Clockwise, p.15
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       Clockwise, p.15

           Lee Strauss
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WE HAD A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE in the kitchen after Sara made sure we’d warmed up and eaten. Now we sat around the table with mugs of hot tea in our hands.

  “I can’t believe it,” Sara said shaking her red braids. “I’m just so glad that Samuel got away. God bless you both for what you did.”

  “Yes, well done,” Mrs. Watson added. “No man deserves to be treated like cattle or a family pet.”

  “Well, Cobbs is certainly not welcomed here anymore.” Willie had returned earlier from Worcester. “I can’t believe I missed all this excitement.”

  Our recollection was interrupted by a knock at the door. Willie opened it to reveal Robert Willingsworth. Sara's eyes brightened as she joined her brother to welcome him.

  “Greetings, Robert,” Willie said. “What brings you this way?”

  “An invitation, actually,” Robert said, greeting all the Watsons before letting his eyes lock in on mine. I hated when he did that.

  “Miss Donovan.” He tipped his hat. “Such, a pleasure to see you again.”

  Sometimes, I can’t believe my vanity. My hand patted at my fly away curls, and all I stewed over was how flushed my face was from the cold, then the heat, and now by him.

  Robert turned to face Nate, hesitated then reached out his hand. Nate shook it limply.

  “I thought I saw you both out riding today, near the tavern on route 4?”

  Nate said, “You were there?”

  “I was just leaving as you passed by. A shame we didn’t meet a moment sooner. We could’ve shared a pint.” He laughed. “But then again, we couldn’t because you were in the company of your lovely sister.”

  I was stunned. Robert was at the tavern? I didn’t see him when we’d peeked in through the window, though he could’ve had his back to us. What an unfortunate coincidence. If he’d decided to leave the tavern five minutes earlier than he had, he might’ve seen us break out Samuel.

  “Well, we’re certainly delighted that you dropped by,” Sara said, smiling widely. Kind of gushing.

  “Yes, the reason for my visit,” Robert continued. “I would like to invite you all to a Christmas Party tomorrow night. At my estate.”

  At his estate. Now wouldn’t that be something. Kind of a last minute invite, though. Why did I think it had something to do with his seeing us near the pub earlier?

  “It would be our greatest pleasure and honor to join you, Mr. Willingsworth,” Sara said.

  “Tremendous. We shall see you all then.”

  We were soon to be surprised by another arrival. Mr. Watson had returned from London. He was larger and louder than I’d remembered. His head was still full of thick, curly, fiery-red hair. His boisterous laugh filled the house. All the Watson kids excitedly jumped on their dad to hug him. He did seem genuinely affectionate towards his much thinner and smaller wife, giving her a gentle grizzly bear hug and a long kiss on the lips. And after depositing a number of presents under the tree, he took a moment to gaze at little Daniel in the cradle.

  After the initial excitement Sara introduced him to Nate and me. The last time he’d seen me, I’d been dressed like a boy. I just pretended this was our first encounter. He shook my hand warmly and said, “Welcome to the family,” like he had adopted us. Which was kind of nice when you think about it, but I couldn’t get past the fact that this man left his family for months at a time to fend for themselves and let his wife have a baby in his absence. They didn’t seem to mind this and apparently he brought home a lot of money, so maybe that was why.

  Later that night, after the candle was already snuffed out, Nate spouted off. “I don’t like the way he looks at you.”


  “You know who.”

  He couldn’t mean Mr. Watson. “Robert?” I clarified.

  “Oh, it’s Robert now.”

  “You expect me to call him Mr. Willingsworth? When talking to you? Besides, he asked me to call him Robert.”

  “Of course he did.”

  What was his problem? Was he jealous? It was pitch black so I couldn’t read his face. Maybe he was jealous. This consideration brought on a wave of happy tingles. Then I remembered that he still had Jessica and of course I couldn’t forget the infamous library speech.

  “I just don’t trust him, that’s all.”

  “Okay, don’t trust him. But we have to go to the party. We owe it to the Watsons.”

  “Unless…” He left the sentence hanging. I knew what he was thinking. Unless we finally went home.

