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"And here's our sister Jessica," said Ned Harte.
So this was Penelope Gresham's daughter. Travis Parnell looked her over while responding courteously to the introduction. Plain little thing, wasn't she? Miss Jessica Harte obviously didn't take after either parent--at least, physically. Penelope Gresham's face was as distinct in his mind today as it had been seventeen years ago when he first saw her at her husband's bank; she had been a great beauty. Harte, Jessica's father, was a handsome man still, as was the girl's stepmother, Anne, a woman with curling red hair and a ready smile. Travis had had an uneasy stirring of memory when he'd been introduced to the father. The name somehow--oh, well, it wasn't the father who interested him; it was the daughter.
And if he were lucky, she wouldn't take after Penelope in temperament. He planned to marry Jessica Harte and didn't relish the idea of saddling himself with a selfish, vicious woman. Still, if that's what he got, it would be worth it, because through Jessica he'd gain access to Penelope Gresham and her husband Hugh, and then he'd make them rue the day they ever heard the name Parnell.
"We call her Jessica the Genius," said Ned, "'cause she's smarter an' got more education than any of us."
"That's enough, Ned," said Anne Harte, glancing at the girl, whose cheeks had flushed with embarrassment.
Genius? Travis suppressed a frown. The last thing he needed was a girl too smart to succumb to a whirlwind courtship conducted for the least romantic of reasons. Then, looking at her again, at that pale hair, severely styled--and hadn't she been wearing spectacles when she entered theparlor?--he decided she'd be vulnerable. Likely as not, even with her rich father, Miss Jessica Harte hadn't had all that many beaus, and now she was going to get herself not just a beau but a husband. If she turned out to be a malicious bitch like her mother, he could divorce her--as Justin Harte had divorced Penelope--but there'd be no divorce until he'd had his revenge on the Greshams.
With those cheerful prospects in mind, Travis smiled warmly at his future wife, and the girl's lips parted in surprise. Hadn't a man ever smiled at her before? he wondered, feeling a little sorry for her. Well, sorry wouldn't avenge his father. Travis's heart clenched as it did every time he thought of William Henry Parnell, his joyous, laughing father whom he'd loved so much, a suicide at thirty-seven, the gun that killed him on the floor beside him, the people that killed him still alive and richer than ever.
Then Jessica Harte smiled back, raising her eyes for the first time, and Travis felt a jolt of pleasure. The smile was as sweet and shy as wild honey, and the eyes--blue, deep blue, wide, and slightly tilted. She never got those eyes from Penelope Gresham. There wasn't a gleam of malice in them, nor an iota of calculation. And when you really looked, she wasn't that plain. Her skin was smooth and clear, her features delicate with a lovely, full mouth. Maybe he'd keep her, he thought wryly. A rich father-in-law never hurt anyone, not that Travis needed Harte's money. He had enough money and enough hate to destroy the Greshams without any financial help. All he needed was to plant himself in their midst, and Miss Jessica would accomplish that for him.
"And this is our sister Frannie, the scamp," said Ned. "Pay no attention to anything she does or says, unless you find a toad in your soup. If you do, Frannie put it there."
"Ned," said Anne Harte reprovingly.
"But, Ma," protested Ned, all injured innocence, "that's just what she did to Henry Barnett last time he came to talk legal business with Pa."
Frannie the scamp, far from being embarrassed, was giggling, a girl of fourteen with her mother's curly red hair. She was going to be a beauty in a few years, Travis thought absently, but she was too young for his purposes, and, more important, she wasn't Penelope's daughter. When he got through with Penelope and Hugh, they'd be poorer and more miserable than William Henry Parnell had been when he killed himself. Travis would do to them what they'd done to his father.
"May I sit next to you, Miss Jessica?" Travis asked when Anne Harte announced dinner. "With your permission, of course, Mrs. Harte."
"Why certainly," said Anne, giving him an approving smile. Poor Jessie had been a bit sad and bored since she got back from school in Washington City, thought Anne. The attention of a handsome young man would be just the thing to cheer her up.
Travis wondered if Anne Harte would be so pleased when she discovered how fast he planned to marry her stepdaughter. He didn't have the time for a long courtship, as he had other business besides the destruction of the Greshams, which money, power, and cunning would bring about. Money was important. Lack of it had destroyed his father. Lots of it would help Travis ruin Gresham, and a man didn't make and keep lots of money by ignoring his livelihood.