A Man to

Call My Own

Chapter 1

MORTIMER LATON WAS BURIED that morning in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the town where he had been born and lived his whole life. Actually, the town was newly named Haverhill in 1870. It had been known as Pentucket when he was born and raised there.

His wife, Ruth, was buried in one of the older cemeteries that was no longer available, having filled to capacity soon after she was interred there. She wouldn't have minded that her husband didn't rest for all eternity in a grave near her. Actually, she would probably have preferred it that way, since there was no love lost between them.

The large marker that had been ordered for Mortimer was going to read: Here rests Mortimer Laton, beloved father of Amanda and Marian. Amanda Laton had prescribed the short sentiment, and for her it was most fitting. She had adored their father, and he, in return, had been the perfect father to her, providing everything a child needs in order to feel loved and secure. Marian, had she been asked, would have left out the beloved part.

The funeral had been a small gathering, and dismal as most funerals were, despite the fine weather that morning and the spring blooms that filled the grounds. Only Mortimer's servants, a few of his business associates, and his two daughters had attended.

The service had been notably quiet. No hysterics or loud tearful wails that morning, unlike Ruth's funeral seven years ago where Marian had made a spectacle of herself, crying uncontrollably. But then she'd felt that with her mother's passing she had lost the only person who had ever really cared about her.

Something similar should have happened today. Amanda, who had been her father's favorite from the day she was born, should have been crying her heart out. But since the sisters had heard the news that their father had died on the way back from the business trip he'd taken to Chicago last week, somehow falling off the train as he passed between one car and the next, Amanda hadn't shed one tear of grief.

An odd form of shock, the servants whispered, and Marian might have agreed, except her sister wasn't denying that their father was gone. She spoke of his death and discussed it without emotion, as if she were discussing some mundane event of little concern to her. Shock? Maybe, but of a kind Marian had never witnessed before. On the other hand, Amanda was a self-centered person, just like Mortimer. She was probably more concerned with how his death was going to affect her than with his actually being gone.

Mortimer had been capable of loving only one person at a time. This was a realization Marian had come to at a very young age, and, eventually, she'd stopped hoping it could be otherwise. And she'd never seen her father behave in any way that indicated she was wrong.

Her father hadn't loved her mother. Theirs had been an arranged marriage. They were merely two people living together, sharing the same house, sharing some of the same interests. They got along well, but there was no love shared between them. His parents had died before Marian was born, so she'd never seen how he behaved with them. And his only remaining sister had moved away when Marian was still a baby. Mortimer never spoke of her, an indication he could care less what had become of her.

But their father had loved Amanda. There was absolutely no doubt of that in anyone's mind. From the day she was born he'd been charmed and had showered her with attention, spoiled her rotten actually. The sisters could be in the same room yet he'd only see Amanda, as if Marian were invisible.

But he was gone now. Marian could stop agonizing over it. It wasn't as if he hadn't seen to her material needs all these years. In that, the sisters had always been treated equally. It was only Marians emotional needs that had been neglected.

Her mother had tried to correct that and had succeeded somewhat while she'd been alive. She had seen how much it hurt Marian to be excluded from Mortimer's affections, and while she loved both her daughters, she had spared a little extra affection for Marian. Unfortunately, Amanda had noticed and was so jealous, wanting all her mothers love exclusively, that it caused a breach between the sisters that had long ago gone beyond fixing. There was no tactful way to put it. They really and truly hated each other.

It wasn't just the jealousy issues. Those might have been overcome. The long list of grievances might even have been forgiven eventually, since most of them had stemmed from their childhood, which was over. But probably owing to the overabundance of spoiling and coddling, both of which fostered her self-centeredness, Amanda was, quite simply, not a nice person.

Whether deliberately or based on a tendency that came naturally to her, Amanda managed with alarming frequency to hurt peoples feelings. The alarming part was, she didn't seem to care or notice the damage she caused. And apologies were never tendered.

Marian couldn't count the times, there were so many, that she had personally tried to make excuses for her sister and apologize to die people Amanda hurt. It wasn't as if she felt responsible for her sister's actions. She didn't. Amanda had been nasty and spiteful from as far back as she could remember.

Neither of them had any female friends to speak of. Amanda, because she didn't want any. She had their father to dote on her. He was her best friend. Marian had wanted friends, but she gave up long ago trying to make any because her sister would always drive them away, usually in tears. The result was, other girls didn't want to go anywhere near Marian again if it meant they might run into Amanda.

Gentlemen were a different matter. Since both girls began approaching marriageable age, gentleman callers were in regular attendance at the Laton household. There was a twofold attraction—Mortimer's wealth, reputed to be quite substantial, and the fact that Amanda was very likely one of the most lovely girls in town.

And Amanda actually liked the male attention. She thrived on the flattery. And anytime someone showed up whom she didn't particularly want adoring her, she'd belittle and subtly insult him until he stopped coming around. So she had her favorite group of admirers and she'd had them for nearly a year. But she didn't favor any single one of them to the point of deciding which one she'd like to marry.

Mores the pity. Marian wished she would. She prayed each night that her sister would get married and move elsewhere, so she could get on with living a real life herself instead of hiding away, fearful that some man might try to court her and end up one of her sister's targets. The two times she'd shown any interest in a man, she'd learned her lesson well. She wasn't going to be responsible again for seeing them cut to the quick by Amanda's tongue because they'd dared to ignore Amanda in favor of her.

Which was why, even though they were twins, Marian went to a lot of trouble to disguise that unfortunate fact. Not wanting to draw attention to herself, she chose dresses that were unflattering in color and extremely plain in design. She wore her hair in a severe style better suited to someone's grandmother than a young woman barely eighteen. But her disguise wouldn't really have worked without the spectacles she wore. The frames were large and the lenses so thick, they magnified her eyes to nearly twice their size, giving her an odd, bug-eyed look that was very unattractive.

They sat in their father's study, listening to the reading of his will. Amanda looked beautiful as always, even in mourning black. Her dress was stylish; she'd have it no other way. Adorned with lace and tiny beads in artful designs, it was actually more flattering than some of her fancier gowns. Her coiffure wasn't as frivolous as usual, the golden ringlets more tightly contained for once.

Marian, on the other hand, was as unnoticeable as usual. There were no intricate frills on her black dress to be admired, no stylish bangs to frame her face or detract from the ugly spectacles that dominated her appearance. She was the moth next to the butterfly. While she suspected it was easy to be the butterfly, she knew for sure it was hard work being the moth.

The room was almost unrecognizable, with Mortimer's lawyer sitting behind the desk, rather than Mortimer. They knew Albert Bridges well. He had often been invited to dinner when their father found himself strapped for time and brought his work home with him.

Albert usually called the sisters by their first names. He'd known them long enough to do so. But today he addressed each of them as Miss Laton and he seemed uncomfortable doing his job.

There had been no surprises in the will so far. A few family servants had been left small bequests, but the bulk of Mortimer's estate had been left to his daughters—equally. Once again, it was only his affection he hadn't divided equally, never his wealth. There were interests in a half dozen businesses, income property in town as well as other parts of the state, a bank account larger than either girl could have imagined. But no real surprises—until the end.

"There is one stipulation," Albert told diem, pulling at his collar nervously. "Your father wanted to assure that you would be well taken care of, and not be fooled by fortune hunters merely interested in your inheritance. So other than for essentials, none of his estate will be transferred to you until you marry. And until that time, his sister, Mrs. Frank Dunn, will be your guardian."

Amanda said nothing. She was frowning, but she hadn't yet fully grasped the implications. Marian watched her, waiting for the storm to erupt once it sunk in.