A SCORE TO SETTLE
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Tuesday, 12:42 p.m. - August 16, 1870
St. Louis, Missouri
Good-humoured, unaffected girls, will not do for a man who has been
used to sensible women. They are two distinct orders of being.
—Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
“YOU NEED A WIFE.”
Cyrus Lull ignored his cousin’s abrupt pronouncement and continued to observe the workmen who were loading the last of his freight onto the sternwheeler, the Cleopatra. He didn’t need a wife. Women complicated things. Cyrus liked how his life had been in the last eight months since he’d married off his sister: simple, orderly, and serene.
Not that the levee’s loading docks were ever serene.
St. Louis had become the New York City of the West. The seven blocks of levee north of him, like the three south, bustled with steamships being loaded or unloaded with cargo, logs, and lumber. Some with passengers, grand and plain. Men barked orders. Captains surveyed decks. On the river towboats propelled barges. On the land buildings and warehouses grew wide and high. Somewhere close a brass band played. Near loading docks. Only in St. Louis. The city was as enthralling as she was chaotic. Which was why he loved visiting. But which was also why he yearned to return home to Atchison and to the realistic chaos of managing his mercantile and overseeing his uncle’s trading posts.
Chaos brought by women—now this kind he was happy to avoid.
“Stop scowling, Cy. You need a lady who can get you to be spontaneous.”
“A woman like that doesn’t exist,” he muttered before marking a check in his journal next to twenty-three crates. Supper, and last evening in hotel were the remaining tasks for the day. If he could find a woman who knew how to live according to a schedule, he’d consider marrying her. And because it was true, he added, “I can be spontaneous when I want to be.”
“I’ve never known you to want to.” Said because Leiden Thomas Baptiste never learned the art of realizing he’d lost the argument. “Everything you do has a purpose or you don’t do it.”
“Having a discussion with someone who always believes he’s right is frustrating.”
Leiden muttered something too low for Cyrus to hear then said, “There’s a woman for you. It’s a matter of finding her. Newton’s law of universal gravitation.” Pause. “Even a man of your years—”
“Thirty isn’t old,” Cyrus groused.
“—can understand the principle of attraction.”
Cyrus turned his head a smidgen, enough to see Leiden standing there with a goading smile. This was who’d confiscated First Principles of Physics from the crate of old textbooks he’d purchased from the Oberlin College library. He should have known. Besides himself and Leiden, no one in Atchison ever expressed interest in viewing Cyrus’s expansive library. Someday someone in their family would earn beyond an eighth-grade education. Someday someone would attend college. At twenty-four, Leiden wasn’t too old to be the first one. Having mixed, white-and-savage blood like Cyrus, though, limited his opportunity for intellectual advancements. Not that Leiden ever seemed to mind the prejudice. Leiden, like Cyrus, was content to learn by reading.
“In the spirit of spontaneity. . .” Cyrus slid his pencil and journal into an outer pocket of his black frock coat. He pointed over his shoulder. “Instead of returning to the hotel, I’m heading on over to the new bookstore next to Burrow’s Coffee House.”
“Books and coffee? I’m impressed with your sudden foray into because-it-fits-into-my-schedule spontaneity.” Leiden started in the direction of Burrow’s. “Why are you still standing there?”
Cyrus fell into step next to him. They crossed Wharf Street then headed west on Dock Street, weaving through the numerous pedestrians. They stopped at the intersection and waited as a crowd hurried toward Produce Row.
“Think someone opened a theater down that way?” Cyrus asked, looking in that direction.
Leiden shrugged. “Could explain the music. You want to go check it out? The steamer doesn’t leave until morning.”
A pair of young men stumbled by, tripping over their own feet, bumping into Cyrus. They laughed, which only intensified the alcohol smell wafting from them.
Leiden started to speak, and Cyrus smacked his shoulder. “Not our business.” Spotting a break in the traffic, Cyrus stepped onto the street and—
“Excuse me, sir!”
He stopped and looked over his shoulder. The most breathtaking woman he’d ever seen was walking toward him. Her face shimmered in the noon sun. Why had she called out? They’d never met before. If they had, he would have remembered. She wasn’t forgettable.
“Hello! You there!” The statuesque brunette lifted an arm and waved.
He tipped his chin in acknowledgement. As she approached, he noticed her limp. . .and then the pink tingeing her broad cheekbones. Truly, she looked like an adult version of those German bisque dolls he sold out of a glass case, because of the short-sleeved, white day dress and matching straw hat with white silk ribbons she wore, but that wasn’t what mesmerized Cyrus. She smiled. At him. For him. Because she was happy to see him. Him.
Pappan James Cyrus Lull.
She stopped and rested a white-gloved hand on his arm. “Since we are both headed in the same direction”—she tilted her head to the side, and a cocoa-colored curl slipped from her chignon and rested on her bare collarbone—“might I acquire your assistance?” Cyrus stared at her lips. Were they painted? Had to be. No woman had lips as rosy as hers were.
