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           Shannon LC Cate
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SHANNON LC CATE

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  lilysea press

  2013

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  Shannon LC Cate

  Copyright 2013 by Shannon LC Cate

  All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database retrieval system, without prior written permission of the author.

  Published by

  lilysea press

  info@lilysea.net

  For Jo Gambill-Read

  and all the other teens who see themselves or the people they love in Lizzie and Jack.

  "Jack be...nim...blie..." Lizzie tried.

  "Nimble," Mama corrected.

  "Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jump over the ... can...d..." Lizzie looked up, frowning.

  "Candlestick." Mama smiled encouragingly.

  "Candlestick." Why would someone jump over a candlestick?

  "From the beginning..." Mama prodded.

  "Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jump over the candlestick."

  "Good." Mama kissed Lizzie's forehead and took the book. "Time to get dressed."

  Lizzie stood and pulled her nightdress over her head. Mama handed her a shift and she wriggled into it.

  "What does 'nimble' mean?" she asked as Mama took her dress off the hook behind the door.

  "It means..." she seemed to think a moment. "It means to be quick on your feet, like a rabbit, or a cat."

  Lizzie bit her lip as she struggled with the tiny buttons on her dress.

  The bell over the door rang.

  "Tidy up the room and remember to comb your hair before Mrs. Banks sees you." Mama kissed Lizzie's forehead quickly and left to dress Mrs. Banks.

  Lizzie gave up on the buttons for a moment and wandered to the small room's only window. It was a long way down to the street outside, where a charwoman scrubbed the white steps of a bank. A cat sniffed at her mop bucket and she shooed at it in pantomime. It jumped away and around a corner out of sight.

  Tidying the room took no time at all. The room was tiny. All Lizzie had to do was pull the quilt up on her own sleeping pallet and slide it under Mama's narrow bed. The washstand by the window was uncluttered besides holding Mama's brush and Lizzie's comb.

  Lizzie stepped to it and pulled at her tangled curls for a moment, grimacing as she did. She wished Mama would let her simply cut them all off. But Mama said such a thing was scandalous to even wish for, that Lizzie's curls were beautiful, and reminded her of the man who had been Lizzie's father before he had died.

  This made no sense to Lizzie. If she reminded Mama of a man, why not let her cut her hair? It was a source of deepest bitterness to Lizzie, for if only she could have been a boy, she would be one in a minute. She would go out and get a job selling newspapers or polishing rich men's boots or any of the dozens of things she saw boys doing every day. She would buy Mama new handkerchiefs and a pink parasol and all the other little things she longed for but could never afford to buy, as Lizzie's quick growth forced her to replace her daughter's boots and petticoats and jackets first.

  Lizzie put down the comb and glanced around the room before stepping out into Mrs. Banks' boudoir.

  ***

  Mr. Landrieu was already in the sitting room when Annabella walked in to make sure it was tidy for his visit. Mrs. Banks had told her he was not to be expected until four, but here he was at half-past three, lounging by the fire, an ankle crossed over his knee, reading the paper, as at home as if he were in his own library.

  "Don't mind me, Annabella," he said before she could greet him. "Hastings has made me quite comfortable." His tone was possessive, as if the housekeeper was his own servant already.

  Annabella merely gave him a modest head bob before she beat the cushions on the settee and rang to have the fire stoked. As soon as the chambermaid arrived, she took her own leave, hurrying to tell Mrs. Banks of the visitor's early arrival.

  Mr. Landrieu was probably going to propose to Mrs. Banks any day now. That is what everyone--according to Mrs. Banks herself--supposed. After all, he had been coming nearly every day for several weeks, after meeting the wealthy widow at an overcrowded affair in Washington Square.

  Who exactly Mr. Landrieu was, no one in New York was quite certain. He was some kind of southerner whose fortune had survived the war. He was quite handsome according to the fashions of the day--tall and lean, with a neat mustache that curled perfectly at either end. His age might have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty, for all anyone could tell, and he had a charm about him that pleased even the most conservative of the ladies in Mrs. Banks' social circle.

