Cassandra Huddleston has a dilemma. Her heart still resides with her sweetheart, Frederick Adair, reported as killed in action at the close of the Civil War. Now she has a new suitor, Emerson Bryce, powerful, attractive, and dominant he usually gets what he wants. Cassandra must decide if she can forget the man of her heart and learn to love the man offering her a future. As she struggles with her feelings, Cassandra is faced with the possibility that Frederick's death might have been greatly exaggerated. If that is true, will Emerson be willing to let her go?
1865 Rollingsford, Pennsylvania
“Spinsterhood is not a choice,” her mother repeated once again with that interminable pinched expression upon her face.
Taking a calming breath, Cassandra Huddleston lowered the linen napkin back to her lap. “Mama,” she said in what she hoped was a soothing tone. “Remaining unmarried is not what it was when you were young. It is a respectable state, and I’ll have my own money from Grandmother in a few years more, allowing me to see to my own needs. Besides, I spend much of my time involved with the Ladies Aid Society which could easily fill up my days instead of a husband and children.”
While her mother turned her head away with a huff, Cassandra eyed her younger sister Miranda sitting quietly in a corner seat with a fork held in mid-air, the scene before her apparently more interesting than her morning meal.
“What of Emerson Bryce?” asked her father, lowering his newspaper at the breakfast table. “Have you given him more thought? He’s coming to call again today and if he should suggest…”
“Papa, no! I can’t.”
“You can, Cassandra,” her father spoke in his deep, commanding voice. “Think of your future.”
Cassandra clutched at the oval locket strung around her neck and rubbed it between her fingers, her father’s earlier words still tormenting her. ‘Think of your future.’ My future? She closed her eyes and shook her head in the grief that pierced her soul from day to day. Four long years had passed since Frederick Adair had met her at this exact spot and poured out his heart, declaring how much he loved her. She squeezed her eyes tighter as his face filled her memory.
When I return, promise you’ll marry me, he had asked. Sucking in a breath, she held onto her stomach, a raw gnawing sensation tumbling around inside. How could she know that would be the very same day he would march out of her life forever.
With the August sun pouring its heat over her, she located the stone bench situated under a spreading oak tree and a few feet away from the garden that was within sight of her family home, sixteen miles outside of Philadelphia. A stifling breeze blew by, propelling her curls back from her face. Gathering the fullness of her gray muslin skirt into compliance, she took a seat and removed her straw hat. It had been covered in ribbons and frills by her sister Miranda. Fanning herself with the hat, she thought about how her sister continually attempted to make her stylish and insisted she put away her mourning attire. She should know I gave up being fashionable four years ago when this terrible war started.
Placing her hat on the bench, she removed the charm from around her neck and held it in the palm of her hand. She opened it and admired the lock of lovely golden brown hair held inside. She touched the strands of Frederick’s hair, the softness causing deep emotions to stir within her. A hand came to her mouth to stifle the sob forming in her throat. With him, she had formed all her hopes and dreams. All that was gone. Now the future only seemed to spread before her like an empty, desolate land.
Lord, why? Why did you allow Frederick to die? Why did he have to leave me? Why? Huge tears began to tumble down her cheeks.
Snapping the locket shut, she shot to her feet as her hands bunched into fists. These thoughts were a poison to her soul. It was as if she was determined to make herself continue in perpetual grief. Her life had become a vale of tears and she was tired of it. She had to let him go if only to allow her heart to rest. She knew that would only come by allowing God to heal her pain but she couldn’t. If she permitted herself to stop hurting over Frederick, it would be like admitting she had forgotten him.
With her twenty-second birthday rapidly approaching, her parents continued to hint at their approval of Mr. Emerson Bryce, today’s episode being but an overwhelming reminder. Emerson Bryce. Why Emerson? Was it because he was wealthy and held position as well as being a friend of her father’s? He had never once shared his faith or confided in her. Why should I give my heart to a man who seems so cold and empty inside? Frederick, on the other hand, had such an open, willing, and loving heart. It was hard not to compare the difference between the two.
