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February 27, 1871
"Tyler, I'm not at all sure we should go through with such an underhanded plot. You know I've had no experience with this sort of trick! Why, I've never done a fraudulent deed in my life!"
"I know, Etty, but I told you before, it's not really dishonest, not when it's him. You don't have to utter a syllable. Just stand there and look matronly and sincere, like always, and I'll do all the talking, I promise," Tyler MacKenzie insisted gently, her final words taking on a wheedling tone as she tried to calm the older, bespectacled woman standing beside her. Tyler knew that her dear friend Harriet Stokely, who was fifty-five, considered herself a good bit wiser in the ways of the world than eighteen-year-old Tyler. At the moment, Harriet did not look the least bit convinced, despite Tyler's reassurances.
Tyler sighed. Her small, high-heeled red boots made crunching sounds in the ice-crusted snow as she stamped her feet, trying to keep warm. The night wind was so cold! "Just remember I've done this sham before, lots and lots of times, and it always works like a charm. Anyway, we've got to do it this way, because the Yankee must think we met him by chance. According to the Tribune, he's one of the fastest fellows in Chicago, so he's bound to pay me some notice if I act the coquette. You read the account of him and that awful artist woman yourself. She ended up deserting her husband and going back east because of him. I can have him eating out of the palm of my hand in no time at all, I know I can," she finished with a self-confident nod.
"Oh, Tyler, won't you please reconsider? You haven't tried any of these"—Harriet faltered over the distasteful words—"disgraceful conspiracies for months now, not since last summer when your uncle Burl was laid to rest in St. Louis. He was the mastermind, if you'll remember!"
Tyler knew Harriet would never condone her scheme, so she took a different tack, one she knew would appeal to the other woman.
"Etty, tonight will end our deceptions, just as I promised you. I mean it, truly. Once we get Rose Point back from Gray Kincaid, we can go there to live. You know that's all I've ever wanted. He owes it to me. Rose Point is rightfully mine."
Harriet detected the barely perceptible catch in Tyler's voice, and she sighed heavily in surrender. Shaking her head and grumbling a few more disapproving words, she tugged her gray squirrel cap down over her silvering dark brown hair. Lordy, she thought, vigorously chafing her hands inside her black woolen gloves, what a horrid night to stand about in the snow!
"Perhaps he's not intending to come around tonight after all," Harriet suggested, peering down the wide public mall and hoping desperately that she was right. "It's getting late. He usually passes this way by now. Mercy me, I'm becoming quite numb," she added.
"Please bear up, Etty. I'm not used to snow either," Tyler MacKenzie replied, shivering. "A brisk walk down to the end of the bridge would do you good, I suspect. He'll be along shortly now, I'm sure. He hasn't missed a night in five days. And, Etty, if you catch sight of him, and you're quite certain it's Gray Kincaid, stroll back toward me. That can be our signal."
"I declare, I don't know what ails you, child, to persist in such nonsensical and unseemly artifice now that Burl's gone," Harriet muttered, her cross words producing a frosty cloud that hung between them in the cold night air. But she lifted the front of her black wool skirt and picked her way gingerly through the gently falling flakes to the nearby bridge spanning the Chicago River.
Tyler watched Harriet sweep away, her huge hoopskirt cutting a wide swath along the three inches of new snow on the walkway. Then she thrust her own kid-gloved hands deeper into her soft ermine muff. Harriet was terribly old-fashioned about everything, especially her apparel. No matter how many times Tyler had cajoled her to lighten up her drab outfits and exchange her stiff crinolines for stylish panniers, Harriet had remained adamantly opposes. She was quite satisfied with her reliable hoopskirts, thank you. And plain black served her nicely, she had said, because after all, her husband and sons had been dead only five years, all sacrificed to preserve the Union.
Tyler shivered, raising the big, soft muff against her face to blow into the silky white fur. The resulting warmth helped to thaw her wind-reddened nose.
Now that it had grown dark, the low temperature felt even more severe. She had grown up in southern climes, and now it was peculiar to think that she had once considered it cold in Natchez, Mississippi, at Christmastide! This frigid Yankee town on Lake Michigan had seemed more like the North Pole to Harriet and her since they had arrived on the St. Louis-Chicago Express a week ago and begun their surveillance of Gray Kincaid.
Hatred seeped through her bones—hot, intense, and oddly comforting in its familiarity. She had never laid eyes on her intended victim until her recent arrival in Chicago, and only then from a distance. But she knew him. She knew all about him. Stranger or not, he had managed to play a powerful role in her life, virtually destroying everything she loved.
Six years ago, when the Yankee bluebellies had descended like a plague on Mississippi, not only had Gray. Kincaid commandeered Rose Point Plantation for his troops, he had also burned every bale of cotton, which had plunged her father, Colin MacKenzie, into bankruptcy. Tyler's throat constricted. Then her father had taken his life out of despair over what Captain Gray Kincaid had done.
