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The Benedict Bastard
By CATE CAMPBELL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Louise Marley
All rights reserved.
Bronwyn fitted a cigarette into her holder, and looked around for some gentleman to offer her a light. The Cellar was crowded with partiers, a crush of people elbowing one another, stepping on one another's feet, shouting to be heard over the din. There were never enough tables, and chairs were crammed together any which way. She had a flint lighter in her handbag, but she decided it wasn't worth trying to reach under her chair to drag it out. In any case, if it was smoke she wanted, an abundance of it hung in the air, billowing against the low ceiling, dimming the lights in their stained shades. Her dress would reek of it in the morning.
Fortunately, her maid was a wizard at dealing with that. And had plenty of experience.
Bronwyn leaned against the brick wall, crossing her silk-stockinged legs and brandishing the Bakelite holder like a scepter. Johnnie pushed his way toward her through the throng, holding their drinks aloft in his two hands and turning sideways to fit his bulk between the chairs. He grinned as he caught sight of her. He evaded the waving arms and tossing heads, managing some how to set the cocktails down without spilling. He collapsed onto a chair that was much too small for him, and dashed at the perspiration dripping down his cheeks. "Gosh!" he cried. His voice was barely audible above the tinny plonk of the player piano's keys. He leaned close to make himself heard, enveloping Bronwyn in a gust of gin-scented breath. "I think half the town is down here!"
Bronwyn picked up her cocktail and eyed it, tipping it this way and that.
"It's a Fallen Angel," Johnnie bellowed. "That's your drink, isn't it? A Fallen Angel?"
"It doesn't look like one," Bronwyn said doubtfully. "Gin and lime and creme de menthe? It should be green."
"Well—it's sort of green." Johnnie peered at the cocktail. "Willy said it was a Fallen Angel."
Bronwyn shrugged. "Never mind," she said.
She waved her hand, and took a sip of the drink. It wasn't a real Fallen Angel, though Willy, the barman, had tried to make up for the deficit of creme de menthe by adding sugar syrup. At least here at the Cellar she could trust the gin. As she had laughed to Johnnie the last time, they could trust the gin at the Cellar because Willy made it in his very own bathtub.
"Come on, Bron, let's cut a rug," Johnnie said. He tossed back his own drink, which was probably straight gin—Johnnie wasn't the discerning sort, which was why he was content to squire Bronwyn Morgan around the speakeasies of Port Townsend. He jumped to his feet and reached for her hand.
"I don't see where," she protested.
"We'll make room, over there in the corner. Come on, we'll put another nickel in the piano. Everybody wants to see you do the Black Bottom!"
Bronwyn polished off the drink, grimacing at the bite of rough gin and sour lime. The taste didn't really matter. It would have been nice to have a real Fallen Angel, like the ones people drank in New York and Seattle, but gin and dancing were why she had come to the Cellar. Gin, awkward dancing, loud voices, bad music, bad company—they irritated her enough to distract her from the other irritants in her life. She got to her feet, and Johnnie gripped her hand to pull her through the crowd.
People nodded to her and spoke her name as she wound among them. Most of them called her Bronwyn, because she was by far the youngest woman in the place. There were a few— men mostly—who called her Miss Morgan. They were the ones who would no doubt mention having seen her, stirring afresh the embers of her father's wrath. She smiled brazenly at each of them, and flourished the cigarette holder. When the Black Bottom began, she threw herself into the steps, making her skirt swirl to show the satin garters clasped around her thighs.
She liked the Black Bottom, because it had no rules. The dancer didn't have to touch her partner—in the case of Johnnie Johnson, this was preferable—and she was limited only by her own talent for movement. Bronwyn knew her personal faults very well, assisted in her understanding by her father's frequent reminders, but she also knew her strength, and it was dancing. The foxtrot, the rhumba, the swooping steps of the tango, all came as naturally to her as walking.
It was what had first drawn Preston to her, at the Bartletts' reception three years before. She had been dancing.
On that day, in the summer of 1920, she hadn't worn garters or carried a cigarette holder. She had dressed in the most modest of afternoon frocks, a drop-waisted georgette with a scarf hem and a lace-edged collar with long points. She had recently cut her hair in the Castle Bob, and her mother had allowed her a touch of lipstick. She was sixteen, but she was certain she looked at least eighteen. She had just been accepted into the Cornish School, and she was feeling very grown-up, a young woman with the world at her feet and a shining future.
Now, at nineteen, she understood that the younger Bronwyn had been as naive as a kitten. She had believed that an older man's attention, the shine of admiration in his eyes, the way he watched her every movement, meant he had fallen in love with her. And she had—dizzyingly, breathlessly, passionately — fallen in love with him. He was a decorated war hero. His family was even wealthier and more respectable than her own. His dancing made her feel like a creature made of cloud, swirling as weightlessly as a puff of mist.
She was older and wiser now, and neither condition brought her much joy. She swung into the hip-thrusting motions of the Black Bottom, knowing that her father hated this dance. He said it was because he didn't like girls flinging themselves about, but Bronwyn understood it was the sensuality that offended him. She hadn't known the Black Bottom when she was sixteen. She wouldn't have understood it.
