The Great War is over, and Elizabeth and Gideon are busily planning their wedding and welcoming home old friends now discharged from the army. One of them, Captain Archie Carstens, the son and heir of a wealthy Knickerbocker family, seems less happy to be home than Gideon had expected. While Archie was in France, he fell in love with a beautiful French woman named Noelle. He desperately wanted to propose, but he was already engaged to a girl he had known all his life back in America. When Archie receives a letter supposedly from Noelle begging for money to help her flee the terrible conditions in France and come to America, Elizabeth is suspicious. There's no way to verify the letter is actually from Noelle, and she fears that a conman or woman might be trying to take advantage of Archie in his vulnerable state. But that's not all Elizabeth has to worry about. Vicious thug Oscar Thornton has gotten wind of her wedding announcement and realises the woman who conned him is still alive and well. Gideon and Elizabeth have to figure out a way to help their friend while making sure their worst enemy doesn't destroy their future.
Release date: January 5, 2021
Print pages: 320
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City of Schemes
Planning a wedding was very much like planning a con, Elizabeth had noticed. With a wedding, the bride was the mark, and everyone was trying to convince her to give them her money for some ridiculous thing that sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime but which would probably turn out to be not nearly so wonderful. Even her future mother-in-law had noticed, and she'd never even heard of running a con until she met Elizabeth.
"Are you sure you want to have such a lavish meal for the wedding breakfast, my dear?" Mrs. Bates asked with a worried frown as she peered at the menu.
They were sitting in Mrs. Bates's parlor, having pulled up an extra chair to her writing desk so Elizabeth could show her all the lists she had brought along. As the mother of the groom, Mrs. Bates didn't have many responsibilities for the wedding, but she was anxious to help in any way she could. Since Elizabeth had lost her mother many years ago, her aunt Cybil was trying to fill in with the mother-of-the-bride duties, but neither Cybil nor Elizabeth had ever even attended a society wedding. The Bates family, on the other hand, was one of the oldest society families in New York. Elizabeth didn't want to disgrace them.
"I'm not too worried about the wedding breakfast," Elizabeth said. And the wedding breakfast wasn't a breakfast at all, but rather a dinner. "The Old Man is paying for it."
Mrs. Bates smiled. She found Elizabeth's father charming in spite of his questionable occupation as a con man. "As he should, but still . . ."
"He chose the menu. He said he wants to send me off in style, but if you think it's too much . . ."
"Oh, no. I was just concerned about the cost."
Society family or not, the Bateses weren't millionaires, and her beloved Gideon had to work for a living.
Elizabeth laid the menu aside and cleared her throat in preparation for discussing a somewhat sensitive matter. "I was also wondering about the announcement, the one for the newspapers. I know Gideon and I should announce our engagement, but . . ."
Mrs. Bates frowned at Elizabeth's hesitation. "That is typically what young ladies do, but if you'd rather not for some reason, then I'm sure-"
"It's not that I'd rather not," Elizabeth hastily explained. "I want everyone to know Gideon and I are getting married. Everyone, that is, except Oscar Thornton."
"Oh my, of course." Mrs. Bates instantly understood. Thornton had once wanted Elizabeth dead. The only reason he had abandoned this goal was because he thought she already was dead. "If he saw your name in the newspapers . . ."
"Yes, he might decide to come back for a visit."
"I see, and we certainly can't allow that. Although I seriously doubt Oscar reads the society pages, there's no use taking a chance, is there? I think a simple announcement of your wedding after it takes place that lists you simply as Mrs. Bates will be adequate. I can also send personal notes to my friends who aren't invited to the wedding. That is often done when the wedding is a small one."
Was that disappointment Elizabeth heard in her voice? "Are you sorry we've decided just to have family and a few close friends?"
"Not at all. It's your wedding, and you should do as you like. A large wedding can be something of a headache to plan, too."
"Even more of a headache than this one?" Elizabeth asked in mock despair.
"I'm afraid so, my dear," Mrs. Bates assured her.
Resigned, Elizabeth picked up her next list. "What about the flowers? I've been reading everything I could find in the etiquette books, and they say a tasteful canopy of greenery is all you need for the ceremony."
"For a simple home wedding, I'm sure that's true, although you'll probably want a few flower arrangements to set around."
