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MargaretP

 

 

Past Imperfect
The first of The Eliots series, set within the Highlands to Homecoming universe.
With thanks to betas Suzanne Lyte and Terri Derr

“Ups-a-daisy. Billy, get the door.” With the groom's arm firm around his shoulder, Scott gripped Jim McIntyre's wrist, supported him around the waist and staggered up the stone steps. Thankfully someone had left the gas light on in the front porch; between it and the street lamp he could at least see where he was going.

Back on the pavement, Teddy Burke fumbled to pay the cab that had brought them from Montgomery Street. Eventually, the hackman reached down, took the pocket book and got the money out for himself. “Young'uns—can't handle a man's drink.”

Teddy bowed his thanks, tottered sideways, and with all the grace of a man who had consumed nearly a bottle of whisky threw up behind the back wheel. He was rescued from falling into his own vomit by groomsmen Andy and Jake Telford. They clapped Teddy on the shoulder and held him steady.  The driver released the brake, flicked the reins and the horses pulled away from the curb. Andy offered Teddy a swig of whisky to rinse his mouth out, and the three friends waved and saluted as the carriage disappeared down Nob Hill. Then they collapsed on their backsides in the street, heads lolling.

Scott grunted under Jim's weight. He shouldn't have to carry the bridegroom to his bed. It was the best man's job, or at the very least a groomsman's. He hadn't known Jim or the others long enough to be much more than the son of a friend of their parents, but the Lancers were staying with the Telfords for the wedding. Unfortunately, it would seem he and Johnny were the only ones still able to stand upright without assistance. He looked hopefully towards his brother. Johnny was propped up against a lamp post, eyes closed.

Johnny didn't usually drink much, but being in the city with not a gun in sight, he had relaxed his normal standards. He wasn't as drunk as the others, and he had done his bit by hailing the cab outside the Occidental Hotel. Now he appeared to be sleeping on his feet. No, not quite; Scott could hear him softly singing a song about a soldier and a maid. Sighing, Scott decided not to make any more noise by calling for his help. “Steady, Jim. What's taking so long, Billy?”

Jim's younger brother was pulling his pockets inside out. He gaped at Scott in despair and burped loudly. They had made sure Billy had only drunk beer, but he still looked decidedly green. Failing to find his keys, he pounded on the door. Then he rested his head against it and giggled.

Johnny stopped singing and lurched forward. He halted where the front path met the pavement and swayed in a non-existent breeze. “Hello the house!”

“Sshh, Johnny, this is San Francisco not the San Joaquin. Billy, go around to the—back door. See if you—can get in that way.” Hiccoughs; that was all he needed. Scott leaned back against the architrave, struggling to hold his breath and keep Jim upright at the same time.

Billy was halfway down the steps and Scott had slid sideways against the door when, without warning, someone opened it. He and Jim stumbled backwards over the threshold and fell in a heap on the black and white tiles of the vestibule, Jim on top. Scott poked him in the ribs, and he rolled off. They lay there on their backs like dying beetles.

Chortling, Jim lifted his head. “Hello Auntie Beth. Much obliged.”

Small motes swam before Scott's eyes, but at Jim's words, he blinked and re-focused. “Mrs—Eliot!”

“Why Scott Lancer, how lovely to see you again. Would you like help to get up?” Beth Eliot, the mother of one of his oldest friends, peered down at him through the dim light of turned-down gas lamps. Dressed in a quilted dressing gown and slippers, she stood at his feet with a long brown plait draped over her shoulder.  Jim's aunt? Why didn't he know that? Why had no one told him? She must have come for the wedding. What on earth must she think?

“I'll do it.” Johnny pushed passed her. Dear God, Johnny pushed passed Mrs Robert Eliot, wife of the head of surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, a member of one of the most influential families in Boston.

“Here, give me your hand.” Johnny hauled Scott to his feet and started brushing him down. Scott pushed him away. “Okay. Suit yourself.”

Johnny tipped his hat to Mrs Eliot, “Ma'am,” and walked in an almost straight line outside again.

“Please—forgive me, Mrs Eliot. And my brother.” Scott could feel his face getting redder and redder.

“That's quite all right, Scott. Help Billy get Jim to the sofa in the drawing room, and then you and your friends should head away to wherever you're staying.”

“Yes, ma'am.” Scott bent to pick up his hat. The chequerboard floor seemed to upend, and he quickly reached out to the hall stand for support. “Is Bob here?”

“No, the navy robs us of his company yet again, but I'll fill you in about Bob later. It's his cousin who needs our attention at present.”

Scott and Billy got Jim up and dragged him into the drawing room. Mrs Eliot disappeared for a minute or two and returned with a blanket. “It's not worth waking the whole house trying to get him to his bed.”

She covered her nephew, and turned the gas lamp off. Before the door was closed, Scott could hear the soon-to-be groom snoring loudly.

“We'll see you at Friday's luncheon then shall we, Scott?” Mrs Eliot held the door as he went to leave. Billy was already meandering up the stairs towards his bedroom.

“Indeed, ma'am. My family and I will be there.” With great care, Scott tried a slight bow. “Please forgive us. I'm very sorry, Mrs Eliot. Very sorry—please accept my apologies. And my brother's. And the others'…” His head was telling him now would be a good time to stop talking, but his mouth didn't seem to be listening. Scott tripped again as he backed through the doorway. He didn't fall this time, but he stood hat in hand on the porch, feeling a complete and utter fool, staring back at the only woman during his childhood he had ever wanted to impress.

Beth Eliot's eyes sparkled. “Good night, Scott—gentlemen.”

dd L dd A dd N dd C dd E dd R dd

“You enjoyed yourselves, I see.” Murdoch Lancer chuckled as his sons and the Telford twins took their seats at the breakfast table. Winking at hosts Ben and Rachel Telford, he helped himself to milk for his porridge. His ward, Teresa, passed him the sugar. “I trust you delivered Jim and Billy home in one piece, and Will and Anne don't have to send out a search party for their sons?”

