The music was lovely, the food scrumptious, and mostly, the company was engaging, but Isabella Latham was bored. Every week was the same, visiting the New York City hospitals, taking luncheon with her mother’s friends, followed by the only thing she enjoyed. Riding hell bent for leather on her hunter, Champion. He was temperamental and barely broken to the saddle, but she loved riding him. Every Saturday she took him out for two or three hours, as long as she could get away with. The outings were the only time she felt free.
Tonight was another of Ernst and Julia Latham’s balls. Isabella had a new dress made for it. The beautiful pale pink gown of the finest silk had three rows of ruffles on the under skirt and looked wonderful with her pale skin, brandy-brown eyes and hair. The over shirt was smooth and gathered in the back over the bustle, the gathering held with ribbons of satin anchored in a choker around her neck. She had to admit the design of the dress was what drew her because the satin ribbons attached to the collar made it look like she was being strangled, when she was not. The shock she saw on people faces when they saw her in the dress was worth the cost.
The bodice was perfectly fitted over her tightest corset and showed only a bit of décolletage from the off-shoulder design.
Beautiful as it was, she hadn’t looked forward to wearing it. Isabella couldn’t breathe in the dang thing and she swore the lack of air kept her brain from functioning correctly. Otherwise she wouldn’t have just heard her father say he was announcing her engagement. To whom?
“Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues, I would like to take this opportunity to announce the engagement of my daughter, Isabella, to my business associate, Mr. Sydney Rockwell.”
Her father was rather red in the face. Perhaps he’d overindulged, and that was the reason for such an announcement. Surely, her mother would take him in hand and correct this outrageous situation. But, when she looked at her mother she saw fire in her mother’s emerald eyes and a rather pained smile on Julia’s normally lovely face.
Suddenly, Sydney Rockwell, a large, fat man, who was at least three inches shorter than Bella, was at her side.
“Come, my dear, smile. It’s your engagement party after all.”
He took her, none too gently, by the elbow and guided her to where her parents stood on the bandstand.
“Smile,” he whispered and squeezed her elbow painfully.
He eased his grip but didn’t let her go completely.
“We are very happy,” said Sydney to the crowd of suddenly interested people. “And we will be married in two weeks’ time at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Of course, you are all invited and I hope you will attend.”
“Smile, my dear,” he said out of the side of his mouth while he kept what looked to her like a maniacal grin on his face.
He again squeezed her arm.
She smiled, grimaced was more like it, but the gesture soothed him and he released her.
Hours later, the party was finally over and all the guests were gone.
“Come to the library, Isabella.” Her father made the statement with some resignation.
She followed him and found her mother there waiting.
“I know this was somewhat of a surprise,” her father began as he seated himself in the large leather chair behind the massive mahogany desk. “But you must see this through. You see, I owe Rockwell a lot of money. Money I don’t have and won’t have any time soon.”
“So you what? Sold me to him instead?”
“He wanted you and said he would cancel the debt if you became his wife. So you will marry him.”
“Regardless of the fact he’s old enough to be my father and I find the man totally repugnant?!” Isabella paced in front of her father’s desk. He hadn’t imbibed too much. This was what he had planned for her future—marriage to the most hideous man on the planet.
“Yes, and stop shouting.” Her father shouted back. Then he said in a calmer voice, “You will maintain a dignified tone when speaking to me, or you will not speak.”
Isabella closed her eyes and took as deep and calming a breath as her corset would allow her. “So, my feelings in this matter mean nothing?”
He steepled his hands on top of the desk. “No. They do not. You will do as you are told.”
“May I leave now?”
“Yes.” Her father waved her away. “Go to your room.”
Her mother had said nothing during the exchange. Isabella looked over at her. But her mother didn’t look back. How could she let him do this? She knew her parents weren’t close. In fact, she was surprised they remained married but this, this complete betrayal by her mother surprised her.
“And you, Mother? You go along with this…atrocity?”
Her mother did not look at Isabella. “Yes. Go to your room. I’ll come help you remove your dress shortly.”
“Don’t bother. Lucy will help me.”
“I gave Lucy the night off. She’s visiting her sister in New York.”
Isabella nodded curtly and left the room. She managed to keep her back stick-straight until she closed the door to the library behind her. Then she sagged against it. How could her parents do this to her? Sell her, and to Sydney Rockwell, of all people.
She lifted her skirts and ran from the library all the way up the stairs to her room, where she threw herself face first on the bed and cried. Isabella had never felt so betrayed in her life.
A while later, she didn’t know how much time had passed, she heard the door open and then close with a click.
“Bella, my sweet darling. I’m sorry Ernst has done this. I couldn’t stop what happened tonight, but listen to me for I might have found a way out of this marriage. I won’t let you marry that evil man. It’s said he bought his wife at fourteen from her father and she committed suicide to escape him. Personally, I believe he murdered her. Either way, he’s a depraved man.”
Isabella, Bella to those who loved her, raised her head, her eyes gritty from crying and then sat up on the side of the bed.
“How? How can I get out of this?”
“Here, read this.”
Her mother handed over a clipping from the newspaper out of the envelope she carried, and sat next to her.
Bella looked at the piece of paper—an ad for mail-order brides.
Wanted. Upstanding women for marriage to like-minded men in the West. Ranchers, miners and other professional men in the Montana Territory await you. Apply to Matchmaker & Co., Mrs. Maggie Black at the Golden, Colorado office or Miss Susan Wyatt at the New York office.
She let the paper drop and turned toward her mother. “How will this help me?”