  Annabella did not find him charming. She found him unsettling. But she was a lady's maid, not part of a lady's social circle.

  "Mr. Landrieu is here already Ma'am."

  "What! Already? What time is it?" Mrs. Banks looked to the clock on the mantle of her room and a line crossed her forehead as she squinted to read it. "Only half-past three." She turned her worried face to Annabella. "Did I not say four?"

  "I'm sure you did, Ma'am."

  But they set to work, and Mrs. Banks was dressed and coiffed in a quarter of an hour.

  ***

  "He still hasn't proposed," Mrs. Banks sipped her tea and frowned at her friend.

  The ladies didn't know Lizzie was there. Mama had been sent to the dressmaker for the morning, and she had left Lizzie sleeping. But she had woken up and now she peeped through the fringe of the draperies that framed the door between Mrs. Banks' boudoir and Mama's room, watching the two rich ladies.

  "Vivienne..." said Mrs. Sterling.

  Mrs. Sterling was Mrs. Banks' most frequent visitor after Mr. Landrieu. Lizzie thought she was much prettier than Mrs. Banks. Mama said that was because she was younger. But Lizzie liked the way her eyes sparkled when she smiled and the way her dresses always seemed cool and crisp, even when the heat made all the other ladies droop.

  Now, in spite of having said Vivienne, Mrs. Sterling did not say anything more. In fact, the room was quiet for a long moment.

  "What is it, Clara?" Mrs. Banks finally asked, looking worried.

  "Perhaps it's just as well he hasn't asked you. In fact, darling...I came this morning to tell you...to say...perhaps you had better stop entertaining him altogether."

  Mrs. Banks raised her eyebrows so high they nearly disappeared under her tightly curled fringe. "Quelle idee! Why ever would I do such a theeng?"

  She sounded the most French when she was excited, Lizzie decided. Mama said it was being French that made Mrs. Banks speak in such an odd voice. Mama also said that though London was not in France, that was where Mrs. Banks used to live with her husband, before coming to New York. Lizzie had only the dimmest notion of what all these places must be like, but whenever Mrs. Banks did or said anything strange, she supposed it was because of her multiple foreignnesses.

  "Edith has been talking to some of her southern friends, and she believes there is a scandal in Mr. Landrieu's past that New York would never forgive, were it to become generally known."

  Soon after this, Lizzie found herself unable to follow the sense of what the women were saying. She didn't know what a "brothel" was, nor a "concubine."

  She would ask Mama about these things later--if she could remember just what the ladies had said.

  ***

  Annabella tried not to yawn as she pulled the pins from Mrs. Banks' hair and brushed it gently. It was nearly two o'clock but Mrs. Banks was restless still.

  "Mr. Landrieu was nowhere to be seen. I believe he was not invited! I don't understand Americans. Puritans--all of them! A leettle rumor--nothing more--and dear Edward is shunned."

  "But the rumor...it is quite bad, is it not?" Annabell
a dared.

  "That he is the proprietor of a brothel in New Orleans? Preposterous! That he wants to marry me for social gain? He is rich enough to be at his leisure for the rest of his life. He doesn't need my money."

  Money was not the same thing, in all cases, as social gain, Annabella knew, but she said nothing to Mrs. Banks. The story Lizzie had told her--in her nearly nonsensical, innocent (thank god!) way--had not altogether shocked her. She had felt there was something slippery about Mr. Landrieu since she had met him. And while it was true that Mrs. Banks didn't need his money anymore than he needed hers, she was just connected enough to New York society that if he were to marry her, gentlemen might see fit to look the other way if evidence of his past ever arose.

  But Mr. Landrieu had not been to visit in over a week. Annabella guessed he had heard rumors of the rumors and had given up the idea of marrying Mrs. Banks.

  "I am sorry that you are disappointed, Ma'am." Annabella braided the lady's hair carefully and helped her to bed. Then she retired herself, to the little room next door, beside her sleeping daughter.

  ***

  "Annabella."