Scott grimaced and took a sip of coffee. The sun streaming through the net curtains was too bright, and his head felt delicate. Unwelcome recollections from the night before made his stomach churn more than the hangover. “We saw them home safely. Jim will have a head on him this morning, but he won't stand Alicia up at the altar on Saturday.”

“I'm pleased to hear it. Alfred Burke may look meek and mild, but he's very protective of his daughters.” Ben held his cup up to his wife for more tea. Scott would have sworn Ben was getting a refill when he and the others came into the dining room. Did all Englishmen drink tea like it was going out of fashion?

Despite such peculiarities, Scott liked Ben, if only because he told tales about Murdoch as a young man when they came out to America together aboard the Duchess of Argyll . Murdoch reminisced about his childhood in Scotland, and told the occasional story about building up the ranch, but most of the really informative stories about him as a younger man came from Ben and two other close friends in San Francisco. The bride's father was the land agent who sold the ranch to Murdoch in the 1840s. The groom's father was Murdoch's San Francisco lawyer, son of James McIntyre, the lawyer Murdoch had first employed in Boston, and apparently, though Scott hadn't realised it before, the brother of Elizabeth Eliot. Dear God, Scott prayed without hope that the events of the night before had all been a bad dream.

“Would you like some nice scrambled eggs?” With a look of innocence, Murdoch offered the bain-marie to Johnny. He scowled at his father with one eye, keeping the other firmly shut. Lifting his chin, he turned his head away from the smell. Scott couldn't help but smile. Left to himself, his brother would still be in bed; but Johnny didn't have a morning suit for the wedding. Rather than buy an outfit he would rarely wear, he'd accepted the offer of one Ben had outgrown. Unfortunately, the sleeves needed to be altered and a tuck or two put in the trousers.

“Don't forget you have an appointment with the tailor at ten o'clock, Johnny.” Scott had intended to go with him, but he had rousted Jake and Andy out of their beds and delegated the duty to them—payback for them landing him with their responsibilities the night before.

The Telford brothers looked even more under the weather than Johnny, and their father was playing a similar game to Murdoch. Having piled sausage, eggs, tomatoes and fried potatoes onto his plate, Ben wafted a sausage in front of them on the end of his fork. “You don't know what you're missing, lads.” 

Teresa took pity on them. “Would you like some toast?” Dry toast was much more what the doctor ordered. Scott accepted a piece too.

His stomach feeling slightly more settled, Scott nodded to Rachel and got up to leave the table. “Ma'am, if you'll excuse me, I have an errand to run.”

He had hoped to escape without question, but Murdoch followed him out of the room. “Is there something the matter? Where are you going?”

“I need to visit the McIntyres, sir. To apologise properly to Jim's aunt for my behaviour last night.”

“His aunt—which aunt would that be?”

“You won't know her, sir. She's from Boston. Her son and I were friends as children. We were all rather drunk you see. She opened the door, and Jim and I fell at her feet—literally.” Scott looked away from his father in embarrassment. Murdoch's manners in front of women were impeccable. He wouldn't have been proud of the behaviour of his sons the previous night. “Grandfather will be appalled if Mrs Eliot tells him what happened.”

Murdoch smiled. “I imagine Beth Eliot has had more than a few young men fall at her feet in her day. Knowing her, she probably quite enjoyed being reminded of the experience.” He clapped Scott on the shoulder. “I wouldn't worry about her telling Harlan anything. They barely speak.”

“You know Mrs Eliot?”

“Yes, and before you go anywhere, I'd better explain a few things. Come into the study where we can talk in private.” Murdoch held the door open and ushered Scott into Ben's domain. Bookshelves lined the walls. Red leather and mahogany reminded Scott of his grandfather's library, and a slight smell of cigars and whisky hung in the air in stark contrast to the floral fragrances of the rest of the house. Taking one of the two wing-backed chairs arranged in front of the desk, Scott waited for his father. Murdoch paused a moment by the fireplace, staring at the empty grate. Then he sat down opposite Scott and looked him in the eye. “I've known Beth Eliot—or McIntyre as she was when I first met her—for many years. She was your mother's best friend and witness to our marriage. I should have told you before, after your grandfather's visit at any rate. Did he never mention the connection?”

Scott gripped the arms of his chair, staring at Murdoch, feeling like he'd had the wind knocked out of him. “No, he never said a word…I did have the idea that Grandfather wasn't on the best of terms with Dr and Mrs Eliot, but I thought that was probably due to their politics. Surely though if Mrs Eliot was my mother's best friend…I don't understand.”

“I always intended to tell you, but the time never seemed right. I actually did try before we left the ranch to come here, just in case the Eliots made the wedding. A long time ago Beth sent me some sketches of you and her children at Frog Pond. I thought I'd show them to you and explain. I had the folder all ready when Jelly blew up the tool shed. I'm afraid our talk got lost in the chaos. There was no time left afterwards. I didn't want to rush it, and t here seemed no urgency. Beth said in her last letter that they probably wouldn't be here .” Murdoch shook his head. “ I'm sorry, Scott. I should have told you sooner, but talking about the past has never come easy.”

“Always the same excuse, Murdoch.” Scott stood up, shoving his chair aside. At least Murdoch knew his past. Just how many people still knew more about Scott's history than Scott did himself?

“Remember to breathe, Lieutenant Lancer. No matter how angry or scared you actually are, remember to breathe and give the impression of being in control.” The words from his old commanding officer echoed in his brain.

Scott inhaled and exhaled and inhaled again. Then he looked down at his father. “Why keep... I thought you'd told me everything. After Grandfather went back to Boston, you showed me the reports he sent you about me. You explained about the legal wrangling. You let me think you'd told me everything.”

“I did tell you everything, just not all the associated details.”

“‘Associated details'? Are the Eliots ‘associated details'?” This was too much. Scott's previously aching head was now pounding. He paced the room. He was still being kept in the dark about things he should know. “Why not tell me you knew them—in fact, why didn't they ever tell me they knew you?”

