The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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MargaretP

 

Like Moths To A Flame

Part of The Eliots series
(Thanks to my betas, Suzanne Lyte and Terri Derr.)

Chapter One

“I’ve decided to go to San Francisco.” Scott sat down at the supper table and helped himself to what was left of the braised beef and onions.

“Good. Talking to you has been like talking to Barranca lately; only he flicks an ear or shakes his head now and again so I know he’s listening.” Johnny grinned, but Scott turned away. He wasn’t in the mood for jokes.

Instead he gave his sister-in-law a small smile. “Emily’s right. Katie wouldn’t write to her before writing me—not normally—not even a note as short as the one received today. Either her letter has got lost or something is very wrong.”

“I’m sure we can spare you for a few days.” Murdoch glanced around the table. Then everyone lowered their eyes to their food and continued to eat. Katie had returned to San Francisco immediately after the fight in Morro Coyo nearly two weeks ago; further thoughts about her silence since were best kept to themselves.

Scott rose at daybreak, aiming to be away before anyone else got up, but his father was waiting for him in the great room when he came inside for his saddle bags.

Murdoch followed him out. “It will be all right, son.”

“You can’t know that, Murdoch, but I appreciate the thought.” Scott tightened the last strap on the saddle bags and mounted Ulysses. He wished he was as certain of the situation as Emily claimed to be. Mostly he agreed with her, but he’d been unexpectedly hurt once before, and the memory kept second guessing all the arguments he put forward for there being a harmless explanation. Katie was not Julie, but…He rubbed his eyes. Added to all the possibilities on that score, nobody knew what he did about the Eliot family. Damn it, why couldn’t he have fallen in love with a local girl? Everything would have been so much easier. “All being well, I’ll be back late tomorrow.” His father nodded, but Scott saw the tightness in his jaw. “Don’t worry, Murdoch, whatever happens, I won’t be leaving Lancer.”

Murdoch managed a half-hearted smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “You must do what is best for you, Scott. Safe journey.”

Scott rode south to pick up the early train. One way or the other he should know the truth before supper time. Johnny, damn him, had put the idea in his head that Katie could be trying to guilt him into returning to Boston with her, or perhaps moving to San Francisco. Scott wasn’t blind to Katie’s skill of making people do things they never intended—Old Man Reynolds had agreed to send Harriet to a proper college thanks to Katie—but that was good. Johnny was just twisting things. Katie wouldn’t try to persuade Scott back to a life that would make him miserable.

When the train arrived in San Francisco he hired a horse and cab from the station, and by quarter to twelve he was beginning the climb up her street.

The cab slowed to pass a parked butcher’s van and then jolted to a standstill. Scott leaned out to see what was happening. A Landau coming down the hill was having trouble with one of its horses; it had crossed to the wrong side of the road.

“Sorry. First time out,” the driver shouted, pulling hard on the reins and giving the novice a flick of his whip.

The cab driver cursed and wrenched on his brake until the open carriage passed.

A gentleman about Scott’s age reclined on the long leather seat. He smoothed his moustache and raised a silver topped cane by way of greeting. Scott touched his hat in reply. The man must be new to California, judging by the clothes. Scott hadn’t worn a get-up like that since leaving Boston.

The stranger had one thing right though. If Scott had been thinking straight, he’d have taken the time to find an open carriage. It was the perfect day for a drive in the park, and it would have given him and Katie a real chance to talk. Maybe they could transfer to one later after he picked her up. He would see what she wanted to do; as long as they could talk privately, he didn’t mind.

“Whoa there.” The cab driver stopped the carriage outside Katie’s uncle’s house, and Scott jumped out.

“Please wait. I shouldn’t be long.” He ran up the steps and knocked on the door, buffing the top of his boots on the back of his trouser legs and brushing the dust from his jacket as he tried to get a glimpse of Katie or any of her relatives through the front windows.

“Mr Lancer, sir. How do you do?” Maisie, the housemaid, opened the door and bobbed a curtsey. “I do beg your pardon, sir, but the family is not at home. The McIntyres and their guests, Mr and Mrs Laurence Eliot, have gone to dine with the Campbells. Miss Eliot is at St Mary’s.”

“St Mary’s?”

“Yes, sir. Teaching them Orientals English, as she does, sir. She weren’t supposed to today, mind—it’s not her turn—but Mrs Telford sent word she was poorly and asked Miss Eliot if she would stand-in for her.”

Scott frowned. He knew Katie was volunteering at the mission. He’d found out after the incident with Mary Lou in Green River. He’d been scared stiff Katie would be mad at him for ever visiting a prostitute, or for causing her to come face to face with one, but she’d been surprisingly broadminded. “I’m sure we both did things before we kept company that we wouldn’t do now.”

“I’m relieved you feel that way, but I’m sorry Mary Lou approached you like that. I don’t expect you’ve had much experience of…well, you know.”

“Perhaps not, but as I’ve told you before, my days are not all tea parties and shopping, Scott. Now is probably a good time to tell you I teach English at St Mary’s. When I was here with Mamma in March Mrs Zhang told me she learned to speak English there. It seemed like something useful I could do with my time, so I found out more when I got back to San Francisco. Rachel Telford has volunteered at the mission for a couple of years now; she introduced me to the woman in charge. Do you mind?”

“Not at all. But I didn’t imagine…you do know what most of those Oriental women do for a living?”

“I do. And the conditions are dreadful. Not at all like your Mrs Winslow’s where there is some choice in the matter.” Katie looked very cross, but then she laughed at herself and spoke more calmly. “Only girls from the expensive brothels are permitted to come to the church for lessons. I would do more to help the ones in the cribs, but Uncle Will forbids me to go into Chinatown proper, and as his guest I must take his wishes into account.”

“Indeed?” Scott raised an eyebrow. That should mean Katie never ventured further into Chinatown than the mission office in the church basement, but if that were the case how did she know about cribs?

“You needn’t look at me like that. I respect my uncle.”

“I’m sure you do. I’m just not convinced you always obey your uncle.”

“What the eye doesn’t see…”

“Katie, Will knows San Francisco a lot better than you do. Chinatown is not a safe place for a white woman; it isn’t that safe for men.”

Katie pecked him on the cheek. “Thank you for caring, but I assure you I’m very sensible. Now stop looking so stern and see to your poor horse.” She backed away from him towards the hacienda before he could say anything else. “I’ll see you later. I need to talk to Emily and Teresa about flowers.”

Still frowning, Scott had watched her cross the yard. Pig-headed and oblivious to her own safety. He’d always admired her ability to manage a conversation, but she usually exercised her talents against others not him. An earlier discussion about ‘little secrets’ sprang to mind. Assuming they were okay in other respects, they needed to agree a few ground rules.

“Can I give Miss Eliot a message for you, Mr Lancer?” Standing patiently in the doorway, Maisie brought him back to the problem at hand: Scott was in San Francisco to talk to Katie and Katie wasn’t at home.

“When do you expect her back?”

“Well, sir, as I told the other gentleman not five minutes ago, Dawkins left here at eleven thirty on the dot to escort her home, but I don’t know if they’ll come straight back. Miss Eliot often wants to do errands along the way.”

“Other gentleman?”

“Yes, sir.” Maisie flushed. “Refined, foreign gentleman, wearing a top hat; very handsome if you don’t mind me saying so, sir—called me ‘Miss’, like I was a lady.” She blushed some more and crimped the ruffled edge of her starched white apron between her fingers. “He was so disappointed Miss Eliot wasn’t at home; he said he’d hoped to surprise her. He left a calling card and made me promise faithfully to give it to her as soon as she arrived back.”

“What was his name?”

“I don’t know, Mr Lancer. I don’t read good meself.”

“May I see the card?”

The maid looked a little doubtful but then brightened. “Well, seeing it’s you, Mr Lancer. I don’t expect there can be any harm.”

She disappeared inside. Scott fidgeted on the doorstep. It must have been the guy he’d passed at the bottom of the hill in the Landau. Who the hell was he?

A moment later Maisie reappeared with a small white card. It was of the finest quality, engraved, with a name at its centre, an address in the bottom left corner, and the top right corner turned down.

“Sir Bertram Halford, 24 Lancaster Gate, London.”

“Oh, my goodness, is he really a ‘Sir’, Mr Lancer? Wait until cook hears that I’ve spoken to a real, live lord.” She clapped her hand over her mouth, and looked wide-eyed at Scott. “As a friend of Miss Eliot’s, do you think he might come to supper?”

“It’s possible.”

“Oh my. Please excuse me, but I must warn cook now. She’ll want to get in something special. Good day to you, Mr Lancer.” Maisie closed the door, and Scott heard the tap, tap of her shoes fast disappearing across the tiled floor of the McIntyres’ reception hall.

Well, that showed him where he stood in the pecking order. Damn it, that’s all he needed: one of Katie’s old admirers waiting in the wings, hoping he’d fall on his face. Then again, the fellow couldn’t be anyone too special; she’d never mentioned a Sir Bertram, and…Hang on a minute, maybe she had. Scott paused on the bottom step. Bertie—the ‘possible alliance’ she’d joked about at Woodward Gardens. She made no secret of liking him. But he wasn’t interested in her—she said. No romantic feelings either way, she said. Well, she would say that when she was on an outing with Scott, wouldn’t she? At the time, it didn’t seem to matter; the gentleman was in England after all. But now he was here, and a man didn’t travel halfway around the world to see a young woman he was just friends with.

Bertie had been favoured by Katie’s relatives. Scott knew the more politically powerful ones had been digging into his affairs. It hadn’t surprised him at all to read in Katie’s note to Emily that Laurence Eliot was in town. A man, sounding suspiciously like a Pinkerton agent, had been sniffing around the towns near the ranch too. For Katie’s sake Scott hadn’t done anything about it; he had nothing to hide after all. But this was different. If the Eliots had a hand in bringing Sir Bertram Halford to San Francisco, it was very different indeed.

Scott returned to the cab. “St Mary’s Church.” If he was quick he might reach the mission building before Katie left. Suddenly the need to talk to her seemed more urgent than ever. Bertie—what kind of name was that for a man? Trust him to have a title. If Scott remembered rightly, Katie said her friend Bertie wasn’t a lord. But if he still got to call himself ‘Sir’, what difference did it make? Wasn’t the shootout in Morro Coyo bad enough without having to compete for her favour with an aristocrat? A man like that could give Katie a world she was more accustomed to—plus extras—on a platter.

“Stop!” Scott banged on the outside of the door to get the driver’s attention. As soon as the cab came to a halt, he jumped out and grabbed the arm of a man looking in the window of a sporting goods store. “Dawkins, what are you doing here? Where’s Miss Eliot? Maisie said you were sent to escort her home.”

“I was, Mr Lancer, but a gentleman she knew arrived as we were leaving and invited her to lunch.” Dawkins shuffled his feet and looked embarrassed. “Halford, he called himself—Sir Bertram Halford. He said he would see her home in time for tea. I am to give Mrs McIntyre the message.”

“Damn.” Scott looked up at the sky and tried to think.

“Yes, sir, I agree with you. I’d say you should go after them. It ain’t right, these fancy foreign fellas in their flash carriages sweet talking our American girls and turning their heads.” Scott stared at Dawkins; what did the man mean? “Miss Eliot seemed mighty glad to see him. She…Well, Mr Lancer, I just don’t think another fella should turn up unannounced like that. She’s your girl.”

Dawkins’s words were like a dose of smelling salts. Scott was being ridiculous. He’d been letting his anxiety about Katie and his imagination get the better of him. Katie said Bertie was just a friend, and Scott needed to believe her. Trust went both ways. “Thanks, Dawkins. I appreciate your concern, but Sir Bertram and Miss Eliot are simply old friends.”  

Dawkins blinked, touched his hat and lowered his eyes. “If you say so, sir.”

