Chapter 1 from "The Teacher" by Jude Deverauxin Upon a Midnight Clear
"I don't see why -- "
"Please don't say it again, Jeremy," his mother said, then had to grab the side of the stagecoach to keep from slamming into the fat, snoring man beside her. Or perhaps beside wasn't the correct word. Even before the man had fallen asleep he'd been trying to get even closer to her than the tiny seat forced on them. It didn't help matters that the man kept swearing that she was "the prettiest little thing I ever seen in my whole dad-gummed life," as he put it. When Jeremy had closed his eyes, looking as though he'd fallen asleep, the man had offered Kathryn an extraordinary amount of money to spend just one hour alone with him. "If you know what I mean."
Kathryn certainly did know and her instinct demanded she tell him she'd rather be boded in oil than have him touch her, but instead she'd sniffed and murmured that she was already "promised."
The man had patted her knee and said he "understood." Maybe he did, but Kathryn didn't have any idea what he meant. Was the American Wild West so without morals that women did spend "just one hour" with a man? As much as she wanted to know, she wasn't about to ask. However, the man's intimate interest in Kathryn de Longe and her son was why they were now speaking in French.
"We could have stayed and fought," Jeremy said, looking up at his mother with eyes much too old for his mere nine years.
Kathryn had no answer for him because over the last weeks she'd exhausted her supply of words. What could she tell him that she hadn't already said? For his entire nine years they had been running. Actually, since Kathryn had had to escape Ireland when she was pregnant, maybe she could say he'd been running since before he was born. But no matter where they went or how well they disguised themselves, the O'Connor money always found them.
Now, Kathryn looked out at the steep mountainside that fell away from the narrow road the stagecoach was trying to climb. This barren, isolated place was their last chance. Their very, very last chance.
Taming, she forced herself to smile at her son. Since he was born she'd tried to protect him. Perhaps she hadn't done a very good job, but she knew she'd done her best. And maybe this time they could settle down. Maybe this time they could stay in one place for longer than three months.
When she'd bought her stage ticket (through a third party so no one would remember a lone woman buying a ticket), she'd asked a man about the isolation of Legend, Colorado, and he'd laughed. "Lady, there are places up in the Rockies that not even God can find. And I figure Legend heads that list." She hadn't smiled as he'd meant her to, but had nodded solemnly. Yes, that sounded like the place she needed.
It hadn't been so easy to persuade Jeremy to the idea of living in an isolated, mountain town, as he'd liked Philadelphia very much. He was a quiet child and studious. Like his father's people, Kathryn thought with a melting of her heart. He was very much like his father's uncle with his love of books and music. And he had his father's taste in clothes. And his father's good looks, she thought with a heavy sigh. One look at Jeremy and there was no doubt whose son he was.
"I'm sure there was some other way," Jeremy said for the thousandth time. "We could have -- "
"No!" Kathryn said sharply, then wanted to bite her tongue. Part of her wanted to tell him the truth of how bad the situation was, but another part wanted to protect and shield him.
Sewn inside her corset was a wanted poster bearing excellent likenesses of both her and Jeremy. The poster said that she, Caitlin McGregor, was wanted for thievery and attempted murder, and ten thousand dollars was offered for information leading to her apprehension. It further stated that she was dangerous and should be treated as such.
You'd like that, wouldn't you, O'Connor, she thought to herself. You'd like to see me behind bars. Or better yet, led to the scaffold. You'd probably dance at my hanging.
If she were caught, there would, of course, be no appeal for her. Who would believe her over the money of an O'Connor? Who would step forward and defend her against such a man as he? Especially when he was so very obviously Jeremy's father?
"I'm sure you'll like the place," Kathryn said soothingly to her son. "I hear there's a library and many entertainments are brought from Denver."
"Denver," Jeremy said with a sneer of contempt. "Traveling players? And what do you think they have in the library? Dime novels? Shall I read about Dead Eye Dick?"
"It might do us both a bit of good to get away from the rarified air of Philadelphia for a while. And we might like it here. Stranger things have happened."
Jeremy just snorted and looked out the window at the beautiful but empty mountain scenery.
Kathryn wanted to isolate herself in this godforsaken place about as much as her son did. They'd been in Philadelphia nearly three and a half months, and they had begun to make friends. There had even been a man....
