1887 Debutante, Julia Crawford endures a lifetime of subtle ridicule as the plump, silly daughter of a premiere Boston family. Julia strikes out on her own to gain independence, traveling to the Midwest to marry an aging shopkeeper and care for his mother. Julia finds her new home rough and uncivilized after the sophistication of a big city, while closely held secrets threaten to ruin Julia’s one chance at love.
Jake Shelling was sixteen and grew up quick when his parents died from influenza on the South Dakota prairie. Left with a half-cleared farm and two young sisters, he spent little time on his own needs . . . till now. At thirty-five, he figured it was high time to have some sons and a mail order bride would suit him just fine. No expectations of love, just a helpmate from sturdy stock, ready for farm life.
Will fate and chance play a trick on Julia and Jake?
“Really, Julia, do hurry,” Jane Crawford said to her daughter still seated at the ivory lace-covered vanity. “The guests are arriving, and you should be there to greet them.”
Julia Crawford smiled up at her mother with resignation. This was a battle she did not need to win. She would make no argument.
“I’ll be down shortly, Mother. Jolene and Jennifer are there. Our guests are here to see them, not me. Has Jillian gone down?”
“She is standing with your father at the door,” her mother replied.
“I’ll be down in a moment, then. Do go down to the guests. You know how father fusses when you leave him alone,” Julia said as she spun a blonde curl around her finger.
Her mother glided to the door and closed it softly. Julia cocked her ear, waiting for the soft patter of her mother’s slippers on the steps. Only then did she pull the gold chain from her neck and insert the key that hung from it in a gilded jewel box. With a final glance at her bedroom door, Julia pulled a white envelope from the case and unfolded the letter it held.
Dear Miss Crawford,
I will be at the train station to meet you on the appointed day. My mother and I look forward to your arrival. I will stay above my shop until the day of our marriage. My mother has graciously allowed you to stay with her during that time. She is pleased to know you do needlepoint. Her arthritic hands no longer allow her to sew, and she is most anxious to have another woman about. I am anxious as well . . .
Julia read to the last line even though she could have recited the letter as if it were the Lord’s Prayer. Very truly, Mr. Jacob Snelling. The day would arrive for her to depart sooner than she both hoped and dreaded. Mr. Snelling was a successful shop owner, near fifty years old, with an aging mother in a small South Dakota town. He had never married. His mother had begun to complain of a lack of company, and he admitted he was lonely. Those two forces had led him to place an ad for a wife in the Boston Globe nearly a year ago. And to Julia’s shock she had answered it. Their correspondence had been proper, more formal than she had expected from a merchant in the Midwest.
That formality had been a great comfort to her. It was what she was accustomed to. And he sounded like a truly nice man. He had great regard for his mother, of that Julia was certain. His letters were filled with news of the aging Portentia Snelling and that always brought comfort to Julia when she was most terrified of what she was embarking on. A man so devoted to his own mother would certainly be kind to her. Julia rose from the vanity seat with a smile on her face. One more formal evening with her family could not deter her now.
Julia was not sure of the sentiment only a few minutes later. She greeted a few guests and found an unoccupied chair in the corner of the library. She had spent much of the day arranging the fresh flowers that now filled the room. It had kept her mind and hands occupied while her sisters fussed over their wardrobe and their mother had scolded the servants over some small matter. Without distractions, the day would have dragged on, and she would have dwelled on a decision her mind had yet to grasp. Julia gazed absently about the room.
Her older sister, Jolene, married now ten years with a beautiful, fair child, sashayed about on the arm of her husband, Turner Crenshaw. Julia’s younger sister, Jennifer, nearly twenty-one, sat amidst a bevy of Boston’s first sons, laughing sweetly and tilting her head just so. It was most certainly the sin of envy that would lead her straight to Hades in the afterlife.
Julia felt no jealousy, though, as her eyes found Jillian. The baby of the family. Jillian would spend the first hour of the party with the adults and then be whisked away to her rooms. Only ten-years-old and already beautiful enough to turn male heads. Dressed in navy velvet with a cream-colored lace collar to match her hair, Julia was certain Jillian was the fairest of the Crawford family. Even at her young age she was a model of deportment and graciousness with a gay laugh and shining blonde hair. Julia would miss her most of all.
