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One Word from You

by Susanne Dietze

Based on Pride and Prejudice

Urged by her family to marry for the sake of their dwindling finances, Eliza Branch prefers to pay for the remainder of her time at the Austen Academy by writing for the local paper. There’s plenty to write about now that railroad baron William Delacourt has come to Austin. His proposed northbound line may be good for local business, but she’s still stinging from his terrible first impression. If the rumors about William are true, then he deserves to be skewered in print. But when Eliza’s pen gets ahead of her conscience, it’s William who makes everything right—and the reasons behind his sacrifice just might be the story of Eliza’s lifetime.

Based on Pride and Prejudice

Chapter 1

October, 1883

“If it is indeed a truth universally acknowledged that a bachelor in possession of a lucrative cattle ranch must be in want of a wife, then Mr. Cray will be swapping vows before calving season.” Merriment pulled at Eliza Branch’s lips as she gazed past her parents at the darkness beyond the carriage window. “He doesn’t need our assistance to find a suitable bride.”

“This is no time for your odd sense of humor, Eliza.” The carriage bumped over a pothole, and Mother sucked in a hissing breath. “This headache!”

“I’m sorry, Mother. I didn’t mean to upset you. Are you ill?” Eliza bit the finger-seam of her glove and tugged, baring her arm to the evening cool. She cupped her hand over Mother’s smooth cheek. “You don’t have a fever.”

Mother’s head jerked back. “Still a hoyden after months of finishing school. Can no one persuade you to stop undressing with your teeth?”

“I didn’t rip the seam this time.” Eliza patted Mother’s knee. “Let’s turn back home. The Hales will understand if you’re too ill to attend the gala.”

“Your mother’s fine,” Father drawled. “Hot with determination, is all.”

“No thanks to you, George.” Mother’s eyes flashed glossy as ink in the moonlight. “Now Eliza must wed Hezekiah Cray with too much haste for a proper society wedding.”

“I—what?” A nauseating sensation coiled in Eliza’s stomach, just as it did during her recurring nightmare of arriving tardy for a French exam at her finishing school, the Jeannette C. Austen Academy for Young Ladies. In those dreams, she couldn’t recognize the conjugations on the chalkboard. But Mother’s perplexing words boded a far worse fate than poor marks.

Marry,” Mother reiterated, as if she were about to spell the word. “You’re nineteen. Plenty old enough.”

Eliza stifled a snort. She’d marry Mr. Cray, with his oily black hair, overlong mustache, and unsavory habits when his cattle sang in the church choir. “He gambles, Mother.”

“He can afford to. He has the touch of Midas with livestock.”

“And I do not.” Father sighed and stared out the window at the dark street.

Eliza’s mouth filled with fearful questions, cold and metallic as coins on her tongue. “What’s happened?”

“The cattle are diseased.” Mother massaged her temples. “Your father bred good stock with feral cows to produce some new kind of Longhorn. But he failed. The drought hasn’t helped, either. We must sell the ranch to keep the house here in town.”

Eliza touched Father’s arm, willing him to look at her. “It’s not so bad, is it, Father?”

He shrugged, but whether his action bespoke apology or resignation, she couldn’t tell. The thick silver sideburns curving down his lean cheeks couldn’t hide the clenched set of his jaw.

Mother stifled a sob. “We’ll have to let Marta Fleischer go from the kitchen.”

“You can’t. Her pa just died. Her brothers are struggling with their farm. The Fleischers need the money.”

“So do we. If it matters so much, then wed Mr. Cray and you can hire all of Marta’s kin.”

No need to go that far. “I’ll pitch in to make up the shortfall with my earnings from the Texas Star. Mr. LeShand, my editor, said my advertisements bring customers to the clients, and—”

“Money isn’t short. It’s gone.” Mother sniffed. “We don’t need pitiful contributions from your embarrassing hobby. We need you wed to someone who can support us and your sisters.”

 Eliza shut her eyes. Honor thy mother and father. But Lord, how can a marriage lacking love and respect be your will?

“You’ll be leaving school at Christmas, when tuition runs out. But I’ll not have it known that you left mid-year over money. For appearances’ sake, you’ll move home to prepare for your wedding. A wedding,” Mother said, “that will save our family.”