“Keep your voice down.” Murdoch got up to make sure the door was firmly shut. “I'm sorry if I didn't handle the situation well, Scott. I'm sorry…”

“I don't need you to be sorry, Murdoch. I need to know what really happened.”

“I delayed telling you the whole story, because when you learned about Harlan's legal threats, you were not yourself. I'd never seen you so upset—with him and me. It seemed like I'd divulged as much as you could cope with.” Murdoch took hold of Scott's arm to stop him pacing, but he shook his father off. “If you recall, I did mention friends in Boston had sent me news of you. When you didn't ask for more information, I felt it best not to offer it. Maybe I was wrong. I don't know. I did what I thought was the right at the time.”

Scott came to a standstill in the bay window. He stood stiffly staring out, fists white-knuckled by his side. “I thought you meant people like Jim Harper and Alfred Burke, men I had nothing to do with. I used to see the Eliots all the time. Bob and I were classmates. How could Mrs Eliot not tell me she was friends with my mother, and that she corresponded with my father?”

“Maybe Beth can answer that better than I can, but I don't want you barging in on her in high dudgeon. Calm down. Let me come with you.”

The front door opened. Scott watched Johnny, Jake and Andy descend the steps and then disappear out of sight. A few minutes later, a carriage pulled up. The driver knocked at the Telfords' door, and Teresa and Rachel were helped into the cab and whisked away to whatever social engagement was planned for the morning. “All right. You can come. But I want the truth, Murdoch. Don't you stop her from telling me.”

His father sighed. Murdoch opened the study door and went to let Ben know where they were going.

Twenty minutes later, Scott and Murdoch stood in a comfortable parlour opening out onto the back garden of Will and Anne McIntyre's residence on Nob Hill. Anne and her daughters made their excuses, and the Lancer men were left in private with Beth Eliot and her eldest daughter.

“It's so good to see you again, Beth, and Katie—why you've grown as lovely as your mother.” Murdoch beamed at the two women as if he had known them for years, which apparently he had.

Scott could not believe what he was hearing or seeing. Beth Eliot smiled back at Murdoch with equal pleasure while her daughter stood slim and composed and every bit as beautiful as Scott remembered.  “Mrs Eliot. Miss Eliot.” Say something more you idiot. But Scott couldn't. If he had been surprised to see the mother the night before, he was stunned into silence by the appearance of the daughter.

Fortunately, Murdoch seemed eager to speak for both of them. “I'm so glad you came. Was Robert's medical conference cancelled?”

“No. He and the younger children are still in Boston. Bob is aboard the USS Pegasus of course, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. I know I said we'd probably not be here. Robert committed to speaking at the conference long before we received the wedding invitation. He really couldn't pull out, and I wasn't sure I could cope with travelling all that way without him. I'm getting timid in my old age. I did so want to come though, and Katie was confident we'd have no difficulties. As it turned out, she was right. The train trip was remarkably straightforward.”

Murdoch laughed. “Beth Eliot, you've never been timid in your life. I'm surprised you even know the word.”

“Yes well, we'd better change the subject before you give all my secrets away. I'm so glad you came early. There will be such a crowd at lunch tomorrow. We wouldn't get a chance to talk properly.” Beth took a seat on the sofa and patted the spot next to her. Murdoch sat down and took her hand.

“If you don't mind, Beth, I'll ask Katie to show me the garden. Scott has a few questions for you. I'll be close by if either of you need me, but I think he would like to talk to you alone. Besides, I'm looking forward to becoming reacquainted with my goddaughter.” Murdoch smiled over to where Katie sat. She blushed slightly, and smiled back.

“Goddaughter?” Scott started and stared between Katie and his father. Another detail his father had forgotten to mention. Katie Eliot, who at last meeting had turned her back and refused to dance with him, was Murdoch's goddaughter?

“Why yes, Mr Lancer. Didn't you know?” Katie looked straight at Scott with a gleam in her eye. The smile on her lips was not shy now. She was laughing at him.

Her mother threw her a warning glance and she lowered her gaze. “Katie, I think you and Scott may call each other by your first names. And Scott you must call me Beth—or Auntie if you prefer.”

Scott nodded back at Mrs Eliot with what he hoped was a smile. He could feel himself colouring and reddened some more. He liked and admired Mrs Eliot. He had known her a long time but in a formal way. To address her with such familiarity was unthinkable. And Katie—he'd forgotten they hadn't parted on good terms. With so much else going on in his life, he had pushed it to the back of his mind. The knowledge of why now punched him hard in the stomach.

Murdoch got to his feet and Scott's thoughts returned to what was going on around him. His father escorted Katie out through the French doors into the garden, and Beth invited Scott to join her on the sofa. “Take no notice of Katie's teasing. I only told her recently that her Uncle Murdoch and your father were one and the same. They have corresponded of course, but she was only three when they last met.”

“Why?” Scott hadn't meant to be so abrupt. “I beg your pardon, Mrs Eliot—Beth, but why didn't Katie know her godfather was my father. Why didn't I know?” He looked briefly away and took a deep breath. His nerves were jangling and the words were all coming out wrong. “Forgive me, Ma'am, you know I have the utmost respect for you, but I need to know why no one told me.”

“It's a very long and complicated story, Scott, and one that varies according to who tells it. Are you sure you want to delve into the past now that everything has turned out so well?” Beth folded her hands in her lap, and waited for his reply. He held her gaze. “I see. Tell me then what you already know. I will try to fill in some gaps, but fair warning, you might not like what you hear.”

Scott blinked and paused for a moment. Whatever she disclosed was better than not knowing. “Murdoch says he only let Grandfather take me back to Boston for my own safety; that it was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. He says he visited when I was two, but I don't remember. He attempted to claim me when I was five, and grandfather fought him legally. I've heard both sides of that story. I believe Murdoch when he says he gave up the fight to spare me from being dragged through the courts, but I doubt Grandfather would have actually done that.”

“Do you—honestly?”

