.. excerpt from
No Mortal Reason
-- Chapter One --
Diana Spaulding peered through the grime-streaked glass of the train window at rolling green countryside. Dotted with small farmsteads and numerous apple orchards, the landscape should have been a soothing sight. Even under overcast skies, it possessed the kind of pastoral beauty that appealed to artists and poets.
Diana was too nervous to appreciate it.
After they’d switched from the New York Central Railway to the Ontario & Western line at Oneida, the morning had passed with excruciating slowness. Their train had stopped at every tiny depot along the way—Fish’s Eddy, Cook’s Falls, Livingston Manor—all small, rural places Diana had never heard of. Now that she thought about it, she did not recall having seen a single factory since leaving Buffalo. She was out of her element here and she knew it.
"Lih-ber-tee! Liberty, New York, next stop!"
At the conductor's call, Diana felt her already straight back go stiff as a ramrod. Her right hand clasped hard around the handle of the crocodile skin gripsack beside her on the plush seat of the parlor car. Only the feel of the carved wood biting into her palm brought her to her senses. With an effort, she loosened her grip and ordered herself to relax, but the silent command had little effect on the knot of tension between her shoulder blades.
"Regretting your decision?" Ben Northcote asked. He sat opposite her in one of the car’s reclining chairs, watching her face with an intensity that further unnerved her.
"Which one?" she asked with an attempt at lightness.
Just now it seemed the height of foolishness to have postponed their wedding. Ben had wanted to marry her before they'd left Denver, and Diana’s mother had thought it would be a great treat to hold the ceremony in one of the parlors at the Elmira Hotel. That suggestion alone had made Diana reconsider. In the end, they’d decided to return to Ben’s home in Maine before finding a preacher. To do otherwise would have left Maggie, the formidable and somewhat eccentric Northcote matriarch, out of their plans.
Now, however, Diana worried that her single state might complicate their stay in Sullivan County. She had no idea how the locals felt about the propriety of a widow traveling with a bachelor, even one she planned to marry the following month. A proper sort of female would have taken the precaution of hiring a companion or, at the least, a maid. Diana hadn’t bothered with either. Then again, she hadn’t thought of herself as truly "proper" since she’d run away from the Young Ladies’ Seminary of San Francisco at the tender age of eighteen.
"It isn’t too late to change your mind," Ben said.
"We’re getting married in Maine on the thirtieth of June and that’s that," Diana said in a firm voice.
A wry smile kicked up the corners of Ben’s mobile mouth. His neatly-trimmed, midnight-colored beard and mustache twitched and the amber flecks in his dark eyes twinkled. "I’m glad to hear it, but I meant it’s not too late to change your mind about getting off this train at the next stop."
"Oh." She felt hot color rush into her face and ducked her head, pretending to smooth out the wrinkles in the newly-purchased, dark gray traveling dress she wore. "I confess I am nervous about meeting my uncles. What if they are cut from the same cloth as their sister? It’s likely, you know. And no one can hold a grudge like my mother."
"If you’re convinced that this newly discovered family of yours won’t want to claim you, then stay on the train. New York is a few hours away. We’ll stop long enough to collect the trunk and boxes you left at Mrs. Curran’s boarding house and be on our way back to Maine before you know it."
Diana permitted herself a wistful sigh but shook her head. As soon as she’d realized that her relatives lived only one hundred and twenty-five miles northwest of New York City, she’d known she’d have to visit Lenape Springs. It had not required much of a detour to do so, just the selection of a different railway line between Buffalo and Weehawken, the terminal from which ferries conveyed train passengers the rest of the way to Manhattan.
"My life would have been much simpler," Diana murmured, "if Mother had never bothered to correct my mistaken belief that she was an only child."
It had been a shock to learn that Elmira Grant Torrence had been cast off by her family for marrying Diana’s father, just as Elmira and William Torrence had later disowned Diana for her runaway marriage to Evan Spaulding. The recent end to Diana’s estrangement from her mother had been, in many ways, a mixed blessing. Elmira Torrence was a cold, selfish woman, incapable of showing affection, let alone love. While it was true that she’d insisted on buying her daughter a new wardrobe—her trousseau, she’d said—before Diana and Ben left Denver, Diana knew that her mother’s generosity came from guilt, not fondness.
