Sylvia White is ready for a change. Growing up as the only girl in a motherless family of seven boys, she filled the role of keeper of the home. Now, in her twenties, she wants more for herself, but how is she to step beyond the overbearing men in her world and make a life for herself?
Richard Princeton has returned to Everland to run the family mine and atone for the ill will he’d held against his parents for so many years. But bad things happen when he meets the woman of his heart and his mother doesn’t approve.
The Everland Gazette
Princeton Mine tragedy one year later.
We remember Theodore Princeton and Charlie White.
Sylvia White took a deep breath, laid the hairbrush down on the scarred oak vanity, and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was done. Her makeup in place.
I can do this.
She’d planned for weeks to go to the Princetons’ annual masquerade ball, the first time in her life she’d ever considered it. The evening gown she’d meticulously prepared by altering her mother’s wedding dress lay ready on the bed next to a satin mask fashioned from remnants of the longer train. All she had to do was put them on, but she couldn’t do that until…
No, she wouldn’t sneak out of the house like a thief in the night. She was twenty-four, a grown woman, and she had every right to go to a party if she wanted. Her resident guard dogs—the hungry, boisterous, overly protective males downstairs—would just have to deal with it.
Pushing to her feet, she tugged the strings of her apron tighter and headed downstairs to set the table and check on the chicken casserole in the oven. Damon would arrive soon, and the others would expect to be able to dig in then.
The aroma that hit her in the face and the creak of the oven door made her smile. She loved cooking. The casserole was ready, so she pulled it out and set it in the center of the dinner table, long enough to seat ten, though there wouldn’t be that many coming to the table tonight.
The front door opened, and Damon appeared in his usual dark blue EMT uniform.
“Mmm, smells great, Sylvia.”
He kissed her on the cheek and pulled out his chair next to the vacant one at the head of the table. “I only have about forty-five minutes.”
“That’s fine. Everything is ready.”
He eyed her. “You get a new haircut or something?”
“You look nice with it all curled up like that.” He made a circle around his head with an index finger and grinned. “I guess slaving over a hot oven’ll do that to a girl.”
She laughed. “Thanks, I think.” To the rest of her brothers, she called out, “Come and get it!”
Someone clicked the TV off, cutting off a commercial in mid-rant. Heavy footsteps pounded down the stairs. As the brothers streamed into the dining room from elsewhere in the house, she told them, “Grab your own plates and forks. I haven’t had a chance to set the table.”
Sylvester did the honors of passing around the dinnerware, while most of the rest took their usual spots along the table’s sides.
Sylvia set the salad bowl down next to a basket of buttery dinner rolls and said, “Excuse me,” before heading to her youngest brother’s bedroom.
The sounds of gunfire and rock music met her despite the closed door. She shook her head as she opened it and peered around the door. “Dinner is ready, Doyle. Turn off the video game and get in there.”
She waited, counted to three, and flicked the overhead lights off and on. He finally looked over his shoulder at her. “Oh, hi, sis.”
The teenager paused the game, left the controller on the unmade bed, and followed her back to the dining room.
“Wash your hands.”
“Did they?” he quipped.
She turned to her other brothers already seated at the table. Everyone nodded, whether it was true or not. She crossed her arms, and Damon decided, “I should probably do a better job on mine anyway.” He got up, and then one after another crowded around the kitchen sink to rinse off their hands. She chuckled and finished bringing out the last side dishes of the meal, along with two, gallon-sized pitchers of iced tea. After the men were seated again, as she walked down the length of the table, she chided Harland for whistling at the table and then popped Steven on the hand when he reached across Gregory to snatch a roll.
“Serves you right,” Gregory muttered to his twin.
Sylvia smiled. They might be twins, but the two men were like night and day.
Though she didn’t take her usual seat opposite her father’s vacant chair at the head of the table, she stood behind it and nodded to Damon, who called the family to order and said grace. As soon as they chorused, “Amen,” her brothers dug in, but Bartholomew—ever the observant one—asked, “You’re not eating?”
This was it. This was her chance.
No, not yet.
She shook her head at the self-deprecating thoughts and removed her apron, draping the material over her ladder-back chair. “Not yet,” she admitted into the awkward silence that followed Bart’s question. “I have something to do upstairs. You guys go ahead. I’ll be right back.”