But Kathryn wouldn't allow herself to think of that. She knew when she'd run away from Ireland with Sean O'Connor's child in her belly that she'd never be able to have a normal life, a life with a man and a house and maybe other children and --
"Mother!" Jeremy said sharply. "You have that look on your face again."
Kathryn smiled as she reached across the narrow aisle and took his hand in hers. She knew she'd been wearing what Jeremy called her "dreamy look" when she was far away. She'd told him she was thinking of the sweet greenness of Ireland when she had that took. Better that than to tell him the truth of how she dreamed of a home and husband and safety. No, she couldn't tell Jeremy that, for, knowing him, he'd think she could have those things if it weren't for him and he'd run away. Again.
With a tiny shake of her head, Kathryn leaned back against the seat and looked at her son in awe. He had the refined, aristocratic look of the O'Connors, a look that had taken generations of breeding to achieve. He had long, thin fingers that looked as though they were meant to hold a lace handkerchief. But Kathryn knew the truth. At Jeremy's own insistence, he'd taken boxing lessons (free in exchange for Jeremy's writing letters home for the boxer) and she knew what a punch he could make with those hands.
From the way he was dressed, Jeremy looked as though he'd never seen the outside of a drawing room. No one would guess that they had lived all their lives in tenements where the smell of cabbage always surrounded them. Jeremy had witnessed his first murder when he was one year old, after he'd wandered into a street brawl between two drunken sailors.
It was when he was four that Kathryn finally decided to return him to Sean O'Connor. She was going to take him back to Ireland and allow his father's family to raise him. What did it matter if she were hanged for kidnapping? What did it matter that Sean's family were the coldest, most ruthless people she'd ever met? At least Jeremy would be safe with them in Ireland. And safe was all that mattered to her.
That was the first time Jeremy ran away. Four years old and he ran away from home for three days. Kathryn had been insane with worry, not eating or sleeping for those three days. The police had been no help. What did they care that some slum kid had disappeared? They had leered at Kathryn and offered to give her another child.
After three days Jeremy had sauntered home, clean, well fed, and said that he was not going back to Ireland, that he wanted to live with his mother, and if she tried to send him away, he'd run away again.
That had been five years ago, and since then the two of them had been on the run. But this year Jeremy had been feeling as though he were grown-up and so wanted to stay and fight his father. "He has no claim over me since you never married him," he'd said several times.
Kathryn had tried to explain about money being able to buy anything, but for all the prematurely pined wisdom in his eyes, Jeremy still had a child's belief in justice.
When she'd been offered the job of tutor to a nine-year-old boy in the remote, isolated mountain town of Legend, Colorado, it had seemed like a dream come true. She was to be the teacher of Zachary Jordan, son of Mr. Cole Jordan. And maybe, just maybe, in this remote town, they'd achieve what had become the most beautiful of words to her: safety.
"This is it?" Jeremy said with contempt as he stepped down from the stage. "This is what we left civilization for?"
"Jeremy, I really don't care for your tone of voice. And I'm sure this is the...the..."
"Red-light district?" he asked, sidestepping as the stage driver threw their small trunks to the ground.
Kathryn drew in her breath and stared at the awful place around them. There seemed to be nothing but saloons and gambling houses as far as one could see. Noise, dirt, unwashed men, raucously laughing women, great wagons full of rocks, horses and manure, filled the place. There didn't seem to be anything clean or even decent as far as she could see. In front of her was a garish, gaudily painted sip that had a woman's leg wearing a black stocking and a frilly garter. What looked to be a high-heeled bedroom shoe dangled from the toe and the place was called The Lady Slipper. Kathryn didn't have time to look at other signs because she had to step back as a dirty man with graying whiskers made a lunge for her.
"Me first," he said, then when Kathryn sidestepped, he fell into the mud at her feet.
If Kathryn had had so much as two dollars to her name she would have climbed back onto the stagecoach and ridden away, as far from this den of iniquity as possible. Instinctively, she put her arm around Jeremy and drew him closer -- as though she could protect him from what she was seeing, hearing, and smelling.
With her arm still around Jeremy, she looked at the stage driver, who was climbing back onto the box.
"Can you take us out of here?" she asked.
"You bet, lady, for fifty bucks each. In cash."
"I don't have -- "
He didn't let her finish but just chuckled. "Thought not. Well, there're plenty of ways for a pretty gal like you to earn money in Legend. Giddyup!"