The matter-of-fact manner of Beth's question made Scott uncomfortable. She was not like most other high society ladies, all dresses and afternoon teas. She was known for her wit and intelligence. She campaigned for women's suffrage and wrote letters to the editor. Boston's conservative elite railed against her radical ideas, but they inevitably succumbed to her forthright charm and gave generously to her charities. More than once his grandfather had complained bitterly about her as he sat at his desk writing out a sizable cheque.

“My grandfather cares for me deeply. He wouldn't have put me through that ordeal.”

“We may have to agree to disagree on that point, but as it was never put to the test, it is moot. What is important for you to accept is that your father truly believed Mr Garrett would use you as a pawn if he had to. We all did.”

“But why? Why did you think so poorly of Grandfather? Why didn't you ever tell me that you knew my mother and father as friends?”

“Robert and I kept quiet so that we could see you, so that Bobby could be your playmate. Your grandfather would have denied us access to you if I had broken my promise to stay silent.”

“You can't be serious. Grandfather didn't actually make you promise that.” Scott stood up and went to the fireplace. Calm down. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply…”

“That I was lying? I'm not offended, Scott. I realise how hard it must be for you to think badly of your grandfather, but I can assure you I am telling you the truth, at least as far as I know it. When I first saw you as a baby your grandfather and I were both mourning the loss of your mother. We were not on good terms; I had helped Catherine see Murdoch against Mr Garrett's orders. We made our peace for your sake. Catherine would have wanted it that way.” Beth played with the bracelet on her wrist and looked wistful. Reviving, she looked up at him with steady brown eyes. “Until your second birthday I saw you reasonably often. After that things began to change. Among other things your grandfather courted the self-interest of Senator Eliot, Robert's father. Shortly before Murdoch returned to claim you, my father-in-law ordered us to stay neutral if custody became an issue. I've never seen Robert so angry. It was months before he talked to his father again.  I can't tell you how proud and relieved I was when my husband refused to be intimidated. He insisted Murdoch stay with us if your grandfather turned him away—which of course he did. Robert did more than I ever could to help Murdoch cope with his desperation. And make no mistake, Scott, Murdoch was desperate.”

“I don't know what to say.”

“There's nothing to say now. My father was Murdoch's lawyer at that time. I know he did everything possible, but your grandfather had been preparing almost from the day he disembarked in Boston with you in his arms. He had employed some of the most skilled legal minds in Massachusetts, and he had secured the favour of several very powerful men, not just my father-in-law.”

“Dear God.” Scott dropped back against the wall and stared up at the ceiling. In his boyhood dreams Scott had always imagined his mother and Mrs Eliot as friends. To find out now that they actually had been seemed somehow like trickery, but at the same time, it reinforced the good opinion he had of her. He couldn't just disregard what she said. Scott shut his eyes— Grandfather, how could you?

“Your grandfather's love has always been a very possessive love, Scott. He called your mother his treasure and that is how he treated her; a beautiful object that belonged to him and him alone. In his eyes Murdoch stole her from him. You are Catherine's son and part of her lives in you. Mr Garrett took back what he considered to be his and made very sure his treasure could not be taken from him again. I don't condone it, but oddly I do understand it. I used to dislike Harlan Garrett; now I just pity him.”

“Why did you never say anything? As children, Bob and I saw quite a lot of each other, and you were often present. Why didn't you ever mention my father to me?”

“I did once. A man was giving riding lessons on the Common for small children. We were there with Bobby, and your grandfather brought you. It must have been a weekend, because he would never take the time off his business otherwise. Usually you were with your nanny or tutor. You were a natural born rider and I congratulated you. Without even thinking, I said something like ‘you'll soon be riding as well as your father.' I'm not even sure you heard me; you were having too much fun, but Mr Garrett took me aside. He warned me then that Eliot or no Eliot he would bar me and mine from his house and put an end to any future contact with you if I ever mentioned Murdoch to you again. I believed him.”

Scott felt hopeless. He grasped at straws. “But you could have told me you were friends with my mother. He couldn't object to that.”

“How was I to speak of your mother without facing questions from you about your father? Rightly or wrongly, Murdoch and I decided it was best if I said nothing so Bobby could still be your friend and I could send your father at least some information about you. It wasn't much. We were never prevented entirely from seeing you, but contact was restricted to more public occasions. We asked you to our home several times. You were permitted to attend Bobby's birthday parties, but you were never allowed to come at other times when you would have been alone with just our family.”

“But I was at school with Bobby.”

“He knew nothing about the situation until he came back from the war. By then we felt he could be trusted not to tell you. When you turned twenty-one, we asked him to find out how you felt about your father. Murdoch had sent you a telegram, but he had received no response. He wanted to know if it was worth writing.”

“I remember. I told Bob I didn't want anything to do with my father. I was angry. I didn't know about the telegram until later. I thought he had never shown any interest in me so it would be absurd for me to show any interest in him. I was annoyed with Bob for even bringing up the subject.” Scott shrugged and dug his hands into his pockets. “I was jealous of the relationship he had with Dr Eliot.”

“Well, look on the bright side, now there's no need to be jealous. I'm very good at reading both what is said and not said in Murdoch's letters; I've had many years' experience. Life is working out at Lancer for both of you. Am I right?” Beth cocked her head and looked up from the sofa with a twinkle in her eye.

Scott laughed in spite of himself. She definitely had charm. He felt bruised inside, but his heart was still beating. Although what he had heard about his grandfather required more thought, somehow a heavy weight had lifted from his shoulders. He began to apologise properly for the night before and to ask after the rest of the Eliot brood. The conversation reverted to normal pleasantries. By the time Murdoch and Katie reappeared, he was able to greet his father with a self-conscious smile and a handshake.  

Murdoch and Scott took their leave soon after, and for most of the day and evening Scott kept his own company, trying to reconcile what he thought he knew about his father and grandfather with what they and others had told him. He couldn't get away from the fact that he loved his grandfather, but nor could he could get away from the realisation that he no longer liked or trusted his grandfather.