Deep in her heart, an unhealed wound began to throb, bitterness and pain rising forcefully to crash over her mind like a giant, sluicing wall of water. She saw the dreadful scene again, so vivid and real that her fists clenched convulsively inside her muff.
She was twelve years old again, alone, padding barefoot down the silent halls of Rose Point as the midnight hour began to toll. She opened the door to her father's library just as he picked up his small, ivory-handled pistol....
Determined not to relive the horror all over again, Tyler lifted her face to the sky, deeply inhaling the crisp, cleansing air.
Her moment of truth was at hand, she told herself. She was in Chicago, ready to wreak vengeance on the Yankee. Gray Kincaid now owned Rose Point, having bought it for a pittance after the war when it had been auctioned for nonpayment of back taxes. When she had discovered in the Natchez newspapers that he had recently put the plantation up for sale for ten thousand dollars, she had decided to come to Chicago and rook out of Gray Kincaid himself the money with which to buy it back. How fitting her plan was, because he would lose twofold and look the fool in the process. Once she had succeeded, she would never again need to resort to any of the illegal ventures and confidence games her uncle Burl had taught her when she had gone to live with him following her father's funeral.
"Where the thunder is he, anyway?" she grumbled as another violent shiver seized her. Every night Gray Kincaid had taken the same route over the Clark Street Bridge, directly past the spot where she now stood, then on to his big gray stone mansion a few blocks up on Lincoln Avenue. Why did he have to be late on the very night she'd planned to accost him? She hoped it wasn't a bad omen.
Tyler lifted cinnamon-brown eyes to gaze across the frozen river to the three-story white limestone building where Gray Kincaid's railroad offices were located. The howling wind made the fragile white flakes of snow dance in graceful cotillions—cotillions like the ones her father had hosted in the great drawing room at Rose Point when she was a little girl, before the Yankees and Gray Kincaid had ended their whole way of life.
"Come on, you damn Yankee," she muttered through stiff lips. A sudden gust of wind swept impudently beneath her heavy red velvet skirt, promptly raising an army of goose bumps upon her stockinged legs. She already had a head cold from this abominable northern weather, and if he didn't arrive soon, she and Harriet would both succumb to fever from standing out in the snow for three hours.
Tensing, she focused her eyes on a tall, heavily cloaked figure that had moved into sight, striding swiftly along the hump of the bridge. Her gaze darted quickly to Harriet just as the other woman turned and started back toward Tyler in their agreed-upon sign.
So he's come at last, Tyler thought triumphantly. She inhaled deeply, fortifying herself against the anxiety that always riveted her just before she first approached a mark. In control again, she started walking briskly across the icy sidewalk. Timing was everything. She must pretend to slip and fall just as he noticed her. Then she would feign a sprained ankle so he would feel compelled to carry her back to her hotel—or to his own house, if Lady Luck was smiling.
She continued at a reckless clip toward the bridge; then, when she was sure the big man could see her through the darkness and fast-falling snow, she acted, flailing her arms for balance as she went into an expert skid across the ice. Unfortunately, however, the pavement proved to be a good deal more treacherous than she had anticipated, and she went down hard, grunting as her backside hit the frozen ground.
But all thought of that pain fled as she slid off the narrow sidewalk and down the slippery incline toward the frozen river. She reached the ice and kept going, coasting a short distance from the shore until, to her unadulterated horror, a sharp snapping and crackling began in the ice around her. Terrified, she cried out for help, frantically grabbing for a handhold as her legs plunged into the frigid river, her heavy winter garments dragging her down.
At first Tyler felt nothing but the mind-numbing shock of the icy water rising over her legs and torso. Panic came next, and she began to scream and struggle. Almost at once, however, her feet settled into the cold muck covering the river bottom, sinking well past her ankles. She could stand, she thought joyously. Although she was up to her waist in water and surrounded by floating chunks of ice, the river was not swift enough to sweep her away. She turned, breaking through the thin crust of ice as she pushed toward shore as rapidly as she could in her heavy skirts, shivering uncontrollably.
"Over here, girl! Grab my cane, and I'll pull you out!" The authoritative masculine order floated out from the darkness of the bank only a few feet away from her. She knew instinctively that it was Gray Kincaid coming valiantly to her rescue, as planned. Thigh-deep in the cold water though Tyler was, she was still practical enough to capitalize on the situation. For the past six years she had been taught to adapt, instantly and without hesitation. Good or bad, make all things work to your advantage, Uncle Burl had told her at least once a day.
"Help! Help me, please!" she cried, trying to sound more hysterical than she really was. She waved her arms with calculated show, all the while inching closer to shore.
