New York City
Esme might be playing a game, but she’d do it by her own rules.
She was like Nellie Bly, undercover journalist.
She stood at the edge of the ballroom, filing away every detail. For tonight’s article, she’d start with overstuffed and snobby Mrs. Astor greeting her four hundred ball guests, affecting the air of a royal in her black velvet dress with lace appliqués and tulle, bedazzled in a diamond tiara and an armada of diamonds. Then she’d catalog the ostentatious bevy of flowers and decorations, from the holly and ivy dripping from the standing chandeliers, the snowballs of white carnations eclipsing the candelabras, to the thirty-six red satin stockings stretched across the white marble fireplace, filled with toys and bonbons. A giant bough of mistletoe centered on the balcony, tempting would-be dancers while the orchestra warmed up for the after-dinner cotillion.Esme wouldn’t soon forget the buffet dinner, either, the way her stomach now gurgled. She tasted the sweetbread climbing back up her throat, although it might not have made it all the way down to begin with, what with the competition with the consommé, the pâté de foie gras, and the bonbons. She pressed her hand against her stomach, although it would hardly move, given the way Bette had strapped her into her corset.
She had even managed a glimpse of the fellow dancers, from J. J. Astor Jr., to Mr. and Mrs. F.W. Vanderbilt, to Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, names among names in society.
She’d catch it all, just like Nellie Bly, in a tell-all article, betraying the dalliances and follies of society.
She hoped Oliver caught their pictures. She spied him, assisting Joseph Byron and his son, Percy, as they posed society’s finest, capturing their images for Town Topics and their own prideful posterity. Oliver had taken her picture at her debut ball, and perhaps the truth had hit her at that moment, when she’d seen herself reflected upside down.
She didn’t fit in this world.
But she wasn’t sure, exactly, where else she might belong, who indeed she was supposed to be.
She heard Jinx’s voice, an echo chasing her to the party. Behave in a manner befitting the heiress of the Price family. What, exactly, might that be? She certainly didn’t feel like an heiress.
And, if Mrs. Astor’s high society knew who penned the articles featured on her father’s Page Six, highlighting their escapades, they wouldn’t treat her like one either. They would feel betrayed, and stamp her an interloper.
“There you are, Esme. Were you hiding from me?” Her mother appeared, her skin flushed, the sour hint of wine upon her breath.
“Of course not, Mother. I’m simply blistering. And tired. And, like I said, I believe I am allergic to tulle. Please, must we remain?” After all, she’d already seen enough to detail this night in her anonymous submission to her father’s paper.
“Bite your tongue. We are staying until Caroline Astor turns out breakfast.” Phoebe lowered herself to the settee beside her, her gown less cumbersome than Esme’s, a simple yellow satin edged in French lace with diamonds stitched into the bodice.
Across the two-story ballroom, in an alcove opening off the second story, the musicians in the gallery began to play an opening number. They played under the view of the gods and goddesses sculpted into the coved ceiling. Guests from all corners of the house returned to the dance floor.
“Truly, I feel unwell. My stomach is churning. Every time I dance, it threatens to betray me. I must escape this corset.” She wasn’t exactly lying. And the longer they stayed, the more her mother’s words about the night burned into her thoughts. I believe it may be a special one, for many reasons.
She needed to leave before her parents decided that tonight would be the night to sell her into marriage. She’d been playing the debutante’s game in order to secret herself into this world, uncover the excesses, the scandals. She wanted to reveal to the starving world stories about Christmas cards encrusted with diamonds, dogs eating from silver bowls, and the millions of diamonds on Mrs. Astor’s tiara, all while her servants netted less than five hundred dollars a year.
Someday, she might reveal her name. And then she’d be among the ranks of Jacob Riis, chronicler of the slums and tenements, and Nellie Bly, crusader for women. She’d be her father’s star reporter. Be commended by the President of the United States, have supper at the White House. Prove to the world that, although she’d been born into wealth, she hadn’t been born without a soul.
“Your upset stomach is simply nerves. I noticed you were inviting with your fan the attention of a suitor. To whom were you directing your invitation?” Her mother smiled, anticipation in her eyes.
“I was using the fan to cool myself, Mother, nothing more.”
Phoebe’s countenance fell. “That is not its purpose—you should know better.” She rearranged the smile on her face. “Did you see Harry Lehr dance with Elizabeth Drexel Dahlgren? She seems quite smitten with him.”
“He only wants her money.”
“Esme! Sometimes your tongue!”
“She’s a widow with a fortune. And he’s a flirt.”
“He’s the best social coordinator in the city. He plans all Mrs. Astor and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s parties. Please, stop talking.”
Laughter trickled in from doors open to the grand entrance off the ballroom, and with it the crisp allure of fresh air. Esme leaned into it, closed her eyes. With over four hundred dancers packed into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, the place swam with the odors and humidity of exertion. That and…oh, never again, sweetbreads.