  Robert Willingsworth really did have an estate. His two story brick and stone mansion had a view of Charles River, and an enormous yard and garden. Even in the winter you could tell it was amazing. I couldn’t recall seeing anything like this in the Boston I knew. The bigger question was, how did someone as young as Robert Willingsworth come into all this money?

  We were in the ballroom. His house had a ballroom! The high ceilings were dotted with crystal chandeliers, the walls adorned with large paintings and portraits of what I assumed were important family members. A twelve-person brass band played what I imagined were the top forty tunes of 1860 interspersed with old Christmas songs I recognized.

  It seemed the whole town of Boston had been invited, including the entire Watson clan. Duncan, Josephine, Charlotte and Abigail were at that odd age where you were interested in the opposite sex but pretended you still hated each other. They hung out in small groups with their friends, the boys in one, the girls in the other. Jonathon, Michael and Josiah just ran around like free birds, picking at the appetizers off the large tables that were adorned with lace cloths and ornate centerpieces at the back of the room. Mrs. Watson was at one of the tables with little Daniel in her lap, and Mr. Watson sat beside her, his big beefy arm wrapped around her shoulders.

  Everyone was dressed in his or her Christmas best and once again with the help of Sara and Willie, Nate and I looked pretty good. Well, Nate sure did. I kept sneaking peeks at him as the “city girls” took notice and flocked around him. Erg. Nate seemed to enjoy the attention, which just made me madder. I told myself to get a grip and forced a calm ladylike expression on my face.

  I spotted Robert scanning the room with his eyes, looking pleased at what he saw. He stopped when his gaze came to me, and then walked confidently across the floor to my side. “Could I have the pleasure of this dance?”

  “I’d be delighted,” I said, glancing in Nate’s direction, hoping he’d notice that even though all the young men weren’t lining up to ask me to dance, I wasn’t a dishcloth either. Robert noticed me. And as uncomfortable as he made me feel, his company was still better than reverting to the wallflower I usually was.

  “Cassandra, you look lovely as usual,” Robert cooed. Well, maybe he didn’t coo. Really, I didn’t get his fascination with me. I wasn’t rich, or any prettier than a lot of the girls in the room or even consistent. Here today, gone tomorrow.

  “Thank you.”

  We swirled around the dance floor and it pleased me to see Nate staring with a disgruntled expression.

  “Your brother doesn’t like me.” So, Robert noticed it, too.

  “Who cares what my brother thinks.”

  “You are so intriguing!” he spouted. Why? Because I didn’t care what my “brother” thought? I didn’t know what to say so I just smiled.

  “You are spirited, spontaneous, and unpredictable. I like that in a woman.”

  Diversion! Diversion!

  “You know, I was with Sara when she delivered her baby brother. No midwife or anything.” Robert grimaced slightly. I could tell I was going in the wrong direction with this but couldn’t stop now. “I almost fainted but Sara was amazing. Practically Wonder Woman.”

  “Wonder woman?” His eyes sparkled with amusement. “Cassandra, you say the most provocative things.”

  Brother. Okay, I got it. Robert Willingsworth was into me. What should I do about it? There was nothing I could do until this really long dance ended. I decided the best tactic was to change the subj

  “Those are lovely, large portraits on the wall. Family?”

  “Indeed. My father, grandfather and great grandfather.” He motioned to the three prominent paintings that hung in a row on the far wall. “All plantation men.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I’m originally from the south. I’ve mentioned that before, I believe.”

  “Yes, I remember. Is that how your family made their fortune, off the plantations?”

  “Cotton is very profitable.”

  “Then why did you move to Boston?”

  “Factories. New technology makes the spinning of cotton thread much faster and more profitable. My father came to Boston to open a clothing factory and that’s when I decided to follow him and attend Harvard. Now I oversee operations.”

  “You once mentioned that it was the success of these very factories that increased the need for slave labor in the south. Do you support this, Robert?”

  “And as I expected, Cassandra, you are also very intelligent. But, please, this is too festive of an occasion for such serious talk. Let’s save politics for another time, shall we.”

  The music ended and I curtsied to excuse myself. “I think, I’ll go, and uh, get a drink of punch.” I turned, hoping to leave Robert behind, but he followed me.

