ALISON CLOSED HER EYES, trying to shut out the world around her. She was old enough to understand that something was wrong, though no one believed it. They insisted on keeping everything hush-hush, as if she couldn't hear them. As if she hadn't noticed that her father hadn't returned home.
People she had never met before hurried around her house, all with the same bleak expression on their faces. Needless to say, it was obvious that something was going on. The only adult present that she knew was her grandmother Dorothy, who seemed to be in charge of the chaos, though even she refused to speak about why everyone was there.
How could they think she wouldn't notice? Something had happened to her father, something no one was willing to discuss with an eight year old.
For as long as she could remember, it had only been the two of them. There were never this many people around, even during the holidays. Every once in a while, a lady friend of her father's would come for dinner, but after all was said and done, Alison was her father's girl; the only woman in his life.
A man with a sharp black outfit and a matching black briefcase was the last to enter the house. All of the adults followed him into the formal dining room and Alison took a seat on the stairs, not too far from the dining room door.
Her grandmother had ordered her to stay in her room. Alison, however, had other plans. If no one would tell her, then she was going to have to find out on her own and with all the adults gathering in that room, she knew she wouldn't be seen.
The maids only glanced at her disapprovingly as they walked by.
It was safe to say that her father was well off in this world. He was one of the founders of a factory that created and traded goods all over the country; she had even heard her father making arrangements to trade with Russia soon and by the way everyone was excited by the news, she assumed trading with them was a good thing.
She cradled her floppy stuffed rabbit to her chest; it was the only thing she had left from her mother; who had died after delivering Alison. Now, without her father, she would be an orphan. She figured this was the very reason that the meeting had been called, though a small flame of hope continued to flicker inside her.
The hum of conversation ceased, and Alison perked up, leaning her tiny body toward the door.
"His Will states…," someone said in a deep booming voice.
What is a Will? She thought. I've heard this word before. But for the life of her, she couldn't place it.
Alison could picture the man in the black outfit standing at the head of the table. "The property is to go to Alison Forbush when she reaches the age of 21."
"She will not know what to do with a house!" Someone interrupted. A few more people tried to protest, but were quieted.
"She will be under the supervision of her guardian," he cleared his throat and continued reading the will, "The horses go to Lady Isabel. Half of the bonds in the bank are to be Alison's at age 18 and the rest when she turns 21."
More protests. This time, it took longer to quiet them.
"And who will get the girl?" Grandmother Dorothy asked, her old voice rising above the rest. The questions caused Alison's heart to lurch in her chest.
The chatter stopped as everyone listened intently to the answer. "He wished that you would raise her, Madame Dorothy."
Not a sound, then, "That's preposterous! I am a 60-year-old woman. What am I supposed to do with a child?"
"There is more. He states that if the first guardian is unable to see to such things, then the responsibility of his daughter is passed to his older brother, Jackson Forbush."
A stunned silence filled the room. "Please sir, there must be some sort of mistake," a man spoke up.
Alison pulled her stuffed rabbit closer as tears began to well in her eyes. Why doesn't anyone want me?
"No. I read it just as it is written here. Mr. Forbush, your brother wished to have you raise little Alison. He also wished for a quarter of his business proceeds to go to whomever raises her until she becomes of age."
Another stunned silence, however this one hung thick with greedy intentions.
"Alison will own half of the factory at age 21, and the other investors are to keep their share."
"Does the Will say anything else?" Dorothy asked.
"Mostly everything is to be allotted to Alison at her becoming 21."
More angry voices, but Alison had heard enough. With her rabbit clutched tightly in her hand, she ran up the stairs to her bedroom, closing the door quietly and in turn closing out all of the adults who didn't care about her. They didn't seem to care about her suffering. They only cared about her father's money.
She hurried to the window seat and curled against the pillows in the corner. Her father used to love reading her stories here, watching the world below. As the pillows cradled her, she imagined it was really her father. And then she sobbed shakily as her emerald green eyes watched the rain fill the puddles in the cobble streets. The weather matched her mood perfectly.
She wanted nothing more than to have her father's carriage pull up the drive, announcing his return. He would run to her and hold her in his strong arms, and then he would kick these people out of their house and it would be just the two of them again, as it should be.