Seconds later, she grabbed the solid-gold head of an extended ebony cane, and quickly and easily, her Yankee foe pulled her out of the water and over the broken ice, despite the weight of her heavy, waterlogged garments. She barely had time to blink before he had jerked loose the buttons of her fitted crimson velvet jacket and stripped it off her, then wrapped her tightly in his own fur-lined greatcoat.
"Not to worry, miss. I've got you now," he was saying quite calmly, as if he pulled half-frozen women off ice floes every night on his way home from work. Then Tyler felt herself being swung into a fair of strong, capable arms, and Gray Kincaid trudged with surefooted ease back up the bank to where Harriet stood, wringing her hands with anxiety. As Gray Kincaid spoke to Harriet, Tyler decided to pretend she was half conscious so he would feel compelled to take her to his house.
"She's had a fright, madam, but I daresay she'll recover quick enough if we can get her home to bed without delay. Do you live close by?"
Harriet was so overwhelmed and distressed by the accident and the limp way Tyler was hanging in the big man's arms that she could barely stammer out an answer.
"Yes, yes, we must get her home—to our rooms, I mean," she answered, her words garbled. For her life, she couldn't remember the name of their hotel—not with poor Tyler lying there in his arms, so white and still. "Oh, my goodness me, what's the name of it? It's downtown, and it's got a fancy mansard roof, I do remember that, but I just can't think of the name. Are you sure she's all right? She's not moving."
"Yes, she will be, I'm sure. But come on, we'd better take her to my house. We need to get her warm. It's just down the street. Can you navigate the ice on your own?"
"Yes, yes, I think so. But please, don't concern yourself with me! Do hurry!" Harriet cried, rushing after him as quickly as she could as he carried a lifeless-looking Tyler down the sidewalk with long, rapid strides.
Please, please, let Tyler be all right, Harriet prayed fervently while she hurriedly picked her way along, not at all sure the good Lord would be willing to do anything about her plight—not after her participation in Tyler's wicked machinations. She had known all along that she shouldn't have agreed to such a devious scheme, and now look what had happened! Tyler might die from exposure!
Five minutes later, Harriet was greatly relieved to see the man in front of her turn into the back carriage entrance of a house. She followed him through the tall, black-spiked gates, and farther up the drive she could see carriages and sleighs parked in the slanting squares of yellow light coming from the front windows. She realized suddenly that a party or soiree must be in progress in the stately mansion, but hurried on as Gray Kincaid reached a wide set of stone steps that led to a lofty rear porch supported by square pillars that ran across the back and down one side of the house. An identical porch stretched above them on the second level.
Gray Kincaid burst into the warm, well-lit kitchen. His wild entrance and the way the door banged loudly against the wall frightened three of his young kitchen maids who were busy filling huge silver trays with fancy canapés and sweet pastries. When he barked out sharp orders that were unlike his usual calmly uttered directives, the trio of servants nearly jumped out of their shoes.
"Joyce, Sally, quick, run fetch some blankets, and Plenty of them, and you, Hildie, ready one of the guest rooms. And get one of Carly's warmest nightdresses. She fell through the ice! Hurry, dammit!"
Gray crossed to the wide cooking hearth where a fire flamed high and lowered his tightly wrapped bundle to the spotless brick floor. Carefully he unwound his coat from the girl's shivering body while Harriet moved close behind him, hovering over his right shoulder.
"Quick, help me get her out of these wet clothes," he instructed Harriet, pulling off one of Tyler's small, muddy slippers.
Tyler had been faking semi-consciousness, though the quaking of her ice-cold limbs was genuine. But as her Yankee prey began pulling off her wet, clinging wool stockings, she knew that she must do something before he relieved her of every stitch of clothing.
"Ooooh, oooooh," she moaned loudly, twisting from his grasp while she pretended to regain consciousness with a violent start. But he only held her tighter, his fingers moving deftly to the fastenings of her undergarments. In the twinkling of an eye, he peeled off her sodden petticoats and began working with a good deal of success on the soggy pannier and pantalettes underneath her skirt. Tyler began to panic. Was he really going to strip her stark naked? And with an efficiency that made her wonder how many other times he had undressed ladies? To Tyler's heartfelt relief, Harriet intervened.
"Please, sir! You must let me do that!" Harriet cried out in true matronly outrage.
"Don't be silly, woman. She's hardly more than a child. Help me with these blasted stays before she catches her death!"
Child, Tyler thought, bridling at the insult. But at least Harriet was attempting to stop him as he moved to pull off another of Tyler's stiff, muddy petticoats.
"Tyler is no child, sir. Please, you must let me attend to her."
"Is that her name—Tyler? And what is yours, madam? I assume you are her mother?"
Excerpted from Frost Fire by Linda Ladd. Copyright © 1990 Linda Ladd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 6, 2010
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