Excerpt: An Heiress To Remember
Beatrice Goodwin and Wes Dalton used to be lovers, now they are rivals for her family’s department store. This scene follows their first meeting in sixteen years–a showdown at a board of directors meeting in which they both declare their intention to own Goodwin’s.
New York City, 1895
Beatrice really would have loved a moment alone to allow her thundering heart to slow, but it was not to be. From the moment she pushed open the doors to confront a room full of grey old men in grey suits, her heart had been pounding and hadn’t let up. She had been positively shaking her under dress. It had been a battle to hide her nerves, to keep the tremble from her voice, the fidgeting from her hands and tried to project a confidence she didn’t quite feel.
She tried to channel the dowager duchess, that fearsome old dragon.
It was a daring thing to do, storming into business meetings to which one had not been invited, declaring this and insisting on that. She hadn’t had practice. She hadn’t had the experience which bred unshakable confidence.
Not like Dalton, who apparently made a habit of it. So calm, cool, and collected he had been, offering his millions. The last she had seen him, he’d been begging her to run away with him. Then he took her mother’s money to disappear. And now here they were, at odds over the ownership of the store.
Dalton. She hadn’t thought of him in years.
And now he was hot on her heels.
They were moving toward the same destination: the elevator at the end of the corridor.
She arrived first, called for the carriage and stepped back to wait. She tossed a look over her shoulder at him. Ignoring him was impossible. Then or now.
“Dare I ask if you’re following me?”
He barely glanced at her. “I merely have the same destination. Would you rather I take the stairs?”
“Yes, but I should hate to deprive anyone of the joy of modern conveniences.”
This was the honest truth. After years in a drafty old castle, it was an understatement to say she was delighted in the newly built Manhattan buildings: hot running water, private water closets, elevators, electric lights.
The elevator dinged its arrival and she stepped in and took a deep, fortifying breath.
She could do this. She could stand in close quarters with the man who had only ever wanted one thing: Goodwin’s, the store. Not her. Why else would he have taken the money her mother offered and disappeared when it was made clear that he would never get the store either by marriage to her or by being her father’s protege? Yes, she accepted the duke—the pressure upon her to do so had been enormous. At least His Grace had made no bones about marrying her for money.
But Dalton…he had made her believe he loved her. He’d been revealed as a fortune hunter all the same.
When Dalton stepped in after her, it felt like all the air in the elevator evaporated.
The elevator attendant nodded at them both in greeting, apparently obvious to the undercurrent of tension pulsing between them.
“Good afternoon. Which floor may I take you to?”
“The street please.”
“The street it is.”
Their slow descent began. Silence reigned. The kind of silence that seemed more impossible to break with each passing second of words unspoken. What did one say to one’s first love who returned only to possibly ruin her future plans? At what point has one waited too long to speak and so it was now more awkward to say something than remain quiet? One minute? Two?
One could not broach the topic of the weather. Not after that scene.
Instead, they did the thing where one kept one’s eyes focused forward, noting each floor they successfully passed without getting stuck or plummeting to their deaths. A particularly modern demise, that.
It would be swift, at least.
Not like this slow burn of mortification.
It was plain to her now that all he had ever wanted was the store. That explain what he’d done sixteen years ago, and his offer today. Dalton wanted Goodwin’s. Full stop. She gave a short exhale. Any lingering doubts she may have nurtured over the years that he’d wanted her had now be laid to rest.
She had wondered about him during her long, cold days and nights. Wondered what he was doing, what he had done with the money, or if he had regretted his choice. It was clear now that he had been right here the whole time, turning a windfall into a fortune of his own.
Her mother had never said a word. All the letters they had exchanged and not one word. Then again, Beatrice knew better than to ask.
The elevator came to a slow, merciful stop. She tapped her toes, waiting for the doors to open. Then, finally, the attendant gave them both a nod and opened the door.
Beatrice squared her shoulders, ready to step out and face the world and the rest of her life. Within a few short steps she was out of the building and onto the street without a backward glance.
The air was thick and mildly unpleasant. She was grateful for the din and clamor of the city. For the rush of activity that swallowed her up and allowed her escape.
Beatrice marched straight to the edge of the street and raised her hand up for a hack.
Oh, dozens and dozens of vehicles—private carriages, delivery wagons, hacks already full with passengers—passed by her in a crush. Bicyclists whizzed past her and she was jealous. No available hack was to be seen.
“It’s a terrible time of day to get a hack.” A voice spoke from somewhere in the vicinity of behind her right shoulder. Beatrice didn’t need to look to see who it was. To see who would dare to explain Manhattan traffic to her, a born and bred New Yorker. She kept her eyes focused on Broadway.
