Authors: Morris Fenris
Tags: #Western, #Romance
Taking the High Road
Book 1: John Yancey
Changing Culture Publications
Copyright 2014 Morris Fenris, Changing Culture Publications
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“Help you with yer bags, Miss?” a teen-aged urchin entreated.
Grinning with such cheerful impudence that any passerby would be only mildly annoyed rather than furiously so, he was keeping determined step with every one of Cecelia Powell’s, striding hastily backward along the wooden train platform as she strode forward.
“Real cheap, and I’m real strong. I can carry whatever you got to wherever yer goin’.”
“Oh—uh…no, thank you.” Cecelia didn’t dare interrupt her progress, in case the urchin decided to take a more hands-on approach.
“Lookit; trunk, band box, hatbox, carpet bag—don’t make me no never mind.” A flex of arm muscles, for emphasis. “My maw always tells me I’m skinny, but I’m wiry.”
“No, really. I’m sorry, but someone is supposed to meet me here, and I—”
“Well, shoot, then, I can getcher stuff into a carriage, if you like. Miss.” The boy’s frantic dancing stopped dead, so that Cecelia stopped, too, with involuntary sympathy. “I got three little brothers t’home, and no food. Even if yer okay on yer own, couldja see yer way clear to…”
Cecelia tried to harden her heart. With her own limited resources, and those not even self-earned, she couldn’t possibly give aid to everyone she met. Still, she automatically opened her silk reticule and pressed several bills into the grubby outstretched hand.
His face instantly brightened. “Lord love you, Miss!” he cried, and bounced away. Toward some new victim, no doubt.
Paused now in the sweet early summer air that still smelled slightly of railroad coal smoke, Cecelia glanced around. Where on earth had Bridget disappeared to? Her lady’s maid had kept close watch over every part of their journey from Switzerland back again in the return to Boston, but she had been gone for some time now—evidently checking schedules, arrivals, and departures at the station. And Cecelia, grown impatient with waiting, had decided that it was time to track her down.
To be so close to home, after so many years away at an unfamiliar school in an unfamiliar country, after so long of feeling of exile from her own land, after so lengthy a period of travel by several different modes, caused her nerves to prickle and her insides to churn with anxiety. Infrequent letters from her mother could never serve as a substitute for the living, breathing woman herself.
Cecelia had so desperately missed the warmth and ever-present support she had enjoyed here as a child. The hours of this last slice of her return had passed ever so slowly, until she could slip back into the only safe haven she had ever known!
Sighing, she arranged herself and her voluminous skirts upon a nearby bench, and took advantage of an elm tree’s shade. The overhead sun, at noon, blazed down with unexpected heat. Another change to re-accustom herself to, after extended exposure to a cooler Alpine clime.
Seated quietly off to the side, away from foot traffic, she presented a study in contrasts.
For her arrival today, she had chosen a traveling costume of lightweight Bordeaux wool, trimmed in darker rose-wine. A simple design, as modest as any tailor’s needle could make it. In her mother’s house, she had grown up surrounded by too much fuss, too many frills, and too great a display of vivid hues and gaudiness. She was happy to leave all that behind.
Her own coloring would draw attention from pedestrians, however, even if her wardrobe didn’t.
Complexion as fine and translucent as porcelain ware, yet highlighted by a brighter coral flush on the cheekbones. Steady blue eyes that looked on and into and sometimes through, yet of such a brilliant, almost sizzling blue that one was reminded of forget-me-nots, perhaps, or delphiniums. Hair coiled into respectable loose curls beneath her buckram brim hat. Curls that, at first glance, appeared tawny brown; on closer view, that held streaks of amber, flaxen, and bronze—the natural result, did anyone care to question, of seasons spent bareheaded under a radiant sun.
“Cecie, darlin’!” harrumphed someone with the tonal quality of a bullfrog and the approaching gait of some East African rhinoceros. “Glad to see you’re back safe and sound, girl.”
She rose only long enough to be enveloped in a hug that came close to crushing every rib.
“Oh, honey, you’ve been gone far too long,” proclaimed Gabriel Finnegan, releasing her at last. He held her out at arm’s length for the head-to-foot survey a quasi-parent might accord. “Here, let me have a look at you. M’h’m. Better and better. That finishin’ school did a damn find job. We’ve all been so proud of you.”
Dimpling, she offered him her best curtsey. “Thank you, Gabe. Let me just say that it’s wonderful to be home, after all this time away. I’m so looking forward to taking in the sights and sounds of Boston again. But where’s my mother? I expected that she would be here, once I sent word of my arrival date.”
Gabe smoothed his silver mustache, tucked both hands into his vest pockets, and rocked slowly back and forth on his heels—a ploy, most who knew him realized, of delay. “Tell me, Cecelia, where’s that niece of mine? She’s s’posed to be tendin’ to you, ain’t she?”
“Oh, you mustn’t find any fault,” Cecelia scolded fondly. “Bridget just went to check on arrangements for us. She’s been wonderful, helping me out, and we’ve gotten along famously. Truly, I don’t know what I would have done without her.”
Another harrumph. “Well, if you say so, honey. Ah, there, if my old eyes don’t deceive me, she’s headin’ our way even as we speak.”
“Uncle Gabe!” From some distance away, Bridget threw aside decorum to wave madly as she hastily advanced toward them. Once drawn alongside, she, too, was pulled into a giant bone-cracking hug that left her breathless and flustered. Straightening her brown merino jacket and the little straw skimmer that sat so jauntily on Irish-red hair, she leaned forward to kiss her uncle’s smooth-shaven cheek. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“What, you’re not ever noticin’ the few extra pounds I’ve added to my frame?” he queried, twinkling down at his two favorite young ladies. “Very kind of you, Bridget, my dear.”
