The coffin had been delivered to her doorstep sometime during the night. Annie stared down at the crudely cut box. The remaining servants had found it under the portico at dawn and pushed it through the front door, hopefully before the neighbors had seen it.
After sending the servants away, she inhaled a fortifying breath in preparation for examining the thing, a calling card from her former husband. Life had become a game of avoiding the past, a constant struggle while surrounded by reminders. It meant residing in this house where the ugliness had occurred, finding the courage to confront the message inside the coffin.
One of the servants had set a crowbar on top of the coarse, wood planks. The black metal felt cold and awkwardly heavy. The screech of protesting nails echoed off the hammered-tin ceiling. The lifted lid exposed a life-size, wax rendition of herself as she’d looked a decade ago.
She tilted her head sideways to assess it. There were more dreadful things in life than a naked, wax duplication of oneself, such as living with the sender. Any attempt to misconstrue the delivery as a sentimental token was ruined by the addition of a knife buried in the glossy chest. After smothering a startled choke, she regained outward poise and quickly replaced the packing straw over the lurid figurine. She shoved the coffin lid shut, ignoring the macabre squeal of nails scraping against unseasoned wood. She picked up the crowbar to drive nails back into place.
Through clenched teeth she muttered with each strike, “A rather pointed declaration of intent, Charles.”
She forgave herself for the maudlin pun. It hadn’t been so easy to forgive herself for marrying Charles Corday. She’d been little more than a child when she had, if not in years, certainly in maturity. Most of her illusions had been shattered during the six, nightmarish years of marriage to him. Hardened from those years, she’d reacted with only a moment of shock over the coffin’s contents.
The crowbar made a hollow thump when she set it on the lid. It was rather too bad that the figurine had to be destroyed. Her parsimonious nature debated the waste. The artist was actually quite good, except for the face. There was something empty and yet sinister about the fixed smile. The rest of the wax model was perfection, right down to the delicate blue veins and pale rose and cream hues of her bosom. Her replica wore nothing but the packing straw—added shock value, of course—so there could be no doubt that this threat had come from someone who knew her intimately. Since there was no one around, she gave the box a spiteful kick.
It didn’t help. A chill slithered over her arms and shoulders. Charles was coming back to Chicago and this hideous joke, his declaration. She thought she’d prepared herself for his return, but even the most meticulous of preparations can neither duplicate nor prepare one for reality.
She went to the bell pull and yanked. Moments later, a young, freckled housemaid flounced into the parlor. “An’ what would you be needin’, Mrs. Corday?”
Annie hid the knife she’d withdrawn in the folds of her skirt and attempted to casually ask, “Have Sven and Henry left for the Schneider’s?”
“Not ‘til that barn’s been cleaned out, if they know what’s good for ‘em. They’ve taken the horses to auction.”
“Bridie, when they return, would you please have the men carry this box into the butler’s pantry? Chop up the wax inside. Render it down and pour it into buckets. Have the wax delivered to Hull House.”
“And Bridie, I would consider it a great favor if you would see to this task by yourself. Except for the hauling of it. When you open the lid, you will know why the men must not see what is inside. I shall be resting in my room until Mrs. Barnes arrives.”
Upstairs in her bedroom, a refreshing breeze lifted window curtains. Even though she’d slept very little the night before, plagued by the usual dreams, sleep continued to elude. There was too much to think about, too much to do. She eventually got up and went to the tall window. Using a finger to draw aside the curtain’s filmy lace, she peeked around its edge to study the Gothic Revival residence on the other side of Clark Street. A stout matron tromped down the shallow steps under its portico.
Mrs. Hiller made no physical excuses about being a female determined to halt the process of time by exerting ruthless control over her face and figure. She’d been crammed into a frilly yellow-and-red-striped carriage ensemble and carried a yapping ball of fluff under one arm. With her other hand, she gestured rude instructions with a bilious green parasol.
Annie murmured with a smirk, “I wager they had to lace you up tighter than a pickle barrel to get you into that.”
She huffed a cynical snort. Such was the incredible hodgepodge of Chicago, where the hoi polloi rubbed elbows with the city’s haute ton of the self-made. She didn’t disdain the crass behaviors of the newly rich. She’d come down so far in the world that she couldn’t afford to cast any social stones. She was as intrigued with neighbors she never consorted with as they were fascinated with Mrs. Annamarie Lawrence Corday, formerly married to one of the most terrifying men to ever crawl up from Chicago’s dangerous underworld.
