Yes, it's been 100 years. If you're still around, thanks for being here. Thanks to my beta, to my husband and to everyone who gives this thing a shot. It's much appreciated.
"The Davenport Family!" Juan announced from the foyer. I smoothed my jacket and straightened my tie, preparing to meet more of the endless guests to Olivia's ball. It seemed Mama had invited half the county. Any family with sons of marrying age, hell even close to marrying age, were asked to attend. We were an hour into it and I had already made pleasantries with nine different families, most of whose names I could no longer remember.
I stepped forward to greet our new guests. "Good evenin', Mr. Davenport."
"Good evenin', young Mr. Whitlock, Mrs. Whitlock. Thank you for invitin' us."
"Mrs. Davenport, lovely to see you." I kissed the top of her hand, smirking devilishly.
"Young Jasper Whitlock," she grinned back and curtsied, blushing slightly. "My sons Joseph and Robert," she indicated with a sweep of her gloved hand.
I straightened up, bristling slightly as I extended my hand. "Robert." I shook his hand firmly, trying to convey more than just "welcome" in my grip, and did not break eye contact. I wanted the ladies to be charmed and have a grand time, but the boys I wanted to keep as far away from Olivia as I could. I felt like she was being observed like livestock and it raised my ire.
"Joseph," I said curtly, repeating the same absolutions. Both boys nodded and muttered their greetings before excusing themselves to mingle with the others. I let my eyes follow them for a moment before surveying the rest of the guests in the room. Mama had been talking with Mrs. Davenport, and when she walked away Mama sidled up to me, nodding and smiling at the people who greeted her.
"Your sister appears to be havin' a grand time."
I followed her gaze across the room to where Olivia was sitting with some of the other women. She was laughing enthusiastically at something they were whispering to her.
"She sure does Mama, as does half the county," I replied smartly, gesturing to the milling crowd.
"Hush," she snapped, smacking the back of my hand with her fan. "I wanted to make sure there were enough people to mingle and dance with for both of you."
"Well, you made sure of that. I'm not sure we can fit many more people in here."
Mama turned her head slightly towards me. "I see you ran the Davenport boys off right quickly," she said, a smile plastered on her mouth for the guests and daggers in her eyes for me.
"I didn't say anythin' to them Mama, other than polite greetin's," I replied shortly, tugging on my shirt cuffs and straightening my tie. It suddenly seemed very hot in the room.
"Hmmm. Make sure it stays that way, Jasper. I won't have you runnin' off all the boys that are here to visit with Olivia."
I scowled at her.
"Yes, Ma'am." I was seething slightly. I felt like we were in a room full of circling buzzards, all of them waiting to pounce upon my poor sister. The thought of her possibly being married to any of these boys made my skin crawl.
"The Marchbanks family!" Juan announced from the foyer.
I was shocked. I turned to look at Mama, only to find her deliberately avoiding me. Horatio and Constance Marchbanks were one of the wealthiest families in the area. They came from old money, and carried with them the arrogance that usually comes part and parcel with old money. Their daughter, Rebecca, was considered quite a looker at sixteen. I found her to be an intolerable shrew of a girl; gossipy and haughty. Their son, Isaac, was one of the boys that picked on Olivia when we were children. He and his group of friends were the same boys I scuffled with and came home shamed and bruised from the encounter. I had never liked him. As a child he carried himself with an air of cruelty and arrogance. As he grew older, he projected a façade of a gentleman, but under the surface I could sense the devil living inside him. I was nauseated that he was breathing the same air as Olivia.
Mama knew all this. She knew the family, she knew our history with Isaac. She knew how Rebecca was fleeting in her friendships and had been less than civil to Livvie on more than one occasion. I could not fathom why they were now making their way towards us for pleasantries.
"Mrs. Whitlock, how kind of you to extend us an invitation," Horatio said, bending to kiss the top of Mama's hand. I was nearly writhing in my anger and irritation. "And young Mr. Whitlock, my, my. You have grown, my boy."
I swallowed the bile that had risen in my throat and stepped forward, extending my hand. "Mr. Marchbanks, so kind of you to come," I said, shaking his hand. I then turned to greet his wife, trying to reign in my anger. "Mrs. Marchbanks, you look lovely this evening." I took her hand, brushing the top ever so slightly with my lips. I instantly felt sullied and dirty, and let go of her hand as quickly as I could without appearing outwardly rude.
"Why, thank you Jasper. I'm sure you know my daughter, Rebecca?" Constance said, beckoning her forward with her hand towards me. Rebecca regarded me coyly, fluttering her eyelashes and covering her face with her fan. I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes at her behavior.
"Good evenin', miss Rebecca." I bowed slightly, just enough to be polite.
"Good evenin' Jasper." She curtsied low, looking up at me through her lashes and smiling.