As for the information about the Grants of Lenape Springs, she’d tossed that out with a careless laugh when Diana had remarked that she hoped her mother would come East for the wedding, since Diana had no other kin to invite.
"You’ve got a passel of kinfolk," her mother had informed her, and had proceeded to reel off the names of all five of her brothers and sisters.
Another small sigh escaped Diana as the train slowed on a long curve. She didn’t see anything ahead that looked like a railroad station, which made her wonder just how tiny a village this Liberty, New York might be. She knew little more about it than that it was the nearest the O&W Railroad came to Lenape Springs.
"I should have written first," Diana fretted.
"We’ve been all through that," Ben reminded her. "We’ll arrive as paying guests. That assures us of a welcome." He’d made all the arrangements by telegram before they’d left Colorado.
They’d been traveling for days, giving them ample opportunity to speculate about the welcome they might receive. Diana’s mother had not been able to tell them much except that her two older brothers, Myron and Howard, still operated the hotel their father had owned before them. Elmira Grant Torrence had left her childhood home thirty-three years ago and had never looked back. Truth be told, if she hadn’t become reacquainted with another former Lenape Springs resident, Ed Leeves, after moving to Denver, she wouldn’t have been able to tell Diana even that much about her family.
"My married name will mean nothing to the Grants." Diana squinted at the high point of land beyond the train window. There appeared to be a large building at the very top.
"Do you want me to play Devil’s advocate? Anonymity is to your advantage, or so you’ve been telling me for more than a week now. It will allow you to decide whether or not to introduce yourself as Elmira Grant’s daughter after you meet them. You can get to know them first, let them get to know you, and then—"
"—reveal my deceit?"
"If it troubles you that much, tell them who you are at once." A hint of irritation crept into Ben’s resonant baritone. Even his equable temperament had its limits.
Diana repressed a third sigh. She couldn’t blame him for being impatient with her. They’d had this conversation before, and more than once. It wasn’t like her to be so indecisive, but in this case she could not seem to settle on what was best to do.
"We will go ahead as planned," she mumbled. "I’ve come this far. I will at least satisfy my curiosity. If they appear unlikely to welcome their sister’s daughter back into the fold, we will simply depart with no one the wiser."
"Do you want this?" Ben asked. While she’d dithered, he’d been collecting the books and newspapers with which they’d passed their time during the long journey. He held out a week-old copy of the Independent Intelligencer, the New York City newspaper for which Diana had once written a theatrical gossip column called "Today’s Tidbits." More recently she had reported on crime, both in New York City and in Denver, and written a few pieces about her travels.
With a sound like the groan of a dying elephant, the steam engine’s air brakes brought the train to a stop at the station. Diana hastily stuffed the newspaper into the capacious tweed bag she carried slung over her shoulder.
They were the only passengers to disembark at Liberty on this early Friday afternoon in the middle of May, although several men wearing suits and carrying sample cases waited on the platform to board. The station agent emerged from a modest frame structure that looked more like a freight house than a passenger depot, gave Diana a genial nod, and headed towards the baggage car. The depot was small enough that the man who staffed the ticket office also served as baggage master.
Diana’s mother had showered her with so many gifts that she’d had to purchase two trunks to transport them all. When Ben went to reclaim these large pieces of baggage, she took charge of the pile of smaller ones—-her tweed bag and gripsack, the hat box, two large Gladstone bags, one for each of them, and Ben’s doctor’s bag.
While she waited, she surveyed her surroundings. Except for the large white water tank to her left, she couldn’t see much. The depot blocked her view on one side, the train on the other.
Diana was glad of the warmth of her wool traveling dress. Now and then a feeble ray of sunshine penetrated otherwise gray skies, but the air stayed chilly. A stiff breeze stirred the hem of her skirt and made the crimson feather on her smart new hat dip and sway. As the train departed, the wind abruptly increased to gale force. Diana squeezed her eyes shut as a gritty haze billowed back to engulf her. So much for the O&W’s claim that anthracite coal-burning engines produced neither cinders nor dust!
When the air cleared and the last of the dark green passenger cars disappeared en route to points south, Diana could at last see what lay on the other side of the tracks. Just across from the passenger depot was the real freight house. A coal yard was situated adjacent to it. On her right and a short distance up a hill were a few scattered structures, but not enough to be the center of town. The only vehicular traffic was a single wagon slowly making its way towards the depot.