Scott gritted his teeth. He wished Dawkins looked more convinced, but he forced himself to sound cheerful. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting Sir Bertram. Do you have any idea where they’re dining?”

“He told his driver to take them ‘back to the club’, sir. They headed that way.” Dawkins pointed towards the town centre.

Scott returned to his cab, trying hard to unravel the knot in his stomach with logic, reason and a few deep breaths. “Do you know a club near Union Square where a gentleman might take a lady for lunch?

“Not a club—unless…There’s a new one called the Bohemian—all writers, artists and the like.”

“We’ll try it.” From what Scott knew about Halford, it sounded possible. Katie had said he’d escorted her and a friend to all the best shows, and introduced them to ‘an interesting variety of people’.

The Bohemian Club had taken over premises on the corner of Taylor Street and Post, right in the heart of the city, and it didn’t take long to get there. The large, timber building was one of those erected in the 1850s. Murdoch’s land agent friend, Alfred Burke, had once told Scott they were all built with similar internal layout: a basement kitchen and offices, large rooms on the first floor suitable for reception or dining, two further storeys with smaller rooms and an attic above. The perfect set up for a private club.

“Shall I wait, sir?” 

“No, thanks, if my friends aren’t here they’ll probably be in a restaurant nearby. How much do I owe you?”

As Scott got out his wallet, a gentleman in a brown suit and bowler hat descended the stone steps and commandeered his cab.  “The office of the Daily Alta California, please; quick as you can.”

Scott retraced the man’s steps and rapped hard on the club’s black lacquered door. He waited impatiently, his mouth beginning to water from the smells of steak and alcohol wafting out of a partially open window. Through the gap and the owl etched into the frosted glass of the lower pane, Scott could see gentlemen relaxing over good food and good company, some in their shirt sleeves or no-nonsense suits, and some in velvet jackets and colourful cravats.

“Good day, sir.” A uniformed concierge answered the door, glancing momentarily at Scott’s lapel. “Are you a member, sir?”

“No, but…” Before Scott could say more, a flamboyant-looking fellow with a red cravat and a feather in his slouch hat excused his way out. Scott began again. “I’m looking for Sir Bertram Halford, who might be a member. I believe he was bringing a young lady back to his club to dine, and my cab driver thought it could be this one.”

“I’m sorry, sir, the Bohemian Club is for gentlemen only. May I suggest you try one of the better restaurants in the vicinity of the Square? As the gentleman is from high society, he would probably take his guest to one of those.”

Blast. Scott turned away from the door and descended the stairs. It wasn’t totally unexpected, but it could take him ages to find Katie and Halford, if he found them at all. Perhaps he shouldn’t have dismissed the cab. If he didn’t locate them within half an hour, maybe he would hire another one to take him back to the McIntyre’s residence. He could wait for Katie to come home. His chances of talking to her there alone were pretty slim though, and it would be too late to go out again without a chaperone, even supposing the family didn’t have plans for the evening. Scott had intended to take the morning train back to the San Joaquin. Could he spare another day? Murdoch and Johnny wouldn’t mind, but the ranch was short-handed; Scott didn’t like to be the one making extra work for everyone. And even if he could stay longer—and even though he did trust Katie—the idea of leaving her alone with Halford for a whole afternoon left a sour taste in his mouth.

“Did I hear you ask after Sir Bertram Halford?” The man with the feather in his hat had stopped at the bottom of the steps to light a cigarette.

“Yes, do you know him?”

“I know of him. Harry Wexford has talked of nothing else for the past week. He was some kind of patron to him in London, and an investor in our current production.”

“Harry Wexford?” The name rang a bell, but Scott couldn’t quite put his finger on where he’d heard it.

“The playwright. I’m Claud Bellingham—you may have heard of me?”

“No, I’m sorry. I don’t go to the theatre much these days.”

Bellingham shrugged. “No matter. I’m the lead in Wexford’s new play, Like Moths to a Flame. It opens at the California on Thursday evening. Wexford’s directing. Now this baronet fellow has turned up, he’s ordered extra rehearsals. Everything must be absolutely perfect on opening night; I won’t even be able to fart between scenes.” The actor exhaled smoke and offered Scott a cigarette.

“No, thanks. Do you know where I might find Sir Bertram?”

“The Occidental.” Bellingham exhaled again and picked some lint off the velvet lapel of his jacket, adjusting an owl-shaped pin while he was at it. “When Wexford left here ten minutes ago he said he was dining at The Occidental with Sir Bertram before returning to the theatre. They won’t let you in there dressed like that though; dashing but dishevelled is not The Occidental’s style.” Bellingham winked. He knocked some ash from his cigarette into the gutter and sauntered off down the street.


 

Chapter Two

Scott watched Claud Bellingham until the actor reached the first intersection, and then he looked down at what he was wearing. He was a little dusty from the journey. Carrying his saddle bags didn’t help, but he guessed Bellingham was mostly referring to his gun belt. He chose to ignore the wink and the comment; actors were known for being provocative. Bellingham was right about The Occidental though; it was the premier hotel in San Francisco and not as relaxed about dress and weapons as its namesake in Green River. Besides, under the circumstances it might be better if his gun wasn’t the first thing Katie saw when Scott walked in the room.  He detoured to the What Cheer House on Sacramento Street and took a room for the night, checking in his gun belt at the reception desk and sparing a little time to wash, change his shirt, and put on a tie.

When he arrived at The Occidental half an hour later he looked more like a prosperous rancher than a cowhand.

The head waiter approached and bowed politely as Scott entered the dining room. “A table for one, sir, or are you joining friends?”

“I’m looking for Sir Bertram Halford.”

“The baronet is one of our guests—I had the pleasure of serving him at breakfast this morning—but he’s not in the dining room at present. Perhaps he’s lunching in his suite. If you ask at reception, I’m sure they will direct you.”

Feeling slightly sick, Scott approached a pin-striped gentleman at the reception desk. Since he and Katie had visited Woodward Gardens, they hadn’t really discussed who they’d walked out with previously. Even though he knew she had plenty of admirers in Boston, she’d told him she’d never been seriously interested in anyone. Why was he getting so worked up? Katie was full of surprises, but she’d never given him any reason not to trust her.

“Excuse me, my name is Scott Lancer. I believe Sir Bertram Halford is staying here. Do you know if he’s in the hotel at the moment?”

“Ah yes, Mr Lancer. Sir Bertram and his guests returned about an hour ago. He is in the Florentine Suite on the fourth floor. Would you like me to get a bellboy to show you the way?”

“No, thank you, I’ll manage.”

Scott took the elevator to the fourth floor, sharing it with an elderly lady as far as the third.

She patted him on the hand as she exited. “It’s never as bad as you think, young man. Chin up.”

He hoped she was right, but dining with a gentleman in his rooms implied a considerable degree of intimacy. The Florentine Suite was along the hall to his right as he left the elevator. He breathed in before raising an already-clenched fist to knock.

“Oh, hello. Look who the cat dragged in!” A clean-shaven Englishman, about twenty-five, with wavy brown hair, bow tie, blue jacket and an owl-shaped pin on his lapel opened the door before Scott’s knuckles connected with the panelling.

“Who is it Harry? If it’s the waiter again, tell him to go away. We’ve got everything we need. Miss Eliot and I do not want to be disturbed.”

“I don’t think he works for the hotel, Bertie.” The young man swept a bow to Scott indicating he should come in, and in a lower voice introduced himself. “Harry Wexford, at your service, sir. Your arrival is timely. I was under orders from Miss Eliot to send up a maid to preserve her respectability, but as you look suspiciously like the gentleman in her locket, I will disregard the request. You can all chaperone each other. Sorry, I can’t stay and chat, but I have a play to get ready for opening night.” Wexford paused for breath and then laughed, “Cheer up. There’s still some food left if you’re hungry.” And with that he stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him.

Scott was left standing in a small ante room, which opened to the main salon through an ornate white marble arch. He took off his hat and added it to the stand near the door, then peered into the room beyond.

Katie was seated, reading, at a white-clothed table, framed by a magnificent window, adorned in creamy gold curtains with swags and tails; she looked like one of the paintings in the Boston Athenaeum. Her companion was also reading, and he was the gentleman from the Landau, only now he was reclined full-length on a pale blue silk brocade sofa in his shirt sleeves and with his collar and tie undone. Scott stiffened and stepped into the room.

“Scott!” Katie jumped up and came to greet him, arms outstretched. Her delight at seeing him was the best thing that had happened to him all day. Stupid fool—he should have known there was nothing between her and Halford. But on the other hand, her friend was far too casually attired for dining with a lady.

The gentleman in question peered over the top of the document he was reading and, from his thin-lipped expression, was not as enthusiastic about Scott’s unexpected arrival as Katie. He swung his legs to the floor and stood up, re-buttoning his shirt collar and redoing his tie. Then he put on his jacket before approaching.

Katie did the introductions. “Sir Bertram Halford, may I present Mr Scott Lancer.”

“Honoured to make your acquaintance, Mr Lancer.” Halford offered his hand, but there was no warmth in his voice or his expression.

Scott was similarly cool. “The pleasure is all mine, Sir Bertram.” The two men shook hands, but let go quickly.

“Oh, my goodness; what is the matter with you both?  I will not allow you to be so formal. You must call each other Bertie and Scott. I insist.” Katie beamed between the two of them, and after a moment, they exchanged brief but polite smiles.

“Katie has told me a great deal about you, La—Scott. I understand you raise cattle on land southeast of here?”

“That’s right; I share ownership of the ranch with my father and brother. Katie mentioned you accompanied her to various events in England.”

“The London season has never been as enjoyable before or since.” Halford locked eyes with Katie and gave a slight bow. Even though her arm was through Scott’s and not Halford’s, Scott did not like the way she smiled back. “I cannot claim as impressive acreage as your ranch, but I have a house in town and a small estate in Leicestershire. If you’re ever in England you must visit me. I can offer you some excellent shooting; my gamekeeper assures me my woods are the best stocked in the county.”  Then with a smirk, he added, “I understand you are a prodigiously fine shot.”

Scott forced a small smile and wondered what had been said.

“What are you doing here, Scott? Have you eaten? There’s still plenty left; I’ll get you some.” Katie whisked away before he could answer. Finding a clean plate under the serving trolley, she began to fill it with delicacies.  “Sit here by the window.”

Halford filled their glasses with champagne and raised his. “To old acquaintance and new.”

The next hour was spent in polite conversation as Scott dutifully ate what Katie had given him without tasting it, and the others sampled fresh fruit from a bowl in the centre of the table to keep him company.

“These peaches are delicious.” Katie sliced another piece from the whole. She was animated, telling Halford all about the ranch, the people and how much she had enjoyed her visits. She said everything Scott would have wanted to hear in any other circumstances, but clearly they had discussed the ranch and its occupants to some extent before. “Lancer even has palominos running wild in the hills. You remember, I told you Scott’s brother rode one. I believe he broke it to the saddle himself soon after coming home to the ranch. Didn’t he, Scott?”

“He did. Barranca is a beautiful animal, and Johnny is an excellent rider.”

“Almost as good as you.” Katie smiled. “Scott served as a lieutenant in the cavalry during the war.”

“An unfortunate affair for a growing nation, but all differences are now settled?” Halford looked to Scott for confirmation.

“There are still bruised feelings on both sides of the argument, but yes, America is united again and likely to stay that way.” Scott suspected he appeared reserved; the tone of his answers didn’t invite further inquiry.

Halford’s demeanour was no friendlier. He remained formal throughout, in stark contrast to the way he appeared when Scott first walked in the room. If that weren’t bad enough, whenever Scott looked in the baronet’s direction, he found himself being appraised by calm green eyes; a cat waiting to pounce on any wrong move. Scott felt like his every comment was being weighed in the balance.

“Are you in California long?” Scott hoped the question sounded casual, even though the sooner the man went back where he came from the happier Scott would be.