Grinning at the commotion across the street, Annie whispered in a grinning rendition of Bridie’s brogue, “And what sort of a mischief is herself up to at this time of a mornin’?”
Mrs. Hiller aimed her instructions at a stoic, liveried driver of the landau waiting at the base of the portico steps. An elegant team of bob-tailed chestnuts with gloriously white stockings stood patiently alert—as utterly well-bred as Mrs. Hiller was not. Two footmen hoisted Mrs. Hiller into the open carriage, careful to avoid her yappy pet. After settling the dog, Mrs. Hiller swiveled sideways on the velvet-tufted seat. She raised a lorgnette and aimed it at the Corday Greek Revival, totally unaware she was being studied in turn.
Annie chuckled. “Can’t see me, can you, old girl?”
Mrs. Hiller and everyone else in town were frantic for news. The latest gossip burning across the city featured the rumor of Charles Corday’s return. All of Chicago waited, some merely curious, but many eager for the flash of dirty linen. More than a few hastily packed to get out of town before Corday found them.
She’d let the curious know what she needed them to know, when she wanted them to know it. She’d learned to painstakingly plot every aspect of her life, even the pruning of the immense elm tree outside her bedroom window. The limbs had been shaped for seeing out, while preventing the inquisitive from seeing inside.
She allowed the curtain to fall back into place and went down the curved staircase to wait for her friend. How she would miss Charlotte’s friendship, but sacrifices had to be made when it came to outwitting evil. Her survival plan was a startling one, to be sure—unconventional and certainly convoluted—but crucial for survival in a world where Charles existed and wanted her dead.
Having given up on a nap, she went downstairs to wait for Charlotte. Crossing the foyer, she noticed the quiet. The house stood eerily silent now that most of the servants had been sent to other positions. It felt odd, the stillness. Almost loud.
Vibrant sunlight slanted through tall parlor windows. The elongated reception room had been strategically cluttered with Belter furniture and thriving potted plants. Plush velvet draperies were heavy enough to hide behind or shut out the world.
She went directly to the bay window, avoiding the presence of the sheet-draped coffin and the immense portrait on the wall. The padded window seat was her favorite place to soak up sunlight. After Charles fled, she redecorated the parlor but hadn’t taken down her portrait. An inner voice whispered it must be kept as a reminder of how she must always be strong and vigilant. She must never again be weak or undecided. That was the past. The circumstance of life had to be controlled to create a future full of new possibilities. But only if she could outwit Charles again, stay a step ahead.
The sunshine felt as soothing as she imagined a lover’s caress might be. The warmth helped to melt the fear lodged in her chest. She did nap, propped up with a pillow behind her back and one on her lap, until Charlotte arrived.
“Annamarie, my dear, why are you asleep? We had a date.”
Annie blinked away sun and sleep. She smiled at her friend. Chicago’s most beautiful matron, Charlotte Barnes, with her moonlight pale hair, cupid’s bow mouth and elegant wasp waist stood in the parlor doorway. Charlotte’s much vaunted countenance sported a frown.
“Annamarie, is it indeed true? That dreadful beast is coming back?”
Covering a yawn with the backs of her fingers, Annie stood. “His calling card arrived this morning.”
Charlotte pressed a lacy handkerchief to her cheek. “Oh, my dearest, whatever shall you do?”
“I shall ring for Bridie and have her bring us tea. Or would you prefer a cool drink? Do sit down, Charlotte.”
“How can you talk of tea at a time like this?” Charlotte wilted gracefully onto a satin-sheathed sofa.
Annie pinched back a grin. Charlotte, the epitome of womanliness, had a backbone of tempered steel. She positioned her glorious figure, while scattering reticule, parasol, and gloves. An Impressionist couldn’t have arranged a more suitable pose.
The skirt of Charlotte’s morning ensemble fell in shining folds of mauve crepe de Chine under a matching jacket. The broad, round wheel of her hat slanted on mounds of pale hair, the whole covered with a frothy film of mauve and pink netting. She’d anchored this glorious confection in place with amethyst-tipped hatpins. A corsage of pink roses had been pinned to the jacket’s left shoulder, placed there to match the double row of silk-covered buttons that marched down the jacket’s front, which had been gored to fit like a second skin.