From the large, inside pocket of her day dress, Cassandra pulled two letters. One, addressed without flourish, and quite worn and wrinkled, was the last letter she had received from Frederick six months ago, before receiving the news he had fallen in battle. Crisp and clean with pretentious handwriting, the other was from Emerson Bryce, asking to meet with her today. There could be only one reason for the appointment; he wished to ask for her hand. He had called on her repeatedly over the last several months. A proposal had been expected. And now with the war over and the economy in their part of the nation solvent once more, Emerson wanted a wife.
Cassandra returned the locket to its proper place at her throat as she focused on the matter at hand. The time had come to decide. Could she marry him and leave her memories behind? She would have all she could ever want. Emerson was an honorable man. He was powerful and handsome, a pillar in the community here and in Philadelphia, but was being a fine lady with a grand house what she wanted? Was it what God had planned for her? If Frederick had come home, they would have married and happily farmed his family’s land. They would never have been overly rich, but she was sure, they would have been happy. That was the life she had foreseen.
The tears returned to her eyes. She dropped to the ground and covered her face with her hands, allowing the letters to slip onto the grass and precariously whip in the wind. So engrossed was she in her troubling thoughts that she almost didn’t hear the footsteps crunching in the grass behind her. Hurriedly, she grabbed up the letters and returned them to her pocket and then snatched at the handkerchief at her waist, wiping away the trail of tears streaming down each cheek. She sniffed and then exhaled a calming breath as she replaced the handkerchief and stood in preparation of attending to her intruder.
“Good morning, Mr. Bryce.”
“It is a lovely day, Miss Cassandra.” He examined her for a moment. “I hoped that you would call me Emerson by now.” Stylish as always, he wore a dark frock coat, silk tie and spotless white linen shirt. He held his hat in his hands with a slight smile on his lips. It was a handsome smile but still it seemed to lack something.
Cassandra returned the smile as best she could. “And what brings you out here today?” She held a breath as he continued to gaze on her appreciatively with those deep blue eyes of his.
Emerson was a tall, attractive man, not yet thirty. Most women would have been only too happy to have him accompany them anywhere. She should have been honored by his attentions especially as he hadn’t shown an interest in any lady during the five years he had been a member of the neighborhood.
“I thought we might take a stroll through the garden,” he said in his fine, masculine voice.
Cassandra neared him and placed her hand into the crook of his offered elbow. “It was awfully kind of you to take the time to visit today, Emerson.”
“It is my pleasure, I assure you.” There was a pleasant silence between them, but after a short interval of time, he spoke again. “You received my letter, I hope.”
Responding with a nod while keeping her eyes low, she couldn’t bring herself to say anything more.
He cleared his throat and shifted his shoulders back. “I had hoped to ask you something very important.”
Cassandra trained her eyes onto his, the panic rising within her, setting her heart to race. Emerson was a man of few words, and if he had come with a purpose today, there could be only one thing on his mind. This was the moment she had been dreading.
“I’ve spoken with your father about your future and he agrees you would make someone a handsome wife. That is to say, Cassandra, I asked your father and he has consented to a union between us.”
Pulling her hand away, Cassandra peered up at Emerson thus ending their turn about the garden. The demonstration on his face wasn’t one of an expectant lover. Instead, there was only complacent confidence staring back, forcing her response. “I cannot marry you, Mr. Bryce.” Her voice came out stronger than she had dared hope despite the tears filling her eyes again.
Emerson seemed quite put off by her answer. He’d never shown anger in her presence; yet, before her very eyes, his confidence transformed into irritation. It was bound to rupture into something much more fierce if he continued along this path. Instead, he put his fine manners into place and cleared his expression of all emotion. Gently, he took her hand and held it between both of his own as if calming a small child.
“Miss Cassandra, I know of the heartache you must have experienced in losing someone whose affection you held in such high regard. I am here ready and willing to care for you. How can you refuse my heartfelt proposal?”