With that, she ignored the curious glances and escaped to her room. Once behind a closed door, she called for a cab and quickly finished getting ready for the ball. The fact she was so nervous about going alone to a party frustrated her, but perhaps it would’ve been easier if she had put her independent foot down sooner.
Her hands trembled, which made zipping the formal gown in place all the more difficult, but finally, she was ready. Her mask was folded up inside a small clutch purse. It could wait until she got there.
The cab pulled up outside.
It was time.
She could put it off no longer. Not unless she really was a coward.
I can do this.
She made her way back downstairs and tried to breeze past the dining room on the way to the front door. “I’m going out. Don’t wait up.”
“Stop.” Damon stood in the doorway to the dining room.
“My cab is here.”
As if the driver had heard her, he chose that instant to press the doorbell.
Damon went to the front door, opened it.
“Someone call a cab?”
“Yeah,” Damon told the driver. “She’ll be just a minute.”
“Where are you going?” Gregory and Sylvester wanted to know. Now they stood in the dining room doorway. “And dressed like that?” Gregory added, his eyes narrowing.
“Does it matter?” she challenged with a frown. “I’m a grown woman. I should think I could come and go as I please.”
Steven pushed through his other brothers and whistled at her. “Hey, if it’s a date, I’m picking up…uh…what’s her name?” Steven’s bedroom eyes met hers, his expression changing in a flash from confused to cocky. “I’ll think of it when I pick her up. Anyway, we could double tonight!”
“Look at her,” Gregory snapped at his twin. “You’d never take any girl anyplace where you’d have to wear a tux.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Does he even have a tux?” Doyle asked, though his question barely registered from his seat at the table, where he remained, still digging in to dinner with the guiltless appetite of a teenager.
“Stop talking with your mouth full, Doyle,” Sylvia said, hearing him snicker. She looked at Steven. “Regardless of what you might or might not have in your closet, I’m not going on a double date with you, and you should be ashamed for not remembering Chloe’s name.”
He snapped his fingers and grinned. “That’s her, but how’d you know?”
“She called an hour ago to make sure you didn’t get stuck working a second shift at the mine like last time.”
“Last time?” Damon asked. “I didn’t think they let new hires work double shifts at the mine, especially after they implemented all of those new safety precautions after the accident.”
Sylvester agreed and ruffled his younger brother’s hair. “They don’t. That’s just Stevie’s way of solving the problem of having asked two different girls out on the same night.”
Steven’s grin was unrepentant. “It’s tough to keep up… So many women, so little sleep.” He yawned and let his eyelids droop, then chuckled. “But someone’s got to do it.”
Sylvia rolled her eyes, but her nervous grip on her clutch bag made her fingers hurt. “In any case, it’s rude to make the cab wait. You all enjoy your dinner and don’t wait up.”
“Hey, now wait just a minute.” That was Damon, the eldest and hardest one for her to stand up to. He looked so much like their father, and although he was married and lived down the street, he was still the one most turned to now that their patriarch was gone. “The least you can do, little sister, is tell us where you’re going.”
“Why?” So they could ruin it for her?
“I have to when I go out!” shouted the youngest nosey eavesdropper of the bunch from the dining room.
“Fine. I’m going to the Princetons’ masquerade.”
“Oh no, you don’t,” snarled Gregory, glancing at Damon. “You know what happens at masquerades—”
“Greg, chill,” Sylvester said, trying to calm their most volatile brother. But his own concern became apparent when he retrieved his asthma inhaler and used it.
“Why would you want to go to some formal ol’ dance anyway?” Harland asked, peering at her over Sylvester’s left shoulder. “If you want to dance, all you have to do is come down to the club some night while me and the band are playing, and you can dance until your feet hurt.”
“It’s not the same, Harland, but thank you anyway. And you…” She pointed at Greg. “You’re not my father, Gregory. And you should know me well enough to realize I’m quite old enough to take care of myself, thank you very much.” She stood her ground and stared at her eldest brother while her tummy churned.
They loved her. She knew that. They were all she had, and she loved them, too, but she couldn’t let them keep her from living. And she feared that was exactly what was happening. She’d spent so much of her life caring for them and helping raise them, even though many were older than she was. After their father’s passing, the siblings had stuck together because it was what family did for one another. She could accept their worry, but she couldn’t take the overbearing protection any longer.