Eliza allowed the carriage’s motion to slump her against the squabs. The closed-up odors of leather and Mother’s violet perfume brought little comfort, for she preferred the book-and-ink smell of Austen Abbey, which was so much more than a school to her—it was a haven, full of friends and gaiety. And the ranch, her family’s livelihood and lifeblood, had always been more of a home than the house in town. Vast and grassy and clear, it was the one place she could run and think.

She always knew she’d have to leave school and the ranch behind someday. But never like this.

“We should return home.” Her voice sounded flat in her ears. “The gala tickets are dear in price—”

“Our donation to the hospital fund was made weeks ago. Besides, tonight is an investment in our future. Where else can you flirt with the wealthiest men in Austin?”

Whatever that meant. Austen Abbey didn’t offer courses in flirtation.

“I thought you selected Mr. Cray for me.” At once, Eliza regretted her sarcastic tone, but her mother’s words both confused and vexed her.

“I prefer him, but if you find someone more to your liking, fine, so long as he’s wealthy. Remember to smile, and use that gown to advantage.” Mother plumped the pink and cream satin roses sewn onto Eliza’s left shoulder seam.

When she donned the gown earlier, twirling for her reflection in her bedroom at school, she’d felt like a princess. Her roommate, Jeanie Hale, said the mist-green silk complemented Eliza’s dark hair and blue eyes. We’ll be the prettiest girls at my parents’ gala, Jeanie had said.

Now the gown felt heavy, the bustle too large and the roses an extravagant, foolish frippery. Her fairy-tale dress was nothing but a lure to catch a deep-pocketed bachelor.

Gravel crunching under the wheels, the carriage slowed to a halt. A twinge twisted in Eliza’s chest as she peered out the window. She’d always loved the Hales’ home, a blue painted lady with a deep porch. Tonight, laughter and light spilled out its square windows onto the well-manicured yard and into the street, but Eliza didn’t feel like joining in the revelry.

How could she act as Mother expected when her heart was breaking?

With a groan like a bullfrog’s, the carriage door opened.

“Fix your glove, Eliza. You’ve work to do. And if a marriage for money’s sake offends you, try to fall in love tonight. With someone rich, of course.”

 Fall in love, indeed. She’d never fallen into anything in her life. Not mud puddles, not a gopher hole, and certainly not love. And she didn’t expect to start now.

Eliza yanked the glove to her elbow and followed her parents into the house. There was only one person she wished to see tonight, and it wasn’t Mr. Cray. Her gaze scanned the crowd for silvery-blond hair and a pink dress. Ah, Jeanie chatted across the dining room. Eliza hastened toward her—

Smack into a solid wall of man, all dark wool and spicy aftershave. Firm arms captured her in a steadying hold.

“Miss? Are you hurt?” His voice, honey-thick with a southern drawl, drew her gaze upward. The gentleman scrutinized her with concerned eyes the shade of fresh-turned earth, a touch darker than the hair curling over his collar.

“Not at all. I’m…fine.” Gazing up at him, she forgot whether she was in the process of inhaling or exhaling. How ridiculous, gasping like a moon-eyed miss as shivers traversed her arms. No doubt she was addled by the collision.

Her gaze fell to the empty cup in his hand and the damp spots speckling his sleeve. “I cannot say the same for your punch. Forgive me, sir.”

She tugged a handkerchief from her bag and blotted the damp spots on his forearm, accidentally whacking his abdomen in the process. At his wince, her hand lowered. He must think her a dolt. Or worse, forward.

Maybe Mama was right about her after all. But then he smiled—a look that was polite, if not warm. A good-bye, then. “Pleasant evening to you, then.”

He turned but couldn’t step away, not with Jeanie and her mother closing in on him, Eliza’s mother at their heels. Considering the dark-haired gentleman was under thirty and had sufficient funds to attend tonight’s gala, Mother must have deemed him worthy quarry for the Marriage Hunt.

 “Mr. Delacourt.” Mrs. Hale’s plump cheeks framed her warm smile. “I see you’ve encountered our Miss Branch.”

At Mrs. Hale’s introductions—William, Jeanie mouthed at Eliza and blinked her eyes, as if prepared to tease her later with his Christian name—Mr. Delacourt bowed over their hands in turn, unsmiling.

