Surrender the Heart
June 18, 1812, Baltimore, Maryland
“I would rather boil in oil than marry Noah Brenin.” Marianne tossed the silver brooch onto her vanity.
“Hold your breath and stay still,” her friend Rose said from behind her. “Besides, it is only an engagement party, not a wedding.”
“But it is one more step to that horrid destination.” Marianne sucked in her breath as Rose threaded the laces through the eyelets on her stays. “Why must women wear these contraptions?”
“To look our best for the gentlemen in our lives.” Cassandra appeared on Marianne’s left, a lacy petticoat flung over one arm. With shimmering auburn hair and eyes the color of emeralds, Marianne’s other friend, Cassandra, had no trouble looking her best for anyone.
Marianne huffed. “I don’t care what any gentleman thinks of my appearance.”
“Which is why you are still unmarried at five and twenty.”
“Then what is your excuse at three and twenty?” Marianne arched a brow, to which Cassandra gave a shrug. “I have not yet met a man worthy of me.” She grinned.
“Where on earth is your chambermaid?” Rose grunted as she squeezed Marianne’s rounded figure into the stays and tied the final lace tight. “Shouldn’t she be doing this?”
“I dismissed her.” Marianne waved a hand through the air. “I prefer to dress myself.” She hoped they didn’t hear the slight quaver in her voice. She didn’t want her friends to know that her mother had been forced to let the entire staff go and the ones here today were hired just for her betrothal party.
“There.” Rose finished fastening the corset and stepped back.
Marianne took the petticoat from Cassandra and slipped it over her head. “Truth is, I do not wish to marry—ever.” She squared her shoulders as Cassandra slid behind her and latched the petticoat hooks.
Rose put her hands on her waist. “Noah Brenin is a fine man and a good catch.”
Marianne gazed at her friend. She couldn’t help but smile at the motherly reprimand burning in her crystal blue eyes. Tall and slender, with honey blond hair, Rose turned many a head in Baltimore. Just like Cassandra.
Marianne wished she had the same effect on men.
“He is a boor.”
“Why so low an opinion of him? Haven’t you and he been friends since childhood?” Rose cocked her head and gave Marianne a look of censure.
“I wouldn’t call it friendship, more like forced acquaintance. And my knowledge of him is precisely why I know him for the churlish clod he is.”
Gathering a cream-colored silk-embroidered gown from Marianne’s bed, Rose and Cassandra tossed it over her head, assisting her as she wiggled into it. She adjusted the ruffled lace that bordered her neckline and circled her puffy sleeves. Cassandra handed her a jeweled belt, which Marianne strapped around her high waist and buckled in front. She pressed down the folds of her gown, admiring the pink lace that trailed down the front and trimmed the hemline. After slipping on her white satin slippers, Marianne moved to the full-length looking glass and paused to eye her reflection.
Plain. Despite the shimmering, glamorous dress, plain was the first word that came to her mind. That was how she had always been described. Brown hair, brown eyes, average height, a bit plump. Nothing remarkable, nothing to catch an eye.
Which was precisely why, when the other girls her age were being courted, Marianne had chosen to spend her time caring for her ailing mother and younger sister, particularly after their father died. No whirlwind romances, no soirees, no grand adventures lit up the horizon for her. She had resigned herself to lead an ordinary life. An ordinary life for an ordinary girl.
“Come now, it won’t be so bad.” Rose brushed a lock of hair from Marianne’s forehead and then straightened one of the curls dangling about her neck. “You look as though you were attending your own funeral.”
“I daresay I feel as though I am.” Tired of staring into the mirror hoping her reflection would transform into that of a beautiful woman, Marianne turned aside, picked up her silk gloves from the vanity, and sauntered toward the window.
“I, for one, cannot wait to get married,” Rose said. “To the right man of course. He must be a good, honest, God-fearing man. A man who stays home, not a seaman. And he must be agreeable in all respects.”
“What about handsome?” Cassandra asked. Marianne turned to see a blush creep up Rose’s neck.
“Well, yes, I suppose I would not be opposed to that.” Her blue eyes twinkled.