Someone put another nickel into the piano, and a Charleston began. Without bothering to see if Johnnie joined her, Bronwyn began the dance. It took more space than the Black Bottom, but people stepped back to give her room. The rhythm swept her up. She was adept at the sliding kick-step, the shimmy, the coordination of hands and knees and feet. Her heeled pumps skimmed the floor, and her beaded dress shimmered. Johnnie tried to keep up, but his big body was awkward, and his efforts made her laugh. She knew every step, having seen all the films, with a pianist beneath the screen inventing tunes to match the dance. Bronwyn had invented a few of her own steps, too, which would no doubt soon show up at someone's debutante ball or engagement party.
Someone else would have to demonstrate them, though. She wouldn't be invited to these events. Her parents had fooled no one by sending her to Vancouver. No one in Port Townsend would mention the matter in the presence of Chesley and Iris Morgan, but everyone knew their daughter was ruined. No matter how frantically she danced, no matter how many Fallen Angels she drank, she couldn't pretend otherwise.
Still, she couldn't hate him. She had loved Preston Benedict. She was still in love with his memory.
* * *
In that faraway summer of 1920, everyone Bronwyn knew was giddy about the new decade and the unfolding of a peacetime era. Port Townsend was recovering from the collapse that had threatened the city twenty years before. Businessmen were growing fat on the boom in lumber sales, and planning their profits from the new paper mill. The more daring among them padded their incomes by importing Canadian liquor for the speakeasies in Seattle. The boys who made it safely home from the war were celebrated as heroes, and had their pick of Port Townsend beauties.
Bronwyn and her friends read Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and planned their debuts. They cut their hair and rolled their stockings, and tried, in secret, to learn to smoke cigarettes. They liked to think of themselves as daring, independent women of the new century, but in truth, they were very like their mothers. They understood the rules of their social circle. Though they cast off their corsets and shortened their dresses, their magical girlhoods were meant to end, inevitably, in fairy-tale weddings.
None of the girls gave much thought to what came after. There would be honeymoons. They were expected to know how to choose menus and entertain guests. They would learn to manage maids and cooks and laundresses. To Bronwyn and her friends, marriage was just a grown-up version of playing house.
Their fathers treated them like dolls on a shelf, to be seen and admired until they would, one day, be plucked down and settled on a different shelf. Their mothers watched over them like swans over their cygnets, guiding their steps, protecting their good names, eyeing the young men to sort out the ones with the best prospects. Both mothers and fathers believed, as their own parents had, that the less girls knew, the better off they were.
The girls grew up in blissful ignorance of their own physiology. They were told their monthly periods were the curse of women. No one explained why, or how they were connected to the great mystery.
Bronwyn's view of romance was more Jane Austen than D. H. Lawrence, more Snow White than The Scarlet Letter. The union of men and women was a misty, magical idea, a fantasy of white silk and flowers, of veils and pearls and wedding cakes. She knew nothing of the realities of flesh and blood, of passion and pain, or of treachery.
Such a lovely June day it had been, when Bronwyn and her friends Bessie and Clara clustered near the French doors of the Bartletts' ballroom, giggling and whispering together. Their mothers were nearby, but the girls were doing their best to ignore them.
Bessie nudged Bronwyn. "Don't you just love a man in uniform?" Bessie was wearing a dress with a high collar, to hide the reddish freckles that so embarrassed her. Bronwyn and Clara had found a recipe for her, a paste of rye and tartar and oil of roses, but it wasn't working.
Clara said, "The Bartletts invited all the officers up from Fort Worden." She blushed as she said it, and turned her back on the knot of young men gazing around the room.
Bronwyn looked past her at the reception line, where the Bartletts stood with their daughter Margaret. The party was in Margaret's honor, to signal the end of her debut year. Margaret had always been plain, but she looked almost pretty today, powdered and pressed and coiffed. The officers bowing over her hand did indeed look handsome, the whole crowd of them, with their shining boots and polished buttons. Bronwyn was about to say so when Bessie whispered, "Who is that?" and the others turned to look at the stranger just entering from the garden.
Time suspended for Bronwyn. The soldiers in their uniforms faded from her consciousness, vanquished by this new arrival. He paused in the doorway, and her heart paused with him.
The afternoon sun burnished his pale hair to gold. His suit was the latest cut, broad shoulders, pleated trousers, a vest of taupe silk. In his breast pocket, just peeking out so everyone could see it, was a notebook and pen. He was not particularly tall, but his features were finely cut, and his eyes—oh! Such a clear, pale blue, shining even across the crowded ballroom.
Bessie hissed in Bronwyn's ear, "D'you know who that is? That's the newspaperman! The columnist!"
"What columnist?" Bronwyn whispered back. Her mouth had gone dry, and her heart resumed its beat, thudding hotly beneath her silken frock.