What's going to happen to me? It was a question that no eight-year-old should ever have to ask herself. She had never met her father's older brother, but if her father was trusting her to him, that meant he wasn't a bad man, right? The only member of her father's family that she'd ever met was her grandmother and it was obvious the woman didn't want the responsibility.
Suddenly, people were leaving her house. Alison watched as the carriage drivers shielded their heads from the rain as their owners rushed inside. A few men hurried to their carriage, arguing. She watched as the wheels splashed in the puddles and disappeared down the soggy path.
Then there was a knock on the door. Grandmother Dorothy entered, standing silently at the doorway until Alison turned to face her. "You need to pack your things. You will be traveling to your new home tonight."
Alison lowered her eyes, daring to ask what no one was willing to tell her and the question she feared the most to get the answer to. "Where is my father?"
Dorothy pursed her lips as she thought about how to answer. "He…had an accident…"
"What kind of accident?" Her tiny voice shook as she fought her tears.
"He won't be coming home my dear."
Tears clouded her vision as she stared at her grandmother's feet.
Dorothy put a hand on her granddaughters shoulder. "You are going to live with your uncle Jackson. You have to be a good girl for him and mind your manners."
Alison nodded, sniffling and trying to keep her tears at bay.
Dorothy released her granddaughter as a maid grabbed a travel case from the closet. She stood back and only glanced at the child a few times, as the maid began to fill the case with clothes, brushes, soaps, shoes, and a blanket. Her Grandmother insisted that they would get Alison's toys later. However, Alison held her bunny close, refusing to part with it.
Without a moment to lose, Dorothy gripped her granddaughter's hand and led her down the stairs. Waiting by the front door stood a man with jet-black hair and a sharply trimmed beard. He looked impatiently down at Alison. "We need to leave before the rain floods the streets."
Dorothy handed the travel case to Jackson who headed out the door with it. The maid helped the child into a shawl and tied a bonnet to her head then Dorothy led her down the steps. "Wait!" Alison ran back into the house, hugging the maid that was watching from the doorway. The woman crouched and hugged the child back. "Now you be a good girl for Mr. Jackson. Remember what I taught you…you be strong."
Alison nodded, wiping more tears. Dorothy cleared her throat, raising an impatient brow. With heavy hearts, the two separated. This would be the last she would see of this house for a long time.
Everything was happening so quickly. It was a lot for her mind to wrap around. Alison climbed into the carriage, pressing her face to the window as they pulled away, and watched her home shrink into the distance.
[9 years later]
ALISON WATCHED AS A carriage pulled into the driveway and rolled her eyes. She couldn't believe Jackson was making her do this. She was 17, in a few months she'd be 18, and now her uncle had insisted on setting up an arranged marriage.
Alison was only a few months away from receiving half of her father's money. Jackson knew little about her plans for the money and as such, he insisted on finding her the "proper" husband who can keep her in line and assume responsibility for the money. "It is improper for a young woman, such as you, to have so much money just lying around," he claimed. "Besides, most girls your age are married already."
During the nine years she had lived with him, they had never grown close; it was as if she were a pest that he tolerated. A few days after arriving to the brick colored manor with almost four levels and a large sweeping lawn, she realized she was going to have to take care of herself. Whenever she was hungry, she fed herself. She clothed herself, washed herself and did everything without ever bothering Jackson.
She tried her best to stay out of his way. He was a strict man, who continuously mumbled to himself that he didn't have time to watch little girls.
In her loneliness, the only friend she found was the woods that surrounded the manor. Not a day went by when she didn't take a walk and lose herself in the trees, if only for a little while. The trees were so large and old, it gave her a sense of security; they at least, would never leave her.
At dinner, about four months ago, Jackson brought up the idea that Alison would have no idea what to do with so much money. He purposed that he arrange a marriage to an eligible man who could take care of her money, her property and her.
No matter what she said, he refused to listen to her protests. Once his mind was made-up, there was no stopping him. It didn't matter to him that she wanted to marry for love and that after all that she'd been through, she at least deserved that.
So, here she was, refusing to leave her room to meet the latest suitor he had found. The others had given up shortly after constant rejections; this one would be no different.