In the suffocating humidity of Chicago in August, Charlotte presented the perfect image of cool, fashionable femininity. Feeling entirely unequal to her friend’s poised splendor, Annie hid her nerves by strolling around the room to check the soil in the scattered flowerpots with fear-chilled fingertips.
Charlotte’s tone was devoid of its usual airy quality when she repeated, “What will you do, Annamarie? He has killed off all the witnesses.”
“Do? Why, I suppose I shall have to remarry.”
An awkward silence followed. Annie needed to avoid her friend’s clever eyes while she explained her dangerous and more than a little outrageous plan. Although her friend portrayed the perfect rendition of vacant feminine charm, Charlotte was as shrewd and focused as any politician on the scent of a juicy bribe.
If she could get her friend’s acceptance and assistance, her plan might work. She needed someone in Chicago to send her reports of Charles, someone he wouldn’t dare harm.
“Charlotte, have you ever heard of ordering a bride by mail?”
Charlotte’s reply oozed disdain. “Good heavens, please assure me that you’re not thinking of responding to an unsavory advertisement.”
“Certainly not. I am the one shopping for a spouse.”
She peered out of the corner of her eye to assess Charlotte’s reaction and discovered her friend too shocked to let fly with another question.
“Well, I don’t see why I should not. Why can’t I get myself a convenient spouse? Men do it all the time. No one questions them. There should be nothing wrong with a lady doing the same.”
Charlotte discarded the veil of simpleminded helplessness. “You cannot be serious. Women do not advertise for a spouse. It’s pitiful enough that a female should find herself reduced to answering such an embarrassing public notice, but a female actively recruiting for a husband is unconscionable!”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Charlotte. Women spend the better part of their lives in subtle pursuit of men, and I most certainly have not placed an advertisement. My perspective husband and bodyguard is someone Harold knows, a Mr. Jacob Williams of Prosperous, Colorado.”
“Harold? Harold Browne? You can’t reply on him! All that groveling and obnoxious adoration of you is beyond all bounds.”
Feeling a bit stung, she coolly replied, “Perhaps I am not insulted by his admiration, Charlotte. I am not a reigning beauty with the entire male population of Chicago at my feet.”
Charlotte looked away with a delicate sniff. “What nonsense. You know my aim is to promote James in any manner I can. Short of adultery. He’ll make a fine mayor one day.”
“Yes, Charlotte, he will. He is one of the few who do not fear Charles.”
“I still insist that you reconsider this plan. There is no comparison between my willingness to see my husband safely installed in the mayoral office and the sort of intrigues hatched in Harold Browne’s twisted brain.”
“Harold has never failed me. He invested the little cash Charles left behind, and in doing so, has made me a great deal of money. By acting as my agent, none of my fellow investors ever knew that they had a female as a controlling partner.”
Charlotte looked away. “I find that suspect in itself. That man is altogether too clever and slippery. I don’t care if the little weasel is in love with you. I’ve never trusted him and neither does James.”
“Then what would you have me do? Shall I sit here and wait for Charles to have his revenge on me? Perhaps I should run for the rest of my life, wondering if he is behind the door, or lurking around the next corner. I tell you, Charlotte, I will have a life for myself. I got rid of him once before, and I shall do so again!”
Charlotte raised blond eyebrows. “Am I expected to condone this sort of rash venture without offering the tiniest objection or merest suggestion of advice? You’re my dearest friend, Annamarie. I cannot and will not stand quietly by while you ruin your life a second time.”
“Ruination or not, I intend to stay alive and in one piece. And if all goes well, I shall be free of him forever.”
Charlotte’s eyes narrowed. Her cupid’s bow lips thinned into a line. Before she could say another protest, Annie took Charlotte’s hand and drew her to the sheet-draped coffin. The nails didn’t squeak as loudly this time, but the impact of the contents remained as visceral.
Annie said, “Regard the hole in the chest. It is where I removed a knife.”
Lips parted, her face frozen in surprise, Charlotte wordlessly stared. After few moments, she murmured, “You had best tell me how I might help.”