Coughing from the dust of the rapidly departing stage, Kathryn turned back around, the two of them standing alone in the middle of the wide, foul street, three small trunks at their feet. Kathryn didn't have time to think about an alternate plan because a wagon drawn by six horses was coming straight toward them. With one quick gesture she thrust a case at Jeremy, grabbed the other two, and ran for the safety of the boardwalk.
But just as they stepped in front of the saloon, a man came flying through the glass window and hit the boardwalk, then rolled into the street, where two men on horses nearly trampled him. Dropping her cases, Kathryn grabbed Jeremy, his back pressed against her front as she tried to pull both of them into the safety between the door and the window. When a shot rang out, she tightened her grip on Jeremy.
Out of the saloon door came a man, his back to her, but she could see the power of his build: shoulders so thick they curved round to his chest, a taut waist with a decorated knife sheath at his side.
"You ever show up in this town again, Bartlett, and you'll answer to me," the big man said to the one in the dirt.
Then, to Kathryn's horror, she saw that the man in the dirt was about to draw a gun, and from the angle of the porch post, she doubted if the man standing in front of her could see him.
"No!" she shouted, and in the next second, with the speed of a striking snake, the man on the porch drew a knife from a concealed pouch down the back of his shirt and threw it. In the next second the man on the ground lay pinned to the dirt, blood pouring from the knife sticking into his shoulder.
Trembling with emotion, Kathryn loosened her grip on Jeremy, and he twisted away from her.
"Don't faint on me now, sweetheart," the man who'd thrown the knife said. He'd turned, and now she looked up into his deep blue eyes. And the feeling that ran through her was nothing that she'd ever experienced before. For a moment, time stood still as her eyes locked with his; it was as though everything else disappeared except this big, handsome blond-haired man.
It seemed natural when his strong arm slipped about her waist and he lifted her off her feet, his one arm holding her as he pressed her body against his, then kissed her.
The only man who'd ever kissed her before was Jeremy's father, and those kisses had been forced upon her. But this man was different, and for the first time in her life, she responded to a man's kiss. Her arms slid about his neck, and she leaned into him as she opened her mouth under his. She could feel her heart pounding and her breasts tingling from the pressure of his hard chest.
The sound of gunfire brought Kathryn to her senses, but when she started to pull away, the man held her firmly so she had to push against his chest to make him release her. All around them was the sound of laughter, unmistakably aimed at the two of them.
Immediately, Kathryn could feel the blood rushing to her face as she glanced up at the man who was staring at her in consternation, as though he were puzzled by something.
Nervously, Kathryn glanced at her son, who was glaring at her -- and how could she blame him? She'd just acted -- and reacted -- completely out of character.
Behind Jeremy was a boy who appeared to be about the same age. They were nearly the same height, but the other boy was large-framed whereas Jeremy was of a wiry build like his father's family. The other boy had sun-streaked blond hair and blue eyes, while Jeremy had dark hair and eyes.
"That your mama?" the boy said into Jeremy's ear, but loud enough that nearly everyone nearby could hear. His implication was unmistakable, that Kathryn was not a woman of high morals.
Jeremy reacted as he had been taught. Pivoting on one foot, he swung around and brought a left uppercut into the boy's chin. And the boy, equally fast and seeming to be equally well trained, hit Jeremy in the eye with a strong right fist.
In the next second, the boys went tumbling into the dirt, while the crowd, already pleased by the show of a brawl, a stabbing, and a passionate kiss, were now further pleased by the sight of two angry boys trying to murder each other.
Kathryn's first reaction was to leap onto the boys and pull them apart, but Jeremy weighed almost as much as she did, and together the boys were considerably larger than she was. Obviously the crowd wasn't going to help, so she looked up at the man she'd kissed. As far as she could tell, he hadn't moved a muscle, but was still standing there staring at her, his big blue eyes wide with an expression she couldn't read.
"Stop them!" she said to him, but he didn't react. "Please stop them," she repeated, then put both her hands on his wide chest.
Immediately, it was as though a current of lightning surged down her arms, and, as though he were a hot griddle, she pulled her hands away.
It seemed that he, too, felt the jolt, because he came out of his trance and turned. For a moment he stood blinking down at the boys as they fought and kicked and held on to one another as they rolled.
Then the man's mind seemed to clear. "What the hell?" he said, then stepped between the boys and pulled them up by the backs of their shirts. When they tried to go for each other with outstretched hands the man shook the boys as though they were wet puppies.
