Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Six)
Cole found Jeremy first, and immediately, his stomach lurched, for the boy, already too thin, had lost weight. And the usually fastidious child was dirty, his clothes nearly worn through. The worst was that in his eyes was a look of hopelessness.
When Jeremy looked up from his shoeshine kit and saw Cole, he didn't say a word, but walked away from his rich customer and stared up at Cole, his eyes filled with questions. Cole opened his arms, and Jeremy fell into them, his body shaking from emotion. When Cole lifted the boy and carried him to the waiting carriage as though he were a baby, Jeremy didn't protest, but put his head against Cole's strong shoulder and buried his face, as though he no longer wanted to see what was around him.
Cole had rented a two-bedroom suite in San Francisco's finest hotel, so he took Jeremy there and ordered half the menu brought upstairs. As Jeremy sat at the table and ate as though he were starving, which he was, Cole said, "Where is she?"
"She won't want to see you," Jeremy said, mouth full, his usually impeccable table manners forgotten. "She says you'll be killed if you take on my father."
Cole didn't allow the boy to see his wince at the thought of someone else being Jeremy's father. Instead, Cole stood by the door and looked at Jeremy.
The boy got the message, for a moment later he gave Cole the name and address of a soup kitchen. "She waits in line there for free soup. Wait!" he called when Cole bolted out of the room. "She's–" Breaking off, Jeremy looked down at his plate, his face red.
"I'll take her whatever she is," Cole said, not bothering to wait to hear if Jeremy had any more to say.
When Cole at last made his way through the back streets of San Francisco to the soup kitchen and scanned the long line of people, at first he didn't recognize Kathryn, for she was heavy with child. His child, he thought, as several emotions went through him at once. First there was anger that she'd not told him, then there was more anger because she had taken something away that belonged to him. But then Kathryn turned and saw him, and when he looked into her eyes he didn't seem to remember what he had ever been angry about.
For a moment all he could do was stand there, on the other side of the street from her, and grin. But when he saw her put her hand to her forehead and start to faint, he ran in front of carriages, freight wagons, and over pedestrians as he made his way to her.
He caught her before she hit the ground, swept her into his arms, then carried her to the carriage.
"I can't stay here," Kathryn was saying as Cole put more shampoo on her filthy hair. "And you have no right to do this. We have no right. We shouldn't–"
She broke off because Cole had dunked her head under water in the bathtub. Kathryn came up sputtering.
"If you're about to tell me that we're not married, and I have no right to strip your clothes off and bathe you, I think that belly of yours is evidence that I have every right."
"It's not your child," she said, chin up as he used a rough cloth to scrub her back. "I have been to bed with so many men that–Ow! That hurts."
"Oh?" he said. "Maybe if you stopped lying and–"
"What makes you think I'm lying? I had to support my son and myself so what better way than prostitution? Jeremy and I–"
He was now using the cloth to soap her face so she couldn't finish the sentence. "First of all," he said, "you would die before you sold your body."
"Second of all, you're so beautiful that if you went into prostitution, you wouldn't be in the starved condition you're in now."
"Oh?" Kathryn said, looking up at him. She should, of course, be too embarrassed to speak, since she was in a bathtub naked and he was washing her as though she were a child. But somehow being with Cole seemed almost natural.
"You have to listen to me," she said with urgency. "There are things going on that you don't know about. I am a hunted woman. There is a reward for me. I–"
"You ready to get out?" he asked, holding out a thick Turkish towel.
Kathryn grimaced. She had to get through to him, had to make him understand how dangerous being around her was. "Turn your head."
"Not on your life," he said without a smile, then when she didn't move, he said, "You can stay in there all night if you want, but when you do come out I'm going to be here holding the towel for you."
"You're a very stubborn man," she said, then, with her eyes on his, she stepped from the tub into the waiting towel.
"I'm trying to match you," he said as he wrapped the towel around her and began to dry her. Then he carried her into the bedroom and set her on the edge of the bed while he picked up a hairbrush from the dresser. "And just where do you think you're going?" he said when she started to rise.
"I'm just going to check on Jeremy one more time," she said.
"Jeremy is fine. He's young. He'll recover. At least he'll recover if all this ends. Sit!" he ordered when Kathryn remained standing.
When she didn't move, Cole climbed onto the bed, spread his long legs across the bed, then motioned for her to sit between them so he could comb the tangles from her hair. She opened her mouth to say that it wasn't decent for them to be in this position, but his look made her close her mouth and give herself over to the deliciousness of having his big hands on her hair.
When he'd finished, he pulled her back against him, tightening his arms about her protectively. For the first time in six months she was warm and clean and fed. But it was too much for her as she leaned her head back, and she began to softly cry.
"I want to hear all of it," Cole urged, his lips on her ear. "Every word. From the time you were born."