Diana had to walk to the edge of the platform and look downhill to find the village of Liberty. From that vantage point, her view encompassed a good number of houses and several churches. The high, white steeple of one of them dominated the scene. Beyond rose a line of hills. They were scarcely mountains compared to those she’d just left behind in Colorado, but she had looked at a map. It had told her that both Liberty and Lenape Springs were situated in the foothills of the Catskills. If this had been a clear day, she suspected she might have seen a few peaks in that direction.
The wagon, a weathered buckboard, arrived at the depot. Apparently it was the house rig because the words HOTEL GRANT were emblazoned on signs attached to each side. The driver, a thin, stoop-shouldered man of indeterminate age, ignored Diana and spoke to Ben. "You Dr. Northcote?"
"Yes, that’s right," Ben said. "How far is it to the Hotel Grant?"
"Five miles." The words were clipped and he scowled at the two heavy trunks on the platform. "Won’t need fripperies. Lenape Springs don’t go in for fancy dress."
The sound of a muffled chuckle made Diana turn. The station agent stood a little behind her. "Don’t mind him," he said. "That’s just his way. Floyd Lyseth hasn’t had a good word to say about anything since his daughter ran away with a peddler ten years back."
Diana wasn’t sure how to respond to this confidence, but she was struck by the fact that, just lately, she heard stories about runaway marriages everywhere she went. Perhaps she was simply more attuned to such tales. She recalled something her friend Rowena had written to her a few years earlier. When Rowena had first learned she was to have a child, she claimed to have seen babies everywhere she looked, when previously, or so Rowena swore, she could go months at a stretch without so much as a glimpse of anyone under the age of ten.
"Come to think of it," the talkative station agent continued, unconcerned that Diana had made no reply, "Lyseth wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine before young Elly took off."
"Does he work at the Hotel Grant?" Diana asked.
The station agent nodded. "He’s the handyman, driver, bell boy—whatever needs doing, Lyseth does it. Even came into town here and helped out with replacing the station roof when Myron Grant told him to." He indicated the simple frame structure beside them. "Sure feels good to have something solid over our heads again. The old roof blew right off during the blizzard in March. Highest winds we’ve ever had in these parts. Took the chimney off that house over there, too." He pointed to a nearby home.
"How terrifying for those inside," Diana murmured. She’d had her own frightening experiences during that particular storm.
They exchanged the look of fellow survivors.
"Coldest winter anyone around here can remember. Should have expected something like that. March twelfth it was, and we had snow drifts twelve feet deep. There’s still snow on the ground some places." He pointed towards a nearby wooded area. "Got a snowbank about two feet deep right over there."
"How long was the O&W tied up?"
"The storm paralyzed most of New York and New England for the better part of a week."
"Diana?" Ben called, preventing her from sharing her own blizzard story. The buckboard was loaded and wanted only her presence to leave for the hotel.
Bidding goodbye to the friendly station agent, Diana hurried towards the wagon. She reached it in time to hear Ben ask their driver a question about the waters that had given Lenape Springs its name.
Floyd Lyseth looked as if he’d bitten into a sour apple. "There’s just the one and that spring’s been nothin’ but trouble. Can’t see no mortal reason for them to go addin’ on to the hotel. Fine just the way she was. Outsiders comin’ in are goin’ to bring nothin’ but trouble."
Diana hid a smile. The station agent was right. The man was a real curmudgeon.
Barely waiting until his passengers were settled on the hard wooden seats behind him, Lyseth took up the reins and urged the horses forward along the hard-packed dirt street that ran parallel to the railroad tracks. They were soon out of the village and heading west over an uneven road made worse by recent rains. Diana clung to Ben’s arm for balance and was glad she had him there to support her when they turned north onto an even more deeply rutted country lane. The land rose all around them and, in common with the hilltop she’d noticed from the train as it entered Liberty, one directly ahead also had a large building at its crest.
Slowed by mud and mire and by the narrow road’s many twists and turns and ups and downs, it seemed to take eons to reach Lenape Springs, though in reality considerably less than an hour passed. At the end of the journey, Diana found herself in a pretty little hamlet situated in a pleasant valley. A hotel was the first building they came to, but it was not their destination. A sign proclaimed that it was the Lenape Springs Villa. Down a side road to the right, Diana caught sight of a mill. As the wagon continued along the main street, they passed two stores, a post office, and a church on one side of the road, and a livery stable and blacksmith shop on the other, all interspersed with a sprinkling of houses. A wooded stretch of perhaps a quarter mile in length separated the last of these from the entrance to the hotel grounds, a long drive that curved gradually upward.