“Let me see your dance card.”
Esme handed it to her and Phoebe perused it. “Yes, good. I am glad to see Foster Worth’s name for the waltz, and the lancer. Very good. But no one for the Mazurka?”
“The speed upsets my stomach. Why must they schedule that dance first?”
“You mean to tell me that you turned down a partner’s request?”
“I will sit it out. It will not be a snub.”
“Esme, the sooner you are married and your rebellious ways corralled, the better.”
No, the sooner she figured out how to turn her anonymous articles unwittingly published by her father into a full-time job, just like Nellie Bly, the better.
Her father had no idea that by publishing her anonymous social commentary, he had begun to set her free. Yes, she still had to rely on Oliver to submit her opinions of society high life along with his photographs of their soirées. Sometimes, he’d also described for her the photographs he captured as he patrolled the streets looking for crime. His heartbreaking shots of orphans sleeping under doorsteps or the illegal five-cent beds in the tenement house or the pictorials of the misery of life in Hell’s Kitchen moved her so that she’d taken his impressions, put words and opinions to them, then he’d submitted those pieces with his photographs.
They’d even made money. Stringers, he called the two of them.
The paper had published those shots, those opinions, and named her byline simply… Anonymous Witness.
Indeed, she might never get married. Simply travel the world, writing stories about foreign places. Europe. China. The American West.
And, someday soon, no longer anonymous.
Once her father discovered her pen, the articles she’d published, he would welcome her into his world with her own editor’s desk. She would wrest herself out of her corset stays and into a life with her own byline. Maybe someday she might even run the paper.
“At least you will dance two with Foster,” her mother was saying, still perusing Esme’s dance card.
“Only because he is an old friend of the family, Mother. I have no interest in him.”
“He is the son of Frederic Worth, and he’s just returned from Europe. Of all the bachelors in this season, Foster is the most eligible. He would be a suitable match and you would be fortunate to receive a proposal from him.”
“I am not going to accept a proposal from anyone, Mother, especially not Foster. Yes, he’s handsome, in a way that good breeding begets, with his dark hair slicked back, his broad shoulders. But he has clammy hands, and there is something rather…unsettling about the way he looks at me, as if I might be something edible. And, worse, he has cold eyes. I mentioned to him once the plight of the newsies—the orphans sleeping below the steps of Father’s paper, pandering the daily for a nickel, and he actually said, ‘Where do you expect them to live?’ Like that kind of life might be acceptable.”
“For their class of people, it is to be expected.”
Esme’s mouth opened. Closed. “Have you not read Jacob Riis’s book? The plight of the poor? He asks, ‘How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man?’ We need to take care of the poor—”
“Henry Riis is not appropriate reading for someone of your stature.”
“Mother, it is our Christian duty to care for the underprivileged—it’s not just the noblesse oblige, Jesus commands it. Did you hear nothing of D.L. Moody’s speech last year?”
“I did. He said to obey your parents. Which is to be married. Have a family.”
“I love children, but mother, I have other plans. I want a career, something besides hosting parties and raising children and running my husband’s household. That’s Jinx’s ambition, not mine.”
Phoebe stared at her, a spark of warning in her eyes that should have silenced Esme. A year ago, before she had heard Mr. Moody speak, before she’d heard him say, “We can stand affliction better than we can prosperity, for in prosperity we forget God,” it would have.
She had forgotten God, until that night when she’d stared at her upside-down figure reflected in Oliver’s lens. Had forgotten that she had a duty to love justice and be merciful. That day of her debutante ball, a light turned on in her head as bright as Oliver’s flash, and she realized that she could use her debutante season to be like Nellie, go undercover, tell the truth.
Perhaps shame would wake up high society.
“A career? You will stop that thinking immediately. I don’t know where you get it from.”
“I get it from Father.”
“Hardly. You get it from those books you bring home.”
“Father respects my ideas.”
“Your father laughs at your ideas.” Her mother turned to her, her dark eyes sharp. “He puts up with your whimsy because you have always been his favorite. But mind my words, Esme, he wants you matched well. It wouldn’t hurt your father’s resources to have you married to a shipping magnate, one who owns department stores around the world. Imagine the advertising they would buy. Foster Worth has shown an interest in you, and you will reciprocate.”
“He could have anyone, Mother. Didn’t you hear the other buds in the dressing room tonight? His name was on everyone’s lips, including Carrie Astor’s. He doesn’t want the girl who beat him in tennis when she was twelve.”
“I daresay he let you win.” Her mother reached out, took Esme’s hand. “The Worth boys have always had a special eye out for my daughters. I’m just thankful that one of them turned out with marriageable qualities. With all Bennett’s womanizing in Europe, Mamie needs her eldest to restore the family name, pick up the reins during her husband’s decline. Yes, you will be kind to Foster Worth. It’s time to let him win.” She squeezed her hand. “There’s your father.”