Facing the window, Marianne slid the white gloves onto her hands and tugged them up her arms. Shouts echoed from the street below, accompanied by the clip-clop of horse hooves and the grating of carriage wheels. She brushed aside the curtain to see people running to and fro darting between phaetons and wagons. A warm breeze, heavy with moisture and the smells of the sea, stirred the curtains. A bell rang in the distance, drawing Marianne’s attention to the maze of ships’ masts that thrust into the sky like iron bars of a prison. A prison that could not constrain the ravenous indigo waters from feeding upon the innocent—an innocent like her father.
Rose and Cassandra joined her at the window as more shouts blasted in with the wind. “What is all the commotion about?” Cassandra drew back the curtains.
“There have been rumors that President Madison will soon declare war on Britain,” Marianne said.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that.” Rose peered over Marianne’s shoulder. “War is such horrid business.”
“But necessary if the British insist on stealing our men from land and sea and impressing them into their navy.” Marianne said. “Not to mention how they rouse the Indians to attack us on the frontier.”
“They want their colonies back, I suppose.” Afternoon sunlight set Cassandra’s red hair aflame in ribbons of liquid fire. “England never was good at losing.”
“Well, they can’t have them.” Marianne’s voice rose with a determination she felt building within. Though she’d been born after the Revolution, she had heard the stories of oppression and tyranny enforced upon America by a nation across the seas whose king thought he had the right to dictate laws and taxes without giving the people a voice. But no more. “We won our freedom from them. We are a nation now. A new nation that represents liberty to the entire world.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Cassandra nodded with a smile. “Perhaps you should run for mayor?”
“A woman in public office?” Marianne chuckled. “That will never happen.”
The door creaked open, and Marianne turned to see her mother and younger sister slip inside.
Lizzie’s eyes widened and she rushed toward Marianne. “You look so beautiful, Marianne!”
Kneeling, Marianne embraced her sister. She held her tight and took a big whiff of the lavender soap with which their mother always scrubbed the little girl. “Thank you, Lizzie. I can always count on you for a compliment.”
“Now, Lizzie, don’t wrinkle your sister’s dress.” Marianne’s mother sank into one of the chairs by the fireplace and winced. The slight reminder of her mother’s pain caused Marianne’s heart to shrink. She squeezed her little sister again—the one beacon of joy in their house these past three years since Father died—and kissed her on the cheek. “You look very beautiful too.”
The little girl clutched her skirt and twirled around. “Do you really think so?” She drew her lips into a pout. “But when can I wear a dress like yours?”
“Come now, Lizzie,” Mother said. “You are only six. When you are a grown woman like Marianne, you may wear more elaborate gowns.” She gestured toward Rose and Cassandra. “Ladies, would you take Lizzie downstairs for a moment? I need a word with Marianne.”
“Of course, Mrs. Denton.” Rose took Lizzie’s hand. “Come along, little one.”
Cassandra followed after them, closing the door when she left.
Marianne sat in the chair beside her mother and gently grasped her hands. She flinched at how cold and moist they were. “How are you feeling, Mama?”
“Very well today, dear.” She looked down as if hiding something.
But Marianne didn’t need to look in her mother’s eyes to know she was lying. The sprinkles of perspiration on her forehead, the paleness of her skin, and the tightening of her lips when the pains hit, spoke more clearly than any words.
Marianne squeezed her mother’s hands. “The medicines are not working?”
“They will work. It takes time.” Her mother attempted a smile. “But let us not talk of that now. I have something more important to discuss with you.” She released a heavy sigh then lifted her gaze to Marianne’s. Though illness had stolen the glimmer from her eyes, it could not hide the sweet kindness of her soul. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”
The truth of her words sliced through Marianne. She stared at the floral pattern woven into the carpet. “You know I do.”
“It isn’t fair of me to ask this of you.” Her mother’s voice rang with conviction and deep sorrow.
“You didn’t ask, Mama. I want to do this.” A truth followed by a lie. Marianne hoped the good canceled out the bad.
“Come now. You cannot fool me.” Mama said. “I know this is not the match you would choose.”
Releasing her mother’s hands, Marianne rose from the chair and moved toward the window. The rustle of her gown joined the sounds of the city filtering in from outside. “In truth, I would choose no match ever.” She turned and forced a smile. “So if I must marry, why not this man?”
Her mother gazed at her with such love and sorrow that Marianne felt her heart would burst. Once considered the most beautiful woman in Baltimore, Jane Denton, now withered away with sickness that robbed her of her glow and luster and stole the fat from her bones, leaving her but a frail skeleton of what she once had been. The physicians had no idea what ailed her; they only knew that without the medications they administered, she would die a quicker and more painful death.