The following day, Annie examined herself in front of a full-length mirror. Harold had suggested she alter her appearance to discourage any unwanted attentions from Mr. Williams. After assessing her reflection in the carved rosewood mirror, she was glad she’d sent Perkins to her new situation as Charlotte’s dresser. A glance at this and poor Mrs. Perkins would suffer an apoplexy.
Twisting to peer over her shoulder, she marveled at the graceless drape of cheap, brown cotton. The cord trimming of puce and mustard rendered the readymade skirt comical. She had to hide her bosom somehow, and the too large shirtwaist gave her upper-half a lumpy rather than curvaceous appearance. She gnawed her upper lip. Perhaps the off-putting ensemble might be a bit too obvious. She was a wealthy woman, after all. To appear entirely unfashionable might invite suspicion.
Her shoulders drooped as she stared. Her waist had expanded to an unsightly eighteen inches without a corset. Damaged ribs refused to allow for even the slightest cinching of her waist. Due to the first beating from Charles, tight lacing of any kind created slicing pains in her ribs with every breath.
Charlotte often slept in her corset to achieve her fifteen inches. Now that her friend was with child, she would never reach her goal of a fourteen-inch wasp waist, which was probably for the better. Charlotte neglected a fine mind due to her preoccupation with vanity.
She huffed a sigh at her own shortcomings and reached for a silver-backed hand mirror. The puffy pompadour was presently the mode, or the precisely arranged curls she preferred. This morning, she twined her hair into a black braid then pinned it into a painfully tight spiral at the back of her head. No ribbons, flowers, or decorative pins relieved the cruel arrangement.
She wrinkled her nose at the result. “Horrifique.”
Setting aside the mirror, she reached for the final touch, spectacles with tinted lenses. She perched the glasses on the bridge of her nose and wrapped the thin wires around her ears. The round lenses enhanced her owlish expression. Quivering lips and a snort of laughter ruined the stern image.
The distant thump of the doorknocker echoed up the staircase. With a startled gasp, she realized that Harold Browne was late. What if it wasn’t Harold and she had to deal with Mr. Williams alone?
Her old ankle injury complained as she hurried down the steps and across the foyer. Harold flew through the door she held open and went directly to the marble-topped table by the entry to set down his bowler.
He fussed with an armload of papers as he scolded, “You shouldn’t be opening the door, Mrs. Corday. Where are the servants? What if it had been Charles and not I at the door?”
“I sent them to their new situations yesterday. Bridie has gone next door to deliver a package.”
“My dear lady, you can’t be thinking of staying in this huge house all alone.”
He didn’t give her an opportunity to answer. He stopped fiddling with the papers and fully focused on her for the first time. She enjoyed an oddly ironical reaction of gratification from his gaping expression.
Scandalized, he whispered, “Mrs. Corday, what have you done to yourself?”
“Only what you suggested, Mr. Browne. I have minimized my charms.”
She turned and walked with brisk purpose across the white marble that paved the vestibule. A long carpet runner led to the office at the end of the corridor. Its softness helped with the little pinches of pain stabbing her left ankle with every step. She shouldn’t have run from the south wing and down the steps. After this interview, she’d have the remainder of the day to rest and elevate her storm-predicting ankle. It always acted up before a weather change or after hard usage.
As Harold entered the office behind her, she instructed, “Please allow the door to stand partially open. I think you should occupy the desk, since you will be conducting the interview. I shall take this chair, which will present an unobstructed view of Mr. Williams while you negotiate.”
“Certainly, Mrs., Corday!”
“You shall direct him to sit there.” She gestured to a lattice-backed chair in front of the sprawling mahogany desk. She’d selected the chair because it had a sturdy military appearance suitable for the occasion.
“Just as you wish,” Harold chirped while arranging papers.
Annie sat and folded her hands in her lap. “You were tardy, Mr. Browne. I hope you did not sustain a distressing accident.”
“Not at all. Merely a bit of unpleasantness with the casino proprietor. But all is well. There’s nothing quite like the results produced from the efficacy of large sums of currency.”
Her heart began to race. “He will cause no trouble?”
Harold replied with a smirk. “I’ve taken precautions to insure that everyone complies. And I really must compliment you, Mrs. Corday. You don’t look at all like yourself. A womanizer like my brother will be utterly discouraged.”