“Mr. Delacourt visits from Memphis.” Mrs. Hale gave Eliza a knowing look. Unmarried, it said.  “He’s the owner of the Tennessee-North-Texas rail line, which will be connected to Austin within the year.”

Mother’s eyes lit like a match strike. “Owner, you say? Why, Eliza has never traveled by train. Perhaps she’ll have her first journey on yours.”

“Mother, I don’t think—”

“Actually, the line—”

The strains of violins and enthusiastic murmuring sounded from the parlor. Mrs. Hale clapped. “You will dance, won’t you, Mr. Delacourt? Jeanie is promised for the first set, but Eliza is a skilled dancer.”

Mother made a sound similar to a purr.

Eliza’s stomach squelched. After such a request from their hostess, William Delacourt couldn’t refuse. Neither could she. But to her surprise, Eliza realized she must not mind too much, since her foot tapped to the music’s beat. She smiled up at Mr. Delacourt, ready to take his arm the moment he offered it.

His gaze skipped over Eliza and flicked to his hostess.

“I’m afraid I must beg off. A thousand pardons, ma’am. Miss Branch.” He dipped his head in a curt nod and turned on his heel.

Explanations for his behavior knocked about Eliza’s brain like moths against a window pane. Perhaps he was spoken for, or had an objection to dancing. But all he had to do was say so. There was no need for him to embarrass them both by refusing.

Mrs. Hale pinked. Jeanie’s lips parted. Mother’s ample bosom heaved. “Well, I never!”

“But it seems that I have, thanks to William Delacourt.” He might be powerful and wealthy enough to own a railroad, but he was a rudesby, plain and simple. And utterly beneath her notice from now on.

Eliza’s chin tilted up. “Go dance, Jeanie. Then you must tell me all about your partner.”

“Are you certain? I could sit with you, if you need me.” What a dear Jeanie was.

“Pah. I’m fine.” A lie if one had ever passed her lips. But one of them should have fun at the gala, at least.

Fall in love, indeed. Tonight, the only thing Eliza had staggered into was the prospect of losing her home. And rejection, with its shameful sting.

A fresh throb of pain spread through Will’s lungs and around his back. Were there no available chairs in this house? Merely breathing was difficult since his accident yesterday, but his injury was downright excruciating when touched.

Which Eliza Branch had done. Twice. Perhaps on purpose, just to get his attention.

Even a schemer deserved more courtesy than he’d shown, however. He hated the hurt he’d brought to her bluebonnet eyes by refusing to dance. But he could hardly speak, much less tap his feet, after she’d knocked into his battered ribcage. He might humiliate himself by passing out if he didn’t sit down.

Halfway down the hall, a florid-faced fellow hailed him. Recognizing him as a local politician, Will forced a smile and prayed it didn’t look too strained. God, help me get through this night.

“So, it’s official now.” The politician’s white brows lifted. “The nation’s about to be divvied up into time zones next month, thanks to you railroad folks, Delacourt.”

“Three hundred time zones is a bit much for one country, even one so grand as ours.” Will joked, trying not to grit his teeth from pain. “Life will be easier for everyone, not just for the railroads.”

A pale green swirl caught his eye. Miss Branch swished past, accompanied by a stout gentleman with greasy black hair and a limp mustache. She didn’t meet Will’s eyes, but the tilt of her chin and pursed lips attested to her displeasure. Later, he’d apologize for his brusqueness. But she had replaced him with another dance partner just fine.

“Come meet Sanders.” The politician beckoned him into an oak-paneled library. “He’s interested in expanding his market north.”

“The Tennessee-North-Texas might be the perfect vehicle for him, then.”

Ah, thank heaven. An empty chair, plush with crimson velvet padding, awaited Will’s aching bones. Far easier to expound on the benefits of his rail line from a restful position, propped against a pillow and in no danger of anyone knocking his ribcage. He should have remained in the hotel, perhaps, but that would defeat the purpose of coming to Austin. At least discussing the railroad distracted him. By the time they finished their discussion, the pain in his ribs eased enough for him to venture from the library.

It wasn’t difficult to spot the freckled face Will sought. “Convincing folks to utilize the rail line, Charlie, or were you dancing?”

“Both.” Charlie Bingham’s face flushed a ruddy hue, a stark contrast to his carroty hair. “I danced with the hosts’ pretty daughter, Miss Jeanie. See her there, in the pink?”