“I lost a lot of trust and respect for Grandfather last year, Johnny, when he lied and tried to blackmail me into going back to Boston with him, but today…” Scott lay in darkness staring up at the ceiling. Even after his grandfather had returned home and Murdoch had finally revealed some part of their history, Scott's history—even then Scott had clutched like a drowning man to the slim hope that his grandfather had always been motivated by a genuine, deep affection. Maybe that was his motivation, but if it was, it had mutated into something almost unrecognisable.

“The trouble with you, Scott, is you think too much.” Johnny rolled over and punched his pillow into submission. “Your grandfather is back in Boston where he belongs. You're in California where you belong. Don't let the past upset you.”

“Because you'd never do that, brother.”

“I try not to, brother. I try not to.”

Johnny was right of course and after a night's sleep, life did seem a little brighter. The Lancers and Telfords spent a quiet morning together. Johnny's freshly-altered suit was delivered to the door, and then everyone joined the Burke and McIntyre families for lunch. Alfred and Charlotte Burke would host the wedding breakfast on Saturday in the reception rooms near the church, but this was a less formal pre-wedding get-together. Will and Anne McIntyre had invited only their closest friends with their families so the atmosphere was relaxed and light-hearted. It was a garden party. The trees were filled with decorations, and white tablecloths were covered with an array of tasty dishes.

After paying their respects to the hosts, Murdoch introduced Johnny and Teresa to Beth and Katie. Scott stood to one side and tried to keep his eyes focused on the mother. He managed it for the first few minutes, but then Alfred called Murdoch and Beth away, and Scott was drawn into the conversation Katie was having with Teresa and Johnny.

“You Boston girls sure are pretty. I often wonder why Scott ever left.” Johnny grinned at Katie, and she accepted the compliment with a gracious nod. “I hope you'll be staying awhile so we can get to know you better.”

“I'm flattered, Johnny. I look forward to getting to know you too; always assuming you show a little more respect for women than your brother did when we last met.” Katie looked straight at Scott as she said the final few words.

“Is there something I'm missing here?” Johnny looked between Scott and Katie.

Teresa stayed quiet, but Scott felt her eyes on him too.

“Miss Eliot—Katie—is determined to judge me on a very short period of my life when I did not behave as a gentleman should. As I never insulted or compromised her in any way, however, I'm at a loss to know what she expects of me.” Scott looked straight back at Katie, determined not to apologise for his past.

“Some evidence or assurance that you have changed your attitude towards women for the better would be a start.” Scott should have known; Katie Eliot never folded. She rose to the challenge and held his gaze. She had the most mesmerising eyes. “Did you know that Barbara Stanforth was sent to visit cousins in Maine after the Harraways' party?”

Barbara Stanforth: when Katie refused to dance with him, he had taken solace with Barbara as if to prove a point. The trouble was whose point had he proven?

After graduating from Harvard, Scott had been at odds with his grandfather, because he didn't want to take up a position within the Garrett Corporation. His engagement to Julie Dennison was over. He had freedom and money, but no sense of direction. For a while, he'd joined the ranks of the wealthy but worthless, and with the worst possible timing, Katie had returned from travelling abroad to bear witness. In truth, he hadn't accepted the offer of a ticket to California just because he was curious about his father. He had seen it as a means of escape. When he returned to Boston, he could start afresh. But he didn't go back, and Katie Eliot had no claim on him. He wouldn't justify his actions to her then and he certainly wouldn't do so now.  “No, I didn't. I left for California soon after the party. I didn't see her again. There was no understanding between us.”

“No, there was not. I agree.” Katie's words held a meaning that didn't make Scott feel any easier. “She married a local minister.”

Scott nearly choked on his wine. “You can't be serious?”

“Oh, but I'm very serious. She is now Mrs Reginald Bainbridge and the epitome of respectability. Interestingly, her father seemed less determined to achieve a high society wedding after the party. His new son-in-law has good connections out-of-state and is most gentleman-like. I believe Mr Stanforth encouraged the match.”

“I would be sorry to think Miss Stanforth was forced into an unhappy marriage, because events involving me were misinterpreted.”

“Society as a whole has always been too ready to misconstrue innocent actions. Women's reputations, in particular, are too easily damaged, and we have few means of defending ourselves. Attitudes are changing, but it's a slow process. It would seem to me that in the meantime no matter how fun-loving or naïve a young woman may be, the onus is on the more worldly young man not to entice her into compromising situations. Wouldn't you agree, Miss O'Brien—Teresa?”

“I'm sure Scott would never…” Teresa looked alarmed.

Johnny was gleeful.

Scott felt his blood rise. Johnny's mirth and Teresa's blind faith in his decency added to his embarrassment and annoyance. It took every ounce of self-control to respond to Katie calmly. “I never enticed Barbara Stanforth anywhere. If anything, she…Well, I'm too much of a gentleman to say, but my conscience is clear.”

Katie appraised him, barely a blink from those melting brown eyes. “Teresa, have you seen the men's boutonnieres yet? Alicia brought them over with her. Come with me and I'll show you.”

“Whooee, brother. Has she got it in for you.” As the ladies disappeared through the French doors into the house, Johnny slapped Scott on the back. “Which one was Barbara Stanforth? Aw, come on Scott. Where's your sense of humour?”

Scott marched away towards the garden gate. He didn't dare go back into the house. He couldn't stay in the garden; it suddenly felt claustrophobic and he was in danger of hitting Johnny if he didn't shut up. It took great deal of effort not to slam the gate behind him. Damn Katie Eliot. Damn her!

Anger gave way to laughter after about half an hour. How ridiculous. How absolutely ridiculous! Now he thought about it, Katie Eliot had always riled him. Bob had been uncomfortably perceptive once, soon after they started together at Boston Latin School. He had said that his sister had always secretly liked Scott, and from Scott's reaction during their most recent encounter he was beginning to think Scott secretly liked Katie. Not at all something Scott would admit at the age of eleven, but something he accepted as a fact at the age of twenty-six. Katie Eliot got under his skin like no other member of the opposite sex ever had, not even Moira or Zee, two somewhat less refined young women he had been attracted to during his first year in California. He was damned if he would leave it like this. At the very least she would not go back to Boston still thinking him a cad. 

Scott returned to the McIntyre's house about an hour later. The party seemed to have divided into groups. The single men propped up the makeshift bar on one side of the garden, their married siblings congregated with their spouses and small children by the summer house, Murdoch and the other older parents chatted together under the shade of a large oak, and Katie Eliot held court with the single women under the marquee. The food tables beneath the canopy were looking sadly depleted, but Scott didn't have much of an appetite anyway. He joined his brother and accepted a beer. Johnny wisely said nothing about his absence.

The rest of the afternoon was spent talking horses, fishing and politics, and offering Andy advice on how to propose to the girl he had been courting for the past eight months. When the friends began to make suggestions to Jim about his wedding night, Teddy Burke excused himself. He volunteered to make a brief foray across the garden to where the girls were gathered to bring back a plate of savouries. He declared, quite rightly, that even though he was the best man, it didn't seem decent for the brother of the bride to be involved in that particular discussion. He wished Jim good luck with his marriage generally though. “You'll need it.”

Loud laughter greeted that brotherly pronouncement. Scott chortled along with the rest. He caught Katie's eye as he did so, and quickly looked away. Deciding he wanted to make peace with her was one thing, but he hadn't quite worked out how to do it. She made no attempt to come near him. Instead she stayed glued to Teresa for most of the afternoon. Scott wanted to know what they talked about, but even when the families parted company, he didn't have the courage to ask. He listened absentmindedly as Teresa described the flowers for the men's buttonholes. Johnny yawned, and Murdoch ordered an early night for everyone. The wedding was the following day; three o'clock at the Episcopal Church on Sacramento Street.

dd L dd A dd N dd C dd E dd R dd

“Leave your collar alone,” Scott whispered out of the corner of his mouth as he watched Jim, Teddy, Jake and Andy take their positions up near the altar. Johnny would actually look quite smart if he'd only stop squirming.

“I don't know why guests have to wear this rig as well as the bridal party. The sooner I can change back into my own clothes the better.” Johnny adjusted his cufflinks and tugged again at the starched white collar around his neck. “I'm not getting dressed up like this for my wedding, and I sure as hell wouldn't expect anyone else to.”

Scott saw Katie Eliot glance back at them from the pew diagonally across the aisle. Her hair was different; small flowers were woven into long chestnut tresses. She reminded him of a Grecian goddess. Katie looked back again more steadily and smiled with amusement.

Scott elbowed Johnny to be quiet. “The bride decides what is worn at a wedding, Johnny, but I admire your optimism.” His brother opened his mouth to respond, but the opening strains of Wagner's wedding march prevented further comment.

The ceremony went without a hitch. There were photographs on the church steps. Maid of honour Olivia McIntyre helped the bride with her train—practice for when she followed her brother to the altar in six months' time. It seemed 1872 was the year for McIntyre weddings.

“Will you come back for Olivia's wedding?” Lifting two glasses of wine from the tray as the waiter passed, Murdoch presented one to Beth.

Scott began to pay more attention to the conversation. His eyes had wandered once again to Katie. The wedding breakfast and the speeches were over. The guests were now free to mingle and the orchestra was warming up their instruments. Soon there would be dancing. Did he dare ask Katie to dance?

“Yes, certainly. I'm Olivia's godmother.” Beth savoured her wine. “We will all come—even Bobby. His ship docks for maintenance shortly before the wedding, and his leave has been approved.”

“I'll look forward to seeing him again. How long can you stay this time?” Scott tried to sound casual. He and his family were due to leave San Francisco the next day. The ranch wouldn't run itself. But extensions to the railroad now allowed them to travel between San Francisco and the San Joaquin Valley within the space of a day. More ranch business than ever before was being transacted in the city. He could probably engineer one or two trips back within the next few weeks if there was a reason to make the effort.

“Alfred and Charlotte are visiting Boston at the beginning of next month. We'll travel back together. Katie wants…”

A bell sounded and everyone turned towards the stage in the corner of the room.

“Ladies and gentleman, I give you the bride and groom.” The conductor turned towards the orchestra, it struck up the music for the first dance, and Jim escorted Alicia onto the dance floor.

By the time the clapping had died down, Scott had skirted around the crowd of on-lookers and come up beside Teresa where she stood talking with Katie. “Johnny is looking for you, Teresa. I think he needs your needle and thread.”

“He's hopeless. What has he split now?”

“I don't know. He was over there by the aspidistra. He may have gone out into the foyer by now.”

“I'd best go and see.” Teresa closed her fan and went back the way Scott came. As she did, the father of the bride cut in on his son-in-law, Jim offered his hand to his new mother-in-law and other couples began to dance. Katie looked in the opposite direction, appearing suddenly interested in the musicians.

“Ahem, would I be risking mortal injury to ask you to dance, Miss Eliot—Katie?” Scott gave a slight bow as she turned to face him. “I would like to call a truce.”

The hint of a smile flickered over her lips. She looked down and away before meeting his eye.  “I've been making enquiries. My cousins seem to think I've judged you too harshly.”

Scott said nothing, but he held her gaze for several heart beats.

“Very well.” Katie offered her hand. Scott led her onto the dance floor, relieved and hopeful.

They danced the first waltz in silence, their eyes rarely meeting. Tentative smiles chipped away at the tension, but the music stopped before he was ready to let her go. “Will you do me the honour of a second?”

Gliding across the floor, Scott cursed his awkwardness. He didn't normally have any trouble talking with his partner.

“Your mother tells me Bob is enjoying the navy.” He tried to concentrate on the amethyst and gold drop earring dangling from her ear, but his eyes kept straying to the creamy-white neck below.

Katie's gaze was fixed on the floor somewhere to the right of his shoulder. “I believe so.”