“About three months, I expect. Not all in San Francisco. I have a notion to explore the interior a little on my return journey: the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park were recommended to me by some of Katie’s relations when I visited Boston on my way here.” Halford got up from the table and gazed out the window across the city roof tops. “I came primarily to check on Harry Wexford. I have an interest in his current enterprise as I did in England.”

“It is a long way to come to check on an investment, especially one that already has a history of success.”

“I’m a cautious man. And I couldn’t come later, if I was to make the trip worthwhile in other respects.” Halford went to the champagne bucket and poured himself another glass; then he looked around at the others. Katie’s glass was almost full, but Scott had drunk most of his. “Another?”

“No, thank you.” Scott put his hand over the top of his champagne flute to prevent Halford topping it up. Good champagne was deceptive in its effect. His head would remain clear long after his legs lost their ability to walk straight, and Scott wasn’t about to give the baronet the pleasure of seeing him stumble around in front of Katie.

Halford shrugged and returned the bottle to the ice. “There have been one or two questionable reports about Wexford’s handling of this particular production. I wished to assure myself of the situation first hand and intervene if required. Besides which…” He strolled over to Katie and lifted her hand to his lips. “San Francisco has other attractions at the moment.”

“Oh, stop teasing, Bertie.” Katie shooed Halford away with a flick of her hand. Then she picked up her copy of the play from the table and turned towards Scott. “We were reviewing the script for Harry’s new play when you arrived. It’s called Like Moths to a Flame. Isn’t that the most tantalizing title?”

“It’s a romantic comedy. Not as good as his last one, I don’t think, but I’m satisfied it should fill seats.”

“You just don’t understand some of the jokes. He has tried to cater for his American audience, and I think he has done very well.”

“You would, my dear. You always were one of his most ardent admirers—which is of course why he adores you almost as much as me.” A look somewhat like conspiracy flitted between the two friends and Halford blew her a kiss.

Scott could have punched the man.

It wasn’t as though he wasn’t used to such friendly banter. It was the life blood of the salons of Boston, but maybe he’d been away from that environment too long. The smoothness of Halford—Bertie—and the familiarity that existed between the baronet and Katie irritated the hell out of him.

Katie seemed to read his mood. “You must excuse us, Bertie. Scott has come a long way to talk to me. I think he should escort me home now, and I’ll see you tomorrow for supper. My uncle is dining out tonight, but I believe tomorrow is free. I’m sure my aunt will send you a proper invitation in the morning to confirm.”

Halford bowed. “Of course, and you and your relatives will be my guests on opening night at the theatre. You must be quite desperate for sophisticated entertainment after a whole month in the country. I don’t expect there were many theatres near the Lancer ranch.”

Katie laughed. “Sadly, there weren’t any at all, but I’ve been to the theatre twice since I returned to San Francisco. I’m not feeling quite so deprived now.”

“I’m sure Wexford will not disappoint.” Halford smiled innocently. “Are there many theatres in San Francisco?”

“A few. Nothing in comparison with London. Oh, Scott, you would love London. It’s full of theatres and shops and entertainments of every kind. When I first arrived, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

“Well, if you were dead, my dear, you were a very active angel.” Halford chuckled. He raised his champagne glass to the lady, and glanced in Scott’s direction. “Katie and my cousin Christabel wore me ragged, Scott. They had me escort them all over town. Hand on heart, the dressmakers of Chelsea cried aloud when Miss Catherine Eliot bid adieu to London and set sail for America.”

“Oh, they did not.” Katie went as pink as the rose silk and velvet dress she was wearing. It was an outfit Scott didn’t recognise; she must have visited a dressmaker as soon as she got back to San Francisco.

“Will you still be in town on Thursday, Scott?” Halford reclaimed his attention.

“Unfortunately, I need to get back. The ranch is busy at this time of year.”

Halford bowed and had the decency not to pretend disappointment. He pulled the bell cord for service, and a carriage was ordered. While they waited to be told of its arrival, Katie excused herself to freshen up, and the two men were left alone in each other’s company.

Halford strolled over to a cherry wood cigar box on a side table. “I met some old friends of yours back east, Lancer.” He opened the box and began examining the selection of cigars inside. He didn’t attempt to light one, but no doubt he would when Katie was gone. “Charles Blair and Gerald Lowell.”

Already bruised by Katie’s enthusiasm for things the ranch could never provide, Scott’s heart sank. Of all the men Halford could have met, he had to cross paths with those two. “How are they?”

“Very well. They asked me to pass on their best wishes if I saw you. And…what else? Oh yes, Blair said to thank you. He’s now a hundred dollars richer thanks to a small wager. It was apparently a carryover from something that happened between you and Katie shortly before you left Boston. Did you know?”

“If I had, I’d have put a stop to it.” Scott gritted his teeth and wished the bellboy announcing the carriage would hurry up.

“Your friends were organizing a party to attend the opening of a new gaming club. They were kind enough to invite me to be one of their number, but unfortunately I had to decline.”

“It sounds like they haven’t changed much. I thought by now they’d have found better ways to spend their time and money.”

“As you have.” Halford gave a slight bow. “Nevertheless, I did enjoy hearing about the rollicking escapades you had together before you came to California.”

“We had our moments.” Scott glanced between the door Katie had gone through and the ante room. Come on.

“By all accounts, you were quite the lothario, Lancer.”

Scott swung around. “Is there a point to all this interest in my past, Halford?” He was about to make a few comments of his own when there was a sharp knock on the door. Finally, the carriage was ready.

Katie appeared within a minute of being called, and she and Scott took their leave. Exiting the wide glass doors of The Occidental, Scott breathed in the warm summer air like a soldier escaping court martial.


Chapter Three

Scott helped Katie into the Landau waiting outside The Occidental.

“Through the park on the edge of town, please, and then to Nob Hill.”

“As you wish, sir.” The driver cracked his whip and his two horses pulled the carriage away from the kerb.

After a few minutes driving, Katie broke the silence. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s not true, Scott. You are acting very oddly.”

“Well, I suppose I wasn’t expecting to find you dining alone with another man. Or to have to make polite conversation with him.” Scott cursed inwardly. Why on earth…?

“I beg your pardon?” Katie sat erect, and her warm, brown eyes went cold. “Scott, I do not…”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” He tried to look apologetic, even though he meant every word. “I know you asked for a maid to be sent up, and you didn’t know I was in San Francisco.”

“No, I didn’t.” She studied him for a moment, and then looked away.

Damn, what else could he do to fix things? 

After a second or two, she turned back. “Who I see and where I see them is my affair. I would expect the man I was keeping company with to trust me.”

“You’re right—and I do. I was out of line.” He wasn’t being entirely honest with her or himself, but he hung his head anyway and prayed she’d let it ride. He hadn’t come to San Francisco for an argument. “I’ve been up since dawn. All I wanted was to talk to you in private about Morro Coyo.”

The tension in his stomach eased when the flames went out in her eyes.

“Apology accepted.” She relaxed a little and arranged her skirt so the silk wouldn’t crush. “I’m glad you came. I was beginning to worry.”

“You were?”

“Well, of course. You and Bertie are as bad as each other with your surprise visits. They are very welcome, but didn’t you realize after everything that happened in Morro Coyo I would be anxious to hear from you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“A letter, Scott; it would have been nice to have received one before now, even if you did know you were coming to San Francisco. Thankfully, Emily didn’t forget me. She told me how busy you were; otherwise...”

“But I wrote as soon as I got back to the ranch. I rode into town especially the next day to post the letter.” Scott looked at Katie in amazement. What was going on? “I expected our letters to cross, but nothing from you for nearly two weeks until Emily gets your note. What was I supposed to think?”

Katie stared at him in horror. “But I wrote to you.”

“You told Emily you were too busy socializing.”

“I had no time to write a proper letter to Emily, not you!” She turned her eyes towards the passing traffic for a moment and then focused them on him more intently than ever. “Are you teasing me, Scott Lancer? Because if you are I’ll never forgive you.”

Scott frowned and remained silent as he tried to work out how two letters could have gone missing.

“My letter was more rushed than I would have liked—my cousin Laurence’s wife, Portia, has plagued me with her company ever since I got back. Today was the first time I managed to escape her. She’s like a frivolous leech—I’m not sure how much longer I can stand it without being rude—but I wrote to you immediately after breakfast on my first morning back.”

“When did you mail the letter?

“Laurence mailed it for me almost as soon as I had finished. He sent it first class on his way to a business meeting. It shouldn’t have taken more than two or three days to reach you.”

“You gave the letter to Laurence?” Scott clenched his jaw—Eliot. “That might explain it.”

“What do you mean? No, Scott, my cousin wouldn’t do that.”

“Wouldn’t he? I was at school with Laurence. He’s a first-class parasite with no conscience. Your uncles have definitely been poking their noses where they don’t belong, and Laurence’s father would be one of the main meddlers.”

“Making enquiries is not the same as interfering with a person’s mail. And what would be the point? Your poor opinion of my family is getting out of hand, Scott.” Katie turned her back on him as they passed under the wrought iron arch at the entrance to the park. She held her hands in her lap, twisting the ring on her finger.  “I agree it’s very strange, but I’m sure there is a perfectly innocent explanation.”

“Two letters have gone astray, Katie. Not one—two. I’ll eat my hat if your cousin hasn’t got something to do with it.” He knew he’d gone too far as soon as the words left his mouth.

“Well, start eating.” Katie shunted as far along the seat as she could get and glared straight ahead. “Take me home, please.”

“No, Katie. Not yet. We still haven’t talked about the robbery.”

“I’m not in the mood. First you criticize my behaviour, and now you’re accusing my cousin of dishonesty with absolutely no evidence at all. Take me home…Now, Scott, or I’ll ask the driver myself.” She turned her head towards the park and refused to answer or look at him again.

After a minute or two of trying to persuade her to speak he gave up. Standing, he leaned into the driver’s seat and instructed him to take them back to the McIntyre’s house without delay.

Katie exited of the carriage as soon as they arrived, even before the driver jumped down from the box. Scott paid him and hurried to catch up with her before someone opened the door.

“Katie, please.”

But the door swung wide and Katie marched inside, snatching off her gloves and hat. She handed them to Maisie, who stood goggle-eyed, looking between her and Scott. Katie turned towards the staircase, but just as she reached it her cousin Fanny appeared on the landing.

“Oh, good, you’re back.” Fanny skipped down the stairs. “Mamma wants to know who Sir Bertram Halford is, Katie. I must warn you, she’s not happy about you going to lunch with him before he was properly introduced to her.” She gave Katie a friendly nudge.

Katie smiled weakly. “I’ll go and explain now.” She changed direction and headed toward the parlour.

“No need to rush. I’m rather enjoying someone else being in Mamma’s bad books.” Fanny laughed after her cousin and then turned her attention to Scott. “Well, hello Mr Lancer. Now what have you been up to? Saving the lady fair, by all accounts, though Katie doesn’t seem to appreciate the romance of it all. You really should have chosen me instead of her, you know. I’m far more adventurous.” Fanny slipped her arm through his. “Come and see our new stereoscope pictures. Grandfather McIntyre has just sent these from Boston.” She held up a colourful cardboard box. “There are pictures of Venice and Rome and several other cities in Europe. If you’re lucky, I might even offer you a cup of tea.”

Fanny ushered Scott into the parlour. Her mother turned as they entered, and then left Katie’s side to greet him. Her place was immediately taken by an elegantly dressed young woman with a mass of curls piled high on her head. Katie looked in his direction, but the other lady drew her away to join Olivia McIntyre by the piano. Laurence Eliot was sitting on the sofa. He lowered his newspaper and made ready to stand up.

“Scott, what a lovely surprise.” Katie’s Aunt Anne smiled as she approached, commanding his attention. “How is your family?”

“Very well, thank you, Anne. They send their best wishes.”

“I’ve ordered the tea. Fanny, would you be a dear and hurry it along please.”