  She jumped. She had not known anyone was in the room, but when she turned, there stood Edward Landrieu.

  "Sir--you...I am afraid Mrs. Banks is out." Her hands were full with Mrs. Banks' embroidery basket and the work she had abandoned an hour before. For some reason, this made her feel vulnerable. She lay them aside again, folding her hands in front of her.

  "It wasn't Mrs. Banks I came to see."

  Mr. Landrieu reached inside the breast pocket of his jacket and withdrew a silver case. He opened it slowly, took out a cigarette, closed the case and put it back.

  They were in the morning room, but Annabella could not muster the courage to ask him not to smoke. Instead she watched him take a match from another pocket and strike it, lighting the cigarette at his leisure while she stood, dumb before him.

  Smoke was curling in her face when he spoke again at last.

  "Sit down."

  "I have...work to do..." she stumbled over the words.

  "Sit down."

  She glanced quickly to the doorway and sat. He stepped to the door and closed it.

  "I don't know if you have heard any of these...hideous rumors about me, child, but..." He smoked for a moment, then waved the cigarette dramatically as he continued. "They are all terrible lies of course."

  He was as handsome as the devil himself, but the lilt of his voice reminded Annabella of her father. It was not a pleasant association. "I cannot say I know what you refer to sir," she said.

  His eyes narrowed. "If that's the case, you are willfully ignorant. Nevertheless, I'll pretend to believe you for the moment."

  He stepped to the fireplace and tapped ash in its general direction, but it fell upon the hearthrug instead. He took no notice of this, turning to her and saying, in a slightly lowered voice, "I am afraid I am going to have to leave the country for a while. It is not the worst fate that could be befall me, of course. I am damnably rich and I can live abroad like a king for as long as I like."

  He eyed her quietly, but she did not respond.

  "You may wonder why I tell you this."

  "I cannot imagine, sir." She toyed with the edge of the embroidery that sat beside her on the settee.

  "Call me Edward." Annabella looked up at him. His eyes were on hers, an eyebrow raised. "You have an unfortunate past yourself, my dear, do you not?"

  At this, Annabella grew really worried.

  Mr. Landrieu smiled as if to reassure her.

  "I thought so. Your little girl is evidence of that. You may be able to pass her off in New York as some poor dead Southern soldier's child, but where I come from--especially in my line of business--we know a mulatta when we see one."

  Annabella's heart began to beat so hard, she feared Mr. Landrieu might hear it pounding.

  Perhaps he did not hear her heart, but he must have seen the fear in her face. It seemed almost to please him. He tossed the end of his cigarette into the fireplace and stepped to her side, kneeling beside the settee.

  "Don't worry, dear child." His voice was suddenly tender. "I have a proposal that will save you from the dishonor sure to befall you when these New York people discover the truth--an idea that will make you a rich woman, in fact. And keep me from dying a lonely bachelor without an heir."

  She did not trust him. But she was curious.

  "Dear Annabella, I can take you far away from this servitude. I can offer you the kind of life you were born to. You are no lady's maid. You are a southern princess, are you not? You made a mistake perhaps--perhaps it was not even your fault. After all, you must have often found yourself...unprotected...during the war."

  He paused and smiled knowingly at her. She didn't like his suggestion. She had loved Lizzie's father. At the very least, after all the trouble she had seen, she had the sweet memory of that. Her face hardened slightly.

  "But these Yankees might not understand the way I do, my dear. And I am willing to forget your history if you are willing to ignore these rumors about mine. We can leave them behind and leave this place. We can marry abroad under new names, new identities. I can give you a life of luxury and you can give me your pretty self...perhaps a son or two..."

  Annabella's head swam. She felt as trapped as a fly in amber. "I thought you wanted to marry Mrs. Banks," was all she could say.

  "I admit it. I did intend to marry that woman, but when I saw you...I knew that you and I had something special in common."

  Annabella was shaking her head.

  "Now this rumor has reared up, I fear marrying anyone in New York is out of the question. I do not intend to ever be Edward Landrieu again." He stood and lit another cigarette.

