections, and while she loved both her daughters, she had spared a little extra affection for Marian. Unfortunately, Amanda had noticed and was so jealous, wanting all her mother’s love exclusively, that it caused a breach between the sisters that had long ago gone beyond fixing. There was no tactful way to put it. They really and truly hated each other.
It wasn’t just the jealousy issues. Those might have been overcome. The long list of grievances might even have been forgiven eventually, since most of them had stemmed from their childhood, which was over. But probably owing to the overabundance of spoiling and coddling, both of which fostered her self-centeredness, Amanda was, quite simply, not a nice person.
Whether deliberately or based on a tendency that came naturally to her, Amanda managed with alarming frequency to hurt people’s feelings. The alarming part was, she didn’t seem to
care or notice the damage she caused. And apologies were never tendered.
Marian couldn’t count the times, there were so many, that she had personally tried to make excuses for her sister and apologize to the people Amanda hurt. It wasn’t as if she felt responsible for her sister’s actions. She didn’t. Amanda had been nasty and spiteful from as far back as she could remember.
Neither of them had any female friends to speak of. Amanda, because she didn’t want any. She had their father to dote on her. He was her best friend. Marian had wanted friends, but she gave up long ago trying to make any because her sister would always drive them away, usually in tears. The result was, other girls didn’t want to go anywhere near Marian again if it meant they might run into Amanda.
Gentlemen were a different matter. Since both girls began approaching marriageable age, gentleman callers were in regular attendance at the Laton household. There was a twofold attraction—Mortimer’s wealth, reputed to be quite substantial, and the fact that Amanda was very likely one of the most lovely girls in town.
And Amanda actually liked the male attention. She thrived on the flattery. And anytime someone showed up whom she didn’t particularly want adoring her, she’d belittle and subtly insult him until he stopped coming around. So she had her favorite group of admirers and she’d had them for nearly a year. But she didn’t favor any single one of them to the point of deciding which one she’d like to marry.
More’s the pity. Marian wished she would. She prayed each night that her sister would get married and move elsewhere, so she could get on with living a real life herself instead of hiding away, fearful that some man might try to court her and end up one of her sister’s targets. The two times she’d shown any interest in a man, she’d learned her lesson well. She wasn’t going to be responsible
again for seeing them cut to the quick by Amanda’s tongue because they’d dared to ignore Amanda in favor of her.
Which was why, even though they were twins, Marian went to a lot of trouble to disguise that unfortunate fact. Not wanting to draw attention to herself, she chose dresses that were unflattering in color and extremely plain in design. She wore her hair in a severe style better suited to someone’s grandmother than a young woman barely eighteen. But her disguise wouldn’t really have worked without the spectacles she wore. The frames were large and the lenses so thick, they magnified her eyes to nearly twice their size, giving her an odd, bug-eyed look that was very unattractive.
They sat in their father’s study, listening to the reading of his will. Amanda looked beautiful as always, even in mourning black. Her dress was stylish; she’d have it no other way. Adorned with lace and tiny beads in artful designs, it was actually more flattering than some of her fancier gowns. Her coiffure wasn’t as frivolous as usual, the golden ringlets more tightly contained for once.
Marian, on the other hand, was as unnoticeable as usual. There were no intricate frills on her black dress to be admired, no stylish bangs to frame her face or detract from the ugly spectacles that dominated her appearance. She was the moth next to the butterfly. While she suspected it was easy to be the butterfly, she knew for sure it was hard work being the moth.
The room was almost unrecognizable, with Mortimer’s lawyer sitting behind the desk, rather than Mortimer. They knew Albert Bridges well. He had often been invited to dinner when their father found himself strapped for time and brought his work home with him.
Albert usually called the sisters by their first names. He’d known them long enough to do so. But today he addressed each of them as Miss Laton and he seemed uncomfortable doing his job.
There had been no surprises in the will so far. A few family servants had been left small bequests, but the bulk of Mortimer’s estate had been left to his daughters—equally. Once again, it was only his affection he hadn’t divided equally, never his wealth. There were interests in a half dozen businesses, income property in town as well as other parts of the state, a bank account larger than either girl could have imagined. But no real surprises—until the end.
“There is one stipulation,” Albert told them, pulling at his collar nervously. “Your father wanted to assure that you would be well taken care of, and not be fooled by fortune hunters merely interested in your inheritance. So other than for essentials, none of his estate will be transferred to you until you marry. And until that time, his sister, Mrs. Frank Dunn, will be your guardian.”
Amanda said nothing. She was frowning, but she hadn’t yet fully grasped the implications. Marian watched her, waiting for the storm to erupt once it sunk in.
