Kansas City, Missouri
Early April 1870
I have no intention of Lydia inheriting any of Father's money," Mitchell Gray announced. "She's nothing to this family—an outsider imposed upon us after the death of our mother. She's entitled to nothing."
"Hush," his younger sister, Evie, replied. "She's just in the next room."
Sitting alone in the formal parlor that had displayed her husband's closed coffin only hours earlier, Lydia Gray rocked quietly. She allowed the hatred of his grown children to wash over her and numb any concerns or fears she might have otherwise given credence. With exception to Evie, they had hated her from the first moment she'd entered their home—not that Lydia could blame them. She'd hated nearly everything about her twelve years of marriage to Floyd Gray. Nothing would change their feelings now.
And so she rocked.
I'm only twenty-eight, she reasoned. Twenty-eight years old, and nearly half of those years had been spent in an abusive marriage to a man who treated his horses better than he'd treated his wife. His second wife.
Lydia glanced up at the portrait of the children's mother. The oil painting had been commissioned at Charlotte Gray's request for her husband's Christmas gift in 1858. After presenting it to him in the morning, Charlotte promptly excused herself from her family's revelry and leaped to her death from the widow's walk. She had been thirty-seven years old and had left behind two grown sons, a twelve-year-old daughter, Jeannette, and four-year-old Eve.
The sorrowful gaze of the blond-haired Charlotte stared down from the wall. Her lonely expression had haunted Lydia since she'd first come to this house—it bore a look of pain that Lydia understood firsthand. It was almost as if the two shared a bond that crossed between the living and the dead. Many had been the time Lydia had come to this room just to rock and stare at the painting.
"The will can be read immediately, and once we see what that has to say," Marston, Mitchell's twin, announced, "we can be rid of her. I can't imagine that Father would have left her anything. I believe we should give her until the end of the month to settle her affairs and leave. It's not like she has much to concern herself with. Father never gave her anything of her own. It all belonged to Mother. The jewelry, furnishings, and servants will stay here."
"Then why give her until the end of the month?" Jeannette Gray Stone questioned. Jeannette had resented the intrusion of her father's second marriage. It wasn't that she missed her mother all that much, but she didn't like her position as lady of the house being usurped by a stepmother—especially one only a few years older than Jeannette herself.
Lydia listened to them argue about how long they should give her to be gone from their lives. They had already established she should have nothing that had belonged to their father. No reward for enduring twelve painful years of marriage to a cruel and vicious man. No sympathy for all she had suffered.
She glanced up again. Charlotte's gaze seemed sympathetic, almost soothing. She seemed to silently suggest that only death would ease Lydia's miseries.
And so she rocked.
Shadows danced across the elegantly flowered wallpaper. The diffused light of early evening gave them a specter-like appearance. Perhaps Floyd Gray had come back to torment her. It would be just like him.
"Less than a month hardly seems reasonable, and her father was killed in the same carriage accident that took our father," Eve told her siblings. "You don't want society saying we were heartless."
"She never loved our father, and she certainly isn't mourning the loss of him now," Mitchell declared.
"But what of her own father?" Eve asked. "She has lost him, as well."
Marston quickly countered, "They were never close."
"That's right," Jeannette agreed. "Not only that, but she made Father's life miserable. He told me so on more than one occasion. She was cold and indifferent to his needs."
Frowning, Lydia folded her gloved hands and sighed. She had tried to be the perfect wife to Floyd, despite being married against her will at the tender age of sixteen. The arrangement had been her father's idea, and his alone. He had betrothed her to Floyd Gray as a business arrangement; Lydia's mother had been appalled to see her only child wedded to a man who had been widower for two short months. She died the following winter after a bout of pneumonia weakened her heart.
"Perhaps we should wait to decide until after the reading of Father's will on Monday," Eve suggested.
Lydia didn't know why the young woman even bothered. At seventeen, Genevieve Gray Gadston had only been married six weeks herself. Her older siblings gave this no bearing, however. She was still a child in their eyes and would always remain so. Her comments were given little credence.
"I suppose a day or two can't possibly matter," Jeannette replied.
"Very well," Mitchell declared, thoroughly surprising Lydia. "We will wait to decide, but as soon as the reading is finished, we will dictate our wishes with the lawyer as our witness."
This was agreed upon in hushed murmurs before the foursome entered the parlor to address Lydia. She didn't bother to glance up from where she sat; she had no desire to see their hard, hateful expressions. She was unwanted and unloved by this family, but very soon, she would be free of them.
"We have decided," Mitchell announced as the family spokesman, "that you will remain here until the reading of the will is complete. We are to meet with the lawyer on Monday."
Lydia picked lint from her black gown. "Very well."
"It would be prudent, however," Jeannette said, "to have the maids begin packing your clothes."