Damon opened the door and looked at her.
He raised a hand to cut off Sylvester’s protest. “Have a nice time, and be safe, sis.”
She thanked him with a relieved smile and a quick kiss to the cheek and, grabbing her coat, out the door she went.
* * * * *
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Princeton butler formally announced, “May I present Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell Princeton.”
Richard Princeton clapped along with the rest of the guests while the newlyweds made their way down the staircase to greet the flood of well-wishers. He smiled at witnessing the happy glow on Cindy’s face and the love so evident when she looked at her husband, his cousin.
Lucky bastard, he thought good-naturedly.
“I thought I told you to wear the tux.”
With a sigh, he turned to face the wrath of his mother and grabbed a champagne flute from a passing servant. Taking a sip first, he eyed his mother while gathering his composure. As usual for this annual affair, she was decked out in full, formal regalia, complete with ostentatious gemstones and a feathery, sequined masquerade mask on a stick, currently clasped in a tight fist. “I doubt Uncle will toss me out on my ear because I didn’t show up in top hat and tails.”
“That’s the not the point, Richard. You are a Princeton. This is Maxwell’s finest hour. You should present yourself accordingly. This is a formal affair.”
Another sip. “Be that as it may, my suit is fine enough. What is it you really want, Mother?”
She huffed, her face frozen in a perpetual frown that no amount of makeup or plastic surgery could alter. “For you to grow up and become a man worthy of the Princeton name. Look at you. You haven’t shaved—”
“I shaved this morning.” So what if he had a five o’clock shadow by three in the afternoon. He didn’t look unkempt.
“You’re in need of a barber. Your hair’s too long.”
It barely reached his collar. He sighed and downed the last of his champagne.
“I guess I should be glad your father didn’t live to see what you’ve become.”
“Enough,” he gritted out, trying not to make the scene she apparently wanted. Far be it for the other Princetons to have the spotlight one minute longer than she thought she deserved herself. “If you’re so disgraced by my presence, then why are you standing here?”
She pressed her lips into a thin line for several heartbeats. “You’ve left Mr. Kohl waiting long enough.” At last! We get to the point. He knew her pique had nothing to do with his attire. “The man came all this way to meet with you about expanding mine operations beyond the borders. The least you could do is listen to his joint venture proposal.”
“Like I told you at last year’s ball when you cornered me with that banker, I don’t do business at family functions. This is a family function. I’m off the clock. If you want to wine and dine the man, fine, but leave me out of it.”
She grabbed his arm. “I can’t negotiate a deal. You’re the legal owner of the mine. He wants to speak with you.”
“Then you shouldn’t have suggested he ambush me here.”
“What else have you to do here?” she snapped. “The best debutantes available from the finest families the town has to offer are all here, and all you do is stand here trying to hold up this damn wall. You haven’t danced even once.”
He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Mother, such language for a genteel lady.”
“Don’t smart-mouth me, young man. You’re still my son, and you should show me the respect I deserve.”
And here he thought he’d shown her both respect and infinite restraint. He closed his eyes. “I came here tonight to visit family and show support for my cousin and his new bride. I didn’t come here to do business or let you rope me into the marriage market.”
“How can you deny me the pleasure of being a grandmother?”
He’d heard the argument before, and at first he’d wondered whether she’d changed, but she didn’t want grandchildren to dote over. She wanted them because all of her peers at the country club bragged constantly about Lil’ Tommy or Pretty Julie, how talented or smart their grandkids were. His mother could buy a better car than anyone else, flash more diamonds than her friends, or outbid a competitor at an art auction. But only he could provide her with grandkids.
“Fine,” she was saying. “Be a wallflower. What do I care?”
Maybe a dance would resolve his problems. At least he’d be on the dance floor and away from his imperious mother.
“What do you want me to do, Mother? Ask the next person who comes through that door to dance?”
“I would prefer you speak with Mr. Kohl, but at least dancing would be better than standing here drinking your weight in champagne.”
“Here.” He all but shoved his empty glass into her hand and walked toward the door.
A masked woman in white was just handing her coat to the butler when he asked her, “May I have this dance?”