“But—you’re here? I expected Miss Cecie’s mother…or, at the very least, her driver.”
“Yes, well…life has a way of changin’ any plans. C’mon, girls, my own driver is waitin’ across the way. Let’s collect all your baggage, and whatever else—you got how many trunks? Jumpin’ Jiminy! Well, I wanna drop Bridge off at my house on the way. Then, Cecie, you and I need to make a stop at the office for a bit. We got us some legal things to get into.”
Cecelia exchanged a wary, uneasy glance with Bridget, more personal friend and companion than lady’s maid, and susceptible to every mood. Reaching out to touch her mentor on the arm, she said hesitantly, “Gabe, what is it? You’re worrying me, just a little.”
“Aw, shucks, honey, let’s just get settled in the carriage, and you two can catch me up on all your travels.” Gabe was too much the professional to discuss family matters with the girl while his own niece stood close by. “So how long did it take you to hike yourself down from them Swiss mountains? A damned fur piece, ain’t it?”
* * * * * * * * * *
“And that’s the way it happened, honey,” Gabe was finishing up his story in the sumptuous wood-paneled library of his downtown office. “Too fast for anybody to prevent. And just last week, too, while you were crossin’ the ocean. Guess I coulda tried sendin’ a cable, but I thought you’d rather hear the news in person.”
“In person,” repeated Cecelia, dazed. “Yes. Of course.”
“It’s been—it’s been the very helluva time.”
Stunned and disbelieving, shivering as if with ague, she had propped herself into an upright chair, grateful for the support of its unpadded wooden back; on the table at her elbow sat a small glass of sherry, as yet untouched.
“A carriage accident,” she said dully. “Both of them at once. I don’t think—Gabe, I just don’t think I—can take it all in.” Her eyes, bluer than blue with tears, blinked rapidly several times, and she felt a great stoppage of breath in the solar plexus. Could someone loosen her corset? Could someone shift her about to ease the nausea and curtail the pain?
“Aw, Cecie…” Gabe shambled over toward her, like a big clumsy bear straight out of hibernation, to sympathetically wrap one arm around her quivering shoulders. “I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you. All I can say is that…well, your parents died together, quickly, and without much suffering. When their bodies were found, they were holdin’ tight to each other. Just like in life.”
“I’ve been so counting on the time I would be with her—again. Coming home…it was all I could think about. So long—so long since I’ve seen her. Gabe,” she looked up at the older man, suddenly almost frantic to make him understand, “I’d almost forgotten—what she looked like, my mother. And now I—I’ll never—remember—!”
“I know, honey. I know.” His own voice was clotted with grief. How does one offer succor and sustenance to another when the heart has been riven into bleeding chunks?
A sniffle, a small sob, a brush of handkerchief against sopping lashes. “And—her—the other—Mrs.?”
“Uh. Well.” The scrape of chair legs across the floor, as he settled in beside her, sounded ear-splittingly loud in the silent room. “Your father’s—uh—wife, well, o’ course she buried your paw in her family’s plot. I’ll take you there, once you feel up to it, so’s you can visit and say a proper farewell.”
“Thank you, Gabe. I’d appreciate that.”
“Mrs. Harper, now, well…she arranged for a private funeral and private interment. No real marriage between the two of ’em for a long time, as you know, and I reckon she saw no point in openin’ up all those wounds to the public.”
Nodding, Cecelia swiped at a few more tears. “And—my mother—?”
Gabriel could provide all sorts of physical comfort: hand-holding, a warm embrace, quiet faithful attention if necessary, even the occasional tumbler full of single malt. He did not do well at the actual telling of bad news.
Clearing his throat, he became suddenly very interested in a loose thread dangling across the thigh of his trousers. “Well, we—uh—we sorta ran into a snag there, Cecie. Your maw—lotsa notoriety, y’know. Folks—’specially ladies—woulda been mighty put out, seein’ much fuss made. So she, too, was laid to rest in a private ceremony. No gawkin’, no gossip. Just a preacher and me.”
“In a plot that I own,” said Gabe firmly. “Nice sunny space, top of a hill. From where she is now, Cecie, girl, Marla can look down on the rest of Boston society, exactly as they looked down on her all those years.”
“Oh, Gabe, thank you!” Cecelia exclaimed, tremulous with tears. “Thank you for—for taking care of everything. You’ve been such a g-g-good friend—””
“Aw, not the waterworks again, honey.” Like most men, Gabe felt uncomfortable when tears were shed, and did his best to avoid any such encounter. “Y’know I held your maw in a great deal of esteem. In spite of her—uh—her chosen profession.”
“Ah. Yes. There was that.” No anger, no bitterness. Just a simple acceptance of fact.
Her profession. Her mother’s chosen profession: Marla’s House of Ill Repute. Well, not really. The official title was just The Bostonian Club. For Gentlemen. But the words meant one and the same. It was left for anyone to wonder how the term “gentlemen” could possibly apply to what went on there, in that well-appointed, brightly-lit, music-and-fun-filled, open-till-all-hours brick building.
Cecelia had been born and raised in the top, secluded story of that Club, hidden away at a tender age. Behind closed doors, from much of its daily activity. An observant, intelligent child, she had quickly learned the truth; and it wasn’t long before she was sent away to continue and finish her education far from the disreputable red-light district.
Some thirty years ago, Paul Harper, married for convenience and family pressure to a cold, calculating social climber, had stumbled upon the Bostonian, with his friend Gabriel Finnegan in tow. Paul, struck by the proprietor’s beauty, kindness, and passion, had fallen instantly in lust. And then, over time, in love.