Fanny presented Scott with the stereoscope and pictures so he could look at them in her absence and left the parlour again. He put them down on top of a china cabinet.

“You will stay, I hope, Scott? Katie tells me you are only in town for one night. Unfortunately Will and Laurence are dining at the lodge this evening or I’d invite you to supper. You know Laurence, of course?”

“Good to see you again, Scott.” Laurence Eliot offered his hand.

“Laurence.” Scott shook it with as much warmth as he’d shaken Halford’s, only in this case it was due to a long association not the lack of one.

A knowing smile passed across Laurence’s face. “Allow me to introduce my lovely wife.” He signalled, and the lady with the curls parted company with Katie and Olivia. She glided across the room, her snub nose high. Scott took an instant dislike to her. “Portia, this is Scott Lancer. You will know his grandfather, Harlan Garrett.”

“Such a charming gentleman. I believe he and Father do a great deal of business.”

“Portia is one of the Whiteheads of Albany.”  

That made sense. The Whiteheads were among Albany’s wealthy elite; the business magnates who pulled the strings of politicians in the state of New York. The daughter of one of them would be an appropriate helpmate for an Eliot of Laurence’s calibre. She simpered, and Scott replied with the usual pleasantries. Thankfully she didn’t stay long.

With a bell-like laugh that was anything but genuine, Mrs Laurence Eliot excused herself and went back to Katie and Olivia. “We are discussing the music for Olivia’s wedding. I keep telling the dear girl what is best, but she really is quite stubborn. If she doesn’t listen to those of us who know the latest fashions, I dread to think what the society pages will make of it. Please do excuse me.”

A maid arrived with the tea trolley at that point and Anne and Fanny helped her set the tea things out on the coffee table. Scott took the opportunity to move to safer ground. He nodded hello to Olivia and tried to catch Katie’s eye, but even if she was willing to join him, she was trapped. Portia had taken her arm and clearly had no intention of releasing her any time soon. Laurence joined his wife as the rear guard. Scott settled alone by the unlit fireplace with the stereoscope until Fanny brought him his tea.

She glanced over her shoulder to be sure she couldn’t be heard. “Father felt obliged to invite them to stay due to the family connection, but no one expected them to accept—or stay so long.” Scott smiled in sympathy, but stayed silent. “We can’t wait for them to go. Laurence is a bore, and Portia shadows Katie as if she is the only one among us worthy of her company.”

With an exaggerated sigh Fanny about-turned and went to deliver the next cups of tea to her unwelcome guests. Laurence was beginning to stray away from the group, possibly weary of listening to Portia regale Katie and Olivia with her musical expertise. From the tight smile on Katie’s face, Scott was glad he was out of earshot; all he could hear was the occasional high-pitched exclamation. He placed his cup on the mantelpiece and helped himself to a cucumber sandwich.

Anne looked up from her duties as hostess. “I’m sorry I can’t ask you to stay for supper, Scott. I feel quite inhospitable.”

“Please don’t worry, Anne. With Will and Laurence out for the evening, I wouldn’t expect it.”

Anne poured a final cup of tea for herself as Fanny ferried away cups for Katie and Olivia. “What a pity you can’t stay a day longer.”

“Scott is a rancher now, Anne.” Laurence sauntered across the room and took a cake from the top tier of the plate stand. “In fact, I was surprised to hear you’d come into town. I thought this was a busy time of year for you cattlemen.”

“It is, but I needed to talk to Katie. Somehow our letters to each other went astray.”

“Is that so? I should complain to the postal service if I were you.” Laurence sipped his tea.

“I believe you posted Katie’s letter to me the day after she got back. Can you think of any reason why it didn’t reach me?”

Laurence stroked his beard and appeared to give serious consideration to the question. “No, I don’t think so.” But he smiled a Boston smile. “And here’s me thinking your visit had something to do with a certain baronet.”

“Why should it?”

“Oh, no reason; I just thought you might have got wind of the same rumours I heard.”

“Can I tempt you to another cake, Laurence?” Anne fixed her eyes on Laurence Eliot, waiting for him to swallow the piece of cake he was eating and reply. Her normally porcelain complexion was a little pink around the edges.

Laurence held up his half eaten fruit cake. “I’m fine with this, ma’am.”

“And you, Scott?” Anne smiled in his direction, her voice noticeably warmer.

He smiled back. “Yes, Anne, thank you. I will.” He took a cherry cupcake from the middle tier and bit into it with a pleasure that had nothing to do with its soft sweetness.

“Mamma, you must come.” Fanny appeared at her mother’s side to collect her own cup of tea and to deliver her message. “Olivia wants your opinion. Portia is insisting she change some of the music chosen for the wedding dance.”

“You’ll excuse me, gentlemen.” Anne rose, picked up her cup and a plate of sandwiches, and followed Fanny back to the group of ladies by the piano. Olivia had moved to the piano seat and was flicking through pages on the stand as though the sheet music had done her some personal injury. Stationed at her side, Katie put out a hand to slow her down and prevent her tearing the paper. Portia didn’t seem to have noticed; she stood on Katie’s other side, behind Olivia, giving instructions.

Laurence watched Anne McIntyre’s path. “Katie’s aunt has great elegance, considering she was not born to high society, but her view of life is a little too simplistic.” He popped the last of his cake into his mouth and began to eye the ones he had just refused.

The Meissen clock on the mantelpiece chimed five o’clock. Scott would have to leave soon. “You and Portia seem well-suited.”

“Isn’t she exquisite? We met soon after you left Boston. She is the only child of Josiah Whitehead.”  Laurence rocked on his heels, his smirk getting broader; no doubt thinking of a future inheritance. “He’s in iron, you know.” Scott had never met the man, but from comments overheard, Josiah Whitehead knew how to play the game as well as Harlan Garrett. Allying himself with the Eliots of Boston would provide mutual benefit. “One cannot underestimate the value of a good marriage, Lancer.”

“I agree.”

“My cousin Katie has taken rather longer to make her choice than some think wise.” Laurence sipped more tea and watched Scott over the rim of his cup. Scott took a bite of cake and kept his eyes on the other side of the room. “A woman is like a flower. Wait too long and she fades and withers on the stem, but I say as long as she attracts the bees, she may as well take the time to consider her options.” Scott stayed silent.  “Katie is one of those happy creatures who become more alluring with age. She has many wealthy and influential admirers, both here and abroad, as I’m sure you know. It’s a travesty she’s been hidden away here in California for so long—I don’t know what my Uncle Robert was thinking to allow it—but I’m confident the situation will be rectified soon.”

“Katie is of age. She makes her own decisions.”

“Katie is a woman and an Eliot.” Laurence took a large mouthful of his second cake and eyed Scott with a glee he would never have gotten away with in more private circumstances. “I’ve spoken with her a great deal over the last few days; I believe she is missing the society and entertainments of a more cultured metropolis. If I’m not very much mistaken, she is at last ready to accept counsel from those who have her best interests at heart.  My father and Uncle Martin, in particular, would not want her many talents and excellent education to go to waste.”

“Let me guess, they think she would be wasted on a cattle ranch?”

“You are to be congratulated in keeping her interest thus far, Lancer, but you are a man of the world. Unless you are considering a return to Boston to take over your grandfather’s companies, I’m afraid my money is on another suitor.”

“Then you will lose it.” Scott swallowed the last of his cherry cupcake and smiled his own Boston smile. He knew Laurence’s game, but even so, the final piece of cake didn’t taste as good as the first. “Did you have any particular gentleman in mind?”

“Sir Bertram Halford made no secret of his admiration for my cousin when he dined with my father two weeks ago, and now he’s in San Francisco. There were rumours you know when Katie was in London. They would be a perfect match. Sir Bertram is a rising star in the British parliament. He would be a useful ally. My father looks upon such a union very favourably. My cousin shares Sir Bertram’s passion for social reform, and despite a youthful preference for men with grime beneath their finger nails, she has the sense to know more can be achieved from the top down than from the bottom up.”

“Thank you for explaining the situation so plainly, Eliot.”

“Happy to oblige, Lancer. I’m pleased you’re not offended.”

“Oh, I’m offended, and I shall not forget this conversation.” Scott put his empty teacup down on the tray. “But as I do not share your opinion of the lady, your theories don’t bother me. They certainly won’t make me step aside. If Sir Bertram has aspirations in Katie’s direction, I’m sorry for him. He will be disappointed. Now, if you’ll excuse me; unlike some, I do not wish to outstay my welcome.”

Will McIntyre had just come into the parlour and was being greeted by his wife. Scott went to shake hands with him.

“Scott, this is a pleasant surprise. How are Murdoch and the newlyweds?”

“Very well, sir. I was waiting for your return so I could say hello, but I won’t hold you up. I know you need to get ready for the evening ahead.”

“Next time give us more warning. It’s a while since we’ve had a good chat.” Will looked over at the ladies surrounding the piano. Portia was holding forth about the virtues of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante for the reception. “Portia, my dear, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I must steal Katie away. Scott is ready to leave.”

“Oh, but I need her. I’m sure Scott won’t mind being seen out by the maid. In Boston—”

“Ah, there you have it in a nutshell; we are not in Boston.” Will gave a slight bow. “You must forgive our Californian ways, but Scott is Katie’s guest. Here good manners demand that she sees him to the door personally. Katie, Scott is waiting.”

“I won’t be long.” Katie smiled sweetly at Portia and handed her the sheet music she was holding. Kissing her uncle on the cheek, she gave Scott a look that warned him he was still not forgiven and led the way into the hall.

“I’m beginning to understand some of the comments your brother used to make.”

“Oh, him. I wouldn’t rely on anything Bob told you about our family. He revels in Father’s status as the black sheep. In fact, I think he is intent on stealing his crown. He probably told you he joined the navy to avoid them.”

“Something along those lines.” Scott looked sideways at Katie. Some of the steam had gone out of her voice. “I’m sorry for what I said. I want to talk, Katie. I was planning to catch the first train back in the morning, but I can take a later one.”

“I want to talk too.” When she glanced up, Scott thought he could see the beginning of tears in her eyes, but she looked away quickly and went to retrieve his hat from the stand.

“Then it’s decided. I’ll delay my return and collect you at ten. We can finish our drive in the park.”

She gave a small smile. “I’m sorry you got stuck with Laurence for so long. He can be a little tiresome.”

“It doesn’t matter. Our conversation was actually quite informative.” Scott looked about him. “Isn’t that where the mail is left?” He nodded towards a silver tray on the mahogany sideboard.

Walking over, he lifted the empty tray and looked behind the vase of chrysanthemums and the clock. For a moment, he stepped back and stared at the sideboard, pondering possibilities. It was a large, heavy piece of furniture, French polished with various mouldings at the front and along the back.
 
“Are you thinking your letter could have fallen off the pile before I came down stairs? There is quite a lot of mail some mornings.”

“Perhaps.” He checked beneath the Persian carpet and the sideboard to make sure nothing had slipped beneath them. Then he flattened himself as much as possible against the wall and looked along the gap between the cabinet and the wall. “Eureka.”

“No, really?”

“Here hold the vase while I move the sideboard.” With considerable effort, Scott inched it to one side and snagged an envelope resting on the top edge of the skirting. He glanced at the writing on the front and then moved the sideboard back into position. “Your mail, ma’am.”

Scott bowed, and Katie accepted his letter with a curtsey. It was a good sign. “But how did it get there? The back edge of the sideboard is much higher than any pile of letters would be.”

“Well, I’d say it had a little help from someone who wanted you to think badly of me; perhaps so you would be more inclined to consider the renewed attentions of another.”

“Not this again, Scott.” Katie looked towards the parlour door. “Laurence is not my favourite cousin, but I’ve no reason to doubt his honour.”

“As a businessman away from his own office, I expect he waits for the mail before he goes out each morning. Am I right?”