"Go home," he said to the blond boy, then released him, and when the boy looked as though he might strike Jeremy again, the man gave him a look that made him retreat. In one last act of defiance, the blond boy stopped by a woman wearing an extraordinary dress of shiny red cloth, took a whiskey bottle out of her arms, and downed half its contents in one swig. With a smirk directed at Jeremy, he shoved the bottle back into the woman's hand, then swaggered off as best he could. Which wasn't easy, since he was limping and one side of his face was swelling rapidly.
Kathryn ran to her son, pulling him from the man's grasp, and threw her arms around him, kissing his face copiously while she tried to ascertain where he was hurt. "Oh, darling, did that boy hurt you? I'll get you to a doctor and I promise we'll get out of here as soon as possible. Darling -- "
"Mother!" Jeremy said stiffly, very aware of the townspeople watching and laughing at this display of motherly affection. Considering that Jeremy was nearly as tall as his mother, yet she was cooing, as though he were three years old, they were quite enjoying the spectacle.
The blond man came up behind Kathryn, and as he put his arm about her waist he said, "Honey, why don't you -- "
Maybe it was the proprietary way the tall man slipped his arm around Kathryn's waist, or maybe it was his tone of ownership (the very same tone another man had once used with her), but she turned on him, twisting so his arm no longer touched her. "I don't need you or anyone else to tell me how to raise my son."
"I didn't mean..." the man began, but Kathryn didn't want to hear what he had to say.
"Could someone show me where the doctor is?" she asked.
"Take your pick of saloons, honey," called a man.
With her arm firmly around Jeremy's shoulders, Kathryn led him from the crowd.
"Mother," Jeremy said plaintively, "will you stop fidgeting? I have told you that I am perfectly all right."
Using her best handkerchief, she again wiped at her son's cheek. "You do realize that what I said, I said in the heat of the moment. You and I must remain in this town, at least for a while, at least until I can find a way to earn enough money to..." She halted. In the last three hours she had been offered several ways to earn money in this revolting town.
After she had taken Jeremy from the laughing crowd, she had searched in vain for a doctor. It wasn't until she was at the end of the main street, Eureka, that she came to a stone wall patrolled by armed guards. Looking over the wall at what lay on the other side was like standing in hen and looking at heaven. Across the wall seemed to be a pretty little village complete with a library and a church and several houses with white picket fences and flowers growing in front.
"Back on your side, sister!" said a burly man with a rifle, glaring at the two of them.
For a moment, Kathryn's mind was transported back to Ireland and the laws against trespassing on O'Connor land: O'Connor laws, O'Connor punishments.
When Kathryn was speechless and Jeremy could see the blood rising in her neck, he pulled himself up to his full height and announced that they wanted to see Mr. Cole Jordan.
"And what's your business with him?" said a second guard, who had come to see what the problem was.
"My mother is to teach his son," Jeremy said proudly.
At that the two guards looked at each other and started to laugh. "You?" one said.
"Jordan told us you were -- " He was laughing too hard to finish the sentence.
"Got any guns on you?"
"I hardly think so!" Kathryn said, at last recovering her powers of speech.
"Think we oughta search her?" the first man said, then the other said, "Not unless you want Jordan cuttin' your throat."
With that pronouncement the men parted and allowed the two of them to pass, only vaguely pointing the way toward the Jordan house.
Now, she and Jeremy were standing on the porch outside a large, rambling old house, and she was trying to make both of them presentable.
"Yes, I understand that we can't leave now. I'm not a child, you know," Jeremy said.
"You wouldn't have known it this morning. I still can't believe that you attacked that boy like that. Whatever possessed you?"
"He impugned your honor."
Really, Jeremy, this is not the seventeenth century, and you do not have to defend my honor."
"I wouldn't have had to if you hadn't..." He hesitated as though he still couldn't believe what he'd seen. "If you hadn't kissed that man."
Since Kathryn had no excuse or even an explanation for her behavior, she thought it best to make no comment. "Now please remember your manners. I want both of us to make a good impression on Mr. Jordan." She took his chin in her hand and looked hard into his eyes. "Remember: We need this job!"
"Yes, Mother," he said dutifully. "I will do my best, but I hope you give me no further cause to --" The look his mother gave him made him decide not to finish that sentence. One could push Kathryn de Longe only so far, and well he knew her limits.
