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SATURDAY, JANUARY 18, 1902—8 P.M.
There was a soft rapping upon her door. Francesca Cahill recognized the knock and she froze, hunched over her desk, a Waterman fountain pen in hand. Electric lighting, installed when the house was first built eight years earlier, spilled over the vellum she was writing upon. She felt like a crook caught with his hand in the bank safe.
Her sister did not wait for her to answer, and she entered Francesca’s large, beautifully appointed bedroom. Outside, it was snowing heavily; inside, a fire roared in the dark green marble hearth. “You’re not even dressed!” Connie cried, eyes widening so vastly that the effect was almost comical.
Francesca forced herself to smile as she jumped to her feet, effectively blocking Connie’s view of the desk. She stole a guilty glance at the grandfather clock standing in the corner of her room. Eight o’clock already? Guests would be arriving at any moment, if they hadn’t begun to arrive already. “I’m sorry,” Francesca said, unable to breathe properly. Darnation! She had an examination in biology on Monday morning, and she had yet to even begin studying for it. She had been too busy organizing this latest endeavor of hers, and now time had run out.
But then, there was never enough time in the day for her to do all that she had to do. It was so frustrating.
Her sister faced her with exasperation, clad in a pale pink evening gown, her throat encircled with diamonds, her pale blond hair pulled loosely back and piled on top of her head. Diamonds fell from her ears and a diamond and ruby necklace decorated the expanse of bare skin between her shoulders and her bosom. She was a very beautiful woman. “Fran, how could you do this?” Connie implored. “You know what Mama has in mind for you tonight. She begged you not to be late and you promised. I know. I was there.” Connie shook her head.
Francesca did feel a bit guilty, because she most certainly had promised their mother, Julia, that she would not be late, that she would be well dressed and on her best behavior. Francesca remained standing in front of her desk. On occasion, Connie was the biggest snoop. Francesca did not want to get into an argument now, even if her older sister did mean well. She smiled, far too brightly. “I was writing letters, the time escaped me,” she said, crossing the fingers of her right hand behind her back and silently apologizing for the very small white lie.
“I don’t believe you,” Connie said, and she marched right past Francesca and lifted the sheet of parchment that Francesca had been working on, ignoring Francesca’s exclamation of protest. “What is this?” she cried. And while she read, Francesca silently recited the words she had written, over a hundred painstaking times.
Next Meeting of the Ladies Society for
the Eradication of Tenements
Time: Saturday, January 25 at 3 o’clock P.M.
Place: The Library at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
For further information, please contact
Miss Francesca Cahill at No. 810 Fifth Avenue
Francesca folded her arms. “Connie, you know as well as I that the tenements are a disgrace to this city—a disgrace to you and me,” Francesca said fervently.
Connie’s brows arched impossibly—and it did not detract from her stunning beauty. “What I know is that you are an eccentric, Francesca Cahill. And what I also know is that you are late and that no matter how you think to try, eventually, Mama will have her way.” She gripped Francesca by the arm and dragged her to the window. “Look!” she cried.
Through the velvet draperies, which were open, snow could be seen dancing through the night in tiny swirling points of brilliant white light. Francesca’s bedroom was on the second story of the family’s five-floor, Fifth Avenue mansion. The snow had already blanketed the front lawns and the poplar trees, as well as what could be seen of the sidewalk and street, which lay just beyond the wrought-iron front gates.
Francesca looked down on the circular front driveway, the lawns, and Fifth Avenue. Had the evening been clear, she would have been able to make out the tall iron street lamps with their double-headed white bulbs and the even taller trees of Central Park. Already two four-in-hands, a hansom, and a very dashing motorcar were coming up the driveway, the effect almost magical, the vehicles spookily emerging from the mistlike clouds of snow and electric lights. Beyond the drive, the lamplit street was eerily deserted. Because the Metropolitan Club was two blocks down, there was usually a high degree of traffic on the avenue. Tonight the weather was causing most of the city to stay home.
“Francesca, don’t you belong to enough societies?” Connie’s hands found her slim hips.
“Are you interested in coming to a meeting on Saturday?” Francesca returned, as quickly as a shot. She saw that Connie was about to make an excuse in order to refuse. “Please, Connie, please, please come. And bring a dozen of your friends. You know the cause is a good one!”
