Biltmore dining, Christmas eve 1895

Here is an excerpt of my new romance novel, Escape to the Biltmore available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. For a last minute Christmas present, a kindle gift certificate would be wonderful.

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“Merry Christmas, Anna.”

She smiled, hoping no one could hear her heart that beat like a kettle drum. “Merry Christmas, Richard. It’s still cold, but at least we aren’t trapped in a blizzard.”

He gestured toward the triple fireplace where huge logs blazed high. “The fire makes this mammoth room feel almost cozy.”

Daphne caught his dry humor and giggled. “I think Uncle George is burning an entire tree all at once. Earlier this afternoon, my young cousins were having great fun playing in that hearth and they certainly didn’t like being hustled out of it for the logs to be stacked for tonight’s event. All they could talk about was finding another one to play in.”

The rich and throaty sound of his laughter lifted Anna’s spirits. “That’s because they’re excited about Santa’s arrival. After all, a cool and empty fireplace will be his most likely point of entry.”

Before anyone could offer a comment, the renowned author and socialite, Edith Wharton, entered. As always, she was the epitome of understated good taste in her chic black gown with elegant rubies nestled at the base of her throat. She and her husband were seated next to Richard.

“How lovely to see you, dear,” she addressed Anna. “I had tea with your Aunt Mildred last week, and she filled me in on all the wonderful things you’re doing for women and children on the Lower East End.”

“You are most kind.” Anna was certain the woman knew all about her financial downfall, but Mrs. Wharton wasn’t a snob. Born into the cradle of New York society, her pursuit as a writer had made her somewhat of an outcast among The Four Hundred, with many referring to her as a Bohemian.

Daphne gave a playful grin. “Her work stretches beyond the confines of New York, Mrs. Wharton. She now delivers babies on trains.”

Daphne’s mother, who was seated farther down the table, leaned forward to give her daughter a stern glare. It seemed to Anna that her friend shrank before her eyes.

Mrs. Wharton looked surprised, but tactfully did not comment, turning her attention back to Anna. “I’m writing an article for The Ladies Journal, about the poor working conditions inside that dreadful shirtwaist factory on the East End. It would be marvelous to hear your thoughts on the likely dangers therein, and how we might help.”

Anna started to reply, but a sudden hush fell over the room as George Vanderbilt entered alongside his mother. Maria Louisa Vanderbilt was well past her sixtieth year, but her posture and fine bones reflected a still youthful beauty. After she was seated, George addressed his guests.

“Friends,” he said, looking about on all his guests, “ten years ago, while visiting Asheville with my dear mother, I decided to make my home here in these lovely mountains and surround myself with art from all over the world.” He paused, then with a flourish of his hand, ended, “I now give you Biltmore, my little mountain escape, finally finished, for the most part.” Amidst the chuckles he continued, “I am honored to have all of you here during my favorite time of year. Mother will now ask the blessing; afterwards, we shall all stand for a Christmas toast.”

Everyone bowed their heads as the Vanderbilt matriarch prayed in a sweet old voice that still had the vibrant quality of youth in its fringes. The prayer gave Anna a sense of peace, making her glad to have accepted Daphne’s invitation, instead of spending the holidays alone in her room, or having Christmas dinner in some cheap dinette.

At the prayer’s end, they all stood, and George raised his champagne glass for a toast. “In this season of good will, may all of you receive the blessings of joy, excellent health, and a prosperous New Year. Merry Christmas, and God bless you, everyone.”

Everyone lifted their glasses in response. “Merry Christmas!”

The butler gave a subtle nod to the pianist stationed in the corner of the banquet hall and the young man’s fingers touched the keys, producing the opening notes of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The tune lightened the atmosphere with an additional layer of festivity, while footmen served the first course of Consommé Royale.

It had been a long time since Anna had tasted anything so delicious. The rich broth served with a savory garnish of hard-boiled eggs and herbs had always been a holiday favorite. Nowadays, her diet consisted of simple foods, mostly bread and cheese, with black tea, and maybe an occasional piece of fruit when she could spare a few extra pennies.

Mrs. Wharton seemed to have forgotten about asking for her opinion about the shirtwaist factory, turning her attention to Dr. Wellington. “Where is that beautiful young woman I remember so well? I’d heard the two of you were engaged.”

Anna’s heart fell with disappointment. Of course, there would be someone special in his life. With his broad shoulders and handsome demeanor, why wouldn’t there be? He was gorgeous.

“Julia and I are no longer betrothed.” His answer was quiet, his words almost lost behind the pianist’s lively tune.

Hope returned to her heart, while a powerful sense of guilt pervaded her conscience. How could she allow herself to feel joy over his loss? What on earth was wrong with her? She simply must snap out of it and think about someone other than this handsome doctor.

With a quick suffusion of color, Mrs. Wharton apologized. “I am so sorry—I—I didn’t know, doctor. Forgive my blunder.”

He waved aside her words. “You couldn’t have known. Julia and her mother returned to Chicago over two years ago. We decided to say little about it. You know how the gossips love to focus on such things.”

Mrs. Wharton nodded, quickly changing the subject by talking about her latest trip to Great Britain, but a palpable tension remained in the air, until the irrepressible Daphne broke in.

“Dr. Wellington, I hope you haven’t forgotten about the children’s party tomorrow afternoon. You’ll be there, won’t you?”

 

Chapter Nine

Richard glanced up from his consommé, relieved to move away from the topic of his ex-fiancé. “Certainly. How many children do you expect to attend, Miss Vanderbilt?”

“At least sixty, perhaps more.” Her voice chirped with enthusiasm. Then, to several listening guests she explained, “Uncle George is having a party for the children of his staff tomorrow afternoon, and I’m overseeing it. Santa will be there, and we plan to have lots of games, refreshments, and gifts.”

Richard chuckled in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. “My function at the party will be to provide medical treatment for anyone who shows up sick.” He shook his head. “It hardly seems fair. I’d much rather play the role of Santa, or at least have charge of games and refreshments.”

Daphne feigned a pout. “Well, really, Dr. Wellington, I wish I’d known how you felt before I forced Uncle George into playing Santa. I’m sure he would love for you to take his place.”