“This is horrible. I won’t entrust him with another letter, but this time we must give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“If you say so, but only if you promise not to be swayed by the charms of Sir Bertram Halford while we’re apart.”

“Oh, Scott, how many times do I have to tell you? Bertie is not interested in me—not in that way. He’s like a brother. I think you’d like him as much as Bob if you got to know him.”

Scott seriously doubted it; almost as much as he doubted the fraternal nature of Halford’s feelings. “Another time perhaps.”

“There really is more to him than you saw today.”

“So Laurence informed me. Apparently, Senator and Congressman Eliot think you and Halford are perfect for each other.”

“What my uncles think is not important.” There was an edge to Katie’s voice; Scott knew he shouldn’t ignore it.

But today he seemed driven to live dangerously. “I note you didn’t say you weren’t interested in Bertie.”

“Excuse me?” Katie stared at Scott for several seconds. He definitely should have kept his mouth shut, but he’d said it now. The thought had been gnawing at him, and he hesitated to take it back. “Your hat, Mr Lancer.” She shoved the Stetson into his chest, and yanked open the front door. “Give my regards to everyone at the ranch. I’m sure they are eagerly awaiting your return. Please don’t delay it on my account.”

“Katie.” Scott tried to take her hand, but she snatched it away, and this time she did escape up the stairs.

When she reached the landing, she turned to face him. “Just so we’re clear: I won’t be receiving visitors tomorrow.”

Before Scott could reply, the parlour maid came through the green baize door with a fresh pot of tea. She paused in alarm to see the front door wide open, and Scott standing at the bottom of the stairs, gripping the bannister. There was a swish of silk from above, and Katie disappeared out of sight.

Scott coughed and backed away from the staircase. “I’m just leaving.  Good evening.” He turned and strode through the door, pulling it shut behind him.


Chapter Four

What the hell was the matter with him? He didn’t usually take things too far.

Ramming his hat on his head, Scott began to walk back to his hotel. The sun was still in the sky. Maybe the exercise would help him decide what to do next.

When he reached the bottom of the hill, he veered off the direct route. Despite what Katie said—and what she still hadn’t said—he’d go back in the morning. Early. If she’d see him, he’d delay his return. If not…well, there wasn’t any point hanging around if she wasn’t going to talk to him. He damn sure wasn’t going to beg. He’d catch the first train back home as originally planned. The possibility left an uncomfortable lump in his gut. It wasn’t going to happen; she’d cool down after a few hours.

He stopped to look in a tool shop window. The ranch needed more hammers and saws for building a dam on Springwater Creek. They’d order through the local hardware store, but it was better to check out the actual item than rely on a catalogue drawing. The shop had closed for the day so he couldn’t handle the tools, but the cheaper ones they’d been considering looked poor quality. He’d tell Murdoch and Johnny to stick with the brand they knew.

He walked on. San Francisco was always changing. As he admired the architecture, he began to feel better about things. Tomorrow he and Katie would start afresh and have a proper conversation without interruptions. Everything would be all right again.

Forcing his mind to think of other things, he turned up Montgomery, walking towards Sacramento Street as he calculated in his head the amount of wire they’d need to fence off the portion of Lancer’s eastern boundary bordering government land. They couldn’t afford to do it in timber. Even though there were problems with the current barbed wire and the Cattlemen’s Association predicted better varieties in the near future, it could still be worth going ahead now. Any cattle pastured on the east range lately seemed inclined to wander; not without assistance, but that was hard to prove when there was no fence and—as in some other situations—no witnesses.
 
“Lancer!”

Scott looked about him to see who had shouted. He was on the corner of Montgomery and Bush, right outside The Occidental. Sir Bertram Halford hailed him from the top of the entrance steps. He raised his hand indicating Scott should wait, shook hands with a police officer stationed by the door, and hurried down to the pavement.

“I’m glad I spotted you. I’m headed to the California Theatre to meet Wexford. Walk with me.”

“I’m tired Halford. I’m going back to my hotel for an early night.”

“I won’t keep you long.”

Scott thought about refusing, but good manners got the better of him. It wouldn’t take him much out of his way, and it wasn’t far to the theatre. He fell into step with the baronet, and they strolled west along Bush Street.

“I’m supposed to meet Wexford at his club, but the playhouse is on the way. I expect he’ll still be there.” Bertie loosened his tie. It was warmer than usual for the time of year. “I’m told it gets a lot hotter than this.”

“It does, though San Francisco gets the sea breezes. It’s hotter inland.”

“In that case you won’t mind if I borrow Katie to help me shop for more suitable clothing. I’m in San Francisco for at least a month, and then I travel east. Quite apart from the heat, I’m told I’m overdressed.”

“I’d say so.” Scott kept his expression neutral and his eyes straight ahead. Halford didn’t need to know he’d looked just as out of place two years ago, and the man could take a flying leap before Scott would agree to him spending time with Katie. “But I’m sure your friend Wexford can fix you up.”

Halford stared at him, and then changed the subject. “So are you still heading back to your ranch tomorrow?”

“I’ll either catch the ten o’clock or the five past two train.” Scott tried to sound casual, but evidently he didn’t succeed.

“Ah, you’ve hit a rocky patch with the lady. Bad luck.”

After the way they’d parted mid-afternoon, Scott wasn’t in the mood to pretend friendship. He didn’t answer.

“A lover’s tiff is never pleasant. You’ll have an early start tomorrow then.”

“Not particularly. I usually get up at six—the price of being a working man.”

Out of the corner of his eye Scott could see Halford weighing up whether his comment had any underlying criticism. He must have decided the signs weren’t good, and cut to the chase. “I have a suspicion we got off on the wrong foot, Lancer.”

“I’m sure you won’t lose too much sleep over it.” Scott kept walking, quickening his stride; the sooner this conversation was over the better.

“No, not normally, but for Katie’s sake…” Halford matched Scott’s pace.

Scott glanced sideways and smiled inwardly. Halford looked hot and uncomfortable, and from the frown on his face, he wasn’t used to being spoken to in this way. Well, tough luck.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking since we saw each other this afternoon…I think you should know Katie and I have only ever been good friends.”

“Thank you, but she has already told me that.” Scott fixed his gaze on the theatre in the distance.  He was more interested in Halford’s future intentions than his past ones. Katie was fond of him. If, under pressure from the Eliots or simply by some whim of his own, Halford decided to actively pursue her... Scott didn’t want to think about it. He’d felt secure in Katie’s affections two weeks ago. Now he didn’t want to put them to the test. “Isn’t that your friend Wexford up ahead with his leading man—what’s his name—Bellingham?”

Halford looked down the street as they came level with the first billboard on the theatre wall. It was about seven o’clock. There was still traffic on the road, but not a lot of people on the pavement. Wexford and Bellingham were walking together, arm and arm. With his free hand Wexford was gesturing with energy. They passed a lamp post on the street corner where two workingmen in shirt sleeves and boots were chatting, and then they almost disappeared from view as the workingmen stubbed out their cigarettes and began walking in the same direction.

“I believe you’re right. I’ve under estimated Wexford’s enthusiasm for his supper.” Halford chuckled and checked his pocket watch for the time. “You’re welcome to…What the blazes?”

“Hey, stop!” Scott yelled as he and Halford started to run. The workingmen had grabbed Wexford and Bellingham from behind. Punches were flying from both sides as Scott and Halford tried to get past a dray turning left into Bush Street from Grant.

By the time they reached the fight, it had moved into a side alley. The four men were still laying into each other. Wexford was holding his own, but Bellingham was older and not as fit. He fell to his knees, arms over his head, as Scott and Halford entered the alley. One of the men, with a black beard, kicked Bellingham in the ribs. Scott spun Blackbeard around by the shoulder and planted a fist in his stomach.

Halford went to help Wexford; the man he was fighting was a head taller and twice as wide. While Blackbeard was doubled over, Scott saw Halford bring his cane down across the other man’s back; he followed through with a lead hook and a push. Evidently, baronets learned street fighting as well as Queensbury rules.

But Scott had no time to think more about it. Having regained his breath, Blackbeard fought back. He rammed Scott with his elbow and caught him in the jaw with an upward fist. Scott staggered back into the wall.

“You’re on the wrong side. They’re fucking mollies.”

Seeing double, Scott spat and lurched forward. “I don’t care what they are. You don’t attack a man from behind.” He threw a punch, missed, and then ducked as Blackbeard did the same.

Coming up, his head clearing, Scott landed another punch squarely on Blackbeard’s jaw, sending him crashing into garbage cans and the wooden crates stacked in behind. Then drawing his arm back ready to throw a right cross he strode forward. Blackbeard spat blood into the stream of vegetable peelings spewing from the overturned bins, and came up with something in his hand.

“Leave it, Lancer.” Halford suddenly appeared side-on between Scott and Blackbeard. He held one hand up in front of Scott, and nearly got a fist in his face for his trouble. His other arm was outstretched with cane pointed where it would cause most pain if Blackbeard advanced another inch. “And you, sir, put that lump of wood down. Hear the whistle? The local constabulary is on its way.”

Blackbeard stepped back, panting and glaring, but he dropped his weapon. Using the heel of his hand to staunch blood seeping from a cut at the corner of his mouth, Scott bent down and retrieved his hat, while Bellingham started to get to his feet. A little way down the alley Harry Wexford had the other stranger pinned to the wall, arm wrenched high behind his back and face pressed into the brickwork.

Halford lowered his arms. He straightened his shirt cuffs and tie, and brushed a little dirt from his sleeve. “Release your friend, Wexford. He looks ready to cooperate.”

The man grunted. Wexford let him join Blackbeard just as the police officer from outside The Occidental rounded the corner.

“What’s going on here?”

“Nothing to concern you, Officer Ryan; just a little misunderstanding. It’s all settled now.” Halford leaned casually on his cane and smiled at the lawman.

“What are you talking about, Halford? Those two attacked Wexford and Bellingham from behind—unprovoked. We saw them do it.” Scott dragged his fingers through his hair and replaced his hat. What was Halford playing at?

“I told you, mister. Them two are sodomites. They deserved a good thrashing for cavorting in public. You should have heard what they were saying to each other. Make ya sick.”

Scott pointed at Blackbeard, angrily. “Shut up. They weren’t bothering you. Nothing gives you the right to bushwhack them.”

“Well, sir, technically you are correct, but…” Officer Ryan looked toward Bellingham and Wexford, taking in their appearance.  

“But nothing.” Scott had a horrible feeling the victims were the ones about to be punished.

“Under the circumstances, I think everyone should accompany me back to the station and give their statements. The sergeant can sort out what happened and whether any crime has been committed.”

“Now Officer Ryan, is that really necessary?” Halford tore his eyes away from a perplexed-looking Wexford to re-join the conversation. “I’m sure no one directly involved wants to pursue this matter or spend a night in jail.”  The others nodded or muttered agreement.

“Well, Sir Bertram, I know you’re an innocent party as I was talking with you myself not ten minutes ago, but your friend there seems intent on pressing charges, and these fellas have made a mighty serious allegation against the other two.”

“All a misunderstanding, I’m sure.” Halford put his arm around the officer’s shoulder as though they were comrades of long-standing, and threw Scott a look that told him very clearly to shut up. “Now I can vouch for every gentleman here, except these two.” He pointed his cane at Blackbeard and friend. “Mr Lancer was with me, and, as he says, we came to the rescue after the fight broke out. I’ve known Mr Wexford for several years. He is a writer of plays and sonnets, adored on the London stage by thousands, and now about to enchant the public of San Francisco—very reputable, very reputable indeed. And this fellow, I believe, is the famous thespian, Claud Bellingham, from your own fair city.”

Blackbeard’s friend stepped forward. “It don’t matter who that toff says they are, that one was still making up to the other like they were a man and a woman—‘Kiss me, my dearest, before we part.’ Downright disgusting. I hate Nancy-boys.”