"Hotel Grant," their taciturn driver announced when he brought the wagon to a stop. Those were the first words he’d spoken since leaving the depot at Liberty.
For a long moment, Diana simply sat and stared. It was the building she’d seen earlier from a distance, but that glimpse of a far-off hilltop had given her no hint of what to expect. She’d never seen anything quite like the structure in front of her.
What was still recognizable as a two-story farmhouse was at the core of the hotel, but various additions had been made to it. There was a three-story section that, by itself, might have seemed a natural extension . . . if someone had not added another wing with two five-story towers. Just visible over the mansard roof of the three-story section were the tops of several lower towers at the back of the hotel. A wide veranda, intended to provide guests with a place to socialize in the fresh air, wrapped around as much of the structure as Diana could see. Parts of it appeared to have been built recently and were still unpainted.
"Expanding, are they?" Ben asked.
Diana could hear no hammering or sawing, and no workmen were in sight, but she thought she heard a distant shriek—the kind of noise a board made when it was ripped free of its fellows.
Lyseth’s answer was muffled by the heavy trunk he’d just hoisted onto his shoulders. "Tryin’ again. Didn’t learn their lesson the first time."
That sounded ominous, Diana thought, exchanging a concerned glance with Ben. She wondered what had happened "the first time" the hotel had been renovated. Then again, judging by the hodgepodge of styles the structure boasted, the "lesson" might have been that the Grants should have employed the services of an architect before expanding.
With a grunt, Lyseth steadied his burden and led the way towards wide steps cut into the terrace. Halfway there, he stopped dead as a goat appeared out of nowhere to block his way.
"Confounded nuisance!" Lyseth stamped his feet, hoping to drive the animal away, but it stood its ground and bleated at him. When Lyseth took a step forward, it lowered its head as if it meant to charge.
"That’s some guard dog you’ve got." Diana heard the amusement in Ben’s deep voice. She had to stifle a giggle herself.
"Get out of the way, Tremont," Lyseth bellowed, his face going very red as he kicked a rock in the goat’s direction.
Tremont bleated again and backed off far enough for Lyseth to reach the steps. Ben hustled Diana after their driver, but the goat seemed to have no interest in butting anyone else. Diana had the feeling this was a long-standing feud between man and beast, and wondered if there might be a piece for the newspaper in it. Then she put the idea aside to think about later, for they had entered the hotel.
Diana’s feet sank into soft, deep carpet. Even on this overcast day, enormous windows provided plenty of illumination and her gaze was drawn first to the huge fireplace directly ahead of her. Situated against the far wall, across an expanse of open space, it dominated the lobby.
Diana frowned. It was cold in the cavernous room, but no one had lit a fire. She thought that strange but had too many other things on her mind to dwell on the oddity of it. She took note of the elevator to one side of the hearth and the grand staircase curving upward on the other. Then her focus shifted to the ornately carved mahogany check-in desk that stood near the stairs.
A large, leather-bound guest register sat open on the counter. Pen and ink waited beside it, but nowhere was there any sign of a desk clerk or any other member of the hotel staff. When Diana looked around, she realized that Floyd Lyseth had also disappeared, taking her trunk with him.
"Did we imagine him?" she whispered.
"Probably," Ben said. "If Mother were here, she’d be sure the place is haunted."
"How very peculiar that no one is here to greet us. They obviously expected us today.” Unless, of course, Floyd Lyseth was a ghost."
A little hand-lettered sign beside a brass bell said "Ring for Service." Tentatively, Diana did so.
Before the last echo of the ding died away, a young woman threw open the pocket doors of the room directly opposite the check-in desk and scurried towards them, hastily wiping her hands on the sides of her well-worn, white lawn apron. The garment had definitely seen better days. It had probably started life as part of a parlor maid’s uniform, starched and pressed, its bib and shoulder straps embroidered and in pristine condition. Years of use had yellowed the fabric and left it torn in two or three places.