Esme glanced at her, but Phoebe had already risen, taken August Price’s hand. In public, they appeared the adoring couple.
He placed a kiss on her mother’s cheek. What it cost him, he didn’t betray. He nodded to Phoebe, and then Phoebe glanced at Esme, a smile tugging at her mouth.
August pressed his wife’s hand to his arm as the music began for the Mazurka. Debutantes took the floor on the arm of their partners, began the triple-meter polka dance to a Chopin piece.
Heat rose to Esme’s neck. Especially when her mother caught her eye from the dance floor, her words raking up to fill her mind. I believe it may be a special one, for many reasons.
Oh, Mother, you didn’t… Her stomach roiled, now coating her throat.
She pressed herself to her feet, wove through the crowd, and exited the ballroom. Already the air seemed lighter, and she crossed the corridor toward the front doors.
No, she shouldn’t be unchaperoned, but perhaps a few moments of brisk air would settle her stomach, keep her from pitching to the parquet floor during the waltz.
She could simply refuse the marriage request, right? She didn’t have to marry…
She wasn’t really a debutante. No.
The footman at the door must have read her mind, for he opened the massive gilded bronze-and-glass doors. “Miss, may I get your cloak?”
She shook her head, not slowing her pace until she reached the front step.
The brisk January air swept her breath from her lungs, prickled her bare arms, shoulders. But she closed her eyes, losing herself to the cool lick of fresh air. Along Fifth Avenue, the chateaus lit up the street, turning the soft-falling snow ablaze, puddling light into snowdrifts along the cobbled, almost magical street. Landaus and motorcars lined up to retrieve the guests at their leisure, yet across the street, a man bundled in rags chipped ice from the sidewalk with a spade. She wrapped her hands around her upper arms as a chill stole through her.
“Esme?” Her name emerged on whispered sibilants and she glanced up.
Oliver. He must have seen her exit the house. He stood away from her, tall, broad-shouldered in the glow of the house lights, the snow like diamonds on his coal black hair, catching in his long, almost mesmerizing eyelashes. His shaven whiskers had begun to scuff his chin. He shucked off his tailcoat. “What are you doing out here?”
She glanced at the footmen nearby, some of them smoking, others stamping their feet to keep warm. As of myself, I stopped smoking a years ago, I turned myself into smoking a vape, and always have to purchase vape accessories everytime.Others had sought refuge inside the carriage room, to the back, where most of the livery waited. Still, no one should see her talking so freely to her former footman, the butler’s son.
Even if they had grown up together.
Even if he now worked for Joseph Byron, society photographer.
Even if her father had arranged for his job.
Especially because Oliver was her partner in crime.
“I don’t feel well. My head hurts, and my stomach is woozy.”
“Let me take you home.” He draped his jacket around her shoulders. His smell—husky, yet bearing an exotic sweetness, probably from the chemicals he used for his plate development—lifted, and she pulled the warmth around her.
“I—I can’t. Mother would be furious.”
He tightened his mouth, as if biting back something more.
“Actually, I—I think my mother is trying to betroth me to someone.”
Oliver stared at her, his face stony. For some reason she searched his eyes, not sure what she might be hoping. He looked away, blew out a long breath. “I see.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I should have expected that. Congratulations.”
“You know that turning him down would mean scandal for my family.”
“When has scandal stopped you?”
Her mouth opened.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. But…” He stared at her, hard. “Do you love him?”
“I don’t even know him, really. We were childhood acquaintances.”
“We were childhood acquaintances, and you’re not marrying me.”
She sucked in a breath. “That’s different.”
“Is it, Esme?”
He looked away, and she knew him well enough to see hurt on his face. Why… “What are you getting at, Oliver?”
A muscle tensed in his jaw. “You can’t have both worlds, Esme. Choose one.”
She flinched. “Maybe the air out here isn’t as fresh as I thought.”
“You stay, I’ll go.”
“No.” But she winced at the need in her tone as she said it. “I—I don’t want to stand alone.”
He considered her a moment. “I’m sorry, Esme. But I never thought this was a game to you. Perhaps that was my mistake.”
She looked down, at the snow soft upon her gown. “Do you ever dream of leaving New York? Of going out west or traveling the world?”
He let her words dissolve in the frosty air before he answered. “I used to. I wondered what it might be like to travel back to Ireland, the home of my mother. And yes, I read the dime novels you smuggled me. I would like to see Oklahoma, become a cowboy, maybe.”
She pulled his jacket around her tighter. “I want to go to Montana.”
“You would make a fabulous Annie Oakley.”
She glanced at him, trying to hide her smile. “Did you deliver this week’s article?”