Halford looked between Wexford and Bellingham and then huffed out a laugh as they grinned sheepishly; something the man said had clearly clicked with them all at the same time. Swinging around to face their accusers, the baronet smiled broadly. “Kiss me, my dearest, before we part. Who knows what the future may bring?’ Lines, my dear sir. To be precise, lines spoken by Captain Andrews to his sweetheart in the play, Like Moths to a Flame.” Then before the man could respond, Halford turned back to the policeman. “May we speak privately, Officer Ryan?” He drew him out of the hearing of Blackbeard and friend, but Scott could still catch his words. “The play opens at the California Theatre on Thursday, and as I, and a number of prominent local gentlemen, have financial interest in its success…” He raised his eyebrows and said no more.

Officer Ryan looked uncomfortable. “Well, your lordship, if it could be proved that Mr Wexford and Mr Bellingham were merely practising lines on their way home, perhaps there would be no need to take the matter further.”

Halford beamed his approval and raised his voice so all could hear. “Excellent. I knew you were a man of reason, Officer Ryan. Mr Wexford, do you by chance have a script to prove what I say is true?”

Wexford recovered a script from where it had fallen in the gutter when they were first attacked. He flicked over a few pages and pointed out the relevant speeches. “I apologise, officer. I was not satisfied with the way Mr Bellingham was delivering his lines. It must have been when we passed these gentlemen that I was demonstrating the emotion I wanted him to convey. I didn’t consider what anyone overhearing us might think—an easy mistake to make. We don’t want to press charges.”

“Well, I’ll be. That’s exactly what Captain Andrews says to Miranda.” Officer Ryan took the script over to the two workingmen. “Look.”

“If that’s settled then, can I go home to my wife?” Claud Bellingham inspected a hole in the elbow of his jacket with a frown and then rubbed his ribs. “Tonight’s extra rehearsal was already making me late for supper.”

“You’re married?” Blackbeard looked aghast.

“Six years next month with three beautiful daughters and, God-willing, a son on the way.” Bellingham swept a bow. Then he tweaked his moustache and winked. “Believe me, my good fellow; my mastery with the ladies is not only on the stage.”

“Well, damn, maybe we did make a mistake.” Blackbeard exchanged looks with his friend, and then offered his hand. “No hard feelings?” His friend followed suit, to Wexford as well as Bellingham.

“No hard feelings at all.” Wexford clapped Blackbeard on the shoulder. “In fact, if you gentlemen would care to attend our little play, I could arrange tickets for Saturday’s performance, one for each of you—and the fair lady of your choice, of course. I’ll leave them for you at the ticket office tomorrow. You too Officer Ryan if that wouldn’t be breaking any rules?”

Apparently, it wouldn’t be. Scott was incredulous at how it all turned out, but he didn’t want to spend the night at the police station any more than the others did. If the victims were content to let things ride, so be it.

Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to think well of Halford for his part in gaining their freedom. As Scott walked back to his hotel alone, he mulled over what had happened and what had been said. The rights and wrongs of the situation didn’t seem to matter to Halford. All he’d been worried about was smoothing over troubled waters, making the problem disappear to protect his investment. The last thing a new play needed was to have its playwright-cum-director and leading man jailed just before opening night, and for such a reason. Even if released, the scandal could ruin the play’s chances of success. But was it ethical? And did Katie know her friend was so…slippery?

Chapter Five

The following morning Scott made his way back to the McIntyre’s house on Nob Hill. He couldn’t call too early, but if Katie wouldn’t talk to him and he wanted to catch the ten o’clock train, then he couldn’t wait until normal visiting hours. He knocked on the door at quarter past eight and said a small prayer.

Dawkins answered the door. “Mr Lancer.”

“Dawkins, may I come in?”

Dawkins hesitated, but then stood back and let him pass. “I’ll fetch Mr McIntyre. I think he’s still dressing.”

“No need to disturb him. It’s Miss Eliot I want. Would you ask Maisie or one of the other maids to give her this note?” Scott handed Dawkins the brief message he’d written earlier on hotel stationery.

“I’m not sure she’s even awake, sir.”

“I know, but it’s important.”

Dawkins nodded and made his way upstairs as far as the landing. Scott saw Maisie come down from further up carrying a stack of linen. She placed her load down on the floor in the corner of the landing, wiped her hands on her apron and then went back upstairs. Dawkins followed.

Scott kicked at the rug by the sideboard, and peered at his reflection in the mirror on the wall. He looked like he hadn’t had much sleep, which wasn’t surprising because he hadn’t. He went and sat down for a moment, but he couldn’t relax so he got up again, and went to look at a painting of Yerba Buena in the 1840s. It showed the old trading post and the bay as it would have been when Scott’s grandfather took Scott back east aboard the Charleston. Murdoch had told Scott quite a bit more about his past since they’d cleared the air in February, but left to himself he spoke in broad strokes. Katie was responsible for a lot of the detail like the ship’s name and the fact that it had rained that day. She never hesitated to ask Murdoch if she wanted to know something, and she had a knack for painlessly extracting small memories. Murdoch had hidden some memories so deep for so long that he seemed surprised to find they were there.

Scott heard whispering above. He looked up and saw Dawkins and Maisie on the landing. They were arguing about something. Then Dawkins saw Scott watching them, and he appeared to give in. He waited for Maisie to pick up the pile of linen she’d left there, and they came downstairs together. Maisie’s cheeks flushed pink. Avoiding eye contact, she scuttled away to the safety of the green baize door. Scott’s heart sank.

Dawkins crossed the tiled floor. “I’m sorry, Mr Lancer; Miss Eliot told Maisie she has a headache. She cannot see you today.” He cleared his throat. “She says to tell you she will write.” Dawkins dropped his eyes to the floor. Scott knew what he was thinking; he was grateful the man didn’t say it.

“I see. Well, please give Miss Eliot my regards. I hope she feels better soon.” Scott headed for the door. Now he knew where he stood he couldn’t leave fast enough. If he’d been the hero in a play maybe he would have forced his way into her bedroom and demanded she talk to him—he did think of it—but this was real life, and you didn’t do things like that in real life. The hero didn’t always get the girl in real life.

Heart sore, he hurried down the front steps and strode towards the centre of town as though speed would somehow dampen the fear and the anger that was welling up inside him. Halfway down, he smashed his hand into a lamp post, scaring a pigeon from its roost. “Mierda!” Borrowing one of Johnny’s words seemed to make him feel better, but a street cleaner gave him a wide berth.

Looking about, he spotted a cab parked on the opposite side of the street a little further down. He hailed it, and ran the next few yards to reach it before it had time to turn all the way around. He would catch the ten o’clock train and be damned. “The station.”

He went through the ticket hall with twenty minutes to spare, buying a ticket on the way; he virtually threw the money at the startled clerk. Katie hadn’t even wasted much time thinking about her refusal to see him, and there had been no mention of seeing him again. He shouldn’t care. He should let her stew in her own stupid pride and find some other girl—an orphan—who was less stubborn and less independent; who agreed with his every word instead thinking for herself.

He could see his train shunting into position as he neared platform eight. Another engine just-arrived hissed steam as its passengers disembarked, flooding the concourse and slowing him down. He navigated his way through the stream and then stopped abruptly.

Damn, what’s he doing here?

Sir Bertram Halford approached from a nearby waiting room. “Good morning, Lancer. As our conversation last night was interrupted, I’ve come to see you off.”

Scott scowled. He didn’t bother asking how Halford knew he would be catching the earlier train. “I wasn’t aware there was anything left to say.”

“Ah, but I think there is. Your behaviour suggests you believe Katie and I are more than good friends. I fear the misconception may cause her unnecessary unhappiness.” Halford leaned on his cane and raised his eyes to Scott. “I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.”

“Very gallant, I’m sure.”

“Why do you mistrust me, Lancer? For one moment last night, when I got between you and the man you were fighting, I actually thought you were going to hit me—and not by accident.”

So he had noticed.

“Damn it, Halford; what do you expect?” Scott had had enough. First Katie was refusing to even talk to him, and now this bastard had turned up to rub salt into his wounds. Never mind what Halford said, his actions and everything else going on told a different story.

“Katie…”

Miss Eliot, damn you. You’ve no right…” Scott clamped his mouth shut. He knew he was being ridiculous. When Katie found out she would be even more angry with him—he had no doubt Halford would tell her. He breathed in and started again. “Miss Eliot’s family talk of you marrying her. If that’s what you’re here for, I’ll tell you now, it’s not going to happen.” The more he thought about it, the more it seemed the only logical explanation. What if Halford’s finances weren’t as healthy as Scott first thought? The Eliots had money. Halford had a title. It wouldn’t be the first arrangement of the kind. Whatever Halford’s reasons for coming to San Francisco, the Eliots would certainly encourage and support his interest now he was here. As soon as Scott returned to the ranch, Katie would be wooed by her ‘friend’ and put under pressure by the more prestige-hungry members of the Eliot dynasty. Please, God, she says no. “I accept she cares for you, but she loves me.”

Halford looked mildly amused. “If Miss Eliot was prone to acting based on her heart alone you wouldn’t have come to San Francisco.”

Bastard!  But he was right.

“I don’t want to fight with you, Lancer. I admit I am aware of a little plotting behind the scenes, but I’m as much a victim of it as you are.”

“I don’t believe you.” Scott glared at Halford, wondering if he should force his way past. His train was now boarding passengers. Early arrivals were inspecting the outside of the train, trying to decide upon the best seats, and more and more people were coming through the barrier, passing him and Halford as they made their way in a leisurely fashion toward the platform.
                          
Halford glanced at the station clock and shepherded Scott out of the main flow of traffic closer to the back wall. “Yesterday evening, I was interested in what you said when the black-bearded gentleman gave his reasons for assaulting Wexford and Bellingham.”

“I don’t see what that’s got to do with Katie, but attacking a man from behind is just plain wrong.”

“Keep your voice down.” Halford checked over his shoulder. A businessman stood in the doorway of the waiting room, but he was too far away to hear them. “That’s not what I meant, as I’m sure you know. I care for Miss Eliot. I would not like to see her hurt.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Nothing, but your defence of Wexford and Bellingham was unusually vehement under the circumstances. I would simply like to understand why.”

Scott was tempted to punch Halford on the nose now and get it over with, but if there was any chance that he was mistaken about him, Halford’s concern for Katie’s welfare was understandable. “I was brevetted to second lieutenant during the war. A fellow officer took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. We became friends—good friends.”

Halford raised an eyebrow.

“No.”

“I’m relieved. I didn’t think you were the type, and I’m usually a good judge of such things.”

Scott let the comment pass. “Our friendship was not like that, but the night before a battle I entered his tent unannounced.” He fell silent. He wasn’t sure how to continue.

“You interrupted something?”

Scott nodded. “I left immediately—the other man soon after, I think. My friend came looking for me.”

“And?”

“And I refused to talk to him. I was in shock.”

“I can imagine.”

Scott bit his lip and looked down at his boots. There was a cigarette butt on the floor. He scuffed it towards the wall and raised his eyes again. “You’ve never been in a war, have you, Halford?”

The baronet gave a slight bow in agreement.

“It’s not all action. In between the fighting and the killing there’s a lot of time just waiting for things to happen. Or watching men die. I had time to think.”

“And what conclusions did you come to?”

“That I wasn’t God. That it wasn’t my right to judge. He was still my friend.”

“I’m sure he was pleased to hear it.”

“I never got to tell him. After the battle I went to find him…he’d been killed in the first charge.”

“I see.”

“Do you? Last night you seemed more interested in avoiding bad press than seeing real justice done.”

“I had my reasons.”

“Money and sympathy with the opinions of those louts. If Wexford and Bellingham really had been what Blackbeard said they were what would you have done later when the three of you were alone? Fired them? Withdrawn your backing for the play?”

“There are plenty who would support such action.”