It disgusted her that everyone thought this was a good idea. Even grandmother Dorothy had come to the manor to give Alison lessons on "being a lady". Her lessons were a waste of time. Alison's father had paid Jackson enough to insure his daughter had a proper education.
Over the years, she'd had private tutor after private tutor. He would not even consider a boarding school. In fact, he hardly let her travel with him to London. He insisted that she had better things to do than to fill her head with the nonsense of city-life. Alison begged to differ. She enjoyed town, the sights, and the activity. It was such a glamorous change from her boring life.
For someone who insisted he had no time for children, Jackson made sure he controlled as much of Alison's life as he could.
How did he expect her to find love if he never allowed her to leave the manor? Maybe that was the point.
Alison knew that her father would never make her marry anyone she didn't want to. But Jackson wasn't anything like her father. Neither was Grandmother Dorothy. It was as if her father did not fit with his family. Maybe that is why she had never met Jackson before that night, nine years ago.
A young man stepped out of the carriage, straightening his jacket as he gazed up at the manor. Alison's green eyes followed him as he made his way to the door. Jackson met the man on the first step, shaking his hand and ushering him inside. From the gossip Alison had overheard from the maids, she knew he was the son of a man Jackson worked with, his family was well known and well respected.
She waited until she heard the front door shut, then slid open her window and climbed out. If Jackson insisted on pushing suitors at her, then she insisted on not making it easy for him. Gathering her dress in her arms, she lowered herself from the third level until she felt her foot touch the small ledge that wrapped around the large manor. She could only imagine the freedom men had with wearing pants; this all would have been much easier.
Scooting carefully, she reached the edge and grabbed a hold of the floral gate that climbed the side of the house. The roses were in full bloom, but she didn't mind a few pokes from the thorns. Before she knew it, her feet touched ground and she ducked under the large living room windows that had a view of the front lawn and driveway.
She could hear the young man and Jackson talking as Jackson sent a maid to fetch her from her room. Without a moment to lose, Alison took off into the trees. For years, she'd been playing in these woods, and as such, she acquired many hiding places. They came in handy on days like today.
She walked quickly through the trees, knowing that she was going to get into big trouble for this, but not caring. She had to hold them off, if only for a few more months and then she would have enough money to be her own person. She wouldn't have to ask Jackson for anything. She could take lessons in town and learn archery and sword fighting. She could buy stylish ribbons for her hair and maybe she could even make some friends.
She found her favorite tree and climbed up a few branches to where she would be hidden, sitting comfortably against the trunk and letting her mind drift towards the clouds. This wasn't the first time she wondered what her life would have been like if her father were still alive.
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she thought ahead to when she would finally be allowed to live in her father's house. She would hire a nice staff, not like her uncle's; his maids were as stiff as he was. She could imagine shopping in the town, maybe finally traveling farther than London. She wouldn't have to study anything she didn't want to. All she did here was math, literature, piano lessons, French lessons, and etiquette. It never changed. Once she was free from all that, she planned to live her life the way she'd always imagined.
"Miss Alison?" A voice called.
If they thought she was dumb enough to answer, they were sorely mistaken.
"Miss Alison?" The voice called again. It sounded like one of Jackson's maids. "Your uncle wishes to see you."
Alison made herself comfortable in her tree. She knew she was rebelling, but she had good reason. Her uncle was only setting up the arranged marriage because he wanted to control her inheritance. If he chose her husband, Jackson could tell him what to do, where to invest her money and her share of the factory.
The maid called a few more times then gave up. Alison didn't move from her post for about an hour before she decided she was in enough trouble.
As she peeked around the house, she found that the carriage was gone, which most likely meant that her suitor was also gone. She smiled smugly to herself and straightened her dress before walking casually into the house.
Almost as soon as she entered the house, she was pounced on by an older maid. "Where have you been Madame?" She had stern lines written into her face. "The master wishes to see you."
Alison played innocent. "I went for a walk. What does he need?"
The maid eyed her suspiciously. "You were to meet young Mr. James Camden today."
Alison's eyes grew wide as she continued with her lies. "That was today?!"
"Yes," a deep, angry voice interrupted from the doorway to the study. The maid bowed her head and excused herself as Alison turned to face her uncle.