She took a moment to digest that convoluted accolade. “Thank you, Mr. Browne. I must admit to a measure of concern, if not confusion. You assured me that your brother is more than capable of protecting me from Charles and also expressed your belief that he will honor all aspects of the agreement. I do not find myself as entirely confident as to his trustworthiness as you, no matter how well you have manipulated the individuals involved.”
He smiled and cleared his throat. “Perhaps I should’ve mentioned that he’s only my half-brother. His character is not as socially developed as my own. His father was a…deviant sort.”
“You are absolutely certain he can protect me from a man like Clovis.”
She didn’t care for the hint of condescension when Harold replied, “Nothing to worry about there. Even the worst of Corday’s henchmen shouldn’t be of concern. Part of my brother’s dilemma with the casino is that he did a great deal of damage structurally to the casino itself and physically to its ruffians. Numerous bones were broken and one of the casino roughnecks has yet to regain consciousness.”
“What caused this commotion? Unwillingness to pay a gambling debt?”
Harold aligned the document corners with the papers underneath. “I believe a female was involved.”
She blinked to dispel uneasiness. “I am not sufficiently reassured, neither for my own safety or that he will agree to this plan.”
“He won’t back out, Mrs. Corday. He has no other choice.”
“Sir, you have also made obvious your distaste for your own sibling. You imply he possesses habits inconsistent with that which we would like to behold in a gentleman. To be perfectly candid, Mr. Browne, will my person be safe in his company?”
Harold sneered and she couldn’t help but remember when Charlotte likened him to a greasy toad. “Ma’am, you are a lady of refinement, impeccable lineage, and superior understanding. Ergo, my brother and you have nothing whatsoever in common. You might take into consideration his choice of lodging. A brothel, no matter how high-toned, should be a clear indication of his preferences. You are decidedly not the sort of female he wishes to…entertain.”
This wasn’t reassuring. She’d enough experience with the opposite sex to know that even the most sensitive weren’t to be trusted. A woman’s education or inbred refinement had little influence, if any, with the intentions of an avidly aroused male. Men weren’t attracted to what was between a woman’s ears. Their main goal was located farther south. Good manners restricted voicing this opinion or other such delicate concerns with a member of the opposite gender.
Unable to suppress curiosity, she asked, “Where is he staying?”
Contempt twisted his thin, dry lips. “He’s spent his entire time in Chicago at Haven House. I was told that the exorbitant membership fees were waived for reasons not explained.”
Haven House was one of Chicago’s most elite bordellos. Her hands fisted from the sudden memory of noisy, garishly painted women—the prostitutes Charles kept in residence for his cronies. Their high-pitched, brittle laughter and harsher personalities had left an indelible impression, especially the vicious, big blond Clovis favored. The vulgar commotion she and Clovis made every night had been so loud that their coupling echoed throughout the mansion. Charles had found the pair amusing, until the blond made the mistake of annoying him.
The crackle of shuffling papers brought her back to the present, returning her to the unsettling image she’d begun to create, as Harold muttered, “Where is the lout?”
After readjusting the spectacles on his beaked nose, he tugged at the constriction of his celluloid shirt collar. She looked away from the clenching and unclenching of his thin fingers. There was something strident and unbalanced about his behavior, something vengeful. She had the uncomfortable suspicion he was looking forward to this interview with his brother for very unpleasant reasons. She flinched when the doorknocker sounded.
Before she could rise up to answer, the patter of Bridie’s slippers flew past the office door left ajar. Muffled voices drifted down the corridor, one lilting and laughing, the other deep and muted.
Beads of moisture dotted Harold’s wide, pale brow that he hastily blotted with a handkerchief. He shoved the rumpled linen into a pocket as footsteps approached.
Bridie’s frizzy, orange-haired head peered around the door’s edge. “There’s a Mr. Williams callin’. He doesn’t have a card. Should I bring him through?”
A nod sent Bridie flying up the hallway as Harold muttered, “He should’ve used the servants’ entrance.”
She hushed him and strained to hear Bridie’s excited chatter. Her giggles and musical laughter was followed by a muffled masculine remark.
Just outside the door, Bridie cooed an answer, “Oh, sir, ain’t you the clever one, callin’ this place a mausoleum. Why, Mrs. Hiller’s filthy pile across the street is more like. Here’s the office.”