"Forgive my appearance!" The young woman sounded a trifle breathless. "We knew you were coming. I just lost track of the time." As she ducked behind the check-in desk, she whipped off the apron to reveal a serviceable red calico frock with a narrow white collar and plain, wrist-lengthsleeves. She wore neither corset nor bustle, which Diana supposed was only common sense since she’d plainly been cleaning in the other room.
Diana shifted her attention to the woman’s face. Was she a cousin? She had red highlights in her light brown hair. Diana’s hair was also reddish-brown. Beyond that, and the fact that they both had blue eyes, there did not seem to be much resemblance. Diana was of medium height and build. She had a slightly square face with wide-spaced eyes and fair skin—a gardenia-petal complexion, so Ben liked to say—and a small nose. The desk clerk was shorter than Diana and possessed of a noble nose and a generous bosom. She was a bit too thin elsewhere. Her face was very pink. Either she was flustered by their sudden arrival or she’d recently spent too much time in the sun without the protection of a hat.
Embarrassed, Diana decided, thinking of the apron, though she had no reason to be. No sensible woman would do housework in her best clothing.
As Floyd Lyseth had done, the young woman ignored Diana and addressed Ben. "Welcome to the Hotel Grant. You must be Dr. Northcote. Uncle Myron is real anxious to meet you. At least he is if you’re a medical doctor."
"Is he ill?"
"Uncle Myron?" Cornflower-blue eyes widened at the very idea. "He’s never been sick a day in his life. We’re all healthy here in Lenape Springs. It’s the water, you know."
"Why does he want to meet me, then?"
"Oh, he hopes you’ll endorse the wondrous properties of Lenape Springs water. I’m sure you will, once you’ve tried it for yourself."
"I came to fish," Ben said, clinging to the fiction he’d decided upon during their train journey.
Diana used one silk-gloved hand to hide a smile. She’d once heard Ben wax caustic over an advertisement for a popular spa that claimed its medicinal springs could cure anything from dyspepsia to torpid liver. He would never agree to give Myron Grant the testimonial he wanted, but for the present, because of her, he could not come right out and refuse.
"I hope you’ll forgive the confusion," the young woman continued, apparently satisfied that Ben would change his mind about the endorsement. "We expect to be finished with all the construction before the season starts."
"The season?" The term confused Diana.
Ben seemed to understand the young woman’s meaning but still looked surprised. "Are you open only for the high season? A friend told me this was a fine area for fishing and advised me to visit before the flies get bad. May fifteenth to June fifteenth, he said. Or wait until the fall."
"We do get some fishermen, and a few families come to the area in mid-June, but for the most part we only take guests from July 10 until September 10, just like the other summer hotels and boarding houses in Sullivan County. Some folks come and stay six or eight weeks, whole families sometimes, except that the husbands can only come up from the city to join them for the weekends."
"Do I gather that your family owns this hotel?" Diana asked, seizing the opportunity to find out more about the desk clerk. "Your uncle, you said?"
"Uncle Myron. Yes."
"Yes. My name is Mercy Grant. I’m in charge of the desk and I grow all the flowers we use to decorate the public rooms."
Which meant, Diana concluded, that she must be the daughter of the younger of the two Grant brothers, Howard. Diana’s mother had given them the names of all five of her siblings—Myron, Sally Ann, Luella, Ida May, and Howard. Mercy Grant’s father was some five years older than his sister Elmira, which meant he must be in his late fifties. Mercy herself didn’t look a day over eighteen.
While Diana had been questioning her newfound cousin, Ben had signed the register. He cleared his throat to get their attention and the desk clerk at once remembered her duties.
"I hope you will find your accommodations comfortable," she said, pausing briefly at a key rack before she came out from behind the check-in desk. "Your rooms are in the north tower. I’ll show you the way. It’s a bit of a maze through the corridors. Your luggage will be brought up, if it hasn’t already been delivered. Do you need help with your unpacking? We haven’t any chambermaids on staff at the moment, but I’d be happy to—"
"That won’t be necessary," Diana interrupted. She wished her cousin would stop talking for a moment. She had the feeling she’d just missed something of significance. No chambermaids? That seemed a bit odd, even if the hotel wasn’t open. Did Mercy do all the housework herself?
Ben caught Diana’s arm as Mercy rushed ahead of them towards the elevator. His eyes stayed on the other woman until he was sure she was too far ahead of them to overhear. Then he bent close to Diana’s ear and whispered, "Don’t make a scene. I have my reasons."