They circled the room: one-two-three, one-two-three. Johnny led Teresa onto the dance floor over by the entrance. She had found him then.

“The life in California suits you?” Katie's words came out of nothing. Her eyes were still averted.

“It does.” Scott slowed their pace a little. “My grandfather wanted me to return to Boston last year, but I have decided to stay.”

Katie glanced up, and then focused on her hand resting in his. Her fingers felt soft and warm. “He will be disappointed, but Murdoch is your father….Teresa and Johnny seem nice.”

“They are. We're still all getting to know each other, but I consider myself very fortunate.” Scott negotiated a path away from the orchestra where they could talk more easily. “And what of the rest of your family—are they well?”

“Yes, thank you.” Katie's eyes seemed to move to his shoulder. Scott nodded to the groom's parents as they passed, and tried to think of some way of getting her to look up at him. The seconds ticked by. “Jamie finishes his pre-clinical courses this year.”

“He hopes to be a surgeon like your father?”

“Yes.”

Another long silence: Scott breathed deeply and tried again. “And the others? Your mother said Freddy was still at Boston Latin. As I recall, Julia made her debut just before I left.”

“And she has been in love with one beau or another ever since.” Katie smiled and twitched her nose; just like she used to do when they were children and he did something to amuse her. “As for Freddy, he's at that age when he disagrees with Papa on every subject. Freddy and Julia both seem determined to turn our parents grey before their time.”

“They'll grow out of it, I'm sure.” Scott relaxed a little. “Has Victoria attended her first ball yet?”

“No—this year perhaps if she can tear herself away from her menagerie. My youngest sister still has more interest in animals than in beaux or balls.”

“Unusual for a girl of her age.” Scott had heard a rumour shortly before leaving Boston; perhaps now was his chance to find out if it was true. “Did Victoria once nurse a snake back to health?”

“Oh, Lord. Don't remind me. A hognose—she brought it into the house to keep warm, but it got out of its terrarium and found its way down into the kitchen.” Katie finally looked up at Scott, her eyes shining. “Cook went to get coal for the stove, and found the snake snuggled up behind the scuttle. It rose up and started hissing at her. The poor woman nearly had a heart attack—then she went into hysterics. The kitchen maid was up on top of the table by the time Mama, Victoria and I arrived with the butler.”

“Jessop to the rescue.”

“He was no use. He took one look at the ‘venomous viper' and ran back upstairs to ‘call for assistance'—silly man.”

Scott felt some sympathy for the butler, but from Katie's amused exasperation he concluded the snake wasn't poisonous. “What happened? What did you do?”

“I just held my skirts tight and kept out of its way, but Victoria ran around trying to catch it, all the time scolding cook for making so much noise and scaring ‘the poor thing'.”

“What about your mother?”

“Oh, Mama was exquisite. You'd have thought she dealt with snakes and screaming servants every day of the week. She slapped Mrs Tibbett back to her senses, emptied the ash can onto the floor, and with one sweep of the broom had the wretched animal inside it. The can was sitting upright and harmless with a table cloth over the top before you could say Jack Robinson. She ordered Jessop to take the snake back to the woods where it belonged, and she marched my sister upstairs. Victoria had to clear out her bedroom of all the other animals she had smuggled into the house—a squirrel, a vole and a sparrow with a broken wing as I remember. But, I'll tell you something, Mama let her keep them. They had to go back to the stables, but she didn't get rid of them. She got rid of cook.”

“Indeed?”

“Well, actually cook quit, but Mama didn't try to stop her.”

“Hardly surprising, I suppose. Your family must have been disappointed to lose her though. Good cooks are hard to find.”

“Yes, they are. But we weren't too disappointed.” Katie's eyes twinkled. “She wasn't that good.”

The waltz came to an end with the story. There was a moment's hesitation and embarrassed smiles. The music began again before they had made any move to leave the floor. A look passed between them and the second dance turned into a third.

“I should perhaps tell you, that Barbara Bainbridge's marriage is a happy one. I'm sorry I let you think otherwise.” Katie lowered her eyes again. Scott gripped her waist a little more firmly and it had the desired effect. “If I'm honest, I've rarely seen a more doting couple, and they're amazingly eager to do good works in their community. It would seem idleness was the underlying cause of all Barbara's folly. Once she left Boston and was obliged to be more active and self-sufficient, she discovered she enjoyed her life more. She found happiness with a type of man none of us would have expected. I met her again a few months ago when she was visiting family. I must admit I like her a lot more now than I ever did before.”

“We can all do with a second chance occasionally. None of us are perfect. I'm glad she's happy, and I'm very sorry if my past mistakes caused her any distress—or you any offence.”

Their conversation paused as they negotiated a route through the other couples, but he felt they were lighter on their feet. The lump he hadn't even realised he was carrying around inside of him seemed to dissolve as he began to tell her about the ranch. “To me, Lancer is the most beautiful place in the whole world. More importantly, it now feels like home.”

“Yes, I can see that.” Katie's eyes crinkled at the corners as she smiled up into his. She wasn't laughing at him; she was sharing in his happiness. Scott swallowed. Then a young barrister from McIntyre and Associates cut in.

Scott backed out of the path of the dancers and made his way towards Johnny and Teresa, standing by the refreshments table. They had just come off the dance floor too.

“You must have misunderstood. Johnny didn't need me at all.”

Was Teresa still that naïve? Scott wasn't sure; if not, she played the game well. Johnny looked curious, but he held his tongue.

Scott was saved the trouble of making an excuse; Jake Telford claimed Teresa for the next dance.

“I think he likes her. We might need to have a brotherly chat with Jake before we go home.” Johnny put Teresa's half-drunk glass of punch on the table behind him and downed his own. “I'm going to the bar for something stronger. Coming?”

“No, you go. Someone has to represent the Lancer men on the dance floor.” With a nod Scott acknowledged Fanny McIntyre's ‘please help me' look. The bridesmaid was trapped between her father's secretary and his elderly mother at the other end of the table.

