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Richmond, Virginia September 1894
Over a dozen clocks chimed, bonged, pinged or warbled the hour of four o'clock in Mr. Alfred Hepplewhite's store, without fuss simply named Clocks & Watches. Jocelyn smiled at the cacophony of timepieces heralding the time, while Mr. Hepplewhite placidly continued to fiddle with the clasp of her brooch watch. His gnarled hands were as deft as an artist's, his eyes intent upon the task.
The store was busy today. Restless, Jocelyn wandered toward a deserted corner near the front of the shop to avoid mingling with the other customers. For this moment, she wanted to savor the freedom of being alone, a widow of independent means beholden to nobody, whose sole activity of the day consisted of enjoying the chaotic voices of a hundred clocks.
"Mrs. Tremayne? Your timepiece is ready." Jocelyn hurried across to the cash register, ignoring a disheveled little man wearing a bowler hat several sizes too large, as well as an officious customer who insisted that Mr. Hepplewhite hurry up, he had an appointment in an hour and didn't want to be late.
"It's always a pleasure to see you, Mr. Hepplewhite," she said as she opened her drawstring shopping bag to pay.
"And you, madam." He handed her the watch, bushy white eyebrows lifting behind his bifocals when the seedy-looking customer wormed his way past the rude gentleman to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jocelyn.
"Sorry." He produced an unrepentant gap-toothed grin. "Just wanted to see them watch chains."
"Here now, I was next. Move out of the way, you oaf."
"Right enough, gov'ner." With a broad wink to Jocelyn the other man stepped back. "Fine-looking brooch watch, ma'am. Don't see manylike it these days."
"No, I don't suppose you do." Jocelyn pinned her watch in place, steeling herself to fend off another impertinent remark.
Instead the man abruptly scuttled back down the aisle. After jerking the door open, he darted across East Broad, barely missing being run down by a streetcar. People, Jocelyn decided as her gaze followed the strange scruffy man, were uniformly unpredictable, which was why she didn't trust many of them.
The door flew open again before she reached it. A tall, broad-shouldered man loomed in the threshold. Blinking, Jocelyn took an automatic backward step when, eyes narrowing, he focused on her. For some reason time lurched to a standstill, all the clocks ceased ticking, all the pendulums stopped swinging because this man with windblown hair and gray eyes looked not only dangerous, but familiar. For a shimmering second he stared down at her with the same shock of recognition she herself had experienced.
"Excuse me," he finally said.
His deep voice triggered a cascade of sensations she'd buried a decade earlier, of longing and hope, and Jocelyn squelched the emotions. "Yes?"
One eyebrow lifted, but unlike most other gentlemen, this one remained uncowed by the hauteur she had perfected over the years. "A man came in here, scrawny fellow with a hooked nose, pