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Monday, June 2,1902,
New York CityBefore Midnight
"Francesca, I think it's wonderful that you have volunteered to chair the Ladies Citizen Union Funds Committee," Julia Van Wyck Cahill remarked, handing off her ruby-red velvet mantle to the doorman. Slim, beautiful and elegant, and wearing a very famous ruby pendant that had belonged to a Hapsburg princess, she stood with her daughter in the front hall of their Fifth Avenue home, beaming with pleasure.
Francesca, however, was preoccupied. She handed off her own light wrap, a turquoise satin to match her evening gown. "Mama, I did not quite volunteer. I do believe you and Mrs. Astor decided among yourselves to make me cochair."
Julia's blue eyes widened as she feigned innocent ignorance. "Darling! Whatever makes you say that? My dear, you are the youngest lady to ever chair the committee, and I know you will be superb, Francescayou always are."
In truth, Francesca did not really mind being named the chair, as her current investigation was so routine. A neighbor had realized that certain items in her attics were missing, including several valuable family heirlooms, and having read all about Francesca's last case in the city's numerous newspapers, she had requested Francesca's sleuthing services. Francesca was almost certain that Mrs. Canning's son-in-law was the thief.
"It is a good cause and someone has to raise funds for the party." Francesca sighed. "I simply wish you had asked me first if I had the time to give the position all of the effort and attention it deserves."
Julia took her arm. "I'm sorry, dear. Of course, I should have asked."
Francesca knew very well what her mother was about. Julia was a great society hostess, and she had been aghast by Francesca's new profession. Even with Francesca's success, she remained opposed to her daughter's involvement in any investigation, although she seemed relieved that Francesca finally had a case that was neither life threatening nor scandalous in nature. Francesca knew her mother wanted her so preoccupied with fundraising for the Citizens Union that she would have time for nothing else other than her fiancé.
At the thought of Calder Hart, her heart skipped uncontrollably. But then, Hart had that effect on her, from the time they had first met, when she had refused to admit her attraction to and fascination with such a notorious man. He was one of the city's wealthiest millionaires, yet he had come from humble beginnings, born out of wedlock on the city's poverty-stricken Lower East Side. Until recently, in spite of his reputation as a womanizer, he had been considered the greatest catch in town, with almost every socialite vying for his attention for their debutante daughters. Hart, however, preferred to attach himself to infamous courtesans and divorcees, shying away from any serious involvement. Francesca still had to pinch herself from time to time, in order to realize that it was realshe, Francesca Cahill, who owned an equally notorious reputation as an eccentric, a bluestocking and a sleuth, had somehow snagged Calder Hart. These days, when she walked into a supper party or a ball, knives were sharpened and daggers were drawn behind her back. Once, the whispers and gossip had hurt her feelings; now she rather enjoyed the attention. But then, usually Hart was at her side, whispering in her ear, reminding her to revel in the limelight.
All was not perfect, however. Her father was dead set against Hart. An entire month had gone by since Andrew Cahill had broken off their engagement and he did not seem any closer to coming around, never mind that Francesca's mother was so angry she refused to speak to him unless it was absolutely necessary. In fact, Julia continued to gloat about the engagement to her society friends, as if it had not been terminated.
Francesca had come to realize she could not imagine a future without Hart in it, and she was determined to win Andrew over to their cause. Her father was one of the great progressive thinkers and leaders in the city. He was also a great humanitarian, and Francesca admired him immensely. She could not imagine eloping behind his back, although she and Hart had discussed it. This was the first time in her life that she had not been able to gain her way with her father.
Hart had suggested they not push Andrew Cahill just now. Calder was out of town right now, and Francesca missed him terribly.
As if reading her daughter's mind, Julia said softly, "When will Calder return to the city, Francesca?"
"In a day or two, Mama. He is in Boston, tending to his business affairs." Hart's fortune had been amassed through shipping, insurance and the railroads. He was also a world-renowned art collector, with one of the most extensive and valuable privately owned collections in America.