“I will come if I can,” Connie said reluctantly, with resignation. “I must check with Neil to make sure we do not have plans for the day.”
Lord Neil Montrose was Connie’s husband; they had married four years ago. Although he had a home in Devon, they spent most of the year in the States, preferring to summer in Great Britain. Francesca knew she would have to press her sister to join her next Saturday even if she was free. Not that Connie was opposed to charity and good works; like their mother, she was quite active in such affairs. But her idea of active and Francesca’s varied dramatically. Connie preferred lavish balls, the tickets to which cost hundreds of dollars.
“Please try to come. If I give you a dozen flyers, could you hand them out this week at Montrose’s dinner party for Livingston?” She was prepared to beg if need be. “Please? I am desperate for attendees.” She smiled hopefully at her sister.
Connie merely gripped her arm again. “Can’t we discuss this another time? I will help you dress. Good God, look at this mess!”
Francesca glanced at the big four-poster bed in the middle of her room. Half a dozen evening gowns were strewn there amongst all the green, blue, and gold pillows and shams, along with the appropriate undergarments and accessories. “How about the black?” she suggested dryly.
Connie scowled. “Amusing. How about the pink?”
Francesca shrugged. “Why does she insist on tormenting me so?” she asked as she stepped out of her white shirtwaist and fitted dove-gray skirt.
“I doubt Mama thinks she is tormenting you,” Connie returned, while Francesca lifted a corset. “She has your welfare at heart. We all do, Fran.”
“If she truly had my happiness at heart, she would allow me to do as I please and I would not have to suffer through this kind of evening,” Francesca said grumpily. “I am not ready for a suitor.”
“I said ‘welfare,’ not ‘happiness.’ ” Connie began pulling on the ties. “And I do believe Mama has given up on the idea of a suitor. You are twenty years old, my dear. She is going directly for the husband.” Connie’s smile was serene.
Francesca scowled. “I am not getting married. Not at any time in the near future.”
Connie had to smile again. “You are so funny, Fran. Look at the bright side. Maybe your future husband will be a radical reformer with a capital R, like you yourself!” Connie started to giggle.
Francesca saw nothing amusing about the fact that her mother was determined to marry her off, sooner rather than later. “How can you make fun of reform? When there is so much poverty and injustice in our midst?”
Connie ceased pulling on the corset. She turned Francesca around. “I am not making fun of reform, Fran. I would never be so callous. But you are so serious! Study, reform, study, reform, study, reform. It is funny. You are funny!”
“I am thrilled to be such a source of entertainment,” Francesca grumbled.
“You do know that Mama suspects something?” Connie dropped the pink gown over Francesca’s head.
Francesca stiffened. And because she and her sister were so close, she knew exactly what it was that her sister was speaking about. “But how could she? I am so careful.”
“It is the hours you are keeping. Why don’t you just tell her the truth? That you are a bluestocking and that you have enrolled at Barnard College? It will make your life so much easier.”
“She will insist that I withdraw,” Francesca said, as her sister was buttoning up the back of the brilliantly pink dress. “I am not going to withdraw. I am going to attain my AB degree. I am determined.”
Connie finished and she smiled. “And God strike down whoever might dare stand in your way—unless it is Mama.”
“Ho, ho, ho,” Fran said sarcastically. But Connie was making a valid point. Julia Van Wyck Cahill was as determined as Francesca was—if not more so. It was a rare day indeed that Julia did not get her way.
“This color suits you, Fran, you will be ravishing tonight,” Connie said with admiration in her blue eyes. “Mr. Wiley will be smitten,” she added slyly.
Francesca groaned. “Onward, then, to my sordid fate.”
“Oh, no! You have no shoes, no rouge, and no jewelry.”
“Good! For then he will deem me madder than a hare.” Francesca grinned.
“No such luck,” Connie said cheerfully, producing a pair of beaded silver slippers.
“I have so much to do, and instead of being occupied in a useful endeavor, instead of being intelligent and using that intelligence, I must spend the evening being paraded in front of society’s most eligible and dull bachelors,” Francesca complained, meaning her every word.
“I just do not understand you,” Connie said flatly, moving into the bathroom. Reluctantly, Francesca followed.
“I mean, there are no female journalists. Which you well know. Ah. Rouge. So you do have a vain streak,” Connie said triumphantly.