“There’s never a good time of day to get a hack,” she replied.
“But this time is particularly unfavorable. The shifts are changing. The horses are eager to get back to their supper. Maybe if you are going uptown someone will take you on their way back to the stables.”
“As it happens I am going uptown.”
“How is the old Goodwin mansion? Hopefully it’s been kept in a better fashion that the store.”
That was too rude. And so very unnecessary. Beatrice turned to him.
“Really? Are we really going to do this?”
“It’s one thing if we are to be in competition with each other for the store which you obviously have wanted from the beginning and which is mine. It’s another if every conversation is to be trading needlessly petty barbs.”
“You’re right. I apologize.”
“Thank you.” She turned back to the business of finding a hack. It was a particularly terrible time of day to find one. Especially since, she noted now, the air was thick with the suggestion of a storm. Darkening skies, heavy clouds.
“Make no mistake, Beatrice: there will be a competition.”
“A prospect I find thrilling,” she said. Was that a hack up ahead? She stood tall and firm with her hand raised and prayed hard to The Patron Saint of Quick Escapes and The Goddess of Dramatic Exits. And Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! it rolled to a stop in front of her. Ha! And he said she would not find a hack! The city, bless her, came through in her hour of need. A hack! With an imminent rainstorm!
This was the stuff that made one a true believer in divinity.
She wrenched open the door and climbed in and saw Dalton standing there watching her in disbelief that she had managed to obtain a hack at this time of day, in this uncertain weather. Ha!
Just at that moment, the storm clouds burst open.
In a matter of seconds Dalton was drenched, in his well tailored suit, hat and fine shoes. Soaked. Probably ruined. Was it terribly wrong if she found it satisfying? She decided she could be magnanimous in her triumph.
“Would you like a ride somewhere, Dalton? My carriage awaits.”
She gestured to the hired hack. It was dark, dirty and the upholstery was ripped. The smell was somewhat unpleasant, like sweat and spilled things. “And, you know, it’s a terrible time of day to get a hack. I doubt you’ll find another.”
It was raining. He was getting wetter by the second. Comfort and vanity warred with a determination to make a point.
Dalton swore and climbed in.
The driver shouted back, “Where to lady?”
“One West Thirty-Fourth Street and a second stop for the gentleman.”
He gave an address uptown. His own mansion, presumably. She wondered if he had gone for a simple but elegant brownstone or some ornate monstrosity that spanned an entire city block. She would probably never know. The residential situation of Wes Dalton was not her concern.
They both settled in for the ride.
As much as one could in an uncomfortable hired hack with a vaguely unpleasant smell.
He fixed his gaze on hers. His bright blue eyes that hadn’t dimmed in reality or her memory. Lashes darkened with rainwater. His black hair had hints of distinguished grey. Drat the man, he looked good soaking wet.
And, she noted, she was at leisure to enjoy the good looks of another man without fearing recriminations and accusations later. It had been worth it. The divorce, the scandal, the uncertainty had all been worth it.
“So you want to buy Goodwin’s,” Beatrice began. Because she felt one ought to make conversation.
She gave a huff of annoyance. “Ah. I see. You’re going to be broody and inscrutable, perhaps either to dissuade me from further conversation or to entice me by seeming mysterious. Either way, it shall make for an awkward carriage ride. Never mind then. Don’t tell me. It doesn’t change anything for me to know why or why not you wish to buy my store.”
Dalton leaned forward.
“I’m the most successful retailer in New York and therefore the world, probably. I have a fortune to rival Vanderbilt and Rockefeller.”
“And so you need a run down department store across the street…”
“You know I could ask the same as you? Why does a divorced woman want a nearly bankrupt business? There are other finer places for you to shop.”
“I have to do something all day now that I can’t flit about my castle. And don’t suggest finding a new husband—I won’t do it. It so happens that I am in the curious position of having so thoroughly ruined my reputation that I can do whatever I damn well please. What I have a hankering to do is take my favorite place in the world, Goodwin’s Department Store, and return it to its former glory. Even if means going up against the most successful retailer in New York.”
He said nothing. She leaned forward. “Even if it means he’ll be bested by a woman.”
Beatrice settled back in her seat, which was dreadfully uncomfortable. The smell was appalling. The traffic was awful, of course. Her heart was still racing and she definitely had qualms about what she had done today—and would do tomorrow—but for the moment she was surprised to find she felt happy to be exactly here. Doing something. Speaking her mind. She’d never felt so alive.
This feeling is what she’d crawled through the hellfire and agonies of divorcing a duke for.
Dalton looked at her. She looked at him, looking at her.