Constance was still hovering nearby, coming forward once our introductions were complete. "Jasper, I trust you will be a gentleman and make sure Rebecca gets a turn upon the floor this evenin'? I don't want her to miss out on all the fun."
I felt trapped. I could not embarrass my family by doing what I so desperately wanted to do: tell this woman that there was no way in hell I would ever be so physically close to her harpy of a daughter. Besides, there wasn't a chance Rebecca would go without male attention this evening. She had her mother's raven black hair and her father's green eyes. Her skin was a pale alabaster, smooth and unblemished. Rebecca took great pride in her looks, and the boys all lapped at her heels regularly. I saw nothing of her beauty when I looked at her, only her ugly and selfish nature. My complete disregard only fueled her fire for me, causing her to hang upon my every word and seek my company whenever we were thrown together socially. It was beyond taxing.
Forcing aside my extreme annoyance at the situation, I smiled. "Of course, Mrs. Marchbanks. I would be honored to dance with Rebecca, if she wishes it?"
"Why, I'd be delighted," Rebecca responded, hiding her face behind her fan.
Isaac then made his way forward and we made curt greetings. There was no reason to publicly broadcast our mutual dislike, but we didn't hide it from each other. He left to mingle with the others quickly, and I was not sorry to see him run off. His mother and sister followed shortly after to mill about with the others and wait for supper.
More families arrived over the course of the next hour: Paul and Sarah-Jane Archer, along with their son Paul Archer II. The Archers were cotton farmers. Newton and Donna Lawrence with their son Morgan. Morgan and I were friendly, having gone to school together for the majority of our lives. The Lawrence family were ranchers, like us. They were kind people. They lived comfortably enough, but were not considered "wealthy". Morgan was a quiet boy, deep thinking but of few words. He had eyes for Livvie ever since we were children, and he was the only person that didn't make me feel like pummeling him when he looked at her with adoration.
Mama finally announced supper about six o' clock, ushering everyone into the large dining room. We were all seated at the table; Mama sat on one end and I sat on the other. Livvie sat next to Mama, flocked all around by the Marchbanks and Newton families.
Conversation was lively. The Lawrence's sat close to me through supper, and we talked mostly about ranch business. The price of cattle was steady, and we were all doing well for these times. I noticed Morgan sneaking looks at Olivia through most of the meal. I had to repress a smile; he was always seeking her out. Isaac Marchbanks was seated across and two people down from Olivia, but it didn't stop him from trying to monopolize her throughout dinner. His very presence in our house made my blood boil. Olivia seemed to be enjoying his attention, which just made my ill humor that much worse. I couldn't wait for this evening to end.
Once supper was over, Mama announced that dancing would be held in our large barn. We had spent the better part of two days clearing and airing it out for this purpose. The floor had been scrubbed clean and oiled, and a section was set aside for the musicians. Benches and chairs were arranged in an arc around the main floor area, and a small refreshment table was set up on the opposite side of the main entrance.
Everyone began making their way out the front door toward the barn in small groups. I lagged behind, finishing a conversation with Mr. Archer about some cotton seed feed for the cattle when Mama caught my attention.
"Jasper, could you please escort Miss Rebecca out? I have some things I'd like to talk with Constance about." Mama quickly latched on to Mrs. Marchbanks, hauling her out of the room and not leaving me any reasonable excuse to say no. Isaac was already escorting Livvie outside, and Mr. Archer had excused himself. Not wanting to appear rude, I offered my arm.
"Shall we, Rebecca?"
"Why yes, Jasper, thank you kindly," she said, taking my arm and smiling smugly. Rebecca prattled on while we walked towards the barn, but I tried to tune her out. Her conversation topics were insipid and uninteresting: clothing, shops, money, town gossip. I nodded at the appropriate moments, never giving her more than a "hmm" in response. I began to count the steps left to get to the barn, where I might be able to find a reasonable excuse to free myself of her company. Perhaps her constant nattering had made her thirsty; I could offer to get her a drink. She must be absolutely parched. I think the punchbowl was blessedly on the other end of the barn, it could take me quite a spell of time to get there, let alone get back with-
"Jasper Whitlock! Did you hear anythin' I said?" she shrieked. Her voice had a sharp, screechy edge to it that crawled right up my spine.
I looked around to see if she had attracted any attention with her yelling. Luckily everyone seemed to be inside already and she had not drawn unwanted attention to us. I had to think quickly though, before I provoked another outburst.
"I'm sorry Miss Rebecca. I was simply imaginin' how fine you would look waltzin' with me. Would you care to dance?" I asked with a smile.
This seemed to smooth her ruffled feathers. Smiling demurely, she placed her hand in my outstretched one. "I'd love to, Jasper. Thank you." I sighed quietly, happy to have diffused the explosion for the moment.