Raising her hand, Kathryn knocked, and moments later an elderly man ushered her into a nicely furnished parlor where they were told to wait. Minutes later the man returned and asked Kathryn to follow him to Mr. Jordan's office.
Once she was alone outside the room, Kathryn hesitated before knocking as she smoothed her hair and straightened her travel-stained garments. She would have liked to' change, but what she had on was the best she had. There had never been money for more than one suit of clothing at a time.
"Come in," said a pleasant-sounding male voice and, smiling, she tucked her little leather portfolio under her arm and opened the door.
"You!" Two voices spoke in unison, both disbelieving. She was staring into the startled blue eyes of the man shed...Well, that she'd kissed just an hour or so ago. So many thoughts went through Kathryn's mind that she couldn't speak. Would he fire her? Would he, as Jeremy said, impugn her honor"? He couldn't, she thought -- and prayed. He couldn't take this job away from her. She and Jeremy had to have it. And she had to make him understand that she was a respectable woman -- all evidence to the contrary.
The man recovered first. "Look, I can't see you now. I have to interview a teacher for Zach, so you're going to have to come back later. Better yet, give me the name of the house you're working and I'll meet you there later. Right now you have to get out of here." While he was making this extraordinary speech he came around the massive desk, grabbed her arm, and started to usher her out a side door in the room.
"Unhand me!" Kathryn said in her sternest schoolteacher voice, but it had no effect on the man, so, with a twist, she freed herself and ran back to the middle of the room. In an instant he was beside her, about to grab her again.
Without thinking what she was doing, she dropped her case, made a leap, and grabbed what looked to be an army sword from where it hung on the wan. "Mr. Jordan, if you touch me again I'll use this on you. I assume you are Cole Jordan, that is."
For a moment Cole stood staring at her in stunned silence. Then his handsome face lit up in amusement. Leaning back against the desk, he folded his arms across his broad chest. "Maybe you should remove the scabbard first," he said, eyes twinkling."
"All right," she said with disgust, then with what dignity she could muster, she replaced the sword on the hooks in the wall and picked up her case from where it had fallen to the floor. "So I don't know anything about weapons of any sort, I admit it, but then I'm a teacher not a fighter. Nor am I whatever else you think I am." Turning back, she smiled at him. "I think, Mr. Jordan, that you and I got off on a wrong foot. Perhaps we should start again." With her hand outstretched, she took the few steps toward him.
But Cole did not take her offered hand, and his face went from smiling to a frown. "Where did you hear of this? Who told you I needed a teacher? And who the hell are you?"
"I'm Kathryn de Longe, and you hired me."
At that Cole's smile returned. "Oh, I see. So who put you up to this? Henry Brown? Or was it someone else? No, no, don't tell me, it was Lester and that bunch."
"I really have no idea what you're talking about. You put an ad in the Philadelphia paper, and I answered it. After the exchange of two letters, you hired me."
"Sure I did," Cole said with a voice dripping sarcasm, then he straightened and walked back around the desk, opened a drawer, and took out a large leather book -- a book filled with bank drafts. "How much do you want?"
"I want what we agreed upon," she said, puzzled. "Mr. Jordan, I really do apologize for this morning, but -- "
"You must be one of the players from Denver. Out-of-work actress, are you? Or just a prostitute with ambition?" He said the last with a slow look up and down her form.
Kathryn started to count to ten to control her temper, but instead she opened her case, pulled out papers, and began to put them before him on the desk. "Here are your two letters to me, and here are copies of my letters to you stating my quatifications. Here is the contract you sent me, and I believe that is, yes, I do believe that is your signature just above mine." She could not resist some sarcasm of her own, then, suddenly, doubt filled her mind. "Is that your signature? Did you write those letters?"
For a moment he looked at her in bewilderment, and she could tell by his expression that he had indeed signed the contracts. But then that knowing little smile of his came back. "How did you get these papers?"
"Through the United States mail service," she said in exasperation. "What is the problem? If you'd tell me what is wrong perhaps I could find a solution."
At that he opened a desk drawer and withdrew a piece of folded cardboard and tossed it toward her. "Open it," he said. "Go on. I think you should see it since you sent it to me."
Picking up the folder, she opened it to see a photograph of a stern-looking woman in her fifties, steel gray hair pulled back into a tight knot at the: base of her neck. She had narrow eyes, a lipless mouth, and from her expression she had, never smiled in her life.
"Seen that before?" Cole asked.