Several months ago, Hart had commissioned her portrait and Francesca had been hugely flattered. The portrait had been a nude, and she had been daring enough to pose for it. Last month, the painting had been completedand it had also been stolen. With Francesca too upset to think clearly enough to investigate the theft, Hart had put private investigators on the case. But there had been no leads; it was as if the portrait had vanished into thin air. If it ever surfaced publicly, Francesca knew she was finished.
She had quite a few enemies, although many of them were now in prison.
Francesca did not want to worry about the missing portrait now. Instead, she thought about her reunion with Hart. She could barely wait to be in his arms, being soundly and thoroughly kissed. "Mama, I am going to bed. It was a pleasant evening," she said, kissing her cheek.
"Yes, it was, wasn't it?" Julia seemed pleased.
Andrew Cahill stepped into the spacious front hall, having been outside giving instructions to the coachman for the next morning. Francesca smiled at her father as he handed off his top hat, white gloves and scarf. Dressed in his tuxedo, he was a short man with a rotund build and excessive side whiskers. "Papa? Did you enjoy the affair tonight?" Her sister, every bit as successful a society hostess as Julia, had held a charity supper to raise funds for the vast new public library, soon to be erected on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second street. There had been a hundred guests, with champagne, caviar, dinner, dessert and dancing, all in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
"Of course I did," Andrew said, his expression somber. "It is a fine cause and I look forward to the day the library opens. Francesca, I should like to talk to you in the study before you retire for the night."
Francesca tensed. "Papa, can't it wait?" she began. She had the dreadful feeling he was going to talk to her about Hart, a subject they had carefully avoided for an entire month. Unless he had changed his mind about them, Francesca did not want to hear whatever her father had to say.
"I think we have gone on at great odds for long enough," he said firmly.
Francesca knew that tone. She waited while he kissed Julia's cheek, bidding her good-night. Then Francesca and Andrew started through the front hall, arm in arm. All of the servants had discreetly vanished, and their heels clicked on the black-and-white marble floors.
"I believe Hart is back in town."
Francesca was dismayed. "No, Papa, he is not due back for at least another day, and probably he will not be back until Wednesday."
"Ben Garret saw him this afternoon crossing the street," Andrew said curtly. And finally he softened. "Or he thought he did. We had lunch and he mentioned your engagement."
There was no mistaking her father's intended subject now. They paused on the threshold of his study, a large library with wood-paneled walls; high, pale green ceilings; hundreds of books, most political or philosophical in nature; electric lights; and the family's single telephone. Beneath the emerald-green marble mantle a small fire crackled in the fireplace.
"Papa, you broke off our engagement," Francesca said softly. But she twisted the huge diamond engagement ring which she still wore, refusing to take it off.
Andrew regarded her unhappily. "I intended to break it off, but your mother has openly defied me, gleefully telling everyone we meet about your engagement. In private, she won't even speak to me!" he exclaimed. "And do you think I am blind? I see the ring you continue to wear!"
Francesca flushed. "Calder gave me the ring, Papa, and it is a token of his admiration and respect. I simply cannot part with it."
He sighed heavily and walked over to the fireplace, staring down at the flames. "I could tell you stories until I was blue in the face about gullible young women falling for handsome rakes. But like each and every one of those young, naive women, you would not listen to me. You would think you are different, that you are the one to finally capture the cad's heart."
Francesca went and stood besides him nervously. "Unlike all those other cads, Hart has never suggested that I have captured his heart. But he has told me how much he admires and respects me, how dearly he needs my friendship, and how well he thinks we suit."
"So you are not marrying for love?" Andrew asked skeptically. "You are marrying for respect, for friendship?"
Francesca gave him a look. "I love Calder. I have never been so in love. He has a good side, Papa, one that quite contradicts his selfish reputation. And while he says he does not believe in love, he is very fond of me. I wish you could believe that! I think we suit."