“Mama bought that,” Francesca returned calmly, taking the small pot of rouge and dropping it into the wastebasket. “And there have been no female journalists up until now, therefore I shall be the first when I graduate, unless another woman blazes the way for me.”
Connie gave her a look. It was somewhat patronizing. But then, her entire family refused to believe that she truly meant what she said and what she intended.
Francesca loved to write. But it was more than that. For she was a passionate reformer, just as her father was; she had joined the ladies’ auxiliary of the Citizen’s Union Party when she was seventeen. What better way to bring about reform than to write scathing articles about poverty and corruption? The reporter Jacob Riis was her idol. She had read his book, How the Other Half Lives, five years ago, twice. Like most of those who had read that shocking account of life in the slums of New York City, Francesca had been appalled and shaken. That book had changed her life.
For she herself had so much. It was almost shameful. She had to do something to help those less fortunate than herself.
Connie retrieved the pot of rouge, placing it safely on the sink. After Connie had helped her put up her hair and don a small pearl cameo and matching ear bobs, Francesca allowed her sister to pose her before the mirror. Their eyes, both the exact same shade of blue, met in the looking glass.
Francesca had to admit that the gown with its fitted waist and flowing skirt was beautiful. The sleeves were two small caps just covering the points of her shoulders. “Have I ever worn this before?” she asked, puzzled. The gown seemed vaguely familiar.
“You wore this to my birthday,” Connie said with exasperation as she rumbled through Francesca’s toiletries. “Just before Christmas, remember?”
Francesca made a face at the mirror. “My memory is returning.” She made another face, a pouty scowl. That might put off Mr. Wiley, she thought.
Connie chuckled. “I know what you are thinking, Fran. Forget it. You are beautiful and you cannot change the fact, no matter how you might, ridiculously, wish to try.” The two sisters strongly resembled one another. Connie was fairer; Francesca’s skin and hair were tinged with rich hues of peach and gold.
“Beauty fades. Character lasts forever.” Francesca was firm.
Connie rolled her eyes heavenward and she guided Francesca out of the bathroom, through the bedroom, and out of the door, keeping a grip on her all the while.
The ballroom was on the mansion’s third floor. But guests would be arriving in the hall on the ground floor first. The sisters descended the wide white alabaster staircase, which led to a huge marble-floored hall with Corinthian pillars set at intervals, marble panels on the wall, and a high ceiling sporting a magnificent mural depicting a pastoral scene. The Cahill home had been dubbed “the Marble Palace” from the moment its construction had been completed.
At least two dozen guests had already arrived, with several groups arriving through the front door, handing their cloaks, hats, and umbrellas to the doormen. The sisters paused on the last landing. Julia stood poised between the hall and the reception room, greeting guests as they entered. She was resplendent in dark red silk and black lace and more diamonds than anyone had the right to wear. Francesca suddenly shivered. Whom was she fooling? She was no match for her mother. Her heart seemed to sink like a rock at the very thought.
“Thanks for the help, Connie,” she finally said.
Connie squeezed her hand reassuringly. “Chin up. There are some dashing rogues present. If Wiley’s not the one, tonight might very well be your lucky night anyway.” She smiled and sailed off.
Francesca glimpsed Montrose across the hall, chatting with a group of men. Her heart seemed to stammer to a halt briefly, before resuming its beat. He was tall, dark, and dangerously handsome, especially in his evening clothes, and he did not glance her way, not even once. For one moment she watched him as Connie joined him, slipping her arm around his waist. Montrose smiled fondly down at his wife, briefly pulling her even closer. Resolutely, Francesca turned away.
She might feel very differently about marriage had she been presented with Montrose, and Francesca was well aware of it. But Connie was older than she was, and it had only been right that he had been presented to Connie. She was very lucky. Montrose was not just handsome and distinguished, he was intelligent and sincere and a very noble man.
Francesca’s temples had begun to throb. He was also the father of their two small children. She loved her sister and her nieces, and she worked very hard not to succumb to jealousy and envy. In fact, she was so happy for Connie, who had such a perfect life. Her sister had a heart of gold and no one deserved a husband like Montrose and two such beautiful little girls more.
She took a deep breath, to regain her composure and prepare herself for the evening ahead.
But Julia had espied her daughter. Their gazes met.
Francesca recognized the look, which was a summons, and having little choice, she made her way through the growing crowd, nodding at those she passed.