Tearing her gaze from the tragic vision, Marianne glanced out the window where it seemed as though the approaching evening only heightened the citizens’ agitation over the possibility of impending war. “Marrying Noah Brenin will save us. It will save you.”
“But what of saving you?” Her mother’s sweet plea caressed Marianne’s ears, but she forced down the spark of hope that dared to rise at her mother’s question. There was no room for hope now, only necessity.
“You know if we continue as is, all that is left of our fortune will be spent in one year on your prescriptions. Then what will we do? Without my dowry, no man will look my way, since that and our good name is all that has caught this particular fish upon the hook.” And without a husband to unlock her inheritance, her father had ensured that the seven thousand dollars would remain as far from her reach as if she did not own it at all.
“Perhaps you will meet another man—someone you love?” her mother said.
“Mama, I am five and twenty.” Marianne turned and waved her hands over herself. “And plain to look at.” She gave a bitter laugh. “Do you see suitors lining up at our door?”
“You are too beautiful for words, dearest.” Her mother’s eyes beamed in adoration. “You just don’t know it yet.”
Shrugging off her mother’s compliment, Marianne stiffened her back before she attempted to rekindle an argument long since put to death. “We could take what’s left of our money and fund a privateer, Mama.” Marianne glanced out the window at a mob that had formed down the street. “War is certain and our fledgling navy will need all the help it can get.”
Her mother’s nervous huff drew Marianne’s gaze. “It is far too much of a gamble. And gambling destroys lives”—a glaze covered her mother’s eyes as she turned from the window and stared, unseeing, into the room—“and families.”
Marianne grimaced. “This is nothing like what Papa did. I have heard these privateers can make a fortune while helping to defend our country.”
A breeze stirred a curled wisp of her mother’s hair as she gazed at Marianne with concern.
Marianne twisted the ring on her finger. “Down at the docks, merchantmen are already outfitting their ships as privateers. The call for investors goes out daily.” If only she could convince her mother, not only would Marianne not have to marry that clod, Noah, but also she could do something to help this great nation of hers.
Her mother’s boney hands, perched in her lap, began to tremble. “We could lose everything. And what of Lizzie? I could not bear it.”
Shame drummed upon Marianne’s hopes. She had upset her mother when the doctor strictly instructed her to keep her calm.
“Perhaps you could take up a trade of some sort?” Mama offered. “I hear that Mrs. Pickersgill makes a decent living sewing ensigns.”
A blast of warm wind stirred the gauzy curtains and cooled the perspiration forming on Marianne’s neck. “Mama you know I have no skills. I’m not like other ladies. The last gown I attempted to sew fell apart. My cooking would drive the hardiest frontiersman back to the woods, and the pianoforte runs when it sees me coming.”
Mother chuckled. “You exaggerate, dearest.”
But Marianne could tell by the look in her mother’s eyes that despite the humorous delivery, her words rang true. Though a governess and her mother had strived to teach Marianne the skills every proper lady should acquire, she had found them nothing but tedious. She possessed no useful skills, no talents. As her father had so often declared before his death. Marianne had nothing to offer. If her mother would not agree to fund a privateer, Marianne would have to accept her fate in marriage.
“I must ensure you and Lizzie are cared for either by this marriage or by some other means.” Mama said with a sigh. “I’m an old woman and will die soon anyway.”
Marianne’s heart sank at the words. Gathering her skirts, she dashed toward her mother and knelt at her feet. “You must never say such a thing.”
“Do not soil your beautiful gown.” Her mother smiled and wiped a tear from Marianne’s cheek. “Perhaps we should simply trust God with my health and let His will prevail.”
Marianne laid her head on her mother’s lap like she used to do as a child. She had trusted her father, she had trusted God.
And they had both let her down—her and her mother.
“I will not let you die, Mother. I cannot.” Her eyes burned with tears. “As long as I have my inheritance and a man who is willing to marry me, I promise you will be well cared for. And Lizzie too. That is all that matters, now.” Marianne lifted her gaze to her mother’s, feeling strength surge through her.
“And mark my words, Mama. Nothing will stand in my way. Especially not Noah Brenin.”