I led her near the center of the dance area. Once she was facing me, I drew my right hand around her, placing it lightly under her left shoulder blade. She slid her left hand slowly up my arm and placed it on top of my right shoulder, squeezing slightly. I swallowed hard, my skin crawling at her touch. Her behavior was nothing short of scandalous, and I wanted nothing to do with such a lewd girl.
As I led us through the dance, I inconspicuously looked around the room for Olivia. I finally spied her on the floor, dancing with none other than the despicable Isaac. My hatred flared, causing a minute pause in my steps. Rebecca was too busy making eyes at the boys and giving the other girls disdainful looks to notice my slight slip. I was grateful for once for her self-absorbed nature; I didn't want to answer any questions about my behavior. I swear if looks could kill, Isaac Marchbanks would be reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes from my expression.
I had to keep up pretenses of enjoying myself and being a good host, which meant I had to suffer greatly for the good of Olivia and the reputation of my family. I turned that horrid girl around the floor for six dances before I could extract myself from her grasp, explaining that I must check on my beloved Mama and make sure she was not in need of anything.
"Well, all right Jasper. I just can't guarantee that I'll be available for you again, with all the eyes I'm gettin' from the other boys tonight," she replied with an arrogant laugh, fanning herself and looking around the room. I assume this was meant to incite jealousy in me; unfortunately for her I couldn't care less. I tried to mask my extreme delight in being deprived of her company.
"That would definitely be a shame, miss Rebecca, but I can no longer leave my Mama and our guests unattended. Perhaps you would show me some kindness in allowin' me to escort you to your carriage at the end of the evenin', if you indeed have filled your dance card by the time I am finished makin' my rounds?" I gave her a small bow and a smirk. She was used to boys groveling for her attention, so my response caught her off guard. I took the window of opportunity to do an about-face and walk away in search of Mama.
I found her visiting with the older ladies on the other side of the barn. Mama was still in her mourning clothing, but she looked beautiful as she smiled and chatted with the other women. She had been through so much since Daddy died, I was glad she was having a moment of carefree happiness. Then I spied Mrs. Marchbanks sitting next to her, and all happy feelings immediately left me. I wanted to believe that Mama wanted what was best for us. I wanted desperately to believe it, but her actions tonight spoke otherwise. The more she chattered away with Constance Marchbanks, the more I began to doubt her motives. I had to know what she was thinking and what made her invite them to our home. I took a deep breath as I approached her, determined to get to the bottom of this situation.
"Mama, may I have this dance?" I asked, bending forward and offering my hand for her to take.
I caught her off guard. She hesitated for a moment before nodding her acceptance and taking my outstretched hand. I led her to the dance floor and waited for the music to begin again. When the band started playing again, I seized upon the opportunity to speak my mind to Mama. No one would be able to overhear us, so I decided to get right to the heart of the matter.
"How could you invite those people? After everythin' they put Olivia and I through, how could you let them into our house?"
Mama's eyes opened wide with shock for a moment, but she quickly composed herself. "Jasper, when you are older and have your own children, you will understand that sometimes you must make certain decisions for the good of all rather than the good of the individual."
I scoffed at her response." You would persuade her to marry for money and status instead of for love? You'd sell off your own daughter like so much cattle to secure your own future? "
Mama's temper flared. "How dare you say that I'm doin' this for me! This is for your sister's own good!" she spoke in a low hiss.
My own temper flared as well. "What's best for Olivia is to be happy with her life, not to be high up on some social ladder," I growled. "She should be free to make her own choices without your interferin' and pressin' your opinions on her!" The words were pouring out of my mouth in a torrent of anger and frustration. "Isaac tortured Livvie as a child, made her cry more times than I can remember. He and his friends lay a beatin' on me that I never forgot. They shouldn't be within a hundred miles of this house, and yet they're here. Isaac has been with Livvie most of the night, and I've been stuck with his sister as company. I want them out of my house!"
Mama clutched hard at my shoulder. The music stopped then, and when we broke apart she spoke to me in a venomous whisper. "Jasper Whitlock, you may be the man of this house, but I am your mother. What I say goes. Olivia will do as I say, and you will do as I say. Do I make myself understood?"
I couldn't take it any more. I gave her a short nod and stalked out the back doors into the night, churning and boiling with rage and helplessness. I vented my wrath upon the dirt with my boots, sending large chunks shooting into the darkness. I swore, dragging my fingers through my hair in frustration. I spat upon the ground and gritted my teeth. It wasn't until I stopped to take a deep breath and try to regain control of myself that I heard the voices. Coming from the side of the barn was a low muttering, followed by a smattering of raucous laughter. I started making my way slowly towards the sound. When I caught a few words of the conversation, I began to run.
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