Kathryn started to protest, but instead she began to tell him the story of her life. She repeated how she had been the daughter of the cook of a large estate in Ireland, nothing more than the child of a servant. But the daughter of the house had, according to her tutor, the intelligence of a parsnip, so Kathryn was taken from the kitchen to study with the daughter in the hopes that the young mistress would learn by osmosis.
It didn't happen. Over the years the tutor gave up, let the girl ride her horses all day, and instead taught Kathryn everything he knew.
The problem came when the daughter's older brother, the young man who was to inherit the estate, the tall, handsome Sean O'Connor, returned from school.
"I was quite mad about him," Kathryn said, ignoring the way Cole's arms tightened about her. "He was beautiful and elegant and his words were nothing but honey." She smiled. "I would have given in to him if it hadn't been for my mother, who said all the O'Connors were sweetness on the outside and treachery within. And besides, she made sure that Sean and I were never alone."
"But you were," Cole said softly. "Oh, yes," Kathryn said with anger. "He got me alone all right, but not until after he'd gone to a great deal of trouble. Do you know what he did to me?" She didn't wait for an answer. "He put on a pretend marriage, is what. He got one of his friends from Oxford to dress as a priest, and he put on a marriage. Just like one would put on a play."
"What made you think it was a false marriage?"
"I was young, but I wasn't stupid. Or maybe I was, I don't know. After the… the ceremony, Sean took us all to a pub. He was already drunk, so I don't know what he wanted with more whiskey, but then I have never understood drink. There was a barmaid there, and she said, 'If that one's a priest, I'm a nun.' Then she asked me if my mother knew that I was out with these men. Suddenly everything became clear to me."
"And you ran away," Cole said as he pulled her closer.
"Yes, I ran. But I didn't get very far. I was halfway back to the cottage where my mother lived when Sean caught up with me."
When she said no more, Cole urged her to continue. "Then what happened?"
He could feel her body tense into a knot. "It was dark and Sean was drunk. He said that after all the trouble he'd gone to, I owed him. He said he'd never worked so hard to get a woman, and he was going to have me–whether I wanted him or not."
For several minutes Cole rubbed her shoulders until he could feel the tension beginning to leave her body. "I went to London," she said softly. "I got a job as a cook's assistant, but I was fired five months later because it was evident that I was going to have Jeremy."
Kathryn took a deep breath. "I stowed away on a ship bound for America, and since then…"
"Ssssh," Cole said. "Be still. It's over now."
"But it's not!" she said fiercely, twisting about to look kt him. "Can't you see that it will never be over as long as I'm alive? Sean knows about his son. He wants him, and he'll do anything to get him back."
Putting her head in her hands, Kathryn began to cry. "I can't give Jeremy up. And he wont allow me to send him back."
"Jeremy's father can't do anything to harm you because he's dead," Cole said above her sobs, and it took Kathryn a moment before she heard him.
"Sean O'Connor died of a fall from a horse years ago. He was drunk, he took a fence, and he didn't make it. Died instantly." A thousand questions tumbled through Kathryn's head. "But if he's dead, how can he be chasing us? Why would anyone else want us?"
"Jeremy is his son," Cole said softly, then waited for her to understand.
"His bastard, you mean," she said bitterly.
Cole smiled at her. 'Tell me, was the barmaid who told you O'Connor's friend wasn't a priest, was she pretty?"
"Yes, very, but what… Oh, I see. You think she and Sean were lovers?"
"What do you think? Was O'Connor the type to have a mistress in the local tavern?"
"Sean O'Connor went to bed with any woman anywhere," Kathryn said bitterly. "He was rich and gorgeous, and he had a way about him that was as charming as the devil." Her eyes began to fade to dreamy. "All he had to do was talk to a woman in that low voice of his and a girl would–"
She broke off because Cole kissed her, kissed her hard and thoroughly, and when he pulled away, she was limp in his arms.
"Did he kiss you like that?" Cole asked angrily.
Kathryn's first thought was to tease him, but she saw the hurt in his eyes. She had yet to comprehend what he must have done to be able to rescue her. She had never thought to see him again. Yet she couldn't continue to see him because there was danger and–
"If Sean is dead, then who put those posters out saying I was wanted?" she asked, eyes wide.
Cole was watching her closely, and he was relieved to see that she was not grieving over hearing that her son's father was dead. "Why did you marry him?"
"I didn't love him, if that's what you mean," she said with a grimace.
"But, according to you, he was the most handsome man on earth. Even the angels must have praised him."
Kathryn smiled at his jealousy. "Yes, he was beautiful to look at, but the truth is he was as stupid as his sister. If it didn't have four legs he didn't understand it. I doubt if the man could read a nursery rhyme."
"Yet you married him."
"It was either that or have my mother discharged. Besides, I told you, the marriage was fake."
"The marriage was real," Cole said softly. "Whoever told you the priest wasn't real was lying."
"But it wasn't real! I accused Sean of faking everything, and he admitted it." "Maybe he didn't like being called a liar. We men tend to be like that," he said, smiling, and she smiled back, thinking of the lawsuit she'd brought against him.