Sir Galahad delivered Fanny to freedom, and then struck up a conversation with one of the other guests. He counted the minutes before he could reasonably ask Katie to dance again. There was etiquette to such things. If a couple were not officially engaged, it was not done in Boston circles even to dance more than once with the same person. The rules were more relaxed in California, but Scott was taking no chances of unwanted gossip. He would allow the other young men in the room their opportunity for one or two more dances and then try his luck again.

Katie was not unwelcoming when he cut in on the army captain she was dancing with. “I'm flattered you came back, but really I might have to sit down for a little while. Perhaps you could get me some punch.”

When he returned with two glasses, she made room for him on the chaise longue.

“Your mother says you are only here for a few more weeks. I have to go back to the ranch tomorrow, but I would like to see you again before you leave.” Scott sipped his drink, a citrus concoction that was rather too sweet for his taste. He would like to invite Katie to Lancer, but they had only just got back on speaking terms. It seemed a tad premature. Besides, he expected his father had already suggested the idea to her mother, and as there had been no mention of them coming, he assumed it did not fit in with Beth's plans. Naturally, she would want to spend what little time they had with her brother and his family. They were her relatives after all.  “Perhaps I could take you to Woodward's Gardens.”

“I'd like that, but don't you…”

“Come on. They're leaving.” Olivia McIntyre grabbed her cousin by the hand as she headed out the door. Everyone seemed to be on the move. Scott followed the throng.

Soon all the wedding guests were crowded on the pavement and front steps. There was the normal kerfuffle and rice littered the ground as the bride and groom said their farewells and made a dash to the carriage. Alicia stood up in the buggy to throw her bouquet.

“Over here.”

“Me.”

The young single women crushed forward eager to catch the prize. The other guests moved back to the steps out of the way. The hubbub was unsettling the horses. They snorted and stomped. Jim turned his attention from his bride to control them a moment too late. Without warning, the buggy lurched. Alicia was knocked off balance as she threw. The flowers did a spectacular somersault right over the girls' heads and hit Johnny smack in the face. To hoots of mirth, he blindly juggled and batted the bouquet away. It flew upwards again, and then fell neatly into Olivia's out-stretched arms. The crowd cheered. Jim flicked the reins and the newly-weds departed with well-wishers laughing and whooping behind them.

“I hope Jim has the good sense to stop around the corner and untie those cans. What a racket.” Scott slipped his arm through Katie's and escorted her inside, slapping Johnny on the back as they passed. “Destiny has spoken, brother. Just name the day.”

Johnny grinned and followed them in. “As soon as I make sure I don't have to wear this suit.”

Scott and Katie laughed. They parted company with Johnny in the hall. He headed upstairs to play poker with Teddy Burke, now free of his responsibilities as best man and eager to enjoy himself. Scott and Katie returned to the main room as the orchestra struck up a lively tune.

“May I have the honour?” Scott bowed and smiled into a pair of merry eyes.

“You may, sir.” Katie curtsied and placed her hand in his. Scott led her onto the dance floor feeling the evening couldn't get much better.

“Before you were dragged away, you were going to say something.”

“Was I?” Katie thought for a moment; then she shook her head, laughing, as Scott waltzed her around the room. “It can't have been very important.”

They danced twice more before the evening was over, but eventually they parted. Scott didn't want to say good night to Katie, but once he was back at the Telfords', he couldn't wait to close his eyes and shut the rest of the world out from his dreams.

The next day he boarded the train, looking forward to getting back to Lancer, but somewhat subdued. Spring was busy at the ranch. He couldn't justify more than a few days away in the time the Eliots had left. He'd suffer the inevitable teasing from his father and brother to get those days off, but next month Katie would be on her way back to Boston. A few days wouldn't be enough time to properly get to know each other again.

“Why so glum?” Murdoch put down his newspaper. “I know it was a rocky start, but didn't you enjoy yourself in the end?”

“I was so pleased you made peace with Katie. She's very nice.” Teresa opened a box of chocolates and offered them round. “I'm looking forward to her visit.”

“What visit?” Was Scott always the last to know everything important in his life?

“Didn't she tell you?” Teresa closed the lid on the box and stashed it back in her carpet bag. “Beth and Katie are coming to Lancer for a week at the end of this month, before Beth goes back to Boston.”

“Before Beth goes back to Boston. What about Katie?”

“You haven't been paying attention, brother.” Johnny shunted along the seat and stretched his legs out across the compartment. He rested his feet on the opposite seat, between Scott and the door. “Even I know Katie is going to be one of Olivia's bridesmaids; she's staying in San Francisco until the wedding.”

Scott stared at the luggage rack above Johnny's head. Olivia McIntyre wasn't marrying Lachlan Campbell until September. The wedding was over six months away. Scott leaned back in his seat and stretched out like Johnny, pulling his hat down to hide the huge grin on his face. Six months, Katie Eliot was going to spend an entire week at the ranch and then six whole months in San Francisco. Life wasn't so unfair after all. His imperfect past had been put to rest—and the future?

Well, in light of the revelations just made, the future looked almost perfect.

 

 

~ end ~

Notes:

1. This story is a sequel to my earlier work From Highlands to Homecoming . Almost all of the non-canon characters mentioned originate from that chapter story.

2. This story links to Legacy , Series 2, Episode 10; The Black McGloins, Series 1, Episode 15; Zee, Series 2, Episode 2.

3.    Eastern hognose snakes, sometimes known as ‘puff adders', are thick-bodied snakes that reach about 46 in (115 cm) long.  Many of these harmless snakes are killed by people who are convinced that they are venomous and dangerous. When confronted, the hognose snake will suck in air, spread the skin around its head and neck like a cobra, hiss, and lunge as if to strike. Despite this rather convincing show, hognose snakes almost never bite. They will often feign death if provoked enough.  See http://www.masnakes.org/snakes/eastern_hognose/index.html

4.    Woodward's Gardens was a combination amusement park, museum, art gallery, zoo, and aquarium operating from 1866 to 1891 in the mission district of San Francisco.

 

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