The door eased open wider, exposing Bridie in profile as she held the white china doorknob. She stared up in girlish awe and squirming delight. The caller stood behind the partially opened door. Only his hand showed, tanned and knuckles scraped. The hat he held was straight-brimmed and low-crowned, an unconventional style in comparison to the bowler currently in fashion. It reminded her of what a caballero would wear. She’d expected a Stetson, the headwear of choice of all the visiting cattle barons.
A great deal could be surmised from a man’s hat and shoes. This man’s hat, although not in fashion, was expensive, not readymade or off the shelf. The tips of his boots gleamed with a recent shine, the kind that can only be achieved from the best leather. Was the famous abbess of Haven House buying his clothes?
She pressed her spine against the back of the chair from an unsettling feeling, a premonition, the hint of something indefinable, yet darkly inviting. A chill sped up her arms and invaded her scalp under the tightly pinned braid. She’d learned to never ignore her instincts and studied the uncomfortable reaction—one that warned her this man could be dangerous.
She abruptly looked at Harold, who had an unobstructed view of his brother. Her usually bland and obsequious financial advisor now wore an expression of profound loathing and gleeful hatred.
Sudden doubts flooded her mind about this scheme for a temporary husband and protector. Her fears were swept aside by the caller’s husky, laughing response to Bridie’s attempts to flirt with a man most likely old enough to have fathered her. What had gotten into the girl?
“Oh, sir, won’t you let me take your hat? Would you like me to brush it for you?”
Her empty stomach roiled. She pushed down an almost ungovernable urge to jump up and slap the girl, which was completely stilled when Williams spoke.
“I’d be right obliged if you’d take it, Miss Bridie, but there’s no call for you to do any extra work.”
His voice was sand and softness, like liquid heat caressing the air. A shaft of impatience, at herself for feeling thrilled, and at Bridie for making a vulgar display, brought her back to task.
Bridie squirmed in place, staring up in awe as she offered, “Oh, no, Mr. Williams. T’will be no work at all. I’ll give it a nice brush off and set it on the table in the vestibule. You know where I mean? By the front door?”
A smile could be heard in his reply. “Thank you, miss.”
She clamped down on her molars to suppress the urge to give Bridie a reprimand. Aggravation evaporated when the caller stepped through the doorway. Every muscle in her body clenched.
Jacob Williams didn’t resemble his brother in any way. Where Harold was frail and nondescript, his brother was much taller and possessed a vibrant presence. An aura of virility and restrained power entered with him. It was no wonder Bridie had been rendered stupid, but when Williams turned his gaze on her, she realized he was furious. She didn’t know how she knew this. It didn’t show on the surface and hadn’t been present in his tone when he talked to Bridie. Nonetheless, underneath his aloof exterior, he nursed a terrible fury.
She used the tinted spectacles as a shield to study him. He wore a slate gray suit edged with black leather piping and a plain black waistcoat. The garments had been well made but were now out of fashion and the fit almost indecently snug. He wore no jewelry, not even a watch chain. His linen shirt was modestly ruffled, brilliant white against his bronzed complexion. Dark brown eyes reflected a guarded expression, one of keen, quick assessment. At first, she’d thought his hair was as black as her own, but the color of his was more like coffee.
His smile was his most disarming feature. This she learned when he turned slightly in her direction. Under the shadow of a luxuriant mustache, he gave her a grin full of confidence and conceit, slow and mocking, as he exposed most of his strong, white teeth in her direction. She hadn’t thought she could press any harder against the back of the chair but she did.
A snarl. The man is snarling a challenge.
“Sit down, Jake,” his brother said in lieu of a pleasant greeting.
Mr. Williams hesitated, glancing her way, as if seeking her permission. When she didn’t respond, he offered her a slight nod and sat. The chair protested his sturdy bulk.
Again came that niggling, internal note of caution. Something wasn’t quite right. She’d expected someone uncouth, and Williams was not. He’d just proved it. If a lady didn’t wish to be acknowledged, it was a gentleman’s duty to respect her wish. He’d done so in a manner suave and subtle—a startling and unexpected display of parlor manners in a man from the unprincipled West.