“Francesca, do come here. Darling, I have someone you must meet.” Julia smiled. She was a beautiful woman who was just a few years past forty, and she was also one of the city’s leading socialites. In fact, her daughters resembled her in no uncertain terms. She also came from the most reputable Dutch stock; her father had made his fortune in banking, her grandfather had been a shipbuilder and city alderman. Julia was as proud of her heritage on the maternal side: her mother was a Georgian Southern belle who could trace her roots back to the French aristocracy before the Revolution.
Julia knew everybody with blue blood, wealth, or power. That is to say, she knew everybody who mattered. At times, it was daunting—at least for Francesca. Now she reached for her daughter’s arm and then refused to release it—as if she knew well enough that otherwise Francesca would bolt and run.
“Mama.” Francesca kissed her cheek, and dutifully, she extended her hand toward the man who must be Mr. Wiley. Inwardly, her heart sank even more and she cringed.
“Mr. Wiley has asked specifically to meet you, Francesca,” her mother said, an edge to her tone. It belied her smile. “He remarked you at Delmonico’s the other night, and of course, I have done nothing but sing your praises,” Julia continued, facing a thin young man with the outstanding feature of his being very, very tall. He had to be at least six inches over six feet.
Francesca’s smile felt wooden.
Wiley beamed, blushing hotly.
“My daughter is a saint, my dear Mr. Wiley. There is no woman here with a more benevolent heart. She ladles soup to the working poor and the destitute on Sundays, she visits the orphans at St. Mary’s Asylum every other week, if not more frequently, and just the other day, she stopped by the city hospital on lower York Avenue to bring flowers to the ill.” Julia beamed. “Mr. Wiley’s family is in banking, darling. Mr. Wiley works for his father; they have a company on Wall Street.”
Francesca stared at her mother in disbelief.
“Wiley and Sons,” Mr. Wiley offered eagerly. He had light brown hair and bright blue eyes. He was smiling but his cheeks remained brightly pink.
Francesca barely heard him. And her mother, who had to know why her temper was escalating with the passage of every second, merely smiled at her. “I do believe Mr. Wiley might be pleased to take you for lunch on Monday, darling, if you would go downtown.”
Francesca was so upset and angry she could not speak. She and Julia had fought for hours over her activities, too many times to count. Her mother hated her charities, insisting that a financial donation was far more appropriate than Francesca’s highly individualized approach. If it were not for her father, Francesca knew she would not be allowed to visit the ill, the poor, and the destitute—not ever. But now, of course, she was singing a completely different tune.
“Oh, yes,” Wiley gushed, turning a deeper shade of red. “Please do come downtown. And Monday would be so fine.”
“Monday, then,” Julia said, smiling at them both.
Francesca found her voice. Her examination was at eleven o’clock Monday morning. “Monday? I am afraid—”
Julia cut her off with a single glance. “Darling, you cannot possibly refuse such an invitation. And do save Mr. Wiley a dance,” Julia said, smiling and kissing her daughter’s cheek. She excused herself from the group, turning to greet other guests.
And suddenly the two of them were left alone.
Francesca was trembling. She felt as if the rug had just been pulled out from under her, and she had landed on elbows and knees on the hard marble floor. Of course she could not go. Not on Monday. Yet her mother had put her in a terribly awkward position.
Of course, this was not the first time her mother had outmaneuvered her. But this, this was beyond the pale. It truly was.
“Miss Cahill? Are you all right? You seem distressed.”
Francesca jerked and met his concerned gaze. “I am fine, truly I am.” She forced a smile. He reminded her of a gangling puppy, eager to please, yet somehow so awkward he could not help but do the wrong thing.
“There are some fine restaurants downtown,” he offered.
“I’m sure,” Francesca murmured, thinking she would send him a note tomorrow. And not really intending to be rude, Francesca glanced around.
Eliza and Robert Burton were just entering the hall. They were her neighbors, inhabiting the mansion adjacent to the Cahill home, which they had moved into two years previously. Francesca had to stare, because the moment the Burtons had handed off their cloaks, an animated crowd surrounded them. Eliza, who was not really beautiful, made a comment, and suddenly everyone was laughing. Even her husband was smiling, and holding so lovingly onto her arm.
“Ah, the Burtons. They are neighbors of yours, are they not?” Wiley said, following her gaze.