“Oh.” Somewhat startled, she turned to face him, and after a brief hesitation, she smiled. “Okay.”
She took the hand he held out to her and let him guide her through the partiers, past a decked-out Christmas tree, and into the library-turned-ballroom where a slow song had just begun. When he pulled her into his arms, he gave her a closer inspection and thought he recognized her despite the small silk mask.
The slim young woman had coal black hair, long but pinned back with loose curls cascading about her shoulders. Her full-length dress was pure white silk, unadorned, yet elegant in its simplicity. She wore no jewelry, but a sheer white wrap draped around her back and over each arm completed the look.
“Are we going to dance?” she asked with a grin and mischievous twinkle in her pine-green eyes.
He realized he was just standing there immobile, staring at her face, with her in his arms. “Yes, yes, of course.” He began to move. “My apologies for staring, but I think I know you,” he added after several steps.
“You do?” She held his gaze, and he admired that.
He nodded. “I’m Richard Princeton.”
“I know.” Her smile never wavered as she followed his every movement. “You aren’t wearing a mask.”
He grinned. “Right.” Another thing for which his mother had chastised him.
“You’re the White brothers’ sister, aren’t you?”
She flashed pearly whites. “You’re very good, Mr. Princeton.”
“Please, call me Richard. When people say mister, I turn to look for my father or uncle.”
Her bare back was so soft, as were the curls of her hair that brushed across his hand. “I’m sorry. I don’t know your name.”
“I’ve seen you at the mine before.”
“Yes. I bring my brothers their lunch most days.”
“Right. You have…four brothers?”
“No. Seven, actually.”
He blinked at that. He hadn’t known the White family was so large. He did recall meeting their father at the mine, back when he was little, before his parents sent him away to boarding school. “Must be nice having so many siblings to play with growing up.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” She laughed, which both surprised and pleased him.
He pulled her a fraction closer while they continued to dance. “Why not?”
“You try dating or doing anything remotely risky with seven overprotective brothers following you around.”
He grinned and searched the perimeter of the dance floor for his mother or Mr. Kohl. “I see your point. I guess family can be rather overbearing at times.”
“A little,” she agreed.
When the music slowed to an end, he stopped dancing but wasn’t ready to let her go. She’d been the one bright spot in an otherwise wearisome evening. “Would you like something to drink?” he ventured, hoping she’d say yes.
“That would be nice.” She took his proffered arm. “Thank you.”
As he escorted her toward a refreshment table near one wall, he watched her look around in apparent awe at his uncle’s grandiose home.
“Over the top, isn’t it?” he asked, handing her a crystal flute.
She blinked at him. “What is?”
“I think it’s beautiful…and very big.” She smiled at him, her eyes so bright with honest joy. “I’ve never been in it before.”
“My uncle spared no expense after he married Aunt Teresa.”
Taking a sip of her champagne, she nodded. “They were in love.”
“Yes.” More so than his own parents. “But it’s the Princeton way, too, I suppose.”
“What way is that?” She reached for a strawberry on a small platter and took a bite.
She shook her head. “Oh, I don’t think they mean to do it. Your father was never like that.”
“Have you seen our house?” The monstrosity was a showcase for overindulgent excess.
“Yes, I’ve been there.”
That surprised him. He didn’t remember her as a child.
She grinned. “We always attended the company New Year’s Eve party with my father. When I was little I pretended it was a castle.”
He didn’t know what to say. His childhood had been far from a fairy tale, but then he hadn’t really grown up in what was now his residence. It still didn’t feel like home.
“The Princeton family is very generous when it comes to charities and good causes. I mean, take this ball, for example.”
“Yes, everyone in town is invited. They don’t exclude anyone.”
What she said was true, though he knew most of those who accepted the invitation and dared to show up were of his mother’s ilk. Socialites or matchmaking mothers. Still, Sylvia was a miner’s daughter, not at all the country club type, and she was here. Far be it for him to rain on her parade, especially when he was enjoying her company.
He glanced up in time to see his mother bearing down on him.
He bent toward Sylvia. “You remember what you said about your brothers?”
“My overbearing relatives are headed this way. Would you do me a huge favor and let’s continue this delightful discussion elsewhere?”
She chuckled and took his arm. “Certainly. Where to?”