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Chapter Two

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Annabelle gawked at her enormous pile of dresses, stunned by the size. With more ball gowns than any person of color was expected to have, she had gained enough dresses to most likely make up an entire dress shop.
 
A smile creased the corners of her lips; Elijah had ensured that every one of her dresses was made especially for her. And while she never got invited to any ball, she had spent the bulk of her adult life accompanying Elijah to balls.
 
Even now, as she sat on the edge of her bed trying to fold her dresses, she could almost picture the look of horror on the faces of those snobbish aristocrats as they watched the older gentleman walk into the ballroom with a negro clinging to his arm—their sagging lips, and bulging eyes, as they clutched their chests
 
At first, Annabelle had been conscious of their glares. She had learned earlier in life not to cry because nobody cared about the tears of a slave, but she had come close enough to tears the first night she went to a ball with Elijah. When the ball had ended and they had settled in the carriage, Elijah had turned to her, his green eyes filling with compassion. Leaning forward, he had cupped her face in his aged hands and had gently whispered:
 
“You, Annabelle, are the most elegant lady I have ever gotten the privilege of meeting.” He smiled. “It would be an injustice to keep you locked up behind closed doors, denying the world the opportunity of meeting such a lady of grace,” he finished and Annabelle had smiled for the first time that evening.
 
It was her first ball, but it led to many others. Elijah had always stuck close to her side, his presence filling her with confidence and courage. Their bond had grown, and with it, the horrid rumors that threatened to ruin them both.
 
The rumors began with the highest class of the British elites and moved—ever so swiftly—to the lowest. Soon, all of London was buzzing with the scandalous tale; Lord Elijah Finley was taking his black slave to bed, and worse than that was the fact that he had turned that slave into his mistress, proudly displaying her to all of England.
 
While the rumors continued to thrive, people’s hatred for Annabelle grew stronger. But their hatred toward her never seemed to bother her as much as their hatred toward Elijah. Their rumored affair ruined Elijah's reputation, and for that, Annabelle hated society.
 
“Do you have to go?!” Maggie’s tearful voice was enough to pull Annabelle back to the present.
 
She nodded. She had spent the entire morning saying goodbye to Elijah Finley’s servants. It had been a morning of tears and hugs, and she didn’t think she had it in her to console Maggie, for she herself needed consoling.
 
“I shall miss you dearly, Annabelle.”
 
Annabelle smiled. The servants hated to see her go, but they understood her decision to leave. Being the only black woman in a household of white servants, Annabelle was the only one who had the past of a slave. They understood her struggles with her past, and they knew not to ask her to remain.
 
She pulled out a brown cotton dress and placed it in Maggie’s lap. “You should keep that.”
 
Maggie gawked. “Are you certain?! This is so expensive!”
 
She laughed. “It is!” It was ironic how expensive her dresses were. “I would most likely not need any of these dresses. Surely you can imagine how incredibly silly I would look cat walking the streets of London wearing a ball gown! Or perhaps going for supplies dressed in an expensive gown?!”
 
Maggie laughed, her brown eyes lighting up with humor. Placing the back of her hand against her tan forehead, she tilted her head backward and closed her eyes. “My, I fainted when I saw that black woman wearing a dress I am certain was designed for the duchess herself!” Maggie mocked in a high-pitched, snobbish manner. “I would assume she could be a harlot, but what man in his right senses would take a woman with such ugly skin to his bed?!” Maggie shuddered.
 
Throwing her head back, Annabelle found it impossible to control her laughter; Maggie’s impersonation was right on target.
 
Annabelle was so busy laughing that she almost missed the light knock that sounded on the door.
 
Rising to her feet, she offered Maggie a wink, before making her way to the door and pulling it open.
 
“Hope,” her smile died on her lips at sight of the weary lines that creased the maid’s youthful face, “is something wrong?”
 
“I am not certain, but Lord Christian is in the parlor downstairs, and he insists your presence is required.”
 
“Would that be Lord Finley’s lawyer?” Annabelle’s confusion rose to a higher degree.
 
“Yes.” Hope nodded solemnly. “He insists you be present for the reading of the will. Lord Henry Finley is throwing an angry fit downstairs, and I’m afraid you might have done something wrong!”
 
“Annabelle couldn’t possibly do any more harm than that intrusive stranger—who claims to be Lord Finley’s son—has done in the few hours he has been present in the estate!” Maggie huffed, taking a stance behind Annabelle.
 
Annabelle suddenly felt light-headed. “Alright, Hope, stay here and help Maggie with my luggage, will you?” Hope nodded, and Annabelle smiled in response, before making her way past Hope and down the hall.
 
Yet again, as she approached Henry’s presence, she felt her heartbeat rise. She hadn’t thought the need to stand before him would ever arise again, least of all during the reading of Elijah’s will.
 
Why had she been requested to attend? Annabelle didn’t want to consider the consequence of the meaning of the request as she entered the Elijah's private parlor.
 
“Annabelle,” Lord Christian greeted, rising to his feet as she entered the room. She stole a glance at Henry and his guest, unsurprised to find they had chosen to remain seated in disregard for her presence, refusing to acknowledge her as anything more than that of a servant. The blonde woman also remained seated beside him.
 
“Lord Christian,” she curtsied, “you have requested my presence?”
 
The lawyer nodded, motioning for her to take a seat on the sofa that sat facing Henry.
 
Nervous, she settled on it and turned her gaze to her hands, afraid to encounter Henry's angry gaze.
 
“Lord Finley, before his passing, summoned me and requested that a will be drawn,” Lord Christian said as the sound of something being torn open filled the room.
 
Raising her eyes briefly, she watched as Christian pulled a white sheet of paper out of an envelop.
 
“This is the last will and testament of Earl Finley,” his voice commanded the attention of the room. Still, Annabelle could barely pay attention, for the sound of her accelerated heartbeat filled her ears, drowning out his words.
 
Focusing her attention on the wooden floor, she tried to regulate her breathing.
 
A loud crashing sound tore through the room, and she jerked upright in shock.
 
“That is enough!” Henry roared, reaching for yet another decanter and smashing it hard against the floor.
 
Confused, Annabelle stared at him. He stood by his seat, his face reddened by fury.
 
“My vessels, lands, and my entire life’s fortune,” Christian barely flinched, “to dispose of—”
 
“I said it is enough! You shall not sit there and make such ridiculous claims!” Henry swore, running his fingers through his raven locks.
 
The lawyer barely glanced up. “... of, however she pleases. If Annabelle decides to share this fortune with my son Henry, then her decision stands. However, the Finley estate in London must remain in Annabelle’s possession, as the title to it cannot be passed to my son Henry.”
 
It was then, as Christian read Elijah’s last wishes aloud, that Annabelle fully comprehended what was being said; Elijah had willed everything to her.
 
Pulling her eyelids shut as dread filled her heart, Annabelle shook her head, failing in her attempt to awaken herself from the horrid nightmare that was taking place before her.
 
“I trust Annabelle in life, and in death, I shall continue to trust in Annabelle’s will,” Lord Christian finished.
 
In that second, a loud silence filled the entire room as all eyes came to rest on Annabelle.

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