Francesca tore her gaze away from the striking brunette, who fascinated her. She blinked at Wiley. “Yes, they are. They live right next door.”
“Wonderful people,” Wiley said in a rush. “Very lively, that Mrs. Burton.”
“Yes, she does seem to regale those around her with her wit and conversation,” Francesca said truthfully. Francesca had always secretly wondered how she did it. When Eliza Burton entered a room, she drew admirers of both genders to her like honey drew bees. She was one of the most interesting women Francesca knew. For she was always speaking her mind, voicing her opinions, and she wasn’t afraid to offend and be outrageous. Yet the world seemed to adore her.
Francesca could not help glancing her way again, even though Wiley was saying something. Eliza was wearing a dark red gown that was very bare; truly, it was almost scandalous, for it showed off her lush figure to perfection. Her dark hair was piled high, and her lips were dark red. But somehow, she was elegant in the daring gown and the dark red lips. And she was saying something about their newly elected mayor. Francesca strained to hear.
No, she was making a comment about the city’s last mayor, something to the effect of his being not Croker’s lapdog, but his snapping turtle. “After all,” she smiled, “there was no bark and no bite, just the tiniest of ineffectual snaps.”
Francesca had to smile. Eliza was far more original than the press.
And Wiley had heard, because he was chuckling, too.
She glanced at him, and thought she saw admiration in his eyes as he stared at the other woman. Francesca found herself watching Eliza as her husband escorted her across the hall and to the reception room. Eliza was smiling, but there was nothing artificial about it. She seemed genuinely happy. Her gaze met Francesca’s, and she smiled again.
Almost shyly, Francesca smiled back.
“A very nice turnout, don’t you think?” Wiley said, tugging nervously on his mustache.
Francesca drew her attention back to her suitor. The one thing she was not was rude. “I suppose so.” She inhaled, aware that etiquette demanded that she attempt small conversation. Then she faced her suitor, feeling grim. “So, what do you think of the break in ranks between Platt and Odell?”
Wiley blinked at her. “I beg your pardon?” He didn’t seem to have a clue as to what she was speaking about; it was as if he had never heard of Thomas Platt, the most powerful man in the state.
“Surely you are aware that Senator Platt and Governor Odell have broken ranks. Odell was assumed to be Platt’s man. Perhaps Platt has finally fallen, what do you think?” Francesca could no longer restrain herself. “Perhaps his days of power are finally over,” she added eagerly.
He stared at her as if she were sporting two heads. “Of course I am aware of the rift growing between them,” he finally said, eyes wide.
“And I doubt it will be healed,” Francesca added. But Wiley remained silent and suddenly Francesca’s frustration soared to new bounds. He was not for her. Why did Mama have to do this? Why couldn’t she understand that Francesca had more important things to do than to meet suitors who expected her to be coy and flirtatious, who did not care that she had a brain inside of her head? Why were most men afraid to have an intelligent exchange of opinion with a woman? How did Eliza Burton do it? Francesca suddenly felt despair descending over her like a heavy black cloud. “I had better mingle with Mama’s guests. It was a pleasure meeting you,” Francesca said with a brief, strained smile.
“Until Monday, then,” he called after her eagerly.
Francesca found herself nodding, for there was little else that she could do. But she would send Wiley a letter of apology first thing on the morrow. And as for Julia, well, they would have to have a very serious discussion, indeed.
The idea was quite terrifying.
Suddenly Francesca stumbled and stopped short. Just ahead of her was her father, a short man with iron-gray hair, a beard, and huge sideburns. He was in the midst of conversation with a gentleman Francesca had never before met but whom she recognized immediately from all the press he had received since New Year’s Day. Her heart flipped oddly and suddenly Andrew Cahill saw her and he beamed.
Francesca heard her father but did not look at him, meeting the dark, golden gaze of a man with tawny hair and swarthy coloring instead. He was extremely attractive, although in a rougher way than Montrose, at once tall and broad-shouldered, and like most of the gentlemen present, he wore a black tuxedo with satin lapels, a fine satin braid sewn down the side of his evening trousers. Andrew Cahill grabbed her arm, pulling her close. He was, Francesca knew, the newly appointed commissioner of police.
“There is someone you must meet,” Cahill said, for he knew his daughter better than anyone and, in fact, Francesca’s passion for reform had been inherited from her father’s own, similar passion.