She stopped in her tracks, realizing at that moment what it really was that had seemed wrong to her. Ben had signed the register. She had not. And Mercy had taken only one room key from the key rack behind the check-in desk.
A none-too-gentle tug from Ben got her moving again. "Come along, Mrs. Northcote."
Diana obeyed, but only because she did not wish to embarrass herself. How could he? This was a disaster. By signing the register as Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Northcote he had put her in an untenable position. If her family ever found out they had shared a room in the hotel without benefit of clergy, they’d be outraged and horrified—as they should be!
"All the tower suites have a spectacular view," Mercy said when they got into the elevator. She gave Ben a bright smile as she set it in motion. "You and your wife can enjoy a splendid vista of mountains and treetops from your very own private balcony."
Ben’s hand tightened in warning on Diana’s arm, but he needn’t have worried. She was not going to denounce him in front of her new-found cousin. She’d keep her thoughts to herself until they were alone.
Emotions warred within her, perilously close to the surface. Her cheeks felt quite warm and a tight knot had formed in her chest. Beside her, Ben seemed unconcerned. He even chuckled at some remark Mercy made.
Diana felt a bleakness descend upon her as she listened. Did Ben Northcote understand her so little? Did he not realize the enormity of what he had done? She had thought that if she decided to tell the Grants who she was, she might also invite them to the wedding. That would be impossible now. And to think, only a short time ago she’d been worried that they might question her character just because she’d made a train journey unchaperoned in a gentleman’s company!
Oblivious to the brewing storm, Mercy Grant sang the praises of the newly installed hydraulic elevator all the way to the third floor. At the end of a long passageway and up a flight of stairs, they came to the top of the north tower.
As promised, the parlor of the suite offered a panoramic view of the Catskill Mountains. Furnished in Eastlake style, with a lovely red rose Brussels carpet, it also boasted a fireplace, this one supplied with kindling and firewood ready to be lit.
"The bedroom is in here," Mercy said, opening a door to reveal a sinfully large, comfortable-looking bed. "Oh, good. Your trunks and boxes have already been brought up." She indicated a second door. "And this is the private bath. Tub and water closet."
Diana said nothing. The suite was lovely. Perfect. And all wrong. If there had been a second bedroom, perhaps they might have brazened it out, but the only other place to sleep was a sofa much too short to accommodate someone of Ben’s height.
"Is there anything else I can—?"
This time it was Ben who cut Mercy off. "I believe a bit of rest is called for after our long journey."
His firm, almost brusque manner put an end to the young woman’s chatter. After pointing out the annunciator, which could be used to communicate with the check-in desk, Mercy took her leave.
Dead quiet reigned in the parlor after she’d gone. Ben waited for Diana to speak first. Diana wanted him to explain himself without being asked.
After a moment, he knelt by the hearth and struck match to kindling. It was cold in the room and she appreciated his thoughtfulness, but she was far from ready to forgive his high-handed behavior.
Diana had been deceived too often in the past by those she should have been able to depend upon. The possibility that she had been wrong to put her faith in Ben Northcote not only shook her self-confidence, it sent a stab of fear deep into her heart. If she couldn’t rely on him, that meant she might never be able to trust her own judgment again.
"When I booked this suite," Ben said quietly, "I still hoped you’d agree to wed before we left Denver."
"You should have changed the reservation when we decided to wait."
"I was wrong not to. I admit it." He flashed a charming smile over his shoulder before he went back to poking at the fledgling fire. "But it is too late to make other arrangements now."
She made a sound of exasperation. "Do you care nothing for my reputation?" Her late husband had not, but Diana had thought better of Ben.
"The Grants need never know we aren’t married yet." Satisfied with his efforts, Ben rose from the hearth to face her. "I am thinking of your reputation, Diana. If we’d arrived together and taken separate rooms, your family would have been convinced you were a woman of loose morals."
"Only if you’d been caught sneaking into my room," she muttered.
His indulgent chuckle grated on already raw nerves. "Perhaps it would have been you caught sneaking into mine." He reached for her but she evaded his grasp and backed away, one arm extended to fend him off.
"This is not a matter for levity."
"Nor is it cause for harsh words between us. I do not want to quarrel with you, Diana." Hands on hips, he stood with feet wide apart and surveyed the room. "This is not the first time we’ve shared a suite in a hotel. It did not trouble you overmuch on the last occasion, and back then there was, as yet, no talk of marriage. The only difference I can see now is that this hotel is owned by someone you may—or may not—want to acknowledge as kin."