The Crawford women were all tall and slender except Julia. She was no higher than her father’s tiepin at fourteen and still exactly the same height at twenty-seven. Julia snatched three shrimp from the young serving girl’s tray as she passed and laid them beside four chocolate bon-bons in the napkin on her lap. Julia preferred to refer to herself as pleasingly plump, or on the days before her monthly courses, as a fat, frothy, ugly spinster with perfectly beautiful siblings and parents.
Julia was licking chocolate from her fingers when she saw her mother staring. Jane Crawford excused herself from her guests gracefully, as she did everything in life, Julia had long ago decided. Gracefully floating, serene and above the clutter and clamor of normal living. She had attempted to instill that elegance to each of her children. Julia was certain her mother considered her second daughter her greatest failure.
“Julia, use a napkin,” Jane chided and turned her head to view the crowd in their formal sitting room. “Alred McClintok has been hoping to speak to you all evening. Why don’t you quit hiding in this corner and go talk to him?”
Julia dabbed chocolate from the corner of her mouth and looked at the man her mother was referring to. Did everyone assume that plump women were only attracted to fat men? One of the reasons Julia continued writing Mr. Snelling was because of his description of himself early on in their writing. I am of medium height and very thin. Dear Mama worries I am ill, but Dr. Hammish assures me . . . Alred McClintok was busy stuffing canapés in his mouth, leaving a trail of grease around his fleshy red lips. He reminded Julia of a large black ball propped on two very stubby sticks.
“I’m perfectly happy here, Mother. Your party seems a rousing success,” Julia said. Changing subjects had been a tact Julia had used successfully when conversation turned her direction, especially with her father and Jennifer. Her mother and Jolene, however, rarely allowed such a diversion unless it was to their advantage.
Julia knew she had failed when her mother gave her a glare she was long accustomed to. The icy blue of her mother’s eyes and the pinched shell of her mouth screamed spinster, on the shelf, and a long list of other shortcomings without saying a word.
“Mr. McClintok is an associate of your father’s, dear. We must always endeavor to make your father’s business prosperous. Household expenses only seem to rise, rather than fall,” her mother said.
The veiled reference to Julia’s dependence on her parent’s home did not escape her. She also knew her family’s business was very successful. Feeding and clothing her would never send them to the poor house. Julia glanced at the shrimp still lying in the napkin on her lap. Maybe she’d best go speak to the man. Nothing would come of a quick introduction and might keep her from expanding her waistline yet another inch. If he spit lamb on her gown, she could go to her rooms to change and not emerge until morning. Or she would slip to her room via the servant’s staircase in the kitchen and check her bags already packed and stacked in the dressing room of her bedroom. On the morrow there would be only three days until she departed.
Julia had hoarded every bit of silver she could for her trip. The letter to her family was written, as well as a separate one for Jillian. Their maid, Eustace, would give them out when she didn’t arrive home from a weeklong visit with Aunt Mildred. By that time she would be married, and there would be nothing her family could do.
Jolene would roll her eyes. Jennifer would be sad. Not for long, though. Her father would rant and rave. Her mother’s fury would be hidden behind a glassy stare. Though, all in all, Julia was sure they would be glad she was gone. They would never voice the sentiment, for certain. Would be gauche to admit this final lapse in judgment would, thankfully, be the last, in their company at the least. They would tell friends Julia was on an extended holiday at Aunt Mildred’s. Just as they had done before. Soon no one would inquire as to when she would be coming home. Her family least of all.
The only person other than their housekeeper, Eustace, who would miss her would be Jillian. No more long walks in the park. No more reading together by candlelight with the rest of the household long abed. No more brushing the girls’ silken hair till the child’s eyes drooped. Jane Crawford supposed Jillian preferred Julia’s company because Julia often acted with the sense of a ten-year-old rather than a woman. Julia would insist that Jillian loved the freedom to just be herself in Julia’s company. For whichever reason, they would miss each other desperately.