"I never said he was not fond of you. I believe he cares for you. Why else would he want to marry you? He hardly needs your moneyhe is as rich as Hades! But I cannot approve when I know with all of my being that he will hurt you terribly one day. A man like that will eventually stray."
Francesca turned away, trembling. Hart had promised her undying loyalty and fidelity. He claimed he was tired of the life he had thus far led, and while Francesca believed him, she could not help but be afraid that the day might come when his head would be turned by a woman far more beautiful than she was. In fact, such a possibility was her single greatest fear.
"Papa, I hate being at odds with you. I know all of your arguments. We both know he has been a cad when it comes to womenjust as you know I am the first woman he has ever asked to marry. Why can't you give him the benefit of the doubt? If I am making a mistake, isn't it mine to make?"
He faced her fully and clasped both of her hands. "I am so proud of you. You are so beautiful, so caring and so committed to humanity, Francesca. While I do wish your new profession was not so dangerous, you have saved many lives and brought justice to those who desperately needed it. You and Hart have nothing in common!" he exclaimed. "I understand that he has turned your head, but what about a dozen years from now? You have dedicated your life to easing the pain and the burdens of others less fortunate that yourself. Hart is the most selfish man I know. Passion will not ensure a successful marriage, Francesca, not for the long term."
She pulled away. "That is unfair! You are judging Hart based solely on his reputation. You do not even know him, Papa. He has been nothing but noble to me. If you cast stones at him, Papa, then you cast them at me, too. Please, please trust me now."
He appeared ready to weep. "Francesca, you have been too kind and trusting since you were a small child, bringing home stray dogs and cats. I keep thinking that Hart is another stray, a man with no real advocates. Are you certain that you really wish to rescue him this way?"
Francesca knew she was Hart's only genuine friendhe had admitted it. But surely, surely she wasn't rescuing him as she had all of those strays? If her feelings weren't love, then Francesca did not know what they could be. "If I am rescuing him, I cannot help myself. Papa, you know that I have never been accepted in society, not until this engagement. Mama's friends and their daughters always saw me as an eccentric, and they never even tried to make me a part of their circle. Has it ever occurred to you that Hart is rescuing me?"
Andrew looked at her with surprise.
She held up her hand and the huge diamond there caught the room's lights and flashed. "It feels so right, Papa, being with him. And not because of passion, but because he has become my dearest and best friend. I am begging you to give him another chance. Please. Because you love me, give Calder one more chance to prove himself to you."
He stared for a long moment. Francesca stood very still, praying he would agree.
"I have treated you as an equal your entire life," he said slowly. "And even though my heart is telling me not to do so, I surrender. You are a brilliant young woman, and I am hoping that you will come to your senses before it is too late. But until then, I will give Hart another chanceas long as you wait a year before you marry."
"A year!" Francesca gasped, her pleasure dissolving.
"A year," Andrew returned calmly. "I know that seems like a long time, Francesca, but it is nothing when you think of a commitment made for the rest of your life. If you still feel this way next June, I will give you my blessing."
Francesca forced her dismay aside and managed a smile. "Thank you, Papa. Thank you so much." She hugged him hard.
He tilted up her chin. "I have always been proud of your independent thinking," he said with a sigh. "I have been wrong to think I could dictate to you after allowing you a lifetime of independence."
She softened. "I am who I am because of you, Papa. I owe you everything." She kissed his cheek, suddenly lighthearted. If she could control her lustful natureor convince Hart to take her to bed before they were marriedmaybe waiting to marry wasn't such a bad thing. The year would give Andrew enough time to really get to know and like Hart. "Good night, Papa." Francesca stepped into the hall.
"Miss?" Her personal maid, Betty, appeared at the far end of the corridor. In her hand was an envelope.
Francesca was surprised to see her. "Betty, why didn't you go to bed? I told you, I do not mind." She saw no reason for Betty to wait up for her. Other young ladies might be incapable of getting out of their gowns, but she could manage quite easily and hardly needed a servant to help.