Elizabeth made a note, and then she sat back and sighed. "I wish we could just elope."
"Usually it's the bride who wants a lavish wedding and the groom who wants to just run off."
Yes, Elizabeth imagined most grooms were only really interested in the honeymoon. "I don't think Gideon would mind eloping, either, but it's already bad enough that he's marrying a girl no one in society ever heard of. We can't give people more reason to gossip because we ran off somewhere."
"I'm sure Gideon appreciates your concern for his good name," Mrs. Bates said with a tiny smile.
Elizabeth returned the smile. "I'm determined not to embarrass him at least. So, what kind of flowers do you think? It won't really even be spring in March, so-"
They both looked up at the sound of the front door opening. Mrs. Bates gave Elizabeth a knowing look. "That will be Gideon coming home."
Elizabeth jumped up, all wedding plans forgotten, as she hurried out into the front hall to greet her intended. He was just unwrapping the scarf from around his neck when he saw her.
"Darling, what a delightful surprise!" A smile lit his handsome face, and Elizabeth hurried over to kiss him while Mrs. Bates couldn't see them.
When he had greeted her with the proper amount of enthusiasm, she stepped back to catch her breath and allow him to remove his coat. Only then did she notice the coat itself.
"What on earth are you wearing?"
Gideon glanced down at the beige garment he was unbuttoning. "My new trench coat. It goes with my new trench wristwatch." He held up his left arm and shot back his cuff to reveal the wristwatch she had given him last week for Christmas. It was a replica of the ones the army had issued to the doughboys because pocket watches weren't practical in battle, except Gideon's was made of real gold.
Elizabeth frowned. "I know the soldiers wore wristwatches in the trenches, but surely they didn't wear coats like that." It really was rather hideous.
"The officers did, I'm told. They're very practical. The fabric is waterproof, which must have come in handy since it rained so much in France." Gideon had been drafted too late to see any military action. "It has lots of pockets, too."
"Which you can use to hold lots of legal papers, I'm sure," Elizabeth teased. Surely, an attorney didn't have much use for extra pockets.
Gideon grinned as he shrugged out of his trench coat. She did love his grin. "I hear they're making trench boots now, and trench hats, too. It's all the rage now that the war is over."
"I wonder if they have trench wedding gowns?"
"Waterproof ones, no doubt. Very practical if it's a long walk to the church door."
"Fortunately, I only have to walk from my bedroom to the parlor, so I don't have to worry about rain."
Gideon hung up his coat and reached for her again, but his mother's voice stopped him. She had finally come out into the hallway, probably having judged that she'd given them enough time to canoodle. "I've invited Elizabeth to join us for dinner. We've been going over plans for the wedding, and I thought you might want to hear all about them."
To Elizabeth's surprise, his good cheer vanished. "I'm sorry, I have to go to my club tonight. They're having a dinner to welcome home some of the members who were overseas."
America had wasted no time demobilizing their troops in the two months since the war's end, and thousands of them were arriving at New York City ports daily.
"Then you must attend. Logan Carstens will probably be there," Mrs. Bates said. "I saw his mother in church, and she said he was due home on Monday."
"I heard that, too. I'm glad he made it." Gideon sighed. "We're also having a memorial for the ones who didn't, but that's not for a few more weeks yet."
Elizabeth took his hand in both of hers, offering what comfort she could. He still felt guilty for having escaped the carnage. "Come into the parlor, and your mother and I will distract you with wedding plans. You can settle an argument. Do you think it's appropriate to have poison ivy in the wedding canopy?"
This brought back his smile, as she had intended. "Let me guess, the poison ivy is your brother's idea."
Gideon hadnÕt really enjoyed the evening at his club, but it also wasnÕt as painful as heÕd expected it to be. Two of his old friends whom he welcomed home had actually congratulated him on missing the war, and they werenÕt being sarcastic. They didnÕt seem so much happy to be home as relieved to have the war over with. Plainly, they were glad he had been spared the ordeal, and when he saw how haggard and haunted they looked, he thought he could understand, at least a little.
His old friend Logan had spent most of the evening sitting in a dark corner and cradling a whiskey glass that other club members had kept refilling. Everyone was joking that they needed to drink up while they still legally could, with prohibition looming in the coming months.