"With the Times, silly." Bessie poked her with an elbow. "He writes 'Seattle Razz.' Everyone's reading it!"
"He's the one who writes 'Seattle Razz'? But he's so young?'
Bessie shrugged. "Not so young, I guess. I mean, he went to the war and everything. Of course he doesn't wear his uniform anymore, but Mama says he was a captain in the British Army. Has all sorts of medals and things."
"Oh ..." Bronwyn gazed at him in astonishment. She had never seen a more appealing man. He came into the ballroom with a step that was modest, almost diffident, as if he wasn't sure anyone would notice him. He touched his hair in an absent way, smoothing his forelock back with one finger. It didn't stay, but fell down again over his forehead, a strand of gold gleaming above those ice-blue eyes.
Bronwyn could hardly breathe past the melting sensation in her breast.
"And," Bessie went on, parceling out information like sweets from a box, "he's one of the Seattle Benedicts. You know, the ones who have Benedict Hall. On Millionaire's Row."
"Oh ..." Bronwyn said again. It wasn't like her to be wordless, or to lose her composure, but this man was nothing like the callow boys she knew, nor even like the grinning soldiers lined up on the opposite side of the ballroom like puppets. He was just — just—perfect.
She could hardly bear to watch him bow over Mrs. Bartlett's hand, then take Margaret's. Margaret gave him a coquettish smile, confident in her lace-and-chiffon afternoon frock, her drab hair caught up with loops of pearls.
Pain shot through Bronwyn at the idea that Preston Benedict might take a shine to Margaret Bartlett. Perhaps he would even ask her parents if he could court her. She was the proper age, after all. Her family name was impeccable. Worse, she was looking her best today.
Bronwyn felt a sudden and staggering sense of loss. It made no sense, since she hadn't even met Preston Benedict, but she yearned toward him nevertheless. He flashed a smile at stupid Margaret before he put out his hand to Mr. Bartlett. Bronwyn wanted to push her way through the crowd and seize his arm.
She knew what her mother would say about him. He was not only too old to be introduced to a young lady who was not yet out, but he was a newspaperman. Iris Morgan maintained that a real lady appeared in the papers only three times in her life: at her birth, at her marriage, and at her death. She might make an exception for a debutante event, perhaps a ball or a fashionable tea. She would never, ever approve of her daughter being mentioned in "Seattle Razz."
A small band, trumpet, saxophone, and piano, began to play from an inner corner of the ballroom. Young men glanced around in search of partners. George Bartlett, Margaret's younger brother, started toward Bronwyn, but Iris Morgan, appearing as if from nowhere, stepped between them. Though she blushed at having to assert herself, she said, "No dancing, Bronwyn. Not until you're out."
"But, Mother !" Bronwyn cried. "Bessie's dancing, look! And Clara!"
"I don't think your father would like it," her mother said, glancing around as if Chesley might show up at any moment.
"You let me dance at Clara's birthday party!"
"That wasn't public."
"Mother, please! Just let me dance with George. It's his house, after all."
Iris hesitated, gazing at her daughter, lifting a hand to smooth a wrinkle in her collar. "I just don't know ... I'm afraid ..."
"Mo-ther! You're always afraid."
George reached them at that moment, saying brightly, "Good afternoon, Mrs. Morgan. You look so lovely—you could be Bronwyn's sister!"
"George, shame on you." Iris colored, and gave an embarrassed titter. "Such flattery."
It could have been true, though. Bronwyn and her mother looked much alike. Their honey-brown hair was dressed in identical finger waves, firmly fixed with flaxseed gel. Their eyes were the same hazel, sparkling with flecks of gold. Iris's skin had grown soft around her chin and throat, but it was still fine-grained and clear.
Bronwyn took advantage of the awkward moment by putting out her white-gloved hand for George to take. "Just one dance, Mother," she said. "Listen, it's the new foxtrot! Please."
Iris didn't exactly give her permission, but she sighed, and as she pressed an uncertain hand to her embroidered bodice, the young people made their escape onto the dance floor.
George wasn't much of a dancer, but he was better than nothing. Bronwyn danced the foxtrot with him, then a one-step and the Castle Walk. She felt her mother's worried gaze on her, but she didn't look back for fear Iris would make her stop. When she saw Preston Benedict watching, she pretended not to notice, but she made her steps smoother, her turns swifter, the movements of her head and hands as graceful as she could. Her skirt fluttered gratifyingly around her ankles, and the narrow scarf around her throat rippled like a ribbon of cloud.
When Preston cut in, George was forced to give way. A slow waltz began, and Bronwyn, her heart fluttering into her throat, took special care not to catch her mother's anxious eye. She floated away in Preston's assured clasp, and knew in her bones that her life would never be the same again. Her fairy tale had begun.
In the bliss of gliding across the dance floor in his arms, of feeling his cheek brush her hair, in the enchantment of being chosen over every other girl in the room, Bronwyn Morgan forgot that every fairy tale has its dark side.
Excerpted from The Benedict Bastard by CATE CAMPBELL. Copyright © 2014 Louise Marley. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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