But it was long past time that Julia did something for herself. Make something of herself. Even if it was to only be a wife to a thin, balding Midwesterner and a companion for his mother. She could have lived indefinitely with Aunt Mildred. Her aunt had written her as much. Julia loved the woman and her aunt adored her, but Mildred at seventy-two had an active life with other widowers in the seaside town she lived in. And a beau in his eighty-fourth year. As Mrs. Jacob Snelling, she was someone of her own making. Someone’s wife. Something no one could take away from her.
Awakened from her daydreaming, Julia realized her mother had drifted on. She let out a sigh of relief and rose from her chair, having made her obligatory appearance and feeling quite content to reread Mr. Snellings’s letter until she fell asleep. Her escape to the kitchens was thwarted by Jolene.
“Julia, come here,” her elder sister said hurriedly. When Julia was within arms reach, Jolene pulled her close. “I do believe Mr. McClintok would love to talk to you. Stay right here with Turner, and I’ll fetch him.”
Before Julia could form a reply, Jolene was off in a whirl of pale blue silk. Julia looked at her brother-in-law from the corner of her eye. “Hello, Turner.”
“Ah, how are you, Julia?” Turner asked.
Turner Crenshaw was strikingly handsome. And rich. He and Jolene made a very attractive couple, much in demand at social functions. Jolene’s throaty laugh and elegance combined with Turner’s good looks and business success made them the couple to emulate. Turner was always comfortable and in command, other than when he was forced to converse with his wife’s rather eccentric and spinster sister.
“I’m fine, Turner. Thank you for asking. How is William?” Julia asked.
“Quite the little man, already,” Turner replied with a smile.
The ensuing silence stretched on. As usual they had little to say to one another. Julia never pictured Turner as the brother she never had. Exactly the opposite, in fact. There was nothing sisterly about how her heart raced when Turner’s face broke into a beautiful smile. This was the most compelling reason to board that westbound train. She wasn’t eccentric. She was pitiful. Pining after her sister’s husband, year after year.
“William is so handsome already. He’ll break hearts all over Boston, I fear,” she said.
Turner agreed with a nod and gazed over the crowd, stopping as his wife leaned her head back to laugh. “With a mother as lovely as Jolene, I had little fear our children would not be beautiful.” Turner tilted his head and stared at his wife with passion and reverence. “She is the perfect mother, the perfect hostess. I am indeed a lucky man.”
Julia swallowed and turned to him with a shaky smile. “My sister is accomplished. The essence of all my mother’s work. But Jolene is lucky as well.”
Turner’s face reddened slowly from his neck to his ears. “Julia, I did not mean to go on so about her.”
Jolene arrived with her prize in tow. “Julia, darling. Have you been introduced to Mr. McClintok?” Jolene said as she clutched Julia’s arm. “I know you would just love to meet him.”
Jolene loved everything. Her new hat. Her son. Crisp stationary. Hard working servants. Her husband. Julia didn’t understood how Jolene bandied about a word such as love without an ounce of insight to its meaning.
“A pleasure, Mr. McClintok,” Julia said.
Alred McClintok shifted his plate overflowing with teacakes to the hand already holding a crystal champagne glass. “Miss Crawford,” he said with a meaty smile.
“Alred here is making quite a name for himself at Federal Bank. Up and coming, you know,” Turner said and winked at Julia. “I hear his home on Monfort Street has fourteen bedrooms.”
Julia smiled wanly as the rotund man rubbed his tongue over his gums. Turner and Jolene’s measure of success was money and what it bought. They always introduced people with a clear indication of their status in the financial world. As if she cared one fig that the piggish man had seven hundred bedrooms. She would never be in any of them.
“I hear your stables are extraordinary,” Jolene added for good measure.
The fat man’s head bobbed. “Yes, yes. I’ve managed to assemble some of the handsomest and most valuable stock in Boston.”