"Reminding me of my weakness where you are concerned is not the way to make amends. And this isn’t just about deceiving my family. You deceived me, Ben. All the way east, we talked about how the use of my married name would hide my connection to the Grants until I was ready to reveal that I was Elmira Grant’s daughter. I meant I’d be known as Mrs. Spaulding, a respectable widow. You intended from the beginning that I should be introduced to them as Mrs. Northcote."
He didn’t deny her charge. He didn’t even try to claim he’d meant to tell her what he’d done but that the time had never seemed right. The truth, she suspected, was that he’d not had any intention of taking separate rooms here, married or not. He’d wanted her close at hand. That a part of her wanted that, too, did nothing to diminish her feeling that he’d taken away her right to choose.
"Diana, I didn’t mean to upset you."
"We . . . are . . . not . . . married." She enunciated each word clearly "You cannot arbitrarily make decisions for me." But he would be able to after they were wed. Husbands gained a totally unwarranted measure of control over their wives as soon as they repeated their vows. She’d learned that lesson well during her years with Evan Spaulding. It did not bode well for their life together if Ben developed the habit of making decisions for her without bothering to consult her wishes.
"I have no desire to dictate to you," Ben insisted. "I only want to take care of you. To protect you."
She could feel the intensity of his gaze and hear the sincerity in his voice.
"I’ve come too close to losing you too many times. Is it so wrong to wish to keep you close until we’re safely back home?"
"So you deceived me for my own good?" Diana deplored the hitch in her voice. She would not cry.
"Perhaps this will appease you." Ben produced a small box from the pocket of his trousers. "I bought it a few days after I first asked you to marry me."
Helpless to stop the anticipatory flutter of her heart, Diana stepped closer. He opened the box, revealing a gold wedding band studded with small colorful gemstones.
"Tourmaline," he said. "From mines in Paris."
"Paris, Maine. Take off your glove."
She obeyed, too choked with emotion to speak. The wedding ring he’d chosen reminded her of all that was good between them. He was not Evan. She knew that. He hadn’t changed the reservation, true, but she’d been so indecisive about coming to the Hotel Grant that he’d probably expected her to decide against the visit altogether and stay on the train.
"It is the most beautiful ring I’ve ever seen," Diana whispered.
The stones fascinated her. The gems varied from opaque to transparent, and their vibrant shades of blue, red, and green sparkled even in the watery afternoon sunlight of this overcast day. The center stone was multicolored, with a green outer layer surrounding a pink core.
"Wear it now," Ben urged. "It will give credence to our charade."
Diana felt as if she’d been hit in the face with a bucket of cold water. The joy went out of her heart, leaving a deep, empty space behind. She lifted her gaze from the ring to Ben’s face and had all she could do not to slap him.
He took in her expression and frowned in confusion. "Diana, I love you."
"And you think that makes everything all right?" Evan had claimed to love her too. That hadn’t stopped him from repeatedly betraying her trust.
"I think your usual common sense has deserted you." He sounded testy, as if her attitude was the one that was unreasonable. "Wear the ring." Without a by-your-leave, he shoved it onto her finger.
Tears pricked the back of Diana’s eyes. She pulled away from Ben, hiding her face.
"I wish to be alone."
If he stayed much longer, they’d both say things they’d regret, things they might not be able to take back.
"I’m not moving into another room."
"That’s not what I meant," Diana said wearily, sinking into a chair upholstered in cream-colored brocade. "I didn’t suppose you would go, even if I became hysterical and demanded it. And you know full well I don’t want to call that kind of attention to myself."
"What did you mean, then?"
"That I need a bit of privacy. To think. To get over being so . . . annoyed with you." How could he not understand? Having him place this ring on her finger during the wedding ceremony would have made her the happiest of women. To wear it now was wrong.
"All right," he said, using an oh-so-reasonable tone of voice that she found most provoking. "Perhaps I’ll go for a walk."
"An excellent idea," Diana muttered, clinging to the remnants of her self-control by a thread. "Here’s a better one. See that mountain?" She indicated the view from the balcony. "Go climb it!"
Copyright 2008 Pemberley Press. All rights reserved.
Last updated: 26 February 2008
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