"I went for a-"
"Yes, I heard your excuse already," he said lowly. His eyes simmered with anger. "How dare you embarrass me like that."
"I don't know wh-"
"You knew very well that he was arriving today, and still you left."
Being caught in her lie, Alison lifted her chin. "I have already told you what I think of arranged suitors and marriages."
"And I do not see how your opinion matters. As long as you are living in my house, you will obey me without question," Jackson snarled. His face had taken on a red tint that couldn't have been good for his blood pressure.
Alison grit her teeth. How dare he try to control me. "I will not! In a few months-" the palm of his hand cut off her speech.
She covered her cheek in surprise as she stared up at her uncle. His nostrils were flaring as he tried to regain control of himself.
"So long as you live in my house, you will obey me," he repeated dangerously. "Young Camden has come to woe you. I will not have you ruin that." He took a deep breath.
Alison continued to stare up at him, he had never laid a hand on her before, but her rebellion was causing an extreme reaction from him.
"He is from a very important family," he continued. "You should be thankful that such a match was made," he said, as if trying to sooth his guilty conscience for hitting her. "Now go to your room and dress for dinner. I expect you to be kind to young Camden."
"He's still here?" she asked hesitantly, trying not to anger him anymore than she already had.
"Yes. I have invited him to stay for a week."
The color drained from her face as she lowered her eyes and nodded, playing the obedient child as she turned and headed to her room. A week?! How am I supposed to avoid him for a week? And more over, she couldn't believe that Jackson had smacked her. Her father would never have hit her! Then again, her father would never make her do any of this.
She stalled for as long as she could. The maids had summoned her to dinner a while ago and she knew that if she waited any longer, her uncle would come for her and who knew what he would do.
So, with a deep breath, she opened the door to the dining room. Both men present stood as she walked in.
Her eyes brushed over her uncle, who looked slightly annoyed, then drifted to James Camden. Everyone called him the young Camden because he was the youngest of six boys; however, he was a good five years older than Alison.
He rushed forward to pull out her chair, staring at her. "Thank you," she said, looking away awkwardly.
He took his seat again, and Alison got a good look at him. James had dark blonde hair that framed brown eyes, and a nose that didn't quite fit his face. He had a nice smile, but something else was off; the smile didn't quite reach his eyes. He wasn't ugly, but that didn't change the fact that she didn't want to marry him.
Dinner was served and an awkward silence hung in the air. The only constant sound was silverware against plates. Alison was used to silence; she had dinner with her uncle every night, and he hardly said a word to her; however, this dinner was so much different. James had not taken his eyes from her since she entered. Every time she glanced up, he was staring at her with appreciation and wonder.
She had been told by many people that she was growing into a rare beauty. Alison had dark red hair, something she inherited from her mother, green eyes from her father, and pale skin that looked like porcelain. When she was younger, people would ask to paint her, insisting that she looked just like a porcelain doll.
Now, at the age of 17, she had grown into a beautiful woman. Since Jackson had no idea what to do with a young woman, Grandmother Dorothy had taken it upon herself to keep Alison up on the latest fashion. Alison never cared for the big frilly dresses everyone seemed so fond of. She would prefer a simple, comfortable dress that would allow her to move freely. She only wore the big ones when her grandmother was around, or when guests were here.
Tonight was one of the nights that she'd dressed up. She smoothed her bodice, shifting nervously under his unwavering gaze. Finally, Jackson cleared his throat. "James, I hope the meal is to your satisfaction."
James ripped his eyes from her and turned to Jackson. "Yes. It is delicious."
"Very good," Jackson said, taking a drink. "How is your aim?"
"Excuse me sir?"
"Your aim. Do you like to hunt?"
James smiled, again the happiness did not reach his eyes. "Yes sir, very much. My aim is fair enough to pierce the heart of my prey," he said, turning back to Alison.
The flirt was uncalled-for and she felt like sneering, but held it in.
"Excellent!" Jackson continued. "I know that the two of you will want to spend as much time together as possible to get to know each other and such," he said. James' smile grew. "So I will not insist that we go hunting until Wednesday."
Alison stared down into her potatoes. She didn't want to spend any time with him.