He met her guileless gaze. She had the kind of face you wanted to stare at: slanted eyebrows, a snub nose, a rosebud-shaped mouth. Not a wrinkle on her face. She couldn’t be much older than Leiden was. Her eyes widened in an expectant look, and Cyrus knew she was waiting on him to speak. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember what she’d asked. She was utterly radiant.
And smelled like a freshly cut rose.
Leiden cleared his throat. “My cousin would be honored to help, ma’am.”
“It’s miss,” she said to Leiden, but her vibrant blue-green eyes never looked away from Cyrus. “I’m not married.” Her fingers pressed into his arm. “I hope your wife won’t mind you being a Good Samaritan to a lady in need.”
“He’s not married,” Leiden put in.
She smiled. “Papa told me I can always trust men with beards,” she said, focusing on Cyrus’s cheeks that hadn’t visited a barber since he and Leiden had left Atchison a week ago. She nodded toward the intersection. “Shall we?”
Cyrus felt his heart pounding against his chest. He checked to ensure there was a lull in the traffic then wrapped her arm around his and escorted her slowly (to be mindful of her injured limb) across the street. Once they reached the sidewalk, he looked around to see Leiden standing on the other side. Leiden shrugged and motioned to a trio of produce carts as if they were what had prevented him from crossing with Cyrus and—
“I don’t know your name,” he said to the vision still holding his arm.
She just stared at him.
“Miss?” he whispered, feeling like they were the only two people on Dock Street. At an inch over six feet, he was taller than all his Baptiste and Ransome cousins. He’d never stood this close to a woman of her height. Everything about this one was perfect.
A soft rush of air crossed her plump lips. “I don’t know your name, either,” she said softly, “but I’ve never felt like this before.” She stepped closer and rested her hands on his chest. “Oh, tell me you feel the same.”
He tipped his chin.
She leaned forward and touched her lips to his.
Cyrus felt his eyes widen. “Why did you—” was all he managed to say before she kissed him again. This time with a ferocity every man wanted. At least it was all Cyrus had imagined he wanted. With his wife. Wife? He had to end this. For heaven’s sake, they were on a public sidewalk! He had to stop, but she tasted like crumpets and orange marmalade. She was warm, so warm and sweet and demanding. And the way her hands moved along his chest—
“Susan!” a man’s voice bellowed.
She jerked back, pushing Cyrus away. Face pale. “I’m—uhh, I shouldn’t—” Her voice broke, tears welling, chin trembling. “If he finds me—”
“I’ll stop him.”
“You will?” Cyrus nodded.
She touched his cheek then tugged the hair on his chin. For a moment, he thought she was going to kiss him again. “A true knight,” she breathed. “Where can I find you?”
“Go,” Cyrus ordered, giving her a gentle shove. “Burrow’s Coffee House.”
After a nod, she hurried away and blended into the crowd.
Cyrus braced himself for an assault by the man chasing her. He waited. Waited. And waited, but no confrontation came. Pedestrians continued to flood toward Produce Row. Surely people had noticed them. They ought to have been arrested for public indecency. She’d made him forget his manners, forget his honor.
Something wasn’t right. About the abrupt kiss. About her.
Now that he thought about it, her arms had felt boney. Her collarbone looked too prominent. She was thinner than a woman of her class ought to be.
Cyrus dashed up the steps of the nearby town house and surveyed the street, desperate to see where she’d fled. She couldn’t have gone far, not with a limp. Nowhere could he see a lady in a straw hat with white ribbons. Unless she’d made it into Burrow’s already. If she made it to Burrow’s.
Leiden darted across the street. He stood at the bottom step, holding a rolled-up sheet of paper. “Have you lost your mind?” “She kissed me.”
“She bewitched you, and then you kissed her back like a green boy.”
Cyrus had no response.
Leiden grimaced. “She could have run off with your coat and you wouldn’t have noticed.”
Suspicion seeped into Cyrus’s consciousness. Reaching into the inner pocket of his frock coat, he found nothing but the realization she had no intention of ever seeing him again. “That miscreant pilfered my wallet.”
“I found this on the ground.” Leiden offered a paper. “Several people in the crowd were carrying copies.”
Cyrus took it.
Doctor Graber’s Homeopathic Medicine Company
Medicines made from the purest Roots, Herbs, Barks, Gums, and Leaves.
Blood-cleansing. Life-sustaining. Health-reviving.
Elixers to diminish ailments from consumption, colic, digestive problems, rheumatism, venereal diseases, stiff joints, sprains, aches, pains, and even “female complaints. Salves to relieve chapped hands or face, pockmarks, bruises, pimples, blotches, corns, burns, dark spots, freckles, itching piles, and other skin diseases. Creams to lift and sculpt skin, smooth wrinkles, and add a youthful glow.
Manufactured Only By Graber & Oates Richmond, Virginia
Cyrus looked at Leiden in surprise. “You think she works for”—he held up the advertisement—“a snake oil salesman?”
“Too spontaneous for you to check out?”
“A girl like her wouldn’t—” At Leiden’s glare, Cyrus fell silent. What did he know about women like her? To be fair, what did he know about women at all?