"Except for the furs," Mitchell interrupted. "Those will remain here to be given to our sisters and my wife. They were much too costly, and I'm certain Father never intended for them to leave the family."
Still Lydia rocked and refused to meet their eyes. "Very well."
"It would also be in your best interest," Marston added, "to inquire as to what options are available to you for your living arrangements. No sense waiting until the last minute to decide where you will move."
This was his way of informing her she would not be allowed to remain there. None of the Grays had ever been hard-pressed to deliver orders or unpleasant news, but for some reason, Mitchell and Marston seemed uncomfortable with actually commanding her to leave. Who could know their reasoning? Perhaps they did worry about what Kansas City society might say. Maybe they feared the newspapers would pick up the story and capitalize on their scandalous behavior.
"I need to leave for home," Jeannette finally announced. "I must see the children before Nanny puts them to bed for the night." She left the room without another word.
"Come, Marston, I'll drop you to your house on my way home," Mitchell said. "We can discuss how best to split up the business."
Only Eve remained as the men's voices echoed down the hallway until at last they exited the house. When Lydia finally looked up, Eve was watching her.
"I should be going, as well. Thomas sent the carriage for me some time ago. He'll wonder why I haven't returned."
"I understand," Lydia said. Only then did she still the chair's movement.
Eve seemed reluctant to go. She started to leave, then turned back. "What will you do?"
Lydia shrugged. "I don't really know. I've not had much chance to think about it. I'm still in a state of shock over the accident."
"It's hard to believe he's really gone," Eve admitted.
All of Floyd's children had known his harsh demands and heavy hand. Eve was certainly no exception to that. Many had been the time Lydia had watched helplessly as Floyd had backhanded his youngest child for the slightest infraction of his rules.
Rising from the chair, Lydia drew a deep breath. "But he is. He's gone, and he cannot hurt us anymore."
Eve's frown deepened as if she didn't believe her stepmother, but she made no attempt to correct the comment. "Good-bye, Lydia. I suppose I shall see you on Monday."
"I know it is rather soon to bother you with this," Dwight Robinson announced in greeting on Saturday morning, "but it was necessary that you see this before the reading of the will."
Lydia looked at her father's lawyer and then to the letter he extended. "Very well. Please come in."
Thunder rumbled outside and rain began to pour in earnest as the butler secured the door against the wind. Lydia led the way to a smaller, informal sitting room. She suppressed a yawn. All through the night she had tossed and turned, listening for Floyd's footsteps in the hallway. Then she remembered he was dead and could no longer hurt her. She had fallen asleep sometime around four in the morning, only to be awakened some four hours later to start her day.
"Please be seated. Should I ring for refreshments?" Lydia asked. "It's rather chilly in here; perhaps you'd like some coffee?"
"No. I'm fine." He gave her a sympathetic smile. "I suppose this has been very hard on you."
Lydia shrugged. "No more so than anything else." She took a seat on the richly upholstered silk sofa while Mr. Robinson settled himself on an ornate Baroque-styled chair. The piece had been one of Mr. Gray's favorites.
Again Robinson extended the letter. This time Lydia took it. "What is this?" she asked, turning over the folded pages in her hand.
"It's from your father. He left it with me some months ago, with instructions that should anything happen to him, you were to be given this missive."
Lydia frowned. Her father had barely spoken two words to her since forcing her into marriage. She tried to imagine what he could possibly have to say to her now.
"I think you will be ... well, perhaps comforted by the words," Robinson said, giving his thick mustache a stroke. The rather portly old man studied her for a moment, then added, "He had me read the letter."
"And what does it say?"
"Why don't you simply read it, and then we can discuss any questions you might have. It isn't all that long."
She had thought to read it later in the privacy of her bedchamber, but seeing that Mr. Robinson had no intention of leaving until they were able to converse about it, Lydia nodded. Unfolding the pages, she drew a deep breath at the sight of her father's large script.
My dearest daughter,
For so long, my heart has been burdened with the mistakes I have made. I caused you great misery in forcing your hand in marriage to a man I knew to be ill-tempered and harsh, and all for the sake of financial security.
I pray you find a way to forgive me. So many times I desired only to come to you and plead my case, but deep in my heart, I knew there was no excuse for what I had done. I was a greedy man, whose only purpose was to build a vast fortune. That it came at the expense of those I loved was not something I considered. I believed that in time, my choices would not only be understood but applauded. Now I see the truth of the matter and know that I have done you a grave injustice.
If you are reading this letter, then I have passed from this life into eternity. The purpose of leaving this missive behind is twofold. First, the terms of my will are complicated and were never intended to cause you grief, although they most certainly are destined to do so. Second, I have left money in trust with Mr. Robinson that no one else knows about. This money is for you. It is enough to help you get a divorce or whatever other living arrangements you might desire.
