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"Let's kill off your wife," suggested Randolph Hearn, the lanky editor of the Rocky Mountain Sentinel, as he lounged back on Dolly Green's drawing room sofa.
Before Carson Fairfax could respond, a malicious smile formed on his best friend's lips. Randolph gazed up at the ornate ceiling of the House of Sphinxes and raised his voice in a theatrical tone. "First, the dear lady would die a sad, poetic death, described dramatically in her obituary. Then I would write a front-page follow-up about the funeral. Something suitably impressive for the wife of one of Denver's richest men--and the third son of the Earl of Atwick.
"You know--fog settling over the city as though the elements were weeping along with us mortals for the passing of one so young, so beautiful, so beloved. Dozens and dozens of black-plumed horses would parade through the streets, mounds of lilies would cover her casket, and a throng of mourning dignitaries would march behind the gleaming hearse."
Fired by his vision, Randolph sat up and leveled a long index finger at him. "And you'll be speechless in your profound grief as the bereaved husband. What inscription do you think I should quote for her gravestone?"
"Do shut up, old chap," snapped Carson, avowed bachelor and the Fairfax family black sheep.
"Come now, Carson, where is your sense of humor?" Dolly asked from her favorite chair by the fire. Amid the late afternoon gloom, the firelight set silvery glints dancing in the white hair of the society matron and brought a rosy luster to her five-strand pearl choker. In her lap lay the telegram he'd justreceived.
"I see the irony, madame, but I do not think it at all funny." Too apprehensive to sit, he leaned against the marble mantel, closer to the crackling flames, attempting to warm himself against the disbelief--and the cold October wind--that had chilled him to the bone. The fictitious world he'd built to please his mother when she'd been on her deathbed, and to thwart his father, who had forbidden him to return to England, was about to tumble down around him. "And I'd appreciate it, Randolph, old chap, if you'd offer some constructive ideas, not ridicule."
"Now, now, gentlemen, let's not turn on each other when the going gets rough," Dolly counseled. "Carson, you must admit, this is good news. Your mother has not only recovered from her illness but is strong enough to travel. The bad news is, she wants to spend Christmas with you--and your wife."
"I'm delighted about her recovery, of course. There's never been any question of that," Carson countered, and he meant it. He'd thrown a party months ago at the Gentlemen's Respite to celebrate the day his brothers had sent confirmation of their mother's miraculous recuperation.
When the three days of partying had come to an end, the reality of what he'd done had set in. How could he tell his mother he'd lied? So he'd begun to add to his string of falsehoods. Now, a year later, it was time to pay the piper.
"I think we should keep the solution simple--whatever we decide to do," he said to his partners in crime. He spread his hands toward the roaring fire, but the heat still failed to banish his chill. He disliked dishonesty. Even as a gambler he seldom practiced it.
"Easy to say, Carson, dear, but not so easy to do," Dolly replied. "Since this all began, we've woven quite an intricate set of tales for you and Kitty. By the way, I keep forgetting to ask, how did you come to name your wife Kitty?"
"Lucky jumped on the desk while I was composing the letter to Mother," he said with a shrug. "And it seemed like a good American name."
"Lucky?" Dolly frowned and cast a questioning glance toward Randolph. "The Respite's cat?"
"Even the cat bears guilt in this," Randolph admitted, his malicious mockery slipping away into a worried frown. "Lord, how did we get into this mess?"
Carson remembered all too well how he'd begun to build his house of cards. First, he'd learned he was about to lose his mother. With bitter clarity he recalled the exact wording of the three telegrams he had received within a few short hours on October 7, 1889.
First the telegram from his father had stunned and infuriated him.
--Carson stop Physicians give your mother less than a fortnight to live stop Do not return stop Wire your farewell stop Your Father full stop--
Grief-stricken and rebellious, he'd immediately started to pack for the trip to England. A pox on you, Father, he'd muttered to himself as he crammed shirts into a small valise. Animosity, like an iron wall, had long separated him from the earl. The terse command not to return home only made him more determined to reach his mother's bedside before it was too late. If he traveled fast and alone, sleeping on the move, he could be home in two weeks. Ignoring his father's instruction, he'd sent Jack Tremain to buy a ticket for him on the next train headed east.
His father, the rich and influential earl, had always insisted on having the finest medical men in the realm attending whenever Mother so much as sneezed. Who could have guessed that this time they were wrong?
Carson was about to leave for the train station when the second telegram had arrived, this one from his brothers.
--Carson stop Mother's end near stop Do not return stop Father anguished stop Strain between you would only worsen matters stop Mother wishes to hear from you stop Write words of comfort stop We will read them to her stop Your brothers John and Neville full stop--
Even now he could envision John, the stern, humorless Atwick heir, so like Father, and Neville, the much-decorated army officer, bent over the telegram form, carefully choosing each word they wrote. But they had made a good point.
He didn't give a damn how Father felt. Mother's feelings, however, were another matter.
If he went to England, he had little doubt that he and his father would quarrel. How would that effect his mother? What good would his visit do if their conflict upset her? Carson set his valise aside.
Yet what words of comfort could he write to her? What could he say to ease her discomfort?
Then his mother's telegram had arrived.
--Dear Son stop Bed rest for my current malady has given me time to reflect on past stop What a fine life your father and I have had stop I so wish you and he would come to terms stop It troubles me that you remain far away and alone stop Life offers no greater happiness than a loving spouse stop It would put my heart at ease to know that you are settled and happy with a wife stop But know dear son that you remain ever in my heart stop Your loving mother full stop--
The anger and grief stirred by his father's telegram vanished. His mother's message flooded Carson with warmth and tenderness. Tears had ached in his throat. When he closed his eyes, he could feel her caring hand on his four-year-old head, an unforgettable gesture of love that lived inside him still. Father had just given him a particularly harsh set down for misbehaving in church. His mother had touched him with love and reassurance--then later, when he was supposed to be out of hearing, he had heard them arguing.
He'd known since his father had locked him in the cellar for refusing to serve as altar boy at St. Paul's that there was no pleasing the earl. By then he'd already spent the entire twelve years of his life trying. Though he had nothing against the church, parading along behind a cleric was the last place he belonged.
As the earl's angry footsteps had faded on the cellar stairs, he'd seen with dazzling, youthful clarity that his father would never accept him for whom and what he was. He was meant to be an adventurer, an entrepreneur, a creature of the secular world.
From that day forward he'd made no more attempts to be what his father wanted.
Whenever things looked impossible, the memory of his mother's hand on his head had given him faith in himself. Her love had remained constant. Evidence of it glowed in her eyes, in her touch, and in her voice. Even when he'd been dismissed from school for winning all the other boys' pocket money at cards. Even when he'd been sent down from university for trying to prove to the fellows that card-playing was a mathematical science. Even when he'd been escorted out of his father's London club because he'd won against the Duke of Deander too often for just good luck or skill--and he was labeled a black sheep.
Even when he could see in his mother's eyes that she suspected he enjoyed being the Fairfax black sheep--it was the one thing he did well--the shining brightness of her love had never diminished.
"Tell us again, Carson, what you wrote to your mother," Dolly urged, jarring him from his memories. "Whatever we do, it must be true to the story we've already created. I don't remember exactly what you said."
"I remember." Carson turned from the fire and quoted the telegram he'd sent to his mother almost a year earlier.