The men talked for a while about hunting. She tuned it all out, hating the thought of hurting animals merely for sport. She loved nature and everything that came with it.
"Will you watch, Miss Alison?" James asked, leaning forward and communicating with her for the first time.
Jackson chuckled; she'd never seen her uncle so social before. "Of course she won't. She can't stomach the violence," he said, as if the thought were ridiculous.
James frowned slightly at Alison before turning back to her uncle. "I know many women that can't."
It seemed that she didn't even need to answer for herself. "Please excuse me," she said softly.
They both stood. "You cannot retire yet. I have scheduled for you two to have dessert in the study," Jackson said with a hard stare.
Alison groaned inwardly. It has begun.
JAMES WATCHED THE PALE beauty force a smile before she continued to leave. "I only wish to freshen up."
His eyes remained glued to her as she walked by, her fragrance tickling his nose. She was a fine prize to be won; she was beautiful and quite unlike any woman he had met, but lacked some social skills; something he could easily take care of. He settled back in his chair, turning to Jackson. "She's talkative," he said sarcastically.
The older man shook his head. "Give it time. She'll warm up to you."
ALISON QUICKLY MADE HER way to the powder room, shutting and locking the door behind her. It looked as if her uncle was not going to make this easy for her. She had a feeling that the next week was going to be filled with numerous plans that involved only James and her and that they would be impossible to get out of.
She walked over to the mirror, studying her face. Her eyes look strained; James and Jackson were going to be the death of her, she could feel it.
Maybe he won't be that bad, she thought for a moment. But she quickly dashed that thought away. Whomever her uncle chose was bound to be bad.
There was a knock, "Alison?" It was Jackson.
"Coming," she said loudly, opening the door.
He smiled tensely at her. "Is everything alright?"
She nodded, clasping her hands in front of her.
"Good. You will join young Camden in the study," he glared at her in warning. "Be kind."
"Uncle, aren't I always?" She asked, somewhat in challenge.
He didn't answer; however, he did follow her all the way to the study, no doubt suspecting her to run again and with good reason, she would have.
James stood as Alison entered and with a smile, he set down his drink on the side table. Jackson left as soon as she was safely in the room, leaving a maid to chaperone the pair.
"I thought we could sit by the fire," he said, motioning toward the seat across from where he was.
She shook her head. "I would prefer to sit on the deck."
He frowned at her statement, "It's dark outside, and I think it would be best if we stay inside."
"But it's nice out."
"We stay in," he said firmly, quickly covering his harsh voice with a smile.
Alison sat, studying him. It was obvious that he had an underlying temper. He sat in the sofa chair, across from her. "So…Jackson tells me that you are quite fond of the woods."
She nodded, "It's quiet and free there."
"Free?" he asked, picking his drink back up and studying her over the rim.
"Sometimes it's just nice to get away from the world."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean. I find a life of business fascinating. You should not take your privileged life for granted," he said in an undermining tone.
She furrowed her brows. "You do not even know me-"
"I know girls like you and it is always the same story," he interrupted her, studying his drink as if she should believe him without question.
"I do not take it for granted; I only wish to be alone sometimes."
He shook his head with a patient sigh that was reserved for a child who wasn't understanding a simple concept.
His whole demeanor had changed from the dinner table where he seemed almost shy. Now it was as though he thought he was talking to a person that was beneath him. "When we are engaged, my sisters wish to have tea with you, as does my mother. I am afraid that your life of solitude is about to end," he chuckled to himself.
She glared into the fireplace that had no fire blazing within it. How dare he come here and try to change me. "Is it not my choice whether to entertain them or not?"
He raised a brow, "Well of course you will have tea with them. It is the proper thing to do."
"Pardon me, but I prefer to make up my own mind. I do not particularly care what society thinks."
He set his drink down, watching her carefully. "Let's calm ourselves. I never meant to make you do anything you didn't want to do…It would mean a lot to me if you would have tea with my mother and sisters. They are excited at the notion of gaining another woman in the family."
He changed like the wind. But one thing was for sure, he liked to be in control of the situation. He smiled at her, showing his straight teeth.
She nodded to him, turning her gaze back to the fireplace.
"So, where do you go when you are in the woods?"
