LOVE'S FIRST LIGHT
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door.
12:23 p.m. – Tuesday – June 16, 1908
The Occidental Hotel
“CHARLES AND HELAINE LAURENT GAVE me a family. Wichita gave me a home.” Renna paused at the end of her speech to blink away her tears as she looked around the ballroom at the city’s most illustrious citizens attending today’s charity luncheon. “The Wichita Children's Home offers the only emergency, temporary residential shelter for children in our community. Your gift of support gives our precious children a home. Thank you.”
As those at the tables stood and applauded, Renna closed her speech journal, noted how her hands still shook, and backed away from the podium. In the three years that she’d been a member of the Home’s board of directors, she’d not once shared of her life in a St. Louis orphanage. Until today.
Shame grew in a secret’s fertile soil.
Confessing the truth—
Renna moistened her lips to hide her smile. Who knew telling the story of her orphaned past would cause her to feel so . . . free?
Mrs. McDermott lifted the front of her white lace dress and climbed the temporary stage. She squeezed Renna’s hand before strolling to the podium to complete her last duty as president of the Home’s board of directors. She waited, with her familiar oh-so-gracious smile, until the applause died and attendees retook their seats.
“Thank you, Miss Laurent, for that stirring testimony.” Mrs. Dermott took a moment to study the audience. “Ours is a work of love. There are no salaries paid the officers of our institution. The twenty members of the board are among the busiest women of our city, who must make some sacrifice of duty to home and family to carry on this work. Gladly, lovingly, cheerfully we hear our Master's voice: ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto Me.’”
Renna joined in the applause.
“Our children are not criminals,” continued Mrs. McDermott. “They are not incorrigibles. They are that unfortunate class who, through the fault or misfortune of their parents, are helpless and . . .”
As Mrs. McDermott extolled the reasons for donating to the Children’s Home, Renna descended the stage and returned to the Ransome family’s table.
Mr. Wellington Ransome, III, stood and pulled her chair out.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Once they were both seated, Renna laid her speech journal in the lap of her red silk dress then rested her clenched
hands atop it. She returned her gaze to Mrs. McDermott. Although she had the same coloring as her son—dark blonde hair, soft brown eyes—facially they looked nothing alike. He must take after his father.
“I think that every time,” Renna muttered.
Wellington leaned close, the side of his arm pressing against her shoulder. “You think what?”
How much Joe must look like his father, was what Renna thought. What she whispered back was, “How at ease Mrs. McDermott seems when speaking in front of a crowd. I envy her.”
“You were nervous?”
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “You were marvelous.”
Renna tilted her head to one side since her hat blocked her view of Wellington. He was handsome in a shy-yet-confident manner: blackish-brown hair and eyes, broad shoulders, and a wide mouth that rarely smiled but when it did, it bespoke loyalty, charm, and a sly wit. He’d make a girl the perfect husband. Oh, what she’d give to fall in love with him herself.
If anyone deserved to be loved, Wellington did.
So why was he waiting for God to lead him to the right girl to marry? What a strange way to live.
“What say I introduce you to Miss Beaufoy?” Renna whispered then flicked her gaze to the brunette sitting two tables over with her parents, brother, and three sisters. “I hear her mother is on the hunt to find her daughters rich, gullible husbands.”
Wellington broke out into coughs.
His grand-aunt, Mrs. Jane Ransome-Lockhart, patted his back and handed him her half-filled goblet of lemonade since his was empty.
“Thank you,” he muttered before sipping the iced drink.
Her husband whispered to his wife, and the white-haired couple returned their attention to Mrs. McDermott.
“It is our moral and economical duty,” she was saying, “to ensure that the greatest possible number of our children will become useful, moral citizens, and that the least possible number will become criminals, vagabonds and outcasts. That is why I ask you to consider a gift of $250 above and beyond your regular contribution. Thank you for attending today’s luncheon. And do look for our float in this fall’s Flower Parade during the Peerless Prophets’ Jubilee!”
The audience stood and applauded.
As the clapping died down, Renna gathered her speech journal, gloves, and reticule.
“Miss Laurent, it was a pleasure to meet you.”
She smiled at Mr. Lockhart. “Sir, the pleasure is mine. Had I known your grand-nephew”—she gently swatted Wellington’s arm—“had such an esteemed author and poet for an uncle, I surely would have read your works before today’s luncheon.”