  "I apologize for shocking you," he walked again to the fireplace. "And I apologize for rushing you. But I am afraid I will need your answer within a day. I have two tickets for Friday's steamer to Liverpool and I will be on it with or without you. The child of course, will remain here."

  Annabella drew a long breath. "In that case, Mr. Landrieu, I am afraid that--"

  "That is not all." He cut her off. "If you decline my offer, I have written a detailed letter to Mrs. Sterling about my suspicions concerning your past. Mrs. Banks may be an outsider who fails to see the impropriety of keeping you on, but Mrs. Sterling will counsel her wisely in this area, I am certain. You will not get a character reference from anyone in New York for a new position, I assure you."

  Annabella stared at him.

  "Please forgive me, dear girl." Mr. Landrieu looked almost truly concerned, but he went on smoking. "I do hate to be so ugly about it. But you must realize that you cannot go on deluding these people forever. Your child--she is growing and soon enough you will need to find a decent place for her. Why not give her over to someone who can provide her with an education and employment?"

  Annabella's face grew stormy. "You cannot be suggesting that I give my own child to strangers?"

  "I know a home right here in the city where good Catholic sisters raise girls like yours to live productive, happy lives."

  "Catholic sisters? An orphan's home?"

  "Annabella, there is no place for that child in our scheme."

  Our? She had agreed to nothing.

  Mr. Landrieu raised an eyebrow. "You can stay here and perish on the sword of your motherly duty--taking her down with you no doubt--or you can leave her in the best of hands and come with me."

  He threw the end of the second cigarette into the fire after the first and reached again into his pocket. But this time he brought out a small, flat box.

  "I have something of a...down payment if you will...on my promise to treat you as well as any countess in Europe." He approached her again and placed the box in her hands.

  Inside was a bracelet sparkling with sapphires and pearls. Annabella gasped.

  "I would not bother to ask you to come with me, if I did not think you were a woman who could appreciate what I have to
offer. Leave the girl here. She will be as well off--better--than most born to her lot. You and I will create ourselves anew in...Strasbourg, perhaps, or Alsace..."

  Annabella had not taken her eyes off the bracelet. She had been around such finery long enough to recognize it was real. And she knew that Mrs. Banks and her friends believed Mr. Landrieu to be very rich, however scandalous the source of his wealth. But could she abandon her daughter for any price? She had brought the poor child into the world, wasn't it her duty to see her through it?

  "Well," Mr. Landrieu interrupted her fretful thoughts. "Tomorrow then. I will be here the minute your mistress goes out and you may come along with me or..." He left the alternative unspoken.

  ***

  Lizzie stood in Mother Superior's office in front of Mama, as Mama clung to her shoulders from behind.

  "This is a temporary situation?" the black-clad woman with the beak nose asked.

  "Only until..." Mama's voice trembled so slightly that no one probably noticed but Lizzie. "I will return for her as soon as I am able to support her properly."

  "And you are certain you do not want our assistance in finding honest work here in New York?"

  Lizzie wanted to scratch. The stiff fabric of the new dress she wore made her itch in too many places to count.

  "I am certain I will do better in a new place."

  "And she has nothing but this?" The woman nodded at the small carpet bag at Lizzie's feet. It contained her everyday dress, her nightclothes, and three books.

  Mama must have shaken her head.

  "Very well, then. Come along, Elizabeth."

  The strange woman reached a hand out towards Lizzie, but Mama's grip on her shoulders did not relax. Instead, Mama knelt down, turned Lizzie to her and looked her in the eye. "This is the best way for now. But I will be back. I will be back just as soon as I can. I promise."

  Promise.

  Lizzie felt as if she had swallowed a stone.

  ***

  Mother Superior turned out the contents of Lizzie's carpetbag, sweeping up the books as soon as she saw them. She has shown Lizzie to a long dormitory with two rows of narrow cots on either wall and only four tiny windows well above the eye-level of a child. Lizzie's things lay on the bed the woman had said would be hers.

 
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