I feel sure that no girl would go to the altar if she knew all.
NEW YORK CITY
A feminine wail floated through the crowded ballroom of the Bridwells’ newly built Fifth Avenue mansion. The soft cry hovered beneath the notes of the waltz, its ghostly fingers touching everything it passed. The efforts of an army of musicians did nothing to drown out the sorrow inherent in the sound. It settled like a fog of despair over the glamorous evening, dusting it with melancholy. August Crenshaw shivered as if the icy fingers had stroked down her spine.
Before her eyes, the engagement party continued in full swing, not the least bit concerned with the rather unremarkable fact that the bride-to-be was not a willing participant in the festivities. There was a momentary hitch in the happy amusement—a brief pause in conversation, a minute hesitation in the steps of a few of the couples twirling on the dance floor—but not one of them stopped. No one appeared willing to acknowledge the cry. In fact, they all seemed livelier, propelled forward by a new purpose to appear as joyful as possible with the intention of hiding the depth of the sadness upstairs.
August glanced up at the frescoed ceiling as if she could see Camille in her bedroom, but instead a bright-eyed cherub stared back at her, a silent witness to the atrocity that was about to occur. The champagne went flat on her tongue and slid down her throat to settle heavy in her belly. The sad fact was that no one cared about Camille’s reluctance. New York Society thrived on financial and social matches made in marriage, and one unwilling bride wasn’t going to change anything. A hundred unwilling brides wouldn’t change anything.
August’s stomach churned, so she set her unfinished champagne on the tray of a passing servant. There was something unspeakably disturbing about the scene. A compulsion to do something to stop it pushed her forward, but a sharp bark of laughter pulled her up short. Camille’s fiancé, Robert Emerson, seventh Duke of Hereford, stood inside one set of open balcony doors, glass of champagne in hand, his gray whiskers impeccably groomed in the muttonchop style. The apples of his cheeks were pink as he laughed at something Camille’s father had said.
The two had been thick as thieves the entire evening. The impoverished duke stood to make a fortune on his marriage to Camille, while Mr. Bridwell gained a much-needed social ally. Rumors were that the duke would be given one hundred thousand dollars outright on the marriage, with an annuity of ten thousand dollars. It was hardly surprising that he was in such good spirits. He probably hadn’t noticed that his fiancée had yet to make an appearance. She was the least important aspect of their agreement. Camille was the only one who stood to suffer from the arrangement. She was also the only one who’d had no say in the matter. There could be no mistaking the anguish in that wail.
Turning from the maddening scene, August made her way through the crowd to the wide hallway that bisected the house and led to the front rooms, nodding to the small groups of people she passed. An insistent sort of panic had begun to claw at her as she walked, pushing her forward until she was almost running. At the mansion’s elegant front doors, she turned abruptly, grabbed a handful of her silk skirts, and took the wide marble staircase to the second floor.
The mahogany-paneled doors to Camille’s bedchamber swung open when August reached the top of the stairs, revealing the debutante in full evening apparel. She was gorgeous in pale pink silk embroidered with golden thread. Her gold curls had been arranged atop her head with elaborate diamond-encrusted combs, and a few curls had been left to cascade over a partially exposed shoulder. Her neck and fingers dripped in diamonds, making her look every bit the American princess her parents wanted her to be. But the comparison ended there. From her red-rimmed eyes to the sallowness of her complexion, it was obvious that she’d been crying for hours . . . maybe days.
This was madness.
August opened her mouth to speak, to offer some objection on her friend’s behalf, but Mrs. Bridwell stepped out from behind her daughter, her expression dark and forbidding. Three maids along with August’s younger sister, Violet, spilled out of the room behind them to arrange her skirts. Camille looked as if she was only held