"No, should I have seen it?" she asked, putting the folder back onto his desk."That, Mrs. de Longe, or whatever your real name is, is you. Or who you wanted me to believe is you."
"I can assure you that I sent you a photograph of myself, not of anyone else, and I also sent you a full list of vital statistics, just as you asked for. I lied to you about nothing, not my age, my looks, or the fact that I am a widow with a nine-year-old son who will be living with me."
"Is this the list you sent?" asked as he slammed a paper onto the desk.
As soon as Kathryn saw it she knew it wasn't her writing, for the letters were formed with a sharp angularity that her writing did not have. But when she saw her name at the top of the page, she picked it up and looked at it. According to the paper, Kathryn de Longe was fifty-one years old, five foot nine inches tall, and weighed a hundred and eighty-five pounds. She had never been married, had no dependents, and had taught school for nearly thirty years. Kathryn's mouth dropped open when she saw that all the schools "she" had taught at had been correctional institutions, mostly for "incorrigible" boys, but she'd also worked at a place for women who were "criminally insane."
With the paper were two testaments from former employers stating that Miss de Longe could control any boys, no matter how deviant their behavior.
Kathryn put the pages back down on the desk. "I have never worked with deviants or the insane," she said with a slight curt of her lip. "I was under the impression you wanted a teacher for your son, not a jailer."
He didn't respond to her barb, but instead picked up one of the pages she had put on his desk. "And is this your true list of qualifications? Miss Satterly's School for Young Ladies and Gentlemen? And what about this?" he said as he began to read. "Miss Kathryn de Longe, aged twenty-six, widowed with a nine-year-old son named Jeremy." He glanced up at her. "Started very young, didn't you? A nine-year-old at twenty-six, that would make you...how old when he was born?"
Kathryn didn't answer him, but stood straight, her fists clenched at her sides.
"Seventeen," he said as though he'd struggled for the answer. "Were you married at sixteen? I don't suppose you have your marriage license."
"Destroyed in a fire," she said automatically, glaring at him.
"Just what I would have guessed," he said snidely. "Or lost at sea."
Kathryn moved in a way that she knew would make her corset stays stick into her ribs. She wanted to remind herself of the wanted poster hidden there. Legend was indeed a horrible place, but that was what was so good about it: No one in his right mind would look for her or anyone else here.
"Mr. Jordan," she said, working to control her growing anger at his implications. "I have no idea how you received another woman's photograph and résumé in place of what I sent. All I know is that I have a contract signed by you. The contract guarantees me a job and living accommodation for two years. It further states that if I am not satisfactory, then you will pay me two years' wages in full."
To her consternation, the man threw back his head and laughed. "So that's the game, is it? Really, you have to tell me who set you up with this. Was it Ned or maybe ol' Hog's Breath, as we kids used to call him?"
"I really have no idea what you are talking about. I would like for you to honor your contract: Either give me the job, or pay me so I can leave this town. One or the other would suit me."
At that Cole put his hands on the desk and leaned across it toward her, his face close to hers. "Mrs. de Longe, or whatever your name is, and I seriously doubt the 'Mrs.,' there is no honor in that contract. The way I see it, you aren't the person I hired, so I don't have to give you one red cent."
For a full moment Kathryn's mind went blank. No job, no money. How were she and Jeremy supposed to survive?
"Now, Mrs. Whatever-your-name-is, I would like for you to leave my office and you can tell whoever's paying you that I wasn't as easily duped as you planned. Although I must say I do like the bait they used," he added with a leering look up and down her tightly corseted body.
"Mr. Jordan," she said, and her voice was hardly above a whisper. "I must have this job. My son and I have invested everything we have in this, and there are...other considerations."
"Such as?" he asked, one eyebrow raised.
"I can't say what they are but -- "
She broke off because he began moving the papers on his desk and in the process her letters and the contract fell to the floor. Hurriedly, she bent to pick them up, retrieved her leather portfolio, and began to put the papers inside. Her hands were trembling so much she could hardly tie the string.
"Do you need a cook?" she whispered.
"What?" he snapped.
Drawing herself upright, she swallowed something that could only be her pride. She had dealt with enough people in her life to tell by this man's tone as well as his words that he was not, under any circumstances, going to reconsider his stance. Maybe later she could get him to reconsider, but now she didn't so much as have money for a meal.
"Do you need a cook?" she asked louder, then had to stand there and bear the way he looked at her, as though he were trying to figure her out.