“Well, I’m not one of them.” Scott shook his head and smiled, the tension draining a little from between his shoulders. “My brother, Johnny, says friends like that come in handy. They get the drinks and watch your back while you enjoy the ladies. They’re less competition for men like us.”

“That’s an unusually liberal attitude, Lancer.” Halford studied him with a look of a man not sure of what he was seeing. Scott made a move to escape. “Not so fast.” Halford stuck out his cane. “When I heard Miss Eliot was courting a rancher, I imagined some red-necked blowhard, the kind to tie a wife to hearth and home and prevent her from being her true self.”

“And now?”

“I’m puzzled.”

“Surely you know Miss Eliot better than to think she would keep company with a man like that.” Scott winced inwardly at the stupidity of calling Katie ‘Miss Eliot’ when they both knew her so well.

“Men have been known to deceive women for personal gain. Sometimes it takes another man to recognise the fact.”

“Now there, Halford, is a statement I can agree with.”

“I’m not misleading Miss Eliot, Lancer, but stories told to me suggest you could be.” Halford’s green eyes darkened, and for the first time there was venom in his voice.

“Indeed?” Scott looked skyward. This was just too ridiculous; he would have laughed if his relationship with Katie hadn’t been at stake. Turning toward the ticket hall, he breathed deeply before facing Halford again. “What crimes are the Eliots accusing me of?”

“Philandering mostly: gaming, whoring and drunkenness—the usual. I was told at least one lady of good family in Boston entered into a speedy marriage as a result of your ungentlemanly behaviour.” Halford took a step back. Scott was about ready to explode.  “The good news is I’m beginning to suspect those stories may be exaggerated.”

“Is that so?” It took all Scott’s self-control to keep his hands down by his side.

“There is one account that still troubles me however.”

“I’m listening.” He didn’t know what was making him angrier, the obvious spying and twisting of facts, or the possibility that Katie could really have feelings for this patronizing flannel mouth.

“I had the pleasure of meeting more of Miss Eliot’s relatives at a Freemason’s meeting last night after I dined with Wexford.” Halford met Scott’s eyes, perhaps looking for a reaction, but Scott wasn’t giving anything away. “Her uncle holds you in high esteem.”

“And that surprises you?”

“It did a little, at the time, given what I’d been told a few of weeks ago. Having met you that afternoon however, I was beginning to question the accuracy of some of those stories.”

“That’s big of you.”

“I like to think I’m a fair judge of character, Lancer, but we’d only just met. I won’t apologize for taking the views of others into account.”

Scott had a sudden sense of what it must be like to face Sir Bertram Halford across the floor of a house of representatives. If nothing else, the Eliots were right to value him as a political ally; the man knew how to stand his ground.

“My opinion was changing in your favour, but near the end of the evening Miss Eliot’s cousin told me something in confidence that concerned me greatly.”

“And what might that be?”

Halford looked Scott straight in the eye. “That you have a history of violence towards women.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Eliot claims a recent investigation in a place called Spanish Wells proves you manhandled a young woman. He says he has several affidavits to that effect.”

Scott straightened to his full height, a good inch taller than Halford. He inhaled and breathed out slowly. The Pinkerton agent was snooping around before Johnny’s wedding. That was weeks ago. He must have reported the full truth back to Boston or Katie’s father would have intervened long before now. It would have been one of his brothers that commissioned the investigation, but it was inconceivable that Robert Eliot wouldn’t have been told of anything so serious. No action direct by him though, or by Will McIntyre on his behalf. Which meant this nasty piece of innuendo was all Laurence.

“Do you deny it?”

Scott kept his mouth firmly shut until he trusted himself to speak calmly. “No, actually, I don’t.”

Halford stared at him in disbelief. “You admit it?”

“I do.”

“But no doubt there are extenuating circumstances.”

“I’m glad you think so.” Scott matched Halford’s tone. “Not that it’s any of your business, but when I tackled the young woman you’re talking about, she was dressed as a man.” He paused to let the significance of the fact sink in. “She and her male companions had just tried to rob the general store at gunpoint. I didn’t know she was female until later.”

Halford’s eyes narrowed. “I’m told you attempted to take advantage of the lady.”

“Not true. I was deputized to guard her while the sheriff pursued the other robbers. She claimed I made advances, but she confessed later that she’d lied to gain release from jail.”
 
“And there are witnesses to substantiate your version of events?”

“I suspect if you read the affidavits already collected, they would substantiate my version of events, but you’re more than welcome to check with the sheriff. Or the owner of the shop she attempted to rob. Ask who you like, Halford, but I assure you, I’m not in the habit of manhandling women.”

Halford studied Scott for several seconds. Then turning towards the trains, he suddenly rammed his cane hard into the concrete floor. Laurence Eliot would be wise to keep his distance for a while; at least Scott and Halford had that in common.

“I apologize, Lancer.” Halford offered his hand.

But Scott didn’t take it. “Eliot tried to hurry you along with a few half-truths. He and I both know you regret letting Katie slip away. What I can’t understand is why you don’t just admit you’re here to do something about it.”

Halford shrugged and brought his hand back to rest on his cane. “My mother had hopes, but Miss Eliot deserves more from a husband than I am able to give.”

Scott could not believe his ears. How absurd could the man get? “Title, land and money to burn—yes, definitely short-changed if she marries you. I hope I’m wrong, Halford, but I can’t waste time debating your intentions any longer.” He pushed past and headed towards his train.

“All aboard.” The stationmaster stood at the entrance of the platform, scanning the concourse for late arrivals. He touched his cap to Scott as he came onto the platform.

“Wait, Lancer.” Halford grabbed him by the elbow as Scott mounted the bottom step of the end passenger car. “You’re a hard man to convince. I wouldn’t care, but your ill-opinion of me is hurting Miss Eliot. I can’t let you go back to your ranch thinking like this.”

Scott shook his arm free. “Unless you’re intending to catch the next train east, you don’t have much choice.”

“I can’t do that. But please wait…” Halford held up his hand, stopping short of laying it on Scott again.

Scott glanced in the direction of the stationmaster, now doing final checks along the length of the train. Then he stepped down. “You have one minute.”

“What you said before about men of a certain leaning being no threat or competition to men like us…You were only partly right. They are no competition to men like you, Lancer.”

Scott blinked. Then he stared hard at Halford. Was he saying what Scott thought he was saying?

Halford cleared his throat. He spoke quietly, even though the carriage windows were shut, and there was no chance of anyone overhearing them.  “It is as I told you when we first met; I came to San Francisco, because of Harry Wexford.”

Halford held Scott’s gaze until the penny fully dropped.

Swallowing, Scott looked away. This couldn’t be true…could it? Turning back, he searched Halford’s eyes for any sign of duplicity. Damn it, everything made sense; talk about not seeing what was right in front of him. “Thank you for telling me. I appreciate the risk you’ve taken.”

“I’ve told you nothing, Lancer. If the subject should ever come up in a more public setting I will say you misconstrued my meaning.”

Scott paused. He knew the answer to his next question, but he still had to ask it. “Does Katie know?”

Halford nodded. “She’s one of the few people who do. I can be myself with Katie, and I cherish her for it. Ever since we met I knew one day the man she married might deny me contact, but the issue has arisen in a different manner and earlier than expected. I won’t sacrifice her happiness to preserve my privacy.”

“If she chooses me, Halford, I promise you I won’t stand in the way of your friendship.”

“In that case, Lancer, I wish you every success.” Halford offered his hand. This time Scott took it, and they did not let go quickly.

Afterwards, Scott watched Halford make his way off the platform. Then the train gave a jolt. He hauled himself up the steps and entered the carriage, dropping onto an aisle seat. The whistle blew, and the train heading back to the ranch moved forward.

 

Chapter Six

Scott sat for a full minute, staring blindly into the back of an open newspaper held by the man sitting opposite. Even when the train whistle blew, he didn’t move. It was only when the grey-haired woman beside him spoke that he came to his senses.

“Well, that was a very successful visit. I got everything on my list and then some. Did you get everything you wanted done, young man?”

“I…No.” And he wasn’t going back to the ranch until he had. “Thank you.” He kissed the surprised woman on the cheek and made a beeline for the carriage door.

The train was gaining speed, but it hadn’t cleared the platform. Peering through the clouds of steam, he looked for his chance and jumped, nearly ploughing headlong into a bench seat. He found his feet and ran towards the exit. The stationmaster shouted angrily, but Scott jostled his way through the incoming passengers at the barrier and into the ticket hall beyond.

A cab, he needed a cab. From the top of the station steps, he scanned the kerb over the heads of people on the wide sidewalk. Surely there must be at least one carriage free. And yes, his luck was changing; he spotted an empty Landau parked near the corner.

But heading down, he came to abrupt stop. Amidst the throng to his left was Katie, halfway between the steps and the street—in the arms of another man.

Scott’s heart punched him hard in the chest. Then the crowd parted and the man turned slightly. It was Sir Bertram Halford.

“Katie!” Scott raised his arm so she would see him.

With her face wet with tears, she stepped back, looking to find where the call had come from. When she saw him, she picked up her skirts and ran.

“Oh, Scott, I’m so sorry. I thought I’d missed you.”

He wrapped his arms around her and held her close, feeling ludicrously happy inside. She’d tried to reach him before the train left.

Halford wandered over with a puzzled look on his face, and Katie spun around. “You told me the train had gone, Bertie.”

“I thought it had. I saw it pull away as I went through the barrier. What did you do, man, jump?”

Scott grinned. “I couldn’t leave without talking to Katie.” He looked down at her. “About Morro Coyo—and everything else that’s been happening. Will you let me find a carriage?”

Katie nodded.

“Take mine.” Halford pointed to the Landau near the corner.

“Thanks.” Scott offered Katie his arm, and they made their way through the travellers and passers-by to where the open carriage stood waiting. He helped her in and asked the driver to take them to the park and then the long way up to the lookout.

The steady clop, clop of the horses’ hooves on the city street was soothing, but Scott waited until he was sure Katie had fully regained her composure before speaking again. “I expect you’ve read my letter by now, but I was wondering what yours said.”

Katie twisted a lace handkerchief between her fingers. “Just that I was back safely…and how much I missed not being able to talk to you.” She stuffed her handkerchief into a pocket and picked up his hand. Turning it over, she traced the lines of his palm with her finger. “I couldn’t get the sight of those dead men out of my head.”

Scott swallowed hard. He stilled her hand and interlaced her slim, soft fingers with his. After a month at the ranch they had turned golden brown: so beautiful—like their owner. “Are they gone now?”

She half smiled. “I think so…I told you in my letter not to worry about me. I wasn’t hurt. I was only being silly.”

“So are you saying you don’t want me here?”

“Oh, Scott, how can you possibly…” She reddened and glanced up at the driver on the box in front of them. Then she realized Scott was teasing and blushed some more. It was so unlike Katie, but for once her defences were down.

If the driver had heard any of their conversation, he didn’t show any sign of it, but her next words were in a lower voice. “You can’t know how thankful I am that you came. I’m sorry everything got so messed up with Bertie and Laurence. I don’t really understand it all, but Bertie said…”

“Ssh.” Scott put a finger to her lips. “I’m sorry too, but I’m not here to talk about them. I came because of what happened in Morro Coyo. Let’s discuss that first.”

She nodded and started again. “The fight: it was so terrifying. And then the stage came back and the stagecoach manager was in such a hurry to have us on our way. Everything happened too fast, Scott.”

“I agree.” He let go of her hand and leaned forward. Resting his arms on his knees, he focused on the back of the driver’s head. He couldn’t look at Katie while he said this. “I was…I am afraid the robbery may have decided you against continuing…against the possibility of us having a future together.”

Behind him, Katie was silent. Then, she reached out and placed her hand on his wrist. “Look at me.”

He turned and faced her.