Francesca met his smile with one of her own. And even though her gaze was now on her father, she was acutely aware of Rick Bragg, standing there beside them. “Don’t chastise me for being late,” Francesca said affectionately, but she could hear that her own tone sounded odd—breathless and high-pitched. And her mind raced at lightning speed. The city police department was notoriously corrupt. So many efforts to reform the institution had failed. Bragg was expected to bring about much-needed reform. But could he do it? She stole another glance at him.
He had been studying her, and politely, slightly, he bowed.
His eyes, she noticed, were amber, and flecked with gold. Francesca felt herself flushing.
Cahill did not notice. “How can I not chastise such a delinquent daughter?” he was saying. He smiled, kissing her cheek, his salt-and-pepper beard scratching her skin.
Francesca was the apple of her father’s eye and she knew it. Yet it was so hard to respond right now; instead, she was trying to recall everything she had read about Bragg in the papers since his appointment by the newly elected mayor on New Year’s Day. “Please be gentle with me, then, Papa,” she said. She had to steal another glance at Bragg.
And she could not decipher his penetrating gaze.
“We shall see.” Andrew winked. “Darling, you must meet the police commissioner.”
Francesca managed a smile that felt unnatural and tightly stretched; how odd. She was aware of a tension she had never before been faced with, and she did not understand it.
“Rick, this is my younger daughter, Francesca,” Cahill said proudly. “And my daughter may be the youngest member of the Cahill family, but she is without a doubt the most intellectual—I would go so far as to say that she is brilliant.” He beamed.
Francesca was embarrassed. Usually she was proud of her education and intelligence, but just then, she could only hope that her father’s words had somehow impressed him, and finally, she gave in to sheer confusion. His taking her hand and bowing over it did not help. “Charmed,” he drawled, and there was something laconic in his tone that startled her even more. His accent was slightly Western.
Her mind raced.
Rick Bragg was related to the Texas Braggs, a wealthy family with holdings in mining, railroads, banking, and beef. Apparently, he was a great-great-grandson of the founder. Hadn’t she read somewhere, though, that he was originally from New York? She did recall that he was a graduate of Harvard Law School, and that he had had his own firm in Washington, D.C., until recently. But what Francesca remembered the most was that one and all wished to know if Bragg had been given carte blanche to administer the police. Seth Low, whom her father had supported heavily, was a Reform mayor, and his appointment of Bragg had raised a flurry of hopes and expectations among the city’s progressive-minded liberals.
Francesca trembled. Could he do it? Would he do it?
Bragg was laughing briefly at something her father had said. The sound was warm and rich. He had his back to her. He said, “I saw the cartoon. I only object to the fact that the horse they put me on was a nag instead of a fiery steed.”
“I liked the six-shooters, myself,” Cahill chuckled.
Francesca wondered what cartoon they were referring to. Obviously, she had missed the caricature of the city’s newest police commissioner. She wondered if it was in today’s paper. She must check immediately and find out.
His gaze had turned slightly, allowing her to study his nearly classic profile. “I cannot reiterate enough what your support has meant, Andrew,” he said.
“I have every confidence in you, as I do in Seth,” her father said jovially, referring to the city’s newly elected mayor.
“He has his work cut out for him,” Bragg returned. His back was now to Francesca. “But I shall do everything in my power to see to it that my department eases his way, instead of adding to his burdens.”
As her father responded, Francesca realized she had been dismissed. She stared at Bragg’s broad shoulders, shocked.
For even though she was not looking for a suitor, and even though she was not a flirt, she was used to being admired. She was used to being ogled, if she dared be frank. It had been a fact of her life ever since she was a small child.
This man was impervious to her charms? But . . . how could that be?
“So, will Low make a public policy declaration regarding the police department and its affairs?” Cahill asked Bragg, apparently not even noticing the slight upon his daughter.
Francesca found herself crossing her arms tightly over her chest. An image of Connie retrieving the pot of lip rouge from the wastebasket came to mind. And she snapped silently to herself, Do not be an absurd ninny!
“I’m afraid you’ll have to ask the mayor that,” Bragg responded, smiling slightly at her father. His smile softened the distinct planes of his face.
Francesca wet her lips. Her pulse accelerated with her almost conscious intention. “So. Do you intend to enforce the Raines Act?” she heard herself ask.