He did not seem to be noticing the faint wrinkles near her eyes, nor did he seem to be eyeing her figure as she’d caught more than one man in the meeting doing today. No, she had the distinct impression he was looking at her as a competitor, trying to discern how much fire and fight she would bring to their competition.
He did not seem to be underestimating her.
That thrilled her. To her dismay. If he’d just looked at her lasciviously as men were won’t to do, she could easily dismiss him. But no, he had to look at her like a capable human and of course she had to find that…intriguing. Arousing.
Was that the word? Was that the feeling? It had been a while.
She gave a sigh. She didn’t have time for feelings like that now. Not when she was about to go up against the most successful retailer in Manhattan, who possessed one of the top three great fortunes of the age. Not when she had to quickly plot how to take over from her brother, convince the board to give her time to turn the store around.
And then she had to figure out how to actually turn the store around.
Daunting as the prospect may be, Beatrice would not shy away from it.
She had come too far, braved too much.
She had been too bored. She had sixteen years of living to make up for.
To his credit, Dalton didn’t try to dissuade her.
It was unspoken but understood: they were both going to throw themselves headlong into a competition and it was going to be something fierce. Because they grew up in the world of department stores. Of money and desire, tightly intertwined. And it was well known between them: they were both passionate and determined, perhaps even a little ruthless and practical. She thought of the choice they’d faced years and years ago. How they answered. How love and passion only mattered so much.
If he wanted Goodwin’s, he would stop at nothing to have it.
The question she ought to ask was why.
So she did. They had time. They were stuck in traffic.
“Why are you so determined to have it anyway?”
“What if I told you that I’ve always wanted it?”
“I’d believe you. But still I would ask: why?”
“Let’s call it unfinished business. Unsettled debts.”
“There you go, being all broody and inscrutable again. I don’t know who ever gave the impression that women found it a desirable trait in men.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you.” His eyes flashed. “I want to buy Goodwin’s and then I want to shut it down. Because I want revenge for wrongs done to me. For what was stolen from me.”
Ah, another man who thought the world owed him something. She nodded and replied soberly. “A noble purpose. Revenge.”
“You’re mocking me.”
His anger flared; she could see it in his eyes and the tightening of his jaw. She’d best remember that she was alone in a carriage with him and close proximity to an angry man was hardly a desirable place to be, as she knew all too well. Castles weren’t that big.
But she couldn’t just a declaration of REVENGE go unremarked upon.
They were civilized people in 1895 Manhattan, for Lord’s sake.
“And after you have obtained your revenge, hypothetically speaking, what will you do? You are still young enough.”
“I’ll live my life knowing that I have achieved my purpose.”
“You haven’t really thought about it, have you?” She lifted one brow. “You have been so fixated on some slight done to you and obtaining satisfaction that you haven’t even thought about the rest of your life once you’ve achieved it.”
“Some people would be impressed with my focus.”
“I think we both know that I’m not Some People. I suppose this has to do with what happened between us all those years ago.”
“What happened all those years ago was this: you and your family—people I loved most in the world, by the way—made clear to me that only one thing mattered. A man’s wealth, status, and power. Nothing. Else. So forgive me if I am succeeding—and determined to succeed—at obtaining as much wealth, status and power. Especially at the expense of the Goodwin family.”
To be fair, they been taught that. Her family had valued a man’s wealth, status and power above all else. That was how she ended up married to a duke she quickly came to despise, who was only interested in her fortune and not her. It had been a marriage for all the wrong reasons.
“You won’t be persuaded to give up the fight will you?” Beatrice asked him.
“Not a chance.”
“Then I shan’t try to persuade you. If revenge is what stokes the fire in your belly, gives purpose to your days and warms you on cold nights, then God Bless.”
“Why are you smirking?”
“Because I know better. I have learned the hard way that wealth, status and power are a cold comfort.” She had learned that what mattered was a sense of purpose. Real love. Companionship. She hadn’t had these things herself.
“I find them plenty comforting,” he said. “Especially since I remember not ever having them.”
He had been poor. A nobody. And she had loved him. Thoroughly. Madly. Passionately. But not fearlessly enough to take a the chance of a lifetime, or to buck her parent’s wishes and go up against society. And thank goodness. Because all he wanted was the store, not her.
It was for the best, she told herself, as he’d quickly shown that he wasn’t worth taking a chance on. He had been taught that wealth, status and power were all the mattered and he had taken the lesson to heart. So she was probably insane to challenge him. But what else was she going to do with the rest of her life?
“Eventually, Dalton, you will either obtain your revenge or you will give up on the quest. You will have to find something else to do.”
“Until then, I’m hell-bent on getting Goodwin’s.”