“I shall consider you my newest devotee.” Mr. Lockhart draped his wife’s arm around his then looked to his eighteen-year-old twin granddaughters. Both girls were staring at Seth Beaufoy, who—Renna wasn’t shocked to see—was boldly staring back. She gave him a warning look to stop, which he clearly ignored.
Mr. Lockhart spoke a bit louder. “Girls, we’re going to the motorcar.”
“Of course,” they said in unison.
Wellington leaned down to whisper in his grand-aunt’s ear.
Her dark-eyed gaze flickered to Renna. “Indeed.”
As soon as the elderly couple walked away, Renna smiled at the twins, whose names she couldn’t remember. “I know Mr. Beaufoy looks debonair in that policeman suit of his,” she warned, “but you don’t want to meet him.”
The lovely blondes exchanged glances.
“We don’t?” asked the one on the left.
Wellington shook his head. “You don’t, and you won’t. I promised Aunt Jane to keep you two away from all bachelors.”
The twin on the left looked confused. “But you’re a bachelor. How do you keep us away from you?”
He answered with a scowl.
A smug grin stretched across the face of the twin on the right. “Once we’re at Fairmount, dear cousin-who-isn’t-our-father, you won’t be able to keep us from talking to any college boys.”
“I’ll find a way,” Wellington said in that determined tone that Renna recognized. He may be considered standoffish by most women, but once he set his mind to a task, he was a bloodhound. And that may have been exactly why the twins’ parents insisted they attend Fairmount College here in Wichita instead of going to Kansas University. Manhattan was too far away for Wellington to oversee his boy-seeking cousins. Fairmount right in Wellington’s backyard.
The twins glared at Wellington. He glared back.
Out of the corner of her eye, Renna happily noticed the Beaufoys leaving the ballroom.
“Fine, Wellsie.” The twin on the right abruptly turned a smile upon Renna. “Would you instead introduce us to Mrs. McDermott?”
“Please,” begged the other twin, now aglow.
“I’d be happy to.” Renna looked around the emptying ballroom. When she didn’t see Mrs. McDermott or her flower-bedecked hat near the stage, Renna turned toward the ballroom’s side exit. The moment her gaze settled on the Children’s Home president talking to the mayor and another gentleman, Renna’s heart skipped a beat.
Wellington growled in overt irritation.
She didn’t fault him for being annoyed at his cousins. The twins were superior hunters who’d outsmarted the trapped animals that Renna and Wellington were.
Mrs. McDermott stood near the side exit door, but she wasn’t the McDermott the twins were interested in meeting. The person they wanted to talk with stood there in his navy blue fireman’s uniform that was fitted enough to hint at the muscles underneath. He gripped his hat with both hands and looked clearly annoyed with his mother. Yet there he was—ever the hero.
Ever my hero.
Renna sighed. One day she would feel nothing when she saw Joe.
* * *
“MY SON WOULD LOVE TO HELP.”
Joe looked from his mother to Mayor Graham then back to his mother. “I can’t leave the firehouse for three months.”
“Even for the honorable task of promoting Wichita businesses?”
“Even for that.”
“True, true,” muttered Graham. He stroked his graying mustache. “I could speak with Chief Walden about giving you a leave of absence. He owes me one.”
Mother swatted Joe lightly on the arm. “You will say yes. The city of Wichita needs your help.”
“Indeed she does,” he said with slow deliberation. “That is why I am staying here to fight fires. Ask Carp to do it. He likes talking to people.”
“Carpenter Yeary is getting married in three days. He will have a wife to attend to,” Mother said as if that excused Carp from everything.
The mayor nodded smugly.
Joe gritted his teeth. “Mother, since having a wife would free me from your volunteering, then I’m getting married tomorrow.”
Her brows rose. “Where are you going to find a bride on such short notice?”
“I’ll be his bride,” came from unfamiliar girlish voice.
“I’ll be a better one.”
“Neither of you are marrying him.”