His shoulders stiffened ever so imperceptibly and he turned to face her. His amber eyes locked with hers, wider now with some surprise. Francesca’s tension had escalated dramatically—oddly, she felt as if she had just baited the bear in its den and she somehow felt threatened. She expected him to ask her what she had just said. He said, evenly, “I am afraid you will have to wait and see, just like the rest of the city, Miss Cahill.” And his regard remained upon her, unwavering in its intensity.
She wasn’t sure why she was so nervous. She wondered if she had made a mistake to so captivate his attention. But she could not seem to stop herself. Breathlessly, she said, “The law should be enforced or it should be repealed.” And to her own ears, her normally husky voice came out high-pitched, like squeaky carriage wheels in the need of a good oiling.
He stared, becoming extraordinarily still. Francesca did not feel even a moment of triumph; if anything, she was stricken with anxiety and incapable of all movement.
An endless moment ensued before he spoke. “Again, I am afraid I must decline to make a comment,” he said. But his gaze had sharpened like two lead pencil points.
Cahill slid his arm around Francesca. “My daughter is not only intelligent, she is very interested in the welfare of this city,” he said proudly. “The district attorney is a friend of ours, as well.”
Francesca managed, “He had supper with us Thursday night.”
“I see,” Bragg said, his gaze still on her, and Francesca had the feeling that he did. Had she made a mistake to engage him so? She could not tear her gaze away. “He can be a loose cannon,” Bragg said flatly.
“He is the district attorney, and a man of the law,” Francesca said, hoping to sound mature and calm when her heart was fluttering uncontrollably within her breast. “I respect most of his opinions.”
Did she remark the briefest and faintest of smiles flitting across his face? Had she somehow amused him? For that was not her intention, oh no. “So you mime his opinions?” Bragg asked.
Suddenly the crowd around them disappeared. Francesca heard nothing and no one but her own deep, labored breathing, her own pounding heartbeat; she saw nothing and no one but the man standing before her; she even forgot that her father stood beside her, so closely that her skirts brushed his trousered leg.
Francesca’s instinct was to flee. She did not. Undoubtedly because she was so oddly incapable of most movement. “I mime no one’s opinions, sir. The only ones to gain from the failure to enforce the blue laws are the saloon and brothel keepers.” She was amazed that her intellect did not fail her.
And suddenly he smiled. It transformed his face, already attractive, to one rather devastating in a rough, male, almost cowboy-like way. “Shall we debate?” he asked. And there was a twinkle in his gaze.
Francesca felt her eyes widen and she was also overcome with relief. “I am not trying to debate you, sir,” she began. “But I have very strong feelings upon this subject.”
Cahill threw his arm around her. “My daughter would be the Reform mayor herself, if she were a man. Isn’t that right, Francesca?” he said.
Francesca somehow managed to tear her eyes away from Bragg. “But I am not a man, so the question is moot, is it not, Papa?”
“My daughter will not give an inch, Rick, I warn you on that. She is devoted to her many causes. Do you know that she is an active member of four leagues?”
Bragg had not removed his gaze from Francesca, and perhaps that was why her cheeks continued to feel as if they were on fire. “No, I did not. That is a large number of clubs, Miss Cahill.”
She wet her lips again. “Actually, I belong to five.” She glanced at her father. “I just began a new society, Papa. The Ladies’ Society for the Eradication of Tenements.”
“A terrible blot upon our city,” Cahill said grimly.
“And where will the tenement dwellers go if the tenements are torn down?” Bragg asked with a calm that she was realizing was characteristic of him. But there was nothing calm about his intent eyes.
Francesca refused to fidget. “We are a rich city.” She took a deep breath, hoping to recover her composure. “Surely you are aware of the fact that one half of the country’s millionaires live here?”
He smiled again. A dimple appeared in his right cheek. “Will the funds then come from the pockets of men like your father, or from the city’s coffers—assuming the politics of such a budget might be mastered?”
Francesca told herself that she was not in over her head. But was he now amused? “Both, I hope. In fact, now that we have an honest and determined Reform mayor, my hopes have never been higher.” She smiled briefly. It felt brittle. If she had become a source of amusement, she might very well die. “Commissioner Bragg, there is always a way to accomplish a worthy end.” And by God, she did mean it.
He was silent for a moment. “I admire your enthusiasm,” he said, then ruined the compliment with, “How old are you, Miss Cahill?”