She had only moments to discover if Williams could be her salvation or ruination. Harold’s description of his brother was far off the mark. Prejudice created this gross error in assessment. What if faulty judgment enhanced his half-brother’s skills?
Harold stood and tugged down his waistcoat hem. “Now, Jake, we know why you are here.”
Sarcastic and defensive, Williams murmured, “Do we, Harold?”
“We discussed the particulars yesterday. I spoke with Schwartzstein this morning. He has agreed to terms. He won’t press charges and has promised not to retaliate. We can move forward if certain conditions are met by no later than four of the afternoon, tomorrow.”
When Williams said nothing and continued to stare at his sibling, Harold cleared his throat and primly readjusted his spectacles. He remained standing to maintain the impression of authority. Unfortunately, this tactic fooled no one.
“As you well know, Jake, we are here to finalize the particulars of the contract between Mrs. Corday and yourself. Upon signing this document,” he slid the papers forward, “arrangements will be made to have your cattle paid for and delivered to the railroad of your choice. The gambling debt with Schwartzstein we have previously discussed. Pen and ink are there. It’s all very simple. All that’s required is your signature.”
Williams negligently glanced through the document, ready to set it aside, then something within caught his attention. She knew exactly what that was. Squashing a surge of humiliation, she watched him thoughtlessly withdraw a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles from his coat’s inner breast pocket. She found it unnerving that he could look even more attractive with the glasses on his once-broken nose.
Before he commenced reading, he glared over the wire rims to ask, “Are you sure this is the smallest print you could find?”
Harold shrugged and said down his nose, “Newsprint type from Mrs. Corday’s publishing firm.”
Williams arched a dark eyebrow and returned to the agreement. The silence in the room intensified. His lips tightened as he read. He returned the spectacles to his pocket.
The document skidded across the gleaming desktop when he tossed it back with contempt. “You sure you got the numbers right, Harold? Twenty thousand upon the satisfactory completion of my term of employment, which will be determined by my employer? That’s a lot of money for a hired gun.”
“That’s because the position entrails considerably more than the mere protection of my employer. There’s Mrs. Corday’s standing in the community to consider.”
“You aren’t answering the question, Harold. And what’s that bit of muck about complying and adapting to any and all extenuating conditions as needed?”
Harold fidgeted and touched the document. “As an added precaution and further assurance of my client’s safety, it has been decided that she must be married.”
The slow burn she suspected smoldered just under the surface flared to life when Williams came up out of his chair. He planted his fists on the desk and leaned over to stick his face close to his brother’s.
In a grating, growling tone, Williams said, “I’ve been coerced, insulted, and humiliated, much to your never ending delight, but this is stepping over the line.”
Harold relaxed his lips from its prim, little moue. “Not at all. And I should think you’d leap at the chance of marriage to a lady of Mrs. Corday’s stature and background.”
She winced when Williams snapped, “The wife of the sleaziest criminal in town and a divorcee?”
“Jake, if it’s not too far beyond your limited understanding, you should’ve noted that despite those drawbacks, none of which were within her control, she has managed to become a most respected member of Chicago society.”
“If a lady were not present, Harold, I’d tell you exactly what I think of your precious Chicago society and where you can insert your servile notions.”
While the brothers squabbled, her impatience swelled. Usually calm and clever while negotiating, Harold had lost control of the interview. And what had happened to the exaggerated western accent or the sweetly lascivious drawl Williams had used on Bridie?
Sweat rolled off Harold’s temple. His nasal voice gathered pitch and venom as he stated, “Before you start whining about the loss of your precious freedom, for we know that your inability to commit to anything of import is what this protest is all about, you may be assured that the marriage will be temporary.”
Williams paused, creating an uncomfortable silence. He straightened up from the desk and rolled his shoulders. “So, you’re saying the marriage will be fake.”
“No, it will be quite legal, but you’ll be required to adhere to certain conditions and restrictions.
Williams studied his brother until an idea changed his expression from indignation to a gloating delight more unsettling that his outrage. He returned to his chair and lazily sat. “Conditions? And what restrictions, Harold? I’ll need some clarification. You’ll have to be precise. My limited intellect requires an explicit explanation.”
Sliding a finger into the strangling grip of his shirt collar, Harold floundered. Ruddy color suffused his narrow face. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out.