Logan hadn't spoken much to those who made a point of personally welcoming him home, though, even cutting Gideon off when he'd started asking how Logan was doing. As the evening wore on, the crowd thinned out, and Gideon approached him again, carrying over a chair this time and sitting down beside him without being invited.
Logan's empty glass sat on the table, but he looked like he didn't need any more to drink.
"You don't seem very glad to be home," Gideon said gently. "Don't tell me Rosemary has thrown you over while you were gone."
Gideon had expected an answering grin, since he knew perfectly well Rosemary Westerly had remained steadfastly faithful to the man who had proposed to her before leaving for France. She was no doubt as deep in wedding planning as Elizabeth.
But Logan didn't grin. He ran an unsteady hand over his face and sighed. "I never should have asked her to marry me. If I'd known . . ."
This was not what Gideon had expected to hear, but his friend obviously needed his support, so he would give it. "I can't imagine what it was like over there, and I know it's probably changed you in some ways, but Rosemary loves you, and I'm sure she'll-"
"You don't understand, Gideon."
"I know I don't. I wasn't there, but-"
"It's not the war. Oh, I guess it is, in a way, but it's not what you think. I'm different, yes. We all are. The things we saw . . . But it's not that. Or not only that." He picked up his glass and seemed surprised to find it empty. He set it back down and sighed again. "You see, I met someone."
"Someone?" Gideon asked, not sure he understood yet. "Over there, you mean?"
"Yes, I met a girl. A French girl."
Gideon managed not to wince. He'd heard the jokes and the crude remarks about the French girls who were supposedly so free with their favors. And the song. "Mademoiselle from Armentires." "You didn't have to know her long to know the reason men go wrong." And that was one of the tamer verses. But surely Logan wouldn't be taken in by such a woman.
"She's not like that," Logan said when Gideon didn't reply. "I can see it in your face, what you're thinking, but Noelle is . . . They made the French people take us into their homes. Did you know that?"
"I think I heard about it, yes," Gideon said.
"We got to this little town, and there was no place for our men to stay, so the army made every family in the town take a few soldiers to live in their homes. I was billeted with the mayor. Because I was a captain. They gave me the best bedroom in the house. The mayor and his wife had to share a room with their daughter, Noelle. She was a good girl. She taught in the school before the Germans blew it up and all the children left. French girls are watched just as carefully as American girls are, Gideon. They aren't like the rumors say. Oh, there are prostitutes in the cities, but most of the French women are just as respectable as women are here."
"I'm sure they are," Gideon said, although he'd never given it much thought.
"At first it was a relief to be with regular people and living what felt like a regular life, not like in the trenches. We were living in houses and sitting down to dinner with the family every night. We even went on picnics and had dances. It was just like home, only everyone spoke French."
Gideon nodded, having nothing else to offer but encouragement.
"I remembered a little French from school, and Noelle had picked up some English, so we were able to talk to each other. Then I started to have feelings for her. I told myself it was only because I was lonely and homesick."
"I'm sure that was a big part of it," Gideon tried, but Logan was already shaking his head.
"It was because she understood. She'd seen her country torn apart for years, and she knew the horrors of war that we'd seen in the battles. We'd talk about what the world would be like when the war finally ended and what we would do to make things right again. I can't even imagine talking to Rosemary about things like that."
Gideon had known Rosemary as long as Logan had, and he couldn't imagine it, either. In fact, he couldn't imagine talking to Rosemary about anything important. "You said you had feelings for this girl. Did she return them?"
Gideon instantly regretted asking the question when Logan winced as if in physical pain. "She did. It happened before either of us realized it, but I was already engaged to Rosemary, so what could I do? I couldn't humiliate my fiancŽe by breaking our engagement. She'd done nothing wrong. In fact, she'd stood by me and written to me every week and sent me socks and scarves and all kinds of things."
Of course she had. That's what well-bred young ladies did.
"But when I realized Noelle had come to love me the way I loved her, I had to tell her the truth about my situation."
"What did she say?"
"She was very sad, of course. We both wept, but she understood. She'd been in love with a young man when the war started, but he'd died at Ypres. She thought if he were still alive, she would feel honor bound to marry him as well."
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