Joe looked right, past the two blondes in matching outfits, to the couple standing behind the pair—Wellington Ransome and Renna in a blood-red dress that clung to her hourglass figure in a let-me-tempt-you-to-touch-me manner. Joe was tempted. She stepped around the twins and said something in a voice softer than the pounding between Joe’s ears. Then Ransome spoke. Once Mother and the mayor shook hands with the twins, Joe mechanically followed suit, and then they all stood there in an awkward circle, with Renna directly opposite him.
She motioned to Ransome who nodded.
Joe did as well, although he didn’t know why. He should look away from Renna and the enticing curve of her lips.
His mother was going to notice.
Ransome would notice.
With a curse under his breath, Joe looked away before Renna noticed how he’d been staring at her. He kept his distance from her since the Yuletide Ball. Except for the Leap Year Day fire at her mother’s dressmaker shop; avoiding her that afternoon had been impossible because he’d had a job to do. He’d taken more care in securing that silver pug of hers inside his uniform than he had been in tossing Renna over his shoulder and carrying her down the ladder. They could’ve both fallen off. What woman in her right mind refused to be rescued from a burning building until her dog was safe? Renna.
The woman made him mad.
Joe clenched his jaw and slowly breathed through his nose. He didn’t have to look at her to be able to describe her lips in three words. Plump, silky, and with a distracting scar in the right corner of her bottom lip
So that wasn’t three words.
That was Renna. Without limit.
Joe stared at nothing in particular. God, help me.
Mother gave his arm a motherly pat. “And that’s why I suggested Joe go along with the booster train. While the Commercial Club promotes Wichita’s goods and services, Joe could teach the fire departments in each town the safety protocols he wrote about in his book. That was Sarah Beaufoy’s idea, dear,” she said to Joe. “Of course, she has four daughters who, I’m sure, each would happily agree to marry you tomorrow to give you good cause not to join the Trade Trip. Shall I let her know you’re interested?”
Joe allowed his slant-eyed look to be his answer.
“Safety protocols?” The tinge of panic in Renna’s voice drew Joe’s attention. “Did you write another manual besides the one on fire investigation?”
“No.” To say more would embarrass his mother for confusing the manual he had written with the manual he was writing.
Renna’s mouth opened.
Joe leveled a flat stare in her direction, warning her to say nothing.
Renna’s gaze darted from Joe to his mother. To his surprise, instead of sharing what confused her, Renna’s tempting lips pursed in dumbfounded silence.
The awkward moment stretched . . . until one of the twins said, “Our grandfather is an author.”
The other added, “His collection of his Civil War interviews won numerous awards. He used to write for Godey’s Ladies’ Book.”
“I shall have to read his work,” Renna put in.
Mother’s brow furrowed. She leaned around the mayor to say to Renna, “How do you know about Joe’s book?”
“Carp showed me his copy last night while I was having dinner with him and Félicie.” Renna turned to the twins. “Carpenter Yeary is a Wichita Fire Department captain. He’s marrying my sister, Félicie, in three days. The man has a nose for smoke. Mr. McDermott, though, has a brilliant mind for cause and origin investigation.”
Joe flinched in surprise. Brilliant?
“He’s the one,” Renna said in a chipper, he’s-my-hero tone that disguised the animosity Joe knew she bore for him, “who determined an electrical short triggered the fire in my mother’s boutique.” She looked at Mayor Graham to her right. “I can see why you would want Lieutenant McDermott to join the booster train. His expertise would be a benefit to those fire departments in the towns that the members of the Commercial Club visit.”
“Indeed he would,” Graham answered.
Mother smiled. “I’m sure Mr. Ransome, as the club treasurer, would agree.”
Joe gave Ransome a save-me-from-this-conscription look.
Ransome responded with a smug grin. “We’ve booked six Pullmans. There’s plenty of room for you to join. I’m sure the Beaufoys would be delighted to get to know you better.”
Graham tugged on the lapels of his suit coat, his gaze intent on Joe. “McDermott, what must I do to convince you to join the booster train?”
Send Renna with me.
Joe shook his head. “Can’t think of anything”—realistic for me to have—“that you could tempt me with.” He looked to Ransome’s younger cousins. “Ladies, it’s been a pleasure meeting you.”