The rest of the letter repeated the request for forgiveness, but Lydia was too stunned to read further. She looked up at the lawyer and shook her head.
"I don't understand."
"Your father wanted to give you a way out of your marriage. He spoke to me about it on more than one occasion. We knew it would be most difficult to help you obtain a divorce; however, that is no longer an issue."
She silently refolded the pages. "I suppose I should be happy that he came to realize his mistake." It seemed too little, too late, but Lydia didn't wish to sound as lacking in feeling as her late husband.
The older man once again shifted his bulky frame. "Your father grieved his decision to see you married to Gray. He hoped that something—anything—could be done to change it. Of course, you know that your husband was a powerful man. Most were too intimidated by his ruthlessness to do anything but yield to his will. Your father found himself in that position."
Lydia wasn't ready to feel sorry for her father. She felt the boning of her corset dig into her waist and straightened. "He mentioned that the terms of his will were complicated. Might you enlighten me in this area?"
Just then, there was the unmistakable sound of someone in the foyer. No one had bothered to knock, so Lydia knew it must be one of the children.
"It would seem we have company," Lydia said, loud enough to draw the attention of whomever had entered.
Marston Gray looked into the front room as he doffed his black hat. "Robinson? What brings you here?" he questioned, ignoring Lydia.
Lydia watched him cross the room to shake the older man's hand. Robinson had gotten to his feet and was clearly uncomfortable with Marston's appearance.
"I had business with Mrs. Gray."
"Truly?" Marston looked at Lydia in disbelief. "And what caused my stepmother to summon you?"
Robinson cleared his throat rather nervously and focused on the floor. Lydia hated to see the man take this stance. Marston loved to see people intimidated. He fed upon it, just as he did now. His expression turned almost cruel as he sneered at the older man.
"Surely in her state of ... mourning ... it would be appropriate to have the guidance of a family member in any legal matter."
"Mr. Robinson was just leaving," Lydia interrupted. She came to the man's side and motioned toward the foyer. "Allow me to show you out."
Marston wasn't going to stand for this. He blocked the doorway. "I'm only looking out for you, Lydia. Was there some question you had about your future?"
Lydia met his pale blue eyes. "If there were, I certainly wouldn't be asking you."
She saw the anger course through her stepson. If her father's letter was true, and she had no reason to think it wasn't, then she was free of this man and his siblings. She had no reason to fear him anymore.
Standing her ground, Lydia squared her shoulders. "Now, if you'll excuse us, Mr. Robinson has other important meetings, and I have a headache and intend to lie down."
Marston said nothing more. He pulled back, much to Lydia's surprise, and allowed them to pass. Lydia could feel the man tremble slightly beneath her touch. She felt sorry for him, knowing that he was embarrassed by the entire encounter.
"Oh, there is one other thing," Robinson stated as they reached the front door. The butler arrived with his hat in hand, then turned to open the door.
Lydia glared at the man until he took his leave. The servants were always trying to overhear her conversations. Seeing that she no longer required his service, the butler bowed stiffly and left them. "You said there was something else, Mr. Robinson?"
"I wish to accompany you to the reading of the will on Monday. As your father's lawyer, I have made arrangements with Mr. Gray's lawyer. We will both need to be present for the reading, due to those complications of which your father spoke."
"I see." Lydia glanced over her shoulder to find Marston watching her. She lifted her chin and spoke loudly enough for him to hear her. "I would be very glad for you to accompany me. What time shall I expect you?"
"I will arrive for you at nine-thirty. The reading is set for ten."
Lydia nodded. "Very well. I shall await your arrival."
As soon as Robinson had departed, Lydia hurried upstairs before Marston could stop her. She nearly ran for the sanctuary of her bedroom and locked the door behind her before allowing herself another glance at her father's letter.
If he had provided enough money, then Lydia knew exactly what she wanted to do. Her only living relative, Aunt Zerelda, lived in far-off Alaska in a tiny island town called Sitka. It had long been Lydia's desire to join her there.
Perhaps now I can do exactly that. After all, it would resolve all of her problems. Moving to such a remote place would put her well beyond the reach of her vindictive stepchildren. It would also allow her a fresh new start.
She went to her desk and took out pen and paper. It would take considerable time for a letter to reach her aunt. It would be best to get started and allow Zerelda knowledge of what had happened. She didn't yet know of her brother's death.
For the first time in years, Lydia felt a spark of hope. She glanced across the room to where her violin awaited her. Forgoing the letter momentarily, Lydia crossed to the instrument and lovingly took it in hand. She tested the strings and tuned it before drawing the bow.
Music filled the air and sent soothing waves across the stormy seas of Lydia's heart. Throughout her life, she had known no comfort like that of her music. For a moment she lost herself in the haunting melody of Bach's Mass in B Minor.
She had once thought of having this music played at her funeral. Now, however, her death seemed far away. A new future awaited her.