“I do.” She was arm in arm with Miss Branch, whispering through their frowns. Discussing his rudeness, no doubt.

“You aren’t even looking at her. You’re watching her friend in green. Do not say Will Delacourt fancies a girl at last.”

 “Watch your tongue, or I’ll remove you from the line’s board of directors,” Will teased. “The girl in green, Miss Branch, appears to be a fortune hunter. Her tactic was to bump into me, spill my drink, and wipe the punch off my coat. Sound familiar?”

Charlie tapped his temple in an exaggerated display. “That lawyer’s daughter in Nashville. Not quite as imaginative as when the female ‘fainted’ in your arms in Arkansas. But Miss Branch might not have been devious in her intentions, you know.”

“Perhaps, although such a tactic was employed with perfection by my stepmother. And Miss Branch’s mother literally licked her lips once she learned I own a railroad.” Like a dog eyeing a pork chop.

Shame warmed under his collar. A poor comparison. But enough ladies had tried similar schemes once they learned he was rich that his stomach soured to female company. He’d no patience for it, with his throbbing chest and back.

“Some of us wouldn’t mind being appraised with such admiration.” From the direction of his gaze, it was clear from whom Charlie desired such an assessment. Jeanie Hale’s eyes lifted.

Miss Branch’s gaze did, too, meeting his square. Were her eyes really the color of bluebonnets or had he imagined it?

He’d find out when he apologized. But then he’d walk away from her. He’d not fall into a trap, no matter how fetching the bait.

Perhaps Charlie needed the reminder, too. He gave his friend a gentle nudge with his elbow. “We’re in Austin to promote the TNT, not court ladies. The enterprise will fail if nobody ships goods on our line.”

Charlie spared him the briefest of glances. “You’re not going to attract merchants if you look like you’re about to eat them along with the canapés. Your scowl could scare small children.”

He forced his gaze away from Miss Branch. “My ribs ache. The doctor said they’re not broken, but still.”

“You should’ve said so.” Charlie’s brows lowered over his light eyes, his attention free from Jeanie Hale at last.

“And admit I hurt myself falling from a horse? My father’d take a riding crop to me if he heard. Delacourts breed thoroughbreds. They don’t fall off them.”

“Your secret is safe with me. I’ll say naught to your father other than to boast of our success with the TNT.”

A smile pulled at Will’s lips. “He’d be shocked to hear I’ve succeeded in anything.”

“He’d best prepare himself, then. But you’re paler than milk. Let’s get you to the hotel.”

A guest spun into Will, sending a fresh shaft of agony through his ribs. His next breath almost cleaved him in two. He could apologize to Miss Branch later.

“Fine. But tomorrow we start the next phase of our plan, sore ribs or not.”

The grandfather clock in the downstairs entry pealed twice, piercing the silence blanketing Austen Abbey. Eliza could just make out the white pouf of Jeanie’s bed cap in the darkness.

“What a dismal night for you,” Jeanie whispered.

“The combination of my parents’ news, Mr. Delacourt’s snub, and the advances of Mr. Cray did not make for a pleasant evening. At least you had fun.”

“You’ve something to give thanks for, too. You only had to dance once with Mr. Cray.” Jeanie’s quiet giggle subsided. “Oh, Eliza. I cannot survive without you. Perhaps Daddy could pay your tuition.”

How sweet. “Thank you, but my parents would never accept it. Still, I’d like to graduate before I seek employment.”

“Speak to Mrs. Collins in the morning. She’s a fair headmistress. Perhaps she’ll have an idea.” Jeanie’s voice sounded weary.

“It’s late. Go to sleep.”

“Tomorrow,” Jeanie promised. “We’ll do something about it then.” She rolled toward the wall. Within moments, the soft sounds of her deep, even breathing stirred the silence.

An envious twinge pricked Eliza’s chest. After so topsy-turvy a night, sleep hovered over her like a cloud, too flimsy and distant to grasp.

Lord, I know I should obey my parents. But if I can convince them there is another way, would that change anything? Will you show me how?

Eliza shoved back her coverlet and donned her room-cold wrapper and yarn slippers. God had given her a tool to survive this mess. Perhaps she should use it.

She withdrew a pencil and scrap of paper from her desk, and in the silver moonlight streaming through the window, she began to write.

Dear Mr. Editor….