Mother’s lips tightened into a straight white line. “I had to get you to dinner. I didn’t want to lie, but there seemed no other way.”
Elizabeth gripped the bookshelf behind her for balance and pressed her fingers to her temple. Could her parents truly lose the house she’d grown up in? At the banquet, it had seemed like an idle threat, another of Mother’s endless dramatics to try to keep her in line. But Mother’s face had gone pale beneath her cosmetic powder, and her eyes pleaded for understanding.
“Things can’t be that bad,” Elizabeth argued. “Look at you, you’re dressed in a fine gown and still maintaining a full staff here. If there was so little money, wouldn’t Father be cutting back?”
“Oh, stop with this ridiculousness about expenses and cutbacks. I’ve never paid attention to how your Father manages his accounts. I simply trust him to do so, as any good wife would. And I know what he told me this morning, that the bank will take our house before Christmas if we don’t come up with money. Which is why we need you.”
The worry in Mother’s eyes faded into a dreamy sheen. “David DeVander has money and position. The panic barely touched him. And he needs a wife. Someone elegant and refined, someone who can charm the crowds in Washington and here at home. He’s willing to marry you and willing to help your father get back on his feet.”
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the plush blue carpet beneath her feet. Mother couldn’t understand how deeply David had hurt her. If she did, Mother would have never asked such a thing. “I can’t, Mama. He cheated on me.”
“Don’t you see, dear? David would take you back.”
“He would take me back?” She paced across the floor again, four steps to the fireplace and four steps back. She had to do something to burn off the fury raging inside her. “How very gracious of him, but I refuse to take him back. I can’t ignore what he did.”
“Well, you should. Any woman of breeding ignores—”
“Ignores what? That her husband sleeps with other women?”
“They’re called mistresses, Elizabeth.”
Mother spoke calmly, so coolly, that Elizabeth stilled, all her fury draining from her at the mention of that one terrible word.
“Father has one, doesn’t he?” The whispered accusation slipped from her mouth. Her lungs felt as though they would shatter if she breathed wrong, and a steel band, heavy and unbreakable, tightened about her heart. But still, it couldn’t be true. Father wouldn’t take a mistress. He couldn’t. Perhaps he had his faults—she’d be the last person to proclaim him perfect—but he wouldn’t betray her mother, her family, in such a manner.
A faint blush rose on Mother’s cheeks. “Your father is very discreet, both personally and professionally. How should I know whether he has a mistress?”
“Don’t lie to me. You know.” Oh, goodness, she wanted to be sick. But she couldn’t, not here in front of Mother, not with David and Father and Jackson across the hall. “A woman always knows that kind of thing.”
She had with David. She’d just been too young and trusting to pay attention to the warnings inside her head.
“Don’t you understand why you need to marry?” Mother stepped close, her eyes framed with unfulfilled dreams and glittering like bright, hard diamonds. “Mistresses don’t matter, not in the grand picture of things. But a good marriage can take care of both you and your family.”
Obey your parents. Honor them. The minister’s words from Sunday’s sermon curled like smoke around the recesses of her mind. But surely honoring her parents didn’t mean she had to spend the rest of her life married to a man like David. Surely God wouldn’t ask that of her, would He? “I’d never be able to keep him happy.”
“Happy? What has happiness to do with duty?”
“You speak as though I neglect you, but I help the family whenever an opportunity arises. I make appearances with Father, attend your social events and give speeches on his behalf. I’m even giving a speech next week. Why can’t that be enough?”
“We’re going to lose our house, and you have the ability to stop it from happening, yet you refuse. Oh, dear, you’re going to make me cry.” Mother blinked her eyes frantically, but two large tears streaked down her cheeks. “Have you a hankie?”
Elizabeth reached into her pocket and handed Mother a chalk-dusted handkerchief.
“Thank you.” Mother sniffled and dabbed at her face, unwittingly smearing the tears, cosmetic powder and chalk dust together into a pathetic mess on her skin. “I simply don’t understand why you can’t marry David and leave that wretched teaching job.”