She tensed again. “What does my age have to do with my ideas? I am no child.”
“The young tend toward optimism,” he said flatly. “Not realism.”
Francesca had just received an ungentlemanly setdown, and she could no more stop herself than she could stop the snow from falling outside. “And you are so very elderly?” she asked.
Was he laughing now at her?
She was about to point out that, throughout history, the greatest strides made by mankind were precipitated by the young and the restless, when her father took her arm. “The commissioner is right, of course. But it is the enthusiasm of the young that drives society to debate and action and ultimately the best of all possible conclusions.” He kissed his daughter’s cheek. “I must introduce Bragg around, although I would love to listen to the two of you debate all night. Have a good night, dear.”
“Thank you, Papa.” She somehow smiled at him, and then she looked at Bragg again. Right in the eye.
He had been studying her; his eyes immediately changed, making them impossible to read, and he nodded politely. Too politely, as if they had not just had the most scintillating exchange of opinions and ideas. Still, there were hidden layers there, and as he walked away with her father, Francesca watched them go. She felt rooted to the spot.
Whatever had she been thinking, to debate a man like that? And had she been adversarial? For that had not been her intention, not at all.
Did he think her odd? A fool? Or did he, at least, respect her for her intellect?
And had he not noticed that she was blond and blue-eyed, with a prettily sloped nose?
Francesca closed her eyes, replaying their conversation in her mind. Had she pressed too fervently? Did he think her outspoken? Outrageous? And why should she even care?
Francesca opened her eyes and found herself standing alone in the midst of the festive, animated crowd; worse, Wiley was smiling at her from across the reception room. It was just too much to bear.
She fled down the hall, brushing by someone in her haste and somehow apologizing, and then she dashed into her father’s library, and finally, she was alone.
For one moment she could not move, oddly out of breath, leaning against the two huge oak doors, now solidly closed behind her. And as she took a few deep breaths, she began to relax.
Whatever was wrong with her? she wondered. She shook her head, as if to regain her senses. For the life of her, she could not understand what had just happened. In fact, even now, a sense of confusion remained.
She sighed, glancing around. Her father’s library was her favorite place in the entire world. A gold tapestry cloth covered the walls, the pastoral scenes hand-painted. The ceiling was arched, and ribbed with the same rich, dark wood that ornamented the rest of the room. Stained glass covered the windows. There was a huge fireplace with a beautifully carved mahogany mantel, and a fire roared within it. Francesca walked over to his massive desk and plopped down in the chair behind it. She felt exhausted and drained.
Francesca stared at the desk but did not really see the papers and books there. Instead, she saw Rick Bragg. Her father liked him, he seemed intelligent and determined, and she realized that she hoped he was not a crook like so many of the city’s previous police commissioners. Unfortunately, one could never tell.
Francesca shook her head to clear it again. Enough. How had she become so undone? She began to smile and she sighed again, tension draining away from her. The quiet and solitude were so welcome, but she did have a ball to return to, and Julia would remark her absence and complain loudly on the morrow if she stayed away. But Francesca did not move, taking another moment to recover the last vestiges of her composure and to enjoy her peaceful surroundings. She toyed with a pile of mail on the desk. Hadn’t she known this evening would be dismaying? If only she was a bit more like Connie—just a bit.
Her sister was intelligent, well educated, and interesting. Yet she loved social affairs.
Francesca wondered if Bragg would have noticed Connie in a way that he had not noticed herself. For all gentlemen noticed Connie. Their admiration was always so frank and remarkable.
Francesca frowned slightly. Her entire life, she had been told that she and her sister might have been twins. Yet he had turned away from her after her father had introduced him.
As Francesca contemplated this last thought, she shoved the pile of mail aside. It worried her that Bragg kept intruding upon her thoughts.
And then she noticed one cream-colored envelope that had slipped free of the pile of mail. It wasn’t addressed to anyone, in fact, one word was scrawled on the envelope’s front where the address should be and it caught her eye. She blinked.
This was strange. Francesca picked up the envelope, turned it over, but there was no return address either, nor was there a postmark. Had a guest left it on the desk? Curiosity seized her. Francesca picked up an ivory-handled letter opener and immediately slashed it open. It said:
A is for Ants
If you want to see the boy again, be at Mott and
Hester streets at 1 P.M. tomorrow.