The three of them turned to Julia expectantly. As if she should respond, ‘Yes, I’ll marry you. You have nice horses, and I’m twenty seven, unmarried and a hair over weight.’ Julia watched her sister’s mouth turn from a beautiful smile to a grim expectant line. She had to say something. Hopefully something as witty and charming as Jolene or Jennifer would.
“You don’t say,” Julia replied.
Jolene’s shoulders dropped, their alabaster skin sinking further into white lace. Turner glanced absently around the room. He had done his duty, Julia supposed. She tried to suppress the embarrassment she felt when Turner was witness to one of these humiliating scenes. Her head snapped up when Alred McClintok belched. He smiled at her and drank the rest of his champagne. Julia’s mouth tightened, and she supposed those up-and-coming souls with Turner and Jolene Crenshaw at their sides had no need of good manners.
“A ‘pardon me’ would do just fine,” Julia said.
Alred McClintok sputtered and hurried away as Turner reached for his wife’s arm. Jolene faced her sister. “Really, Julia. Is it necessary to be rude?”
“Rude?” Julia asked. “He belched in my face without so much as an ‘excuse me’.”
Turner took hold of Jolene’s elbow as if to guide her away. Jolene glared at her husband. “I believe Father needs you, Turner.” Jolene dropped her head for a moment and looked up to present her husband a charming smile. “You do know how he loves to show you off.”
Julia watched Turner clip off a nod to his wife. The two sisters stood in silence. Jolene used the same tactics their mother did. Stony, unrelenting silence until the suspected party blubbered out all of their transgressions.
“Say your peace, Jolene,” Julia finally said when the quiet was eventually overwhelming.
Jolene nodded to a passing guest and turned a cold face her sister’s way. “Is it absolutely necessary for you to chase off every possible suitor? Is it your grand design to be an . . . .an . . .”
“An embarrassment? Jolene, I have humiliated this family in more grandiose ways than the simple observance of an appalling lack of manners,” Julia said.
“Have you no pride left, Julia? Do you wish to live in your parents’ home until your doderage? Don’t you want a home of your own? A husband?”
Tears clung stubbornly to Julia’s lashes. She whispered for fear of screaming her reply. “Yes, no and yes. I had dreams too, Jolene. Dreams of a handsome man and a home of my own. My dreams died with one glance at my older, thin, tall, beautiful sister. And because I have pride left, I have no intention of marrying the only man left in Boston who would take to bride a short, fat spinster with well-heeled relatives.”
“You are attractive in your own way, Julia. You are not thin, granted, but certainly not the fat round spinster you make yourself out to be. And the only reason Mother and I keep introducing you to eligible men is because we want you to be happy. Have a home and children of your own.”
“I have a home, Jolene.” The subject of children was more than Julia could possible speak about without tears and hysterias. “I have given up everything for the good of this family. I will not sacrifice my self-respect.”
Jolene’s cheeks tightened. She stretched her arm out to a guest and glided along with a smile to greet them.
* * *
The stars shown brightly as Julia lay in her bed and stared out the window. The last guests had finally left, and Julia could hear tidbits of conversation from the foyer. Jolene, Jennifer and her mother were reviewing the evening. Delicious food. The right people. Jennifer’s way with the bachelors. Turner and Jolene’s invitation to the governor’s mansion. A smashing success. Then a prolonged silence. “Rude to Mr. McClintok?” “Oh dear.” “What’s to be done?” Heavy, thoughtful sighs followed.
As if she was nine-years-old again and spilled a glass of milk on her mother’s Belgian lace tablecloth while the mayor and his wife dined with them. Or when she tore the hem of her Christmas dress just as the family alighted from the carriage in front of the church steps and all of Boston’s good society. Or when at fourteen she slapped the son of her father’s business partner for kissing her. He told everyone she had been trying to kiss him, and the mark on his face was left when he tried to avoid her lips and bumped into the doorjamb. The shattering of a priceless vase had been her fault as well.
Julia pulled the coverlet over herself and rolled onto her side. Soon the plague of the Crawford family would be one thousand miles away. And maybe, just maybe, Julia thought, she would find a peaceful, useful existence away from censure and judgment, without constant reminders of her failures. South Dakota could not have seemed more like the promised land to Julia than heaven itself.
