In her latest romance, Jane Goodger weaves an unforgettable tale of a woman who thinks she's lost everything--until a little Christmas magic reunites her with the one man she could never forget. . .
Dashing, debonair, and completely irresistible, Edward Hollings has all of Newport buzzing--and to Maggie Pierce's surprise, she alone has caught his eye. But when the handsome earl returns to England without proposing, a devastated Maggie knows she must forget him. Life only gets worse for Maggie, as all her dreams of happiness and love come crashing down around her. When Maggie receives an invitation to go to England for the Christmas birth of her dear friend's baby, she accepts--vowing to keep her devastating lies and shameful secrets from the one man she has ever loved.
Edward vowed he'd never marry, but he came dangerously close with Maggie. She's beautiful, witty, indescribably desirable--and Edward can't forget her. When Maggie visits mutual friends for Christmas, Edward can't stay away. In fact, he finds himself more attracted to her than ever--a desire fueled even more by Maggie's repeated snubs. With the love he never thought he'd find slipping away, Edward is determined to make Maggie his own, no matter what the cost. . .
Release date: October 6, 2009
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 352
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A Christmas Scandal
Margaret Pierce sat in the pink parlor, a whimsical room her whimsical mother loved, hoping it would somehow calm her. She rocked back and forth, her hands clutched together, as she prayed fervently for her father.
She heard the front door open, the murmurings of her mother talking to one of their few remaining servants, and listened as her footsteps sounded, tap-tapping, on the marble floor. Her heart beat a slow, sickening beat in her chest.
“There you are, Maggie,” Harriet Pierce said, looking unusually drawn. “It’s done with now.”
Maggie looked at her mother, afraid to ask what had happened to her father, a gentle, wonderful man who was going to prison. She could not bring herself to go to the hearing, unable to bear the weight of all that had happened, unable to look in the eyes of the man who held her father’s fate in his filthy hands.
She was afraid to ask her mother how long her father would be in prison, even though she knew what the answer would be. She’d made sure of that.
“Oh, my dear,” her mother said, rushing over to sit by her daughter, embracing her tightly, and Maggie realized she hadn’t been trying quite hard enough to hide her feelings. “This has been difficult for you, I know. The two of you are so close. I think that is what is so upsetting to him, not being with you on your wedding day. For your children when they are born.”
Maggie pushed her mother gently away, staring at her with the beginnings of terror gripping her. “It’s only a year. He’ll be home with us for the wedding and certainly in time to see his grandchildren.”
Her mother’s eyes welled up and she shook her head. “Whatever gave you that idea? Oh, Maggie, it’s to be five years. Five years was always what we thought. What on earth made you think otherwise?” Her mother straightened her spine. “But we’ll get through it. Your father is a relatively young man. He’ll still be in his early fifties by the time he’s home with us. Not so old.”
“No,” Maggie whispered, feeling as if she might faint, feeling as if the world were tilting crazily around her. “One year. It’s to be one year,” she said, her voice taking on the edge of desperation.
“Oh, darling,” her mother said, trying to pull her into another comforting embrace. “The years will fly by. You’ll see.”
Maggie stood up, agitated beyond bearing. “It’s impossible. He promised.”
Her mother smiled up at her. “Who promised? No one promised any such thing. Certainly not Papa. Oh, he didn’t, did he? I do declare that man would say anything to make you feel better.”
Maggie looked at her mother, her eyes wild, her breathing erratic.
“Maggie, what are you doing?” her mother asked sharply, looking at her wrist.
She looked down to see a row of neat little red crescents on her wrist where she’d been digging her thumbnail into her skin. Distractedly, she pulled down her sleeve, then took a bracing breath. She’d nearly lost control, which would have upset her mother terribly. Sitting down, she grasped her mother’s hand and smiled shakily. “I’m sorry. I had this crazy hope is all. I’m just so worried about Papa. About everything, I suppose.”
Her mother visibly calmed when she saw her daughter’s smile, and Maggie vowed to never let her mother see how terrified, how very distraught she was. Harriet had always been an emotionally fragile person, and Maggie had always tried to keep her life as calm as possible. With all that was happening around them, keeping calm was hopeless, but she did not want to add to her mother’s torment. It was almost as if the devil, having decided to pick out one poor family to have fun with, had picked Maggie’s and was enjoying himself immensely watching them all suffer. For never had a family’s life gone from idyllic to nightmarish in the space that Maggie’s had. Indeed, it was difficult to believe that just three months before she had had everything a young woman of twenty could ask for: friends, loving parents, two protective brothers, a beautiful home, and a brilliant future.
When news of her father’s arrest for embezzlement hit the New York Times, friends disappeared, invitations dried up, servants quit. Once on the fringes of the elite New York Four Hundred, now the Pierces were shunned at best. For the worst of it was that her banker father had embezzled money from the very people they depended upon for the social status they had so enjoyed. One brother, an attorney in one of the most prestigious law firms in New York, was fired and was now working in a tiny firm in Richmond, where no one had heard of Reginald Pierce. Thankfully, her oldest brother was in San Francisco, far removed from the scandal.
After her father’s arrest, creditors immediately began knocking on their door and the state demanded repayment of an impossible sum. Everything was gone, including their fashionable home on Fifth Avenue. They were to be out in three days, leaving behind a lifetime’s accumulation of wealth. Everything would be auctioned.
Arthur Wright was their last hope. How many times had Harriet thanked God for him? Thank God, thank God. Arthur Wright, who bored Maggie to tears, whom she didn’t love, but who loved her. “I suppose it won’t do for Arthur to see me tonight with a red nose and watery eyes,” Maggie said in an attempt at levity.
“Do you think he’s going to ask today? That would be a wonderful ending to an absolutely horrid day,” her mother said, fretting her hands in her lap. Her mother, never the calm and collected one, had lately looked rather like a harried wash maid, her hair a mass of messy curls, her clothing always slightly askew. Once they’d let go of almost all of their servants, poor Mama could not handle the daily ablutions required of her. She was clean but looked as if she’d just come in from a violent windstorm. And her eyes always darted about a room, as if the miseries that had struck this family were tangible things she could duck away from.
“I’m almost certain that is why Arthur is coming over tonight,” Maggie said, smiling. This, at least, was a genuine smile, for Arthur had more than hinted that tonight was the night they would formalize their engagement. She knew her mother would worry until she was safely settled, just as she knew their worries were over. She and Arthur were already unofficially engaged; she was awaiting only the ring and a formal announcement in the Times. She should be ecstatic, but the truth was, Maggie didn’t want to marry anyone. At least not anyone in New York.
“I’m so glad,” Harriet said. “We really shouldn’t hold out hope any longer.”
“Hold out hope for what?”
“Oh. I meant about the earl, dear. I was holding out hope that he’d return or write. Something. A title would have been so very nice.”
Maggie let out a laugh even as her heart gave a painful wrench. She had met Lord Hollings over the summer in Newport. He’d been friends with the Duke of Bellingham, who’d married her best friend, then taken her away to England, away from her. Maggie had been stupid and naive enough to fall in love with the earl, though thankfully she hadn’t been foolish enough to let anyone know, including him. “The earl was just being kind to me because I am Elizabeth’s friend. You know that.”
“But those dances,” Harriet said, letting her voice trail off.
“It was great fun but nothing more than an innocent flirtation. What Arthur and I share is far deeper. Far more meaningful.” Goodness, she was getting so good at doing anything to make her mother feel better—which apparently included marrying a man she did not love.
As she thought back, it seemed as if her life took a sudden and desperate turn for the worse when Elizabeth married her duke. Maggie was left with a world crumbling around her, with her flailing and trying with all her might to stop it.
“I should probably get ready,” she said, attempting to sound like her old, perky self. “Arthur is coming for supper and he’ll be here within the hour. Could you help me with my dress?”
Only the most loyal servants had stuck with the Pierces after it became clear there would be no more money forthcoming. It was something they would all have to get used to, fending for themselves, dressing themselves, cooking their own food. Maggie had always thought of herself as a modern independent woman until the day she realized she could not dress herself without help. Without Arthur there would be no balls, no new dresses every season, no French chef in a grand kitchen. Her mother was far more upset about their change in fortune than Maggie was, though she was greatly affected by her mother’s despondency.
Without Arthur, her mother would have had to move to her sister’s home in Savannah, Georgia. It was a dreaded alternative, for neither wanted to live in Savannah.
Once she was dressed for supper, Maggie glanced at the mirror, noting absently that it needed a good polishing. She looked exactly the same. Exactly. No one could know what was inside her, the secrets, the shame. She smiled brilliantly, her teeth white and straight, her eyes sparkling.
“Of course I’ll marry you, Arthur,” she gushed to her reflection. Then she let out a sigh and for just a moment almost gave in to the tears that had threatened for weeks, that left her throat feeling perpetually raw. Arthur did not deserve what he was getting. He deserved the girl she used to be, carefree and innocent and full of hope, not the girl she’d become. Guilt assaulted her and she pushed it brutally away, knowing Arthur would be much happier to marry the girl he thought she was than be told the truth. With a start, she realized she was digging her thumbnail into her wrist again and she looked at the crescents with a bit of vexation. She’d ruined the sleeves of two blouses already with tiny spots of blood that would not wash away no matter what she tried.
She heard the rustling of skirts and her mother, her hair in wild disarray, peeked into her room. “He’s here,” she hissed delightedly. Maggie shook her head fondly at her mother’s complete glee.
“Arthur comes to dinner every Tuesday night, Mama. I don’t know why you have it in your head that tonight is the night he will propose.”
“Because if he doesn’t, we’ll both be on a train to Savannah,” she pointed out. “Not that it wouldn’t be wonderful to see my sister, but Catherine’s house is so small, especially with her children and that huge husband or hers. She’s still got two at home, you know. Children, not husbands.” Maggie wrinkled her nose, making Harriet laugh. “It’s not Catherine I worry about.” Harriet had often commented on the fact that she didn’t like her sister’s husband, found him coarse and far too opinionated. “And I may have hinted that you would be safely married soon. It’s not that she wouldn’t welcome us both. It’s simply that she’s not expecting two more females for an extended time.”
Maggie lifted her hand to stop her mother’s guilt-ridden monologue. “I understand completely. Besides, we don’t have to worry about Aunt Catherine or her children or Uncle Bert because we have Arthur. Now. How do I look?” she asked, swishing her yellow skirts back and forth. With her dark hair and flashing brown eyes, yellow had always been a good color for Maggie.
“You look like a girl who’s about to get engaged,” Harriet said, her eyes misting a bit. “Now hurry before he changes his mind. He’s in the pink parlor.”
“Oh, Mama, you didn’t. You know that men loathe that room. He’ll feel positively uncomfortable.” She followed her mother down the stairs, motioning to her silently to stay put and not eavesdrop at the door even though she knew her mother would.
“Hello, Arthur,” she said, closing the door firmly and walking toward the tall man sitting awkwardly in a delicate Queen Anne chair. He was all knees and elbows, her Arthur. He stood abruptly, almost as if surprised to find Maggie here in her own home.
He didn’t smile. Perhaps he was nervous, Maggie thought. Or perhaps he’d decided that a buoyant greeting would be inappropriate given that her father had just been sentenced to prison.
“I’m so sorry about your father,” he blurted out. Arthur Wright was a man who did not feel comfortable in the company of women, for he came from a family of five boys. He got on well with Maggie because she had older brothers and so knew how men ticked. He’d once told her that she was the only pretty girl he knew that he could spend more than a minute with. Maggie took that as the compliment it was intended to be.
Maggie swallowed heavily at the mention of her father. She had not allowed herself to think of him locked away in prison with all sorts of rough men. Her father, who loved the ballet and a fine port and cigar after supper, was not at all the kind of man who would thrive in such a place. “I miss him already,” she said, her throat closing on the last word. She cleared his throat. “But we shall all be fine. Mama says the time will fly.”
“Yes. Five years, I heard.”
It was supposed to be one. One year. He could have endured one year. “Five years will go by so swiftly,” she repeated, her smile brittle.
“Yes. But there will always be the taint,” he said, and Maggie stiffened. It was so unlike Arthur to say such a thing, for if he was anything, he was kind to a fault.
“I suppose there will be.”
“And that’s the thing. That’s it, you see,” he said, sounding muddled.
Maggie didn’t understand until she looked at his face, filled with torment and real despair. And she knew, without a doubt, that Arthur Wright had not come that night to propose. He had come to break it off.
His face crumpled briefly, but he regained control of his features and stood there, making her say it because no doubt he could not bring himself to.
“You are breaking it off,” Maggie said dully.