Just when Joe thought the discussion had ended and he was free to leave, Renna smiled with pure, unadulterated joy. His feet froze as memories assaulted him. The last time he’d seen her look that way was the last time he could remember smiling himself—the moment he said, “May I have this dance?” at the Yuletide Masked-Ball. What he’d give to bring to life his dreams to touch her again, to kiss—
Joe clenched his hat. Renna Laurent was fire made flesh. Dangerous. Uncontrollable. And he had no business lusting after her or after anyone.
That’s not who I am anymore, God. I’ve changed.
Renna touched the mayor’s arm. “Sir, I have an idea.”
“I’m listening.” Said with overt curiosity.
“What if instead of Lieutenant McDermott joining the Trade Trip, you send donate autographed copies of his manual to each fire department?” She chuckled like a girl pleased with her own cleverness. “And you also send along flyers promoting the workshop that he’ll teach each day during the Peerless Prophets’ Jubilee. How many towns did you say the boosters planned to visit?”
“Two hundred and sixteen,” Graham answered, “throughout the great states of Kansas and Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle. It’ll be the longest Trade Trip we’ve ever had!”
“Three long months,” Joe muttered.
“Indeed,” added Ransome, to Joe’s surprise.
Renna nipped her bottom lip as her gaze shifted to those in the circle. She settled on Joe, and she gave him a flirtatious half smile.
His traitorous body naturally responded.
“Wellington,” she said, “what would you say is a fair estimate of visitors coming to our jubilee to hear an expert give them new insights on fire inspection?”
“Firemen are fanatical about their craft. I say three hundred easily.” Ransome’s gaze shifted from Renna to Joe.
“Include a picture of the author on the flyers and you can count on at least that amount of females accompanying the firemen.”
“To help the cause,” Ransome continued, “I’ll purchase copies of McDermott’s manual for the boosters to distribute.”
Renna turned her adoring gaze upon Ransome. “You are so kind and helpful and generous of heart. Wichita is blessed to have you representing her on this trip.”
He smiled in return.
The twins looked like they were about to gag.
Joe felt the same. He hadn’t heard Ransome and Renna were courting, but why else would she be leaving the luncheon with him? Why else would Ransome be staring so love-struck at her?
Mayor Graham clapped his palms together. “Once again, Miss Laurent, excellent idea! I may need to enlist you to train our boosters how to think creatively when facing obstacles.” He nodded at the twins. “Ladies, it was a pleasure meeting you.”
“Before you leave,” Mother said to the mayor, “there’s one more thing my husband wanted to suggest for the jubilee. The Kansas Holiness Association would like— Oh!” She looked to Jo. “Son, I’ll meet you at the buggy, and then we can go see your grandmother.” She walked off with the mayor, who nodded repeatedly as she talked.
Ransome patted Joe’s shoulder. “Congratulations on becoming a Peerless Prophets’ Jubilee professor.”
Joe’s upper lip curled.
The twins headed to the exit, with Ransome trotting along behind.
Renna’s eyes met Joe’s, and then she looked away.
He grabbed her arm to stop her from leaving. “Why did you do that?”
“Give an alternative to me joining the booster train. I’d think you’d be happy to see me out of town for three months.”
Her chin raised. “I had the distinct impression you didn’t wish to leave Wichita.”
“I don’t,” he said sharply.
“Then this is where you thank me for coming to your rescue.”
“To my rescue?” he repeated and then coughed a laugh.
Her voice softened with what sounded to be longing. “Everybody wants to be rescued once and a while.”
“Not you.” Joe flinched at how stricken she looked. “Renna, I’m—”
“Please let me go,” she whispered, cutting off his apology.
“You didn’t need to rescues me. I was managing fine on my own.”
Her gaze flew to his. “That’s exactly why I did it! Joe, you’re too content with just managing things on your own. Just getting by. Just being content with status quo. Carp says you understand more about fire science than anyone he’s ever met. Even Chief Walden.” Those bright blue eyes of hers never left his, never flickered with uncertainty or doubt. “It’s time you step out of their shadows and receive the recognition that’s due you.”
The significance of her words sank into his heart. She’d been acting as his champion—regardless of her animosity toward him.
He never wanted her more. Which was saying much because that night at the Yuletide Ball, he’d thought he could never want her more.
Guilt—and a hefty amount of shame—prickled along his spine.
“Thank you,” he muttered. And then he released her arm and walked away before he kissed her and destroyed the smidgen of self-respect he had left.