“When I left Morro Coyo I didn’t know if I could bear to go through something like that ever again. During the shooting I was so scared; you and Johnny could have been killed. And all because of that ridiculous tax collector.” Her eyes suddenly flashed. “He didn’t even have the decency to thank you. Insufferable man!”

Scott smiled at her quick show of temper, and the knot in his gut loosened. “I was a little annoyed with him myself.”

For a few seconds they laughed, but the atmosphere remained tense, and their laughter dwindled into nothing. Katie seemed to lose confidence. She lowered her eyes, crushing the fabric of her skirt between her fingers and pulling the knot in Scott’s gut even tighter than before.

“Go on. You were going to say something else.” He watched her closely.

She cocked her head to one side. The corners of her mouth twitched slightly, but her eyes seemed sad. “You’re beginning to know me too well, Scott Lancer.”

He remained silent and waited.

“Johnny scared me—only for a moment.” She looked up, alarmed, as if Scott might misunderstand her meaning. “I could never quite believe he used to be a gunfighter, you see…Now I can. He shot so fast, and he ran out into the street like it was a game.”

“He knew it wasn’t a game. He was concentrating on what he was doing. We both were.”

“Later, after I’d thought about it a thousand times, I think that’s what troubled me more than anything.” Katie’s voice dropped to hardly a whisper. “When I…when you jumped up and shot that man, you didn’t even flinch. You just turned your gun towards the bandit on the roof. I’d never seen you like that.” Scott stared at her bowed head. In the split second before the wagon horses reared, Katie had seen a lot more than he’d have liked. He didn’t know what to say. “You were like Johnny…I never saw you look at the man you killed, not once, not even after the shooting stopped.”

Scott closed his eyes and wet his lips. Please, God.

Did Johnny not look at the men he killed? Scott had never noticed. “I hate killing, but sometimes it’s necessary…It’s hard to explain…I don’t know if it’s the same for Johnny, but I learned in the war that if I didn’t look at their faces, I was less likely to see them in my dreams.”

“Oh, Scott.” Katie put out her hand.

He cupped it between his. “I’m sorry I frightened you.”

“I thought about what happened all the way back to San Francisco. How terrified I was, but how brave you and Johnny were. You worked together to keep Emily and me safe…” She brushed a tear aside. “You stayed so calm, Scott—Johnny would have been dead if it wasn’t for you.”

“I have his back and he has mine. We make a good team.”

“And you always will.” Katie bit her bottom lip and withdrew her hand. She began to twist the cameo ring on her finger again. “In an odd way I’m glad the shootout happened. I know what it’s like now. It’s not simply my imagination.” She looked up through damp lashes.  “We survived my worst nightmare, Scott, and I saw part of you I might never have seen otherwise.”

Was that good or bad? After everything that had happened, Scott wasn’t sure. He felt like the air was being squeezed out of him.

“I know it could have turned out differently, but…robberies don’t happen often. Morro Coyo should be safe for a while, don’t you think?”

He breathed in and laughed at the puppy dog expression on her face. “I think so.”

Katie caressed his cheek with her hand, and he gazed into her beautiful brown eyes, made even brighter by sunlight reflecting in tears.

“You were my hero, Scott.”

It no longer seemed to matter if the driver was aware of them or not. When they finally broke apart, they had arrived at the lookout. They strolled awhile amid the nearby trees, talking about the misunderstandings of the previous day—apologizing, forgiving and reassuring each other—until it was time for Scott to return to the railroad station.

He paid the driver for their journey and arranged for him to take Katie home.

She grabbed Scott’s arm as he moved to get out of the carriage. “Let me come onto the platform and see you off.”

“No, Miss Eliot, I’d rather you went home to bed. You look exhausted.”

“That’s a fine thing to say to a lady.” She stuck her nose in the air as if offended; then laughing they hugged each other one last time.

“I’ll come back to San Francisco as soon as I can.” He climbed down onto the pavement and waved as the Landau pulled away from the kerb. The station clock began to strike two o’clock.  Swinging his saddle bags up over his shoulders, he dashed up the stone steps and into the ticket hall.


Epilogue

“Scott!” Katie forgot for a moment she was descending the stairs. The grandfather clock had just chimed six o’clock; it was exactly seven weeks and two days since she had seen him last, almost to the minute. He hadn’t been expected—not by her at least. Tanned by the summer sun, his shirt open at the neck, he stood grinning up at her from the hallway, holding his hat in front of him. He was such a beautiful sight, her limbs melted. She couldn’t move.

“Well, don’t just stand there, Miss Eliot. I have saddle horses outside; I’m taking you riding.”

“What, now?”

“I’ve squared it with your uncle, and promised to be on my best behaviour.”

It took her no time at all to get changed. She didn’t think twice about what to wear. The apple green riding habit she had brought with her from Boston was seeing very little use these days; her brown split skirt was far more comfortable, and she was sure Scott would have brought a normal saddle for her, even though they were in the city.

He had—along with a picnic basket and rug strapped to his horse.

They talked about friends and family as they rode through the park to the lookout where they’d strolled on Scott’s last visit. She even admitted how scared she had been when she replied honestly to his question about Bertie.

“He’d told me more about what happened before I received your letter of course. I was so angry with my uncles in Boston, and Laurence and Portia. You were right to suspect them.” Katie frowned. She’d never said such awful things to any of her cousins before, but she’d never had so much provocation. Her parents were still suffering the consequences, though oddly they hadn’t complained. She got her information from her brothers and sisters.

“It makes no difference now. The joke is on them, though they’ll never know enough to fully appreciate it.”

“That’s true. I’m glad you understand why I couldn’t be more open with you.” Katie pulled ahead and Scott dropped back to let a carriage pass by. When he returned to her side, she broached the one subject still worrying her. “When you wrote and asked me how I would feel about Bertie if he wasn’t how he is, I found I didn’t have an answer. I discovered his secret so soon after I arrived in England, I really don’t know if I would have thought of him romantically otherwise.”

“You didn’t mind me asking?”

“No, of course not, but then your next letter didn’t come for nearly a fortnight...Even though you didn’t seem angry with me, you haven’t visited for so long, Scott. I know it’s because of the ranch, and I don’t resent that—truly—but I couldn’t help be a little afraid…I was so relieved to see you standing in the hallway.”

Scott laughed. “Now who’s letting her imagination run away with her?” They had reached the lookout. He pointed the way, and they steered their horses up the broad bridle path that went higher up the hillside. “It isn’t far. This track leads to the ridge above us. It’s like this all the way, so we’ll be able to ride back safely by moonlight.”

The trail ahead was wide enough for them to ride comfortably side by side, and Katie was beginning to suspect this outing wasn’t quite as spur of the moment as he claimed.

“I thought we’d watch the sunset before I take you home.”

It sounded very romantic, but in truth Katie didn’t care what they did. She’d missed him so badly some days that she’d ached, despite the letters going regularly between them. She’d been constantly busy too. Bertie and Harry were in town until a week ago, and the schedule of visits preceding Olivia’s wedding to Lachlan Campbell in September had begun. She was still teaching at the mission and attending AWSA meetings. Teresa had been staying with the McIntyres for the last fortnight. Officially, Scott had come to deliver some legal documents to Uncle Will and then to escort Teresa back home to Lancer. Unofficially—well, that went without saying.

After Katie and Scott had eaten they sat, resting more against each other than the tree behind them, watching the sun glow yellow and gold, its halo merging into the soft pinks and blues of the sky. For a few minutes, a bright pink blanket lay across the horizon. The sky was a brilliant blue reflected in the black-edged waters of San Francisco Bay. Then slowly, a warm darkness enfolded them and it was night. Scott leaned forward and lit a lantern—he really had thought of everything—and they sat, without speaking, wrapped in each other’s arms, gazing out over the bay as the moon and the stars reclaimed the heavens.

But too soon, he kissed her head and took his arm away from her shoulders.

“Oh, no, not yet. Let’s stay a little longer.” Katie reached out as he stood up, trying to coax him back down. Now the sun had set, her aunt and uncle would expect them home. But still. “Ten more minutes won’t matter, surely?”

Scott smiled in that soft, secret way of his that made her feel like she wanted so much more than she could have.  “I’ve got something for you. Wait here.”

She watched with curiosity as he went to his saddle bags.

When he came back he was carrying two beeswax candles. They didn’t need them; they already had the lantern, and the moon was big and near round in the sky. The stars were so bright it looked like Andromeda and her hero Perseus were reaching out to touch each other.

 Scott settled back down on the rug and gave Katie one of the candles.

“Why do we need these?”

“You’ll see.” He turned the lantern down low so it was barely a glimmer. Then he struck a match. When the flame steadied, he lit both candles and shook the match out. He held his up to hers, and the flames glowed warm and yellow in the dark. A faint whiff of honey hung in the air.

Lightly moving a strand of her hair to one side with his finger, Scott smiled into her eyes with such love it took her breath away. “Do you remember in March when we picnicked by Cuddy’s Creek? We talked about what we wanted out of life, and I teased you that you attracted men like moths to a flame.” He lowered his hand, and Katie’s heart missed a beat. “Do you remember what you said to me?”

She gazed up into his beautiful blue eyes. A strange peace wrapped around her like the soft, velvet cloak her grandmother gave her for her sixteenth birthday; the one that always made her feel safe and warm and loved. A tear trickled down her cheek. She breathed in, but she didn’t look away. Her words were whispered and steady. “I said I choose to wait for a man carrying a candle that shines as brightly for me as mine does for him.”

Scott glanced down at the candles flickering in their hands. “Which shines more brightly, do you think?”

Katie didn’t even have to look. “I think they’re the same.”

“That’s what I thought.” Taking her other hand, Scott brought it to his lips. “Katie Eliot, will you marry me?”

 

 

~end~

Notes:
1. This story is number 14 in the Eliot Series and follows Of Mice and Scott Lancer, 2016. It also has links to Circumstances, 2015, and From Highlands to Homecoming, 2015.
2. This story stems from the Lancer TV series created by Samuel A. Peeples and written by him and others. It includes references to events, characters or dialogue mentioned in: The Homecoming (Pilot movie)/ The Highriders, Series 1, Episode 1; Legacy, Series 2, Episode 10; Zee, Series 2, Episode 2.
3.  Here is a reference about the work and attitude of Presbyterian women with regards Chinese prostitution in 1870s San Francisco for anyone interested: https://books.google.com/books?id=f5o_t7VxHYAC&pg=PA203&lpg=PA203&dq=san+francisco+chinese+prostitutes+1870s+presbyterian&source=bl&ots=NA7kNAPuWo&sig=cSSNABTRS6GW7misyI_-jcmhBPA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiD26mWr5fPAhWDXRQKHfpZCVAQ6AEIITAB#v=onepage&q=san%20francisco%20chinese%20prostitutes%201870s%20presbyterian&f=false
4. The Bohemian Club was founded in San Francisco in April, 1872. Its original building was burned down as a result of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and a new building was later built on the same site. For the purposes of this story I have use the site at the corner of Post and Taylor Streets, but my description of the 1872 clubhouse is purely fictional. In actual fact, the club may not have been at this site at all until sometime after 1872 as Wikipedia says it started in a room on Sacramento Street, below Kearney.
5. The What Cheer House was a hotel for men only that was opened in 1852 by R.B Woodward. It was destroyed by fire in 1906. It permitted no liquor and housed San Francisco’s first free library and first museum.
6. Like his other waltzes, Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante was designed for concert performance not for dancing.
7. AWSA stands for the American Woman Suffrage Association, which campaigned for votes for women in the USA at state and local level during the nineteenth century.
8. The candles were first mentioned in The Visit, Chapter 3, 2015.

Sir Bertram Halford                                                         Harry Wexford
Image result for nineteenth century men                             Image result for 1870 mens clothing

Fanny McIntyre                                               Katie’s rose silk and velvet walking dress
Image result for 1870s women                                         Image result for 1870s women dress

 

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