He nodded, his eyes filling with tears, for Arthur did love her. She’d always known it, believed it.
“It’s our business. I know how that sounds. You cannot know how hard this is for me. How I fought…” He broke off, shaking his head miserably. “But my father can’t take the chance for his name to be associated with…with…”
“Oh, Maggie, not yours. Your father’s. This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said, trying desperately to hold it together and failing miserably. “I love you,” he cried, then pulled her to him and embraced her, kissing her hair in an almost frenzied way.
Maggie stiffened, then pushed him gently, but firmly away. “It’s just as well, Arthur. I do believe that you love me, but you obviously don’t love me enough. And I don’t love you at all.” She shouldn’t have hurt him, she should not have lowered herself to such cruelty. But then, he didn’t know anything of what she’d gone through, of what she was going through. If losing her was the worst thing that had ever happened to him, then he had led a pathetically easy life. She should tell him just how awful life could get.
“You don’t mean that,” he said, stricken.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said dully. “Could you please go?”
“How could you say such a thing? How?”
“You hurt me. And I hurt you back. I’m sorry,” she said, sounding more like some sort of automaton than an anguished woman. “Please go,” she repeated.
He bowed his head. “Of course.”
He left the parlor, that ridiculous pink parlor, and Maggie was glad that the last thing he would remember was where she stood when he delivered the final blow to her already miserable life.
Maggie sat at the dining table, waving a fan frantically at her face thinking that if she was wilting from the heat in New York, how would she feel in Savannah?
“The heat never really bothered me,” Harriet said, lying through her teeth, Maggie suspected, for her cheeks were brightly flushed and her hairline damp from sweat.
“I suppose one gets used to it,” she said, stopping the fan for a moment because her wrist was beginning to ache.
“I don’t remember ever being hot as a child,” her mother said, slipping into her gentile southern drawl for affect, and Maggie smiled. Her mother had visited her sister several times over the years, but those visits were always carefully timed to miss the worst of the Northeast’s winters. “I daresay I won’t miss those horrid winters here. Your father would joke and tell me I’d never quite got rid of my southern blood.” Harriet frowned, then gave a little shudder, as if shaking away any sad thoughts.
Maggie always liked winter, or at least the change of seasons. She could not imagine a Christmas without the biting cold or threat of snow. She adored her winter muffs, the way her cheeks would bloom with color. The taste of snow. And she would miss her brother and friends and the hope she’d had of ever having a normal life. Savannah meant more than heat, it meant she would either have to live off her relatives for life, find a husband quickly, or get a job. Though she hadn’t dared tell her mother yet, Maggie’s plan was to become a governess to some wealthy southern family. It would be a fair tragedy to her mother to have Maggie out working, but what other choice did she have? And being a governess was respectable.
If she were a governess she could have the pleasure of being with children even though she would never have her own. It would be a wonderful compromise. She’d find a nice family, one with clean, polite children, hopefully in Savannah so she could be close to her mother, and she would teach those little scrubbed faces. She could become like a second mother to them. And she would have everything any woman could ever want.
She would be old spinster Pierce, whom the children loved.
And everyone else felt sorry for.
Maggie gave herself a mental shake to rid herself of any thought that was the least bit upsetting. “Mama, I have made a decision.”
Harriet gave her daughter an uncertain smile.
“When we reach Savannah, I am going to find a position as a governess. I do not want to be dependent on Aunt Catherine and that would give me a bit of independence.”
“You don’t even like children,” her mother pointed out.
It was true. Maggie had never liked to be with them. She’d never actually spent more than a few minutes with a child, but simply accepted the fact that someday she would have one or two of them running about. Still, she decided to argue anyway. “What kind of person does not like children? Of course I like children.”
“You find them messy and loud and rather silly. And I completely agree.”
Harriet laughed. “The only children I have ever been able to tolerate were you and your brothers. You were always so quiet and well behaved. Most children are not like that. It is completely out of the question at any rate. I don’t believe I could stand any further humiliation.”
“But what am I to do? I cannot live on the good charity of your sister forever. I must be independent.”
“Why not simply work as a shop girl? Or better yet out in the cotton fields?” her mother asked with uncharacteristic sarcasm. “Haven’t I been through enough without having a daughter as a governess? My goodness, Maggie, it’s almost as if you are contriving to make me more miserable than I am.”
Maggie looked down at her plate, hating to make her mother, who had been through so much, even more unhappy. “I’m sorry, Mama, it’s just that I don’t know what to do.”
“You will get married, of course,” her mother said, instantly happy.
Maggie only felt her dread grow. She could not marry, though she couldn’t tell her mother that. She told herself she would not allow her mother to win this fight, and had had her arguments for independence dancing in her head since the moment Arthur had left the house. Her first thought had been: what do I do now? Her options were woefully limited. She knew only one thing: children, whether she liked them or not, were safe.
“I will not marry.”
Her mother let out a long sigh. “I know right now your heart is broken and you feel as if you will never find another man to love, but you will.”
“But I don’t want to get married. The only reason I was marrying Arthur was to protect us. But your sister…”
“Do you think I want to live under my sister’s roof? To lie to her about your father? To come up with more lies and more lies to explain why we have no funds? As soon as you find a husband, our problems will be solved. Unless you believe a governess’s wages can house and clothe both of us.”
Maggie felt her cheeks flush. Her mother had never spoken to her this way. In fact, she could hardly remember her ever raising her voice. “Of course I don’t believe that. I only wanted to relieve you of some of the burden.”
“How on earth would I explain to my sister why you’ve become a governess?”
Maggie lifted her chin. “You could tell her the truth.”
Maggie watched as her mother’s face, already flushed from the heat of the day, turned livid. “I could never,” she said. “You don’t know your aunt as I do. She would pretend to be saddened by our circumstances, but I know she’d be secretly happy. I’m the one who made a good marriage. Your uncle is little more than a laborer. I have never made her feel bad about her decision to marry him, but I know she resents the life I’ve had. Nothing would make her happier than to see how far we’ve fallen. Oh, sometimes I wish your father were here so I could strangle him.”
It was the first time in Maggie’s life that she’d ever heard her mother utter even a hint of criticism against her aunt or her father. Obviously the strain of these last few weeks was wearing on her.
Maggie stood and went to her mother, giving her an awkward hug. “We’ll be fine, you’ll see,” she said, not believing for an instant that she was telling the truth. “I’m sorry, Mama. Everything’s just been so upsetting lately,” she said, giving her mother another squeeze. “I’m not feeling well. Perhaps that’s why I feel so out of sorts. I think it’s the heat.”
“Why don’t you go lie down?” her mother said gently. “Try not to think about anything.”
Maggie left their dining room thinking that she simply could not bear another bad thing happening to her. She wished she could simply disappear, dissolve into the air forever. It wasn’t death she wanted, for she’d never contemplate anything so final. She simply wanted to cease to feel for a while, to lie on a cloud in a crystal-blue sky and stare into space for, perhaps, three years.
“The post, Miss Pierce.”
She looked up to see the sad face of her beloved butler. While she was growing up, Willoughby had been more like a gruff old grandfather than a butler. His wife, the housekeeper, and he were the only servants left in the house. “Thank you, Willoughby,” she said, feeling ridiculously close to tears. They were leaving this house in two days, never to return, and she likely would never see Willoughby again. She took the post without looking at it closely. “I know Mama already thanked you and Mrs. Willoughby for staying on ’til the end,” she said, forcing a small smile. “But I wanted you to know that I will miss you terribly. No house I ever live in will be quite the same without you.”
“Thank you, miss,” he said gruffly, then gave a little bow and walked down the long hall to where his wife was no doubt working to pack their things.
Then she looked down at her letter and smiled genuinely for the first time in weeks. It was from England, no doubt from her friend Elizabeth, the new Duchess of Bellingham. These frequent missives from her were the only normal thing in her life, she realized. Elizabeth wrote to her as if everything were the same, as if they still lived a few blocks apart, as if they were planning to go together to the country dinners she described. Indeed, her letters were so filled with details of her happy life, it was almost as if Maggie were there.
Maggie walked to her room, holding the letter against her chest, hesitating to open it in order to savor it. But when she opened it, she immediately knew it was not from her friend, but from the Duke of Bellingham, her husband.
June 3, 1893
Dear Miss Pierce:
As you know, my wife and your friend is expecting to deliver a baby on or around Christmas. It would be my fondest wish to give my wife the gift of her c. . .
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