After a while a slow smile crept onto his lips, lips that earlier in the day she had enjoyed kissing. "No," he said softly, "I don't need a cook, and I don't need a wife. My son doesn't need a mother, he needs a teacher. And although I do appreciate all the trouble you have gone to to get close to me, I can assure you that the girls in town supply me with all the 'wifely' affection that I can handle." Again he looked her up and down, but this time with lowered eyelids that let her know what was, in his mind. "There are other men in town, Miss, ah, Mrs. de Longe. You really don't have to set your cap for the richest man."
Maybe, it was the word richest that finally broke through to Kathryn, or maybe it was just the whole rotten day in which she had been repeatedly accused of being a prostitute, and had seen her son nearly murdered in the filthy streets while a bunch of dirty ruffians watched. Or maybe it was kissing a man who turned out to be such a pig as this one. Whatever it was, Kathryn's temper broke.
With measured steps, she walked toward the desk, then put her fists on it and leaned toward him. He was sitting, so she was the one looking down at him.
"Let me make myself clear, Mr. Jordan. I have no, let me repeat that, no desire to marry you or any other man. I came here because I signed a contract for a job. You hear me? A job! And I want nothing else from you. Right now I don't even want that because I have never met a more vain, egomaniacal man than you in my life -- and that includes the aristocracy of Ireland. I have no idea how the photographs were exchanged, but I can assure that I did not switch them. I represented myself honestly and with integrity, and that is how I expect to be treated in return. Now, I demand that you honor your contract with me!" Never in her life had. Kathryn demanded anything, except sometimes that Jeremy not do something dangerous, but this man seemed to elicit emotions and responses from her that shed never felt before.
"Demand, do you?" the man said with a one-sided smile, then slowly he stood up, pulling himself to his full height of well over six feet. "Well, Mrs. de Long, I demand that you get out of my house and never step foot into it again. Now which of us is more likely to have our demands obeyed?"
Standing there, Kathryn looked across the desk into eyes that had turned as cold as sapphires, and she knew she had lost. There was nothing she could do or say that was going to make this man give her the job that was hers by right, the job that she and her son so desperately needed.
Trying to retain her pride, she stiffened her back and walked toward the door. If she allowed herself to think for even a second about what this man was condemning her to, she'd collapse.
Once she was outside the odious man's office, she took Jeremy's hand in hers and led him out of the house. Jeremy knew his mother well enough not to ask questions about what had gone on; besides, their voices had been loud enough for him to hear most of it.
Kathryn half pulled him down the dirt road, past the stone wall that separated the two very different parts of town from each other, and into the muddy streets of Legend proper. For all that Jeremy was only nine, he had seen a very ugly side of life, and he knew what jobs were open to women in a place like Legend.
"I can work," he said softly. "I'm strong and I can get a job. There are mines here and I -- "
Abruptly, Kathryn halted in the middle of the street and stared at her son. "Going to work in a mine at nine years old?" she said, horror in her voice. "is that what kind of mother you think I am?" For a moment forgetting his age, she said, "I'll make a living on my back before I -- " She broke off as she stared at something above Jeremy's head.
"Mother?" he said, then turned and looked at the sign thay was behind him. "Prettiest girls in the West," the sign read. "Highest prices for the best."
"Mother!" Jeremy said in fear, then grabbed her arm when she took a stop forward. "I'll work. I'll -- "
But Kathryn wasn't paying any attention to him. As though she were in a trance she started walking, half dragging a fearful Jeremy behind her.
"No, no," he began, but stopped when his mother walked past the entrance to the saloon and instead started up the stairs beside the building. For a moment Jeremy stood rooted where he was, then he saw a small sip hanging beside the bottom of the stairs. I'll sue anybody about anything, the sign said. No case too small. I ain't afraid of nobody. John T. Stewart, attorney-at-law.
"What an extraordinary sentiment," Jeremy said, reading the sign. "Mother, did you -- "
But Kathryn was already halfway up the stairs, and Jeremy had to run to catch her. "Mother, whatever are you thinking of doing?"
"I'm going to sue the bastard," Kathryn de Longe said, which made her son stand where he was, his mouth open in disbelief, for he'd never, ever heard his mother use such a word before. She thought damn might open the gates of hell.
"Wait for me," Jeremy called and ran to follow his mother into the grimy little office.
Copyright © 1997 by Deveraux, Inc.