She felt as if she were being auctioned off to the highest bidder? An Unlikely Arrangement.

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Chapter 11

Ruth had never seen Mother so undone. Mrs. Squire’s hair was frazzled, her eyes wild, as if she were afraid. They sat in the sun porch, alone.

 Mother said she wanted to talk to me. What is she up to now? How I wish I could see Peter. Maybe that’s it. We are going to set up dinner with the entire family. I suppose I can’t let her know I don’t find the prospect of marriage to Peter all that distasteful, anymore. That would make her too happy.

“Please sit down. There is something I need to discuss with you.” Priscilla Squire tugged the sleeve of Ruth’s dress, and they sat down on the cold wooden bench.

Defiance returned in the face of her feelings for Peter. “What is it Mother, more plans, more ways to make me suffer? Oh, Peter is pleasant enough, but I told you, I do not want to marry. Not him, not anyone.”

Mrs. Squire took both Ruth’s hands and looked at her in earnest. “You will not marry Peter Kirby, my dear.”

Ruth breath caught for an instant. Did I hear Mother correctly? Not marry Peter?

A sudden stab of disappointment zipped through frayed nerve endings. “What do you mean? Did you see the harshness of this punishment? You and Father came to your senses? What of Peter, does he know this, yet?

Mrs. Squire dropped her daughter’s hands and looked out at nothing, a blank stare on her face. “No, Peter does not know. I will go to the Kirby’s in the morning. I did not say you would not marry, Ruth. You will not marry, Peter.”

It took a moment for her words to penetrate. Not marry Peter? But…someone? Who?

“You found another husband for me? Am I to be auctioned off to the highest bidder? Who is he, Mother?”

Priscilla stared at her hands in her lap. “Eric Horton.”

Silence filled the air. Ruth could not speak much less breathe. The name her mother spewed out was like a slap. It could not be.

“The banker?” She managed. “The banker, Mother?”

“Yes, Mr. Horton, the banker.”

“No! I will not. He is horrible—fat and ugly. You cannot mean you want me to spend my life with such a toad.”

“You will do as you are told, Ruth. It is a very good match. He is getting a promotion, buying a new house in the wealthy district. You will be in society, enjoy security. You will be the envy of Detroit’s elite, and you will get use to him. He will be kind to you.”

Ruth balled both fists, her eyes bulged, and her voice took on a low guttural tone. “You will never get me to marry the likes of Eric Horton, Mother. If you do, I will never forgive you or Father. You cannot do this to me. There must be laws.”

“I can do this, Ruth. You are underage and lean toward unacceptable behavior. Any court would uphold my decision.”

A sob wrenched through Ruth, and she ran from the porch.

I will not marry Mr. Horton. I don’t know how, but I will get away from here. Father…I must find him. He won’t allow this. He’s a fair man, a loving man. More importantly, he loves me and would want me to be happy. But wait—maybe Father doesn’t know. This is all Mother’s idea.

The back door slammed, and one shoe flew off her foot on the way up the stairs. It did not matter. Sobs wracked her body, and she fell in a heap in front of his bedroom door. One hand rose weakly to knock, but the door swung open, and her daddy filled the doorframe.

He scooped her up in both arms like a child. “Oh, Ruthie, my Ruthie, my sweet little girl. I do not know what to do or how to help you. I am so sorry. It is all my fault, my fault.” He buried his face in her hair.

“Father, she wants me to marry the banker, Mr. Horton. Why? What is the matter with Peter? Father, why is it your fault? What is going on? Don’t tell me you knew about this.”

He brushed the tousled curls from her face. She settled on his knee as he sat on the edge of the bed. “Daughter, these things are bigger than your seventeen years need to worry about. I knew, Ruthie, but I don’t condone it. Mother thinks there is no other way.”

“But, it is my life, Father. Don’t I have a right to know, when it is I who suffers?”

He pushed her from his lap and walked to the window. “You are right, of course. Horton is foreclosing on the house, Ruth. Our payments are out of hand, and we have no recourse. If we agree to give him your hand in marriage, he will take care of the problem.”

She followed him to the window. “So, I am to be a payment to keep the house. I am to save this family?”

He turned from the window. “You must leave, Ruth. You must go and find Peter. This is not right; you must not be involved in our failures. Go to Peter, and tell him what is happening. Maybe he will marry you right away. So what if we lose the house? With you married, your mother and I can live in an apartment in town. A new beginning may be what we need. It could be just what I need to find my muse once more.” He pushed her toward the door and shut it behind her.

How was she to get to Peter? Would he want her when he found out about all this? The hallway was dark. She took a halting step, stopped, and looked back toward her father’s bedroom door.

“Ruthie,” someone whispered in the darkness.

She jumped and peered into the dark passageway. “Who is it?”

“Come with me, Ruthie, quickly,” the voice whispered again.

“Sarah? Is that you?”

“Yes, now come along, quickly before your mother finds you.” The maid reached out, grabbed her hand, and pulled her toward Mother’s bedroom door.

Irritated, Ruth tried to withdraw. “What are you doing? She will find me in there. You know she never wants me to set foot in her room. I cannot go in there while she’s home, Sarah.”

“Yes, you can. It is exactly the last place she will think to look. In the closet, Ruth.”

“The…the closet. Where I found the letters?”

Sarah pulled Ruth into the forbidden boudoir. “There is no time. Come, she will be here any moment.”

They stumbled across the room where Sarah grabbed the glass doorknob, pushed Ruth through the door, and followed behind her. It was dark, and Ruth could not see her own hand in front of her face.

Sarah pushed past the younger woman, took her hand, and led her to the end of the closet. When they turned the corner, Ruth could see light peek through under the door connected to the guest room. The illumination was enough for Ruth to see the same ball gowns and jewelry as before. They weren’t my imagination.

“Sarah, did you know about these…?”

“Not now, Ruth. There’s not much time.” They turned the corner, and Sarah laid a hand on the knob, but hesitated. “Before we go in, Ruth, you must know, but be patient, and I’ll explain, only right now, we have to escape your mother.”

Ruth pulled back and stood rigid. “Wait Sarah, won’t she find us in the guest room? She might already be in there, for all we know.”

“Hush, we’re not going in the guest room. This closet is a secret room. Your mother doesn’t know it exists. She gave me those letters to burn. I didn’t…instead, I hid them here. My intention was to keep them hidden forever, and never allow you to find out. There is no choice now. If I am to save you from Eric Horton, you must remain here. I never lied to you or led you astray, have I? Our friendship started the day you were born. Will you trust me?”

Ruth relaxed her shoulders. “Yes, I cannot imagine what is going on, but if it will save me from Eric Horton, the choice is made.”

Sarah led Ruth to the white vanity and pointed to the matching stool. “Sit.” The room was aglow with soft shadow thrown from an antique globe lamp. “Be quiet. I will explain later.” She opened the lower drawer of the vanity and pulled out a picture album, along with more letters tied in ribbons. “Now, I have to go. They will miss me. I’ll return in a while. Don’t leave this room, understand?”

“But…” Ruth began.

“No, buts. We will talk when I get back. Now behave.” Sarah left through the closet door.

Ruth looked at the album, opened it carefully, and stared in disbelief.

Chapters of the novel appear on Monday and Wednesday.

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