JoJo darted up the steps of the showman wagon she shared with Maude. She slammed the door and tossed her straw hat across the small space, almost hitting her dear friend in the process. She then slid to the wood-planked floor. Breathe. Her chest rose and fell as she struggled to catch her breath, struggled to make sense of what she’d done. Good heavens, she’d kissed a stranger!
A handsome one.
A well-dressed one.
A gallant one.
One who certainly could afford losing a few dollars to a girl in need. But still. . .he wasn’t her husband, and she’d kissed him like he was. She fanned her face frantically with both hands. Her parents had to be rolling in their graves.
“You’d better have a good reason for being late with my hair.”
JoJo grimaced. She looked to where Maude stood adjusting the heavy padding under the bodice of her silky crimson gown. Freckles hidden with white face paint and rouge. Pale lashes darkened with oil and coal dust. Ruby necklace and earrings worth nothing more than the paste they were made of. Other than missing the ornate brunette wig to complete her “Lady Lainsfeld” persona, she was ready to perform. The real Maude Ailsworth, aged nineteen, looked nothing like this gaudy character.
“Sorry,” JoJo muttered. She carefully removed the wig she wore over the fitted cap hiding her real hair. “You know how Graber is when we don’t meet our quotas.”
“It’s not as if he asks for much.” Maude took the proffered wig and then sat at the vanity in their tiny wagon. She adjusted the wig over her muslin cap. “Did you find enough gills to dupe this time?”
“The farther west we travel, the more gills I find.”
“True.” Maude’s voice sounded strangely hollow. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that men—rich or poor—are suckers for a damsel in distress.”
JoJo sighed. “That they are.”
“Someday, though, a pair of gentlemen will”—Maude waved her arm in a circle over her head—“whisk us away from this grand stage.”
“They’re across the river, waiting for us,” JoJo said cheerfully, with a smile as false as her words.
Unlike her romantic friend, she had let fail any hope of a man rescuing her from this life. In the five years she had been working for Obadiah Graber, she’d received ninety-eight marriage proposals, yet no one had come along with the bride price Graber required to buy out her contract. She, like Maude, was bound to Graber until death did them part.
Or until they arrived in San Francisco.
At the speed Doctor Graber’s Homeopathic Medicine Company was traveling, it’d be a decade before she saw the West Coast. The best years of her life would be spent pretending to be someone she wasn’t. Maude’s contract was even more hopeless. She didn’t have the hope of being freed upon reaching San Francisco. Yet she continued to believe knights in shining armor existed. She believed a man would pay her bride price. She continued to believe a man pretending to be their uncle actually cared about their happiness.
To make Maude happy, JoJo would pretend to believe, too.
Pretend. . .and plan.
JoJo pulled off the stilted shoes she wore to give the appearance of height. She lifted her skirt to reveal the leather wallet she’d wedged inside one of her stockings. She withdrew the wallet and then untied the burlap sack she’d strapped to her calf so the weight would remind her to limp convincingly. She dumped the contents of the bag onto the wooden floor. A gold watch. Eight silver dollars and four pennies. Pocket flask.
And the wallet.
JoJo looked at Maude. “It’s the best I could do this morning.”
“Uncle Graber had such hope for a knife. He will be disappointed.”
JoJo bit back her need to yell, He’s not our uncle!
Silence stretched through the tiny wagon. They both knew the repercussions for JoJo’s failure to procure what Graber wanted. Not that Maude could have done better had she been sent out to find gills to fleece. “My dear Josephine, I’ve never met a girl as nimble and clever as you are.”
Yet for all Graber’s praise, JoJo was never spared his wrath when she failed to produce her quota.
“I have until sunset to find a knife,” she said more to convince herself than to mollify Maude. “Men always linger after the show.” “You’ll succeed.”
Maude turned back to the vanity mirror and adjusted the pins in the wig. “What’s in the wallet?”
JoJo hesitated, her fingers hovering over the worn leather. For some strange reason, her heart beat frantically against her chest. It was only a wallet. Taken from another gullible man. Adding another sin to her already blackened slate. What did it matter? Her soul couldn’t feel any more crushed by the weight of her guilt and shame. Besides, he didn’t need the money.
Not like she did.
She scooped up the wallet and looked inside. “Greenbacks.” Whoa. Over a hundred dollars. Ignoring the bills, she withdrew a worn slip of paper, which she immediately unfolded. In black ink were written five words. “I was adored once, too,” she read. She frowned at Maude. “Why would a man keep a note like this in his wallet?”
“Maybe someone gave it to him. Does the handwriting look like a woman’s?”
“It’s written in block letters.”
“Then I have no idea.”
The trumpet blared, signaling the end to the performance of Mr. Deluca’s one-man band.
Maude jumped to her feet. “We can wonder later. You need to get dressed.”
JoJo moved out of the way for Maude to pass.
Once the door closed, leaving JoJo alone in the wagon, she removed most of the money from the wallet. “I was adored once, too,” she read, before tucking the slip of paper inside her bodice. Strange note for an equally strange man. “At least we both had a once.”