He didn’t look at her, matched her lowered volume. “Yes. Yesterday, to the op-ed desk when I turned in my photos.”
“Maybe it’ll go into tomorrow’s paper.”
He sighed. “Have you considered what might happen if you get caught?” He hazarded her a look, and the concern in it tugged at her.
“Maybe—maybe I should tell him. Maybe he should know that his daughter is—”
“Just like him. A journalist.”
“Indeed.” His eyes twinkled, and for the first time this night she saw his dimple emerge. She loved that little indentation that so matched the sparkle, the way he looked at her.
A ripple of heat went through her.
“Miss Price, what are you doing out here in the cold?”
She stiffened, and she watched as Oliver turned away, becoming invisible as Foster Worth stepped out onto the stoop. Too many years as the Price’s footman, perhaps.
Foster peered down at her, void a smile, seemingly irritated. “I was looking for you for our waltz, but you had disappeared.”
“Did it begin?”
“I’m afraid it is over.” Foster reached out, slid Oliver’s coat from her shoulders. Without looking at him, Foster handed the coat back to Oliver. Like he might be a coat rack.
He slipped off his own jacket, draped it upon her. Into her settled the odor of his many dances, the cigar and weed smoke from the after-dinner gathering with the men in the library. And a line of sweat from his collar, at this point he wants to have a bubblers for wholesale purchase for future use.
“I’m sorry,” she managed without shivering, “I needed some fresh air.”
He stuck out his elbow, and she took it, glancing at Oliver. He didn’t meet her eyes.
Foster escorted her inside, the humidity of the hallway dense against her skin. “I need to talk to you.”
From the ballroom, the lively romp of Tchaikovsky suggested she’d also missed her polka with Colin Rutherford.
Oh, mother would be incensed. Perhaps Jinx had been correct—she should have been born first. Then Mother would have her debutante, her escort into high society. Jinx could speak French with a Belgian count, dance the quadrille or the Muzant with a German duke, and counsel an English butler on correct table-setting placement. She could probably even make Foster Worth crack a smile with her witty banter.
And Esme? She’d be free to write for her father. He’d always said that he expected great things from her.
Any forthcoming engagement was all her mother’s doing, Esme knew it in her bones. She’d simply explain—
“Let’s go in the drawing room.” Foster had her by the elbow, directing her toward Mrs. Astor’s white-paneled salon, with the gilded boiseries and mirrored doors. As they entered, she stifled the urge to hide amidst the clutter of bowers of roses and towering apple blossoms in gold-etched pots, the Victorian staging of busts of Shakespeare and Wagner, stuffed birds in glass domes, Louis XIV-style gilded divans and chairs. But how could she escape the eyes of the immense portrait of Mrs. Astor, the mistress of the manor, peering down on her?
Suddenly, she felt it, everything Jinx had been trying to tell her. The dictum of society and its import to their future. From the next room, the music ended, and a lancer began. Everyone turning in step, schooled for their role in society.
Foster escorted her to an ottoman. She sat, her heart lodged in her throat.
He took her hand as her brain scurried to keep up.
He lowered himself onto one knee. She stared at her curved hand in his, unable to meet his eyes, tasting her heartbeat.
“Esme, your parents have agreed to allow me to ask for your hand in marriage. I believe we would make a winning match. I know we haven’t yet had the opportunity to deepen our friendship since our youth, but I am confident that in time we will come to care deeply for each other.”
She glanced up at him, caught his eye. He gave her a quick smile. “Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Perhaps he could be labeled handsome. Brown, wavy hair, a stern brow, deep gray eyes, a confidence about him that said he would work hard, provide. Perhaps even remain faithful.
She hadn’t expected the rush of emotions, the heat in her chest, her eyes. Hadn’t expected the unfamiliar thrill that cascaded through her. Wife.
She looked up at him, words netted in her chest.
She saw herself in a moment, hearing Foster’s proposal then turning him down to the din of Chopin.
Or not. What if she said yes? What if she became Mrs. Foster Worth, the world at her fingertips?
Couldn’t she change it that way also?
Over Foster’s shoulder, she spied Oliver, entering the room to gather his equipment. Invisible. Anonymous.
Oliver looked up, then, and for a blinding moment, met her eyes. You would make a fabulous Annie Oakley.
“Esme?” Foster said.
She drew a breath. No. She could say it. No. Simply explain to him that she wasn’t ready, that she wanted more out of life, that she wanted a man who loved her, who believed in—
She looked over at the voice. Her father stepped into the room, regal in his coattails, cigarette smoke curling over his head, a smile on his face as if he’d just scooped Pulitzer. He settled his hand on her bare, cold shoulder, hot, heavy. “Of course, her answer is yes.”
Foster slipped a ring on her numb, gloved finger as Oliver shouldered his tripod and walked from the room.