Jake Shelling stood in the doorway of his home and breathed a sigh of relief and happiness as his youngest sister rolled away in the wagon. Gloria was twenty, married a year and expecting her first child in the fall. Her happiness had been the last remaining item on his mental list, finally clearing a path for his own plans since his sisters’ upbringing had fallen to him when their parents had both died of influenza. Jake could still picture himself at the ripe old age of sixteen holding his sisters’ hands as men lowered their mother and father’s caskets into the bleak South Dakota prairie.
Flossie was nine the day they had died and Gloria a mere three-years-old. The first five years from that day had been the hardest he would have sworn at the time. A barely cleared farm, a half-built house and no relatives nearby to help. Years later he would have said the worst time was when Flossie went to her first dance and Gloria’s husband Will had begun hanging around.
Jake had made it through his sister’s suitors, blizzards and a rocky start to where he found himself now. Thirty-three years old and just beginning to think about what he wanted to do for himself. The land had fulfilled a dream just as his father had promised and had provided money in the bank, as well as dowries for his sisters.
Jake turned down the hallway of his two-story farmhouse and headed for the kitchen. No rug padded his feet, and no pictures or heirlooms hung on the walls. The sitting room he passed held two horsehair chairs in front of an unlit fireplace. Doo-dads weren’t necessary; he told Flossie when she scolded him about the state of their parent’s home. His sister was always trying to brighten things up with curtains and pictures, but Jake wanted none of it. His now deadly quiet house was where he slept and ate. He didn’t need throw pillows to accomplish that.
But he had decided what it did need. A woman. He supposed he would let her fuss a bit if she had to, buying fabric and gewgaws. But they weren’t going to get in the way of his plan. A woman to cook and mend and a son to pass his years of sacrifice and work on to. His sisters’ husbands had farms of their own, and when Jake let himself wallow, he imagined his own burial with his nieces and nephews standing at the graveside wondering what to do with the barren house and farm of their uncle’s other than to sell it to a stranger.
Jake Shelling had no intention of letting his parent’s graves and legacy fall into the hands of a buyer that was not of his parent’s stock. He would have a son, regular meals, sex without buying it and someone to work the farm towards a common goal. Yep, marriage was going to suit him just fine, Jake thought as he poured himself a cup of lukewarm coffee. This time.
Shortly after Gloria’s wedding last spring he had arranged to marry a woman, a cousin of his closest neighbor. Valerie Morton had been reported to be an attractive, hard-working woman ready to tie the knot. He had let himself hope to find some of the happiness his sisters had with their husbands. Not love necessarily but comfort and companionship. It was not meant to be. Valerie Morton had married the owner of the Brass Jug Saloon on her trip to be Jake’s bride.
So much for the exchanged letters and promises. He’d been embarrassed to realize he’d never given a thought to the possibility that his intended would not hold true to her word. The day he received her letter saying she would marry him, he’d considered her part of his family. Valerie Morton didn’t honor commitments the same way he and his sisters always had. He had misplaced his trust and been sorely disappointed.
But this time, he had planned better. Jake ordered a bride from Sweden of all places he thought to himself and chuckled. A young widow with no children, wanting to make America her home. He supposed he could live with not being able to understand what his wife was saying as long as she was as strong and reliable as the agency in New York reported. So he had sent three hundred dollars four months ago and his bride, all six foot of her, was to arrive tomorrow. A tall woman wouldn’t bother him, he imagined. She wouldn’t be taller than him after all.
Flossie and Gloria had scolded him something awful, and his brothers-in-law, Will and Harry, had laughed till they cried when Jake told them of his plans. He told Pastor Phillips to meet him at the station at three o’clock on Friday. He was going to marry Inga Crawper at the railway platform before the B & O chugged away. And he was hoping and praying Miss Crawper’s eight brothers were proof of a good chance of having sons. He didn’t want daughters, that he knew for certain. Jake didn’t think he would live through someone courting his child. It had been hard enough with Gloria and Flossie. Yep, things were going to work out just fine.