Suddenly, Kathryn sat up straight. "But if the marriage was valid, then Jeremy is–"
"Exactly," Cole said. "Jeremy is the rightful owner of the O'Connor estates."
For a few moments Kathryn sat there blinking at him, then she leaned back into his arms. "It was Sean's aunt, wasn't it? I never met a more spiteful woman than she. She was older than Sean's father, her brother, and she told anyone who would listen that, had she been a man, she would have been the owner of the estates." Kathryn gave a little one-sided smile. "Of course there were those who said that the woman was a man, certainly more of a man than Sean's father ever was."
"So what are you going to do now?" Cole asked.
"I… I don't know. How does one go about claiming an estate for one's son?"
"Maybe I could help," Cole said softly.
Kathryn's mind whirled with too many thoughts. If she and Jeremy went back to Ireland to live, she'd never see Cole again. But how could she give up such a future for her son? To her disbelief Cole began to laugh as he snuggled her close to him, nuzzling her neck.
"Could you tell me what it is about me that you find so amusing?" she said stiffly.
"I can read your mind, that's what," he said. "And I am glad to see that I'm included in your dilemma."
"If you can see my problem, then why are you laughing?"
"Kathryn, my love, I'm going to take care of you."
"I can take care of myself!" she said angrily, trying to twist away from him, but he held her fast.
"Yes, I can see that you can take care of yourself. You, Jeremy, and now my son are starving. You also have, or had, actually, lawmen and bounty hunters chasing you."
"What do you mean, had?"
"I got rid of them. I got a judge to sign papers clearing your name."
"And how did you do that?" she asked with tight lips. "Pay them?"
"No, I hauled half a dozen witnesses before him and they told him the truth. The judge knew jealousy and revenge when he heard it."
"But the posters–"
"Gone. I got rid of them. Oh, there may be a few about here and there, but for the most part they've been destroyed. Now, are you going to listen to what I have planned for your future?"
Kathryn started to say that her future was her own to plan, but she was too tired to fight any longer. The last six months had been too horrible for her to survive. A pregnant woman with no husband is not employable.
"We will be married," Cole said, then paused to see if she was going to protest. When she said nothing, he continued.
"Then we're going back to Legend and celebrate Christmas."
"Christmas?" she said. "In the middle of the summer?"
"Zachary and I decided to wait until we could share it with you and Jeremy, so the tree and the gifts and all the decorations are just as you left them."
"Oh my," Kathryn said. "By now that tree is–"
"The size of a redwood," Cole said in disgust. "Remember that you wouldn't let anyone chop it down. Instead you had the men dig it up and put it in a pot, and now the thing seems to like living indoors. Zach's last letter said that they'd had to stick the top of the tree out the window or it would have gone through the roof. And half of those little bells you and the boys put on it have grown into the wood. When we get it planted again, it's going to be one funny- looking tree."
Kathryn couldn't help laughing.
Snuggling her closer to him, Cole continued. "I've had a long talk with my grandmother Ruth, and she's going to move back to Legend for the next few years and start closing the place down."
"How can you close a town down?"
"Better to do that than to have it die overnight when the mines give out. She's going to find places for the residents to live."
"Why is she doing that?" Cole asked. "My grandmother is very strange about the town of Legend."
"As you are."
"Yes, I guess I am. I've always felt that I owed it something. My grandmother feels the same way, so she's going to take over my job. There isn't much left to do before the silver is gone, but she'll see to it."
"And what are you going to do?" Kathryn asked hesitantly.
"Zachary and I are going to Ireland to live with you and Jeremy, of course," he said as though there were no other choice. "The boy has to learn how to run an estate properly, and I don't think that aunt of his is going to teach him. Besides, with her turn of mind I'd be afraid the cinch on Jeremy's horse would be cut and his neck would be broken."
At that, Kathryn's hands clenched on his. "Then I can't–"
"Yes, you can," Cole said, cutting her off as he turned her in his arms and lifted her chin up so he could look into her eyes. "You and I together can do anything," he said softly, his lips against hers. "Let me take care of you, Kathryn. Please. Let me take care of you and Jeremy, and in return you can take care of us. Zachary and I need you. We need you desperately. Will you let us take care of you and protect you?" He smiled against her lips. "And this child. Will you let me take care of him?"
"Her," Kathryn said, smiling in return. "I think she's a her."
"Whatever," Cole said, as he kissed her, and after that he didn't ask any more questions. Sometime during the night he thought he heard Kathryn say, "Yes," but he wasn't sure.
When the dawn made the sky pink, he pulled her into his arms, both of them sated with lovemaking, happy to be together again, and Cole smiled just before he fell asleep. Ireland, he thought. What was it like? But, truthfully, it didn't really matter because he and Kathryn and the children would make a home wherever they were.
"I love you," he whispered into her hair. "And from now on you'll be safe."
He wasn't sure, but he thought he heard Kathryn murmur sleepily, then he heard no more as he fell asleep with his arms about her.