She shrugged and his smile died a notch. "Everywhere. There is a lake not too far from the manor. On sunny days I like to go there."
"I can take care of myself," her green eyes flashing.
His smile died completely. "I do not like the idea of you out there alone."
He was getting defensive again, and the tension in the room was making her become defensive in return. "I have been doing it for years. There is hardly a tree in the woods that I don't know."
He eyed her curiously. "You would rather spend time in the woods than with other women?"
She thought through her answer for a moment. "There are not many women that come to the manor."
"And in the town?"
"I am usually not allowed to go into town."
He shook his head. "That will all change when I am your husband."
Her heart dropped. Husband. The title seemed so final. She didn't want him, especially now that she knew something about his character. Her teachers always told her that first impressions were everything and he just blew his.
Alison sat through a boring half hour of him explaining his business deals, but at least he had taken the attention off her.
What a lovely first meeting, she thought sarcastically. She had always imagined meeting someone who she could talk to all night and the only reason to stop was to get some sleep. With James, she couldn't wait to go to her room.
Hot cookies were brought in on a platter for them. James' eyes narrowed slightly as she took a second one and popped it in her mouth with a sheepish grin.
"How did you come about that marvelous hair?"
Alison swallowed her half-chewed cookie, hard. "From my mother."
"She must be a beautiful woman."
She realized that he was attempting to flirt, but she wasn't going to play along. "I wouldn't know. She passed away when I was born."
His brows raised. "That's a shame."
That's it? Most people say, 'I'm so sorry for you,'. What little respect she had for him, died at that moment. "You must forgive me Mr. Camden, but I am getting tired," she said, standing.
James stood too, walking her to the door. "Good night."
"Good night." She disappeared down the hall as quickly as she could. It was going to be a long week.
In the morning, Alison woke early and snuck down to the kitchen to grab breakfast before everyone woke up. She wrapped an apple and a slice of banana bread in a cloth and stuck them in her bag.
She opened the kitchen door only to run right into her uncle. She froze and his tired eyes narrowed. "Where are you going?"
"On a walk," she answered simply, trying to side step him. She wanted nothing more than to run away for the day.
"I don't think so. You're not disappearing again. I forbid you to go into the woods for the remainder of the week."
"You can't do that!"
"We have a guest. He is here for you, no less. Do not disrespect him by disappearing, again."
"I am 17 years old!" She said loudly.
"And you are lucky that such a man as young Camden has turned his eye to you."
She was about to retort when someone cleared their throat. James was standing at the bottom of the stairs. "Am I interrupting?"
Jackson instantly plastered a smile on his face, "Not at all. Breakfast will be served shortly."
James walked to Alison. "Good morning Miss Alison."
"Hello," she answered back.
"How did you sleep?"
"Well, thank you."
He nodded, standing awkwardly. "What is on the agenda today?"
Jackson answered before Alison had the chance, "Well, I thought you would care for a tour of the factory, then lunch…"
As he continued, Alison hid her bag behind her back. She hoped that her uncle would forget what he had just caught her doing.
"Breakfast is served," a servant said with a slight bow.
"Excellent," Jackson said, heading for the dining room.
James fell behind, glancing at Alison. "May I escort you?" he asked, offering his arm.
She knew it was the polite thing to do, but she didn't want contact with him. Nevertheless, she put her arm through his. A smile grew on his mouth. "You look lovely today."
"Thank you," she said, leaning upon her etiquette training so she didn't actually have to talk to him.
"Will you come to the factory? I am sure you find it a bore," he said, holding the dining room door open.
"Actually, I find it fascinating. My father was no fool to have started his factory."
James frowned. "You go there often?"
She nodded, "When I can convince my uncle to bring me."
His frown deepened. "A factory is no place for a woman."
She took a deep steadying breath as she took her seat. "Only a moment ago you asked if I would join you, and now it is inappropriate?"
The tips of his ears turned red as he thought of a response. Jackson's eyes shifted back and forth between them nervously.
"She is feisty, isn't she?" He commented, trying to turn the situation into a joke.
"Yes she is," James said, his dark brown eyes studying her as she gazed out the window in boredom.
She was missing a perfectly good morning. It seemed as though she would have to wake up all the earlier the next morning in order to ditch Jackson.