  “Allow me to assist you.” Like I couldn’t get my own drink? While Robert poured my punch I scanned the room for Nate, fully expecting him to be dancing with some pretty girl. Instead he was standing against the wall glaring at me.

  Robert handed me a glass cup with a tiny little glass handle. I took it carefully, not wanting to spill on Sara’s dress. “Thank you, Robert.” He seemed to be waiting for approval. I took a sip. “Um, it’s lovely.”

  “Great. I’m glad you like it.”

  Okay. Now what? “Um, I’m going to go speak with my brother.”

  “I’ll accompany you.”

  Was he kidding me? Was he my shadow now?

  “You know, Robert, actually, I need to visit the powder room.”

  That stumped him. “Of course, I’ll have my man, George, show you the way.”

  He waved his man over and I followed him, breathing a sigh of relief. I took a moment to powder my nose and tuck a flyaway curl behind my ear. Robert Willingsworth was suffocating me. Funny how I’d rather spend a quiet evening in the cabin talking to Nate, than be at this fancy ball with Robert.

  Soon after I rejoined the party, Robert’s domestic help made an announcement that dinner was served. I didn’t even know there was going to be a dinner. Wasn’t this amazing dance enough? How much did it cost to feed all these people? We were ushered into an adjoining room filled with round tables, fully loaded with expensive looking dinnerware and candelabras. Robert had arranged the seating so that he would be next to me. Nate and Sara and Willie sat across from us. Both Nate and Sara seemed to be in sour moods. The food was delicious, and that cheered Nate up a bit. Roast duck with some kind of orange sauce, mashed potatoes, cranberries, rolls, sparkling wine and apple juice and more sweets than you could count.

  “I love a woman with a good appetite,” Robert said to me.

  Oh. Was I making a pig of myself? Should I eat slower? The conversations at all the tables in the vast room created a loud din, making it hard to talk quietly. Robert shouted across the table to Nate, Sara and Willie, “Are you having a good time?”

  Thankfully, Willie answered for them. “Yes, very nice. Thank you again for inviting us to your Christmas party. It’s very generous of you to include our whole family.”

  “It is my pleasure.” He addressed Nate. “I hope you don’t mind my dominating your sister’s time tonight. You can’t blame a man for desiring the company of such a beautiful woman.”

  Did he really say that? Out loud? Well, he hasn’t seen my knobby knees. But the better question was, why didn’t Nate think I was beautiful? Not that I was. Just saying. Of course, Robert had never met Jessica Fuller. I wondered if he’d still want me if she were in the room. Nate seemed at a loss for words. Did he mind or didn’t he? He started choking on something then, and took a swig of water. He never answered Robert’s question.

  Robert kept talking. “I wish that your father was here, Cassandra.”

  “Why?” What did my dad have to do with anything?

  “Because, I am the type of man who likes to do things properly. I would like to ask your father for your hand in marriage.”

  What! Both Nate and Sara blanched as white as the crisply starched tablecloth. Willie seemed equally stunned. No one saw that coming.

  “Robert, we barely know each other,” I managed to cough up.

  “I know everything I need to know. I haven’t stopped thinking about you since the day we met in the bookstore. You are what I want, and I don’t mean to sound conceited, but I always get what I want.”

  Nate’s hands clasped the top of the table, his knuckles white. I pleaded with my eyes, help me!

  “Uh, Robert,” Nate said, “since our father isn’t present, I must speak as the man of the house, uh, male responsible for Case, uh, Cassandra, and I think she’s too young.”

  “With all due respect, Nathaniel, Cassandra is a woman of marrying age. I am a man in good standing and of substantial means. I would take excellent care of her and your family, too. Our union would be mutually beneficial.”

  Our union? Ew, gross. Sara went from white to red to white again. I hated that I was playing a part in her heartache.

  “Cassandra darling,” Robert said, “I would like to hear from you. May I speak with your father to ask for his permission for us to marry?”

  My head filled with buzzing. My eyes darted to each face at my table, Willie, Sara, Nate, all with frozen expressions of shock. I swiveled slightly to take in the rest of the room. Was it my imagination or had the dining hall grown quiet? Yes, it had. Very quiet, indeed.


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