Albert Bridges had expected more of a reaction as well, and looking at each girl somewhat warily, asked, “Do you understand what this means?”
Marian nodded, even smiled at him. “I’m assuming that Aunt Kathleen isn’t going to change her life to accommodate us just because her brother died, so we will have to travel to her. Is that what you mean?”
He sighed in relief. “Exactly. I know it may seen daunting, having to move so far away from everything and everyone you know, but it can’t be helped.”
“Actually—I don’t mind at all. I have no real attachment to this city—”
The storm arrived. Amanda shot to her feet so fast, she dislodged not one but two blond locks from her coiffure, both on the same side, so she now had a long wave of golden hair curling around and beyond her breast. Her dark blue eyes were flashing
like sapphires under a jeweler’s light, and her lips had thinned to form a snarl.
“Absolutely out of the question! Do you have any idea where this unknown aunt of ours lives? It’s the other side of the world!”
“Just the other side of the country, actually,” Marian said calmly.
“That is the same thing!” Amanda yelled. “She lives among savages.”
“The savages have been curtailed—mostly.”
Amanda glared at her. “Shut up, just . . . just shut up! You go live in the wilds of Texas and rot and die for all I care. I’ll get married immediately and stay right here, thank you very much.”
Albert tried to stop her, to explain further, but Amanda was too furious to listen and stalked out of the room. He gave Marian a long-suffering look.
“She can’t just—get married,” he told Marian with a weary sigh.
“I didn’t think so.”
“I mean she can, but then she would forfeit her inheritance. As your guardian, your aunt must give her approval, for either of you to marry.”
“Shall I fetch her back?” Marian offered. “She hasn’t left the house yet. We would have heard the slamming of the front door if she had.”
“I’ll go after her.” Albert sighed again. “I should have been more clear to begin with.”
Albert rose from behind the desk, but it wasn’t necessary. Amanda came marching back into the study on her own with Karl Ryan in tow. Karl was one of her hopeful suitors, her least favorite actually, but she tolerated him because he was handsome and considered a fine catch by any standards. As long as a man had other women interested in him, even if only one, Amanda wanted him interested in her instead because she thrived on the envy of other women.
Karl had been on hand that morning to accompany them to the cemetery. Amanda had been too preoccupied to notice that he was the only one of her suitors to come by to offer his condolences. Marian knew that visitors were being turned away at the door with the simple explanation that the girls weren’t receiving callers. Someone had decided they should have some undisturbed time for mourning. Marian was grateful because she had no desire to deal with anyone just now. Amanda probably would have objected if she’d known.
Karl had been hard to turn away, though, since he’d come by right after they’d been told the news of Mortimer’s death, and he had heard about it from Amanda. He’d been waiting in the parlor since they’d returned from the funeral, prepared to offer as much comfort as he could today. But Amanda didn’t appear to need comforting. She needed calming because she still looked furious.
“There, I’ve settled the matter,” Amanda said triumphantly. “I’m now engaged to marry Mr. Ryan. So I’ll hear no more talk about leaving home.” And then she added snidely, “But I’ll be glad to help you pack, Marian.”
“Unless Mr. Ryan is willing to travel with you to Texas, to meet your aunt and obtain her approval, marrying him will not release your inheritance to you, Miss Laton,” Albert was forced to point out. “Without that approval, you would forfeit everything.”
“No! My God, I can’t believe Papa did this to me. He knew I despise traveling.”
“He didn’t die on purpose just to inconvenience you, Amanda,” Marian said in annoyance. “I’m sure he thought you’d be settled long before he died.”
“I will be most happy to travel with you to Texas,” Karl offered.
“Don’t be absurd,” Amanda snapped at him. “Can’t you see this changes everything?”
“No, it doesn’t,” Karl insisted. “I still want to marry you.”
Marian saw what was coming, and tried to spare Karl’s feelings. “You should leave for the time being,” she suggested quickly. “She’s upset—”
“Upset!” Amanda shouted. “I’m beyond upset. But yes, do leave. There’s no longer a reason for me to marry you; in fact, I can’t think of a single one now.”
Marian glanced away, unwilling to see just how crushed Karl was by those few careless words, but not soon enough. She saw it anyway. And he’d looked so happy when he’d come into the room moments ago, his heart’s desire unexpectedly achieved. He really did want Amanda for his wife. Heaven knew why, but he did. Somehow, he hadn’t seen or had chosen to ignore this vicious side of her—until now.
But hopefully, after he got over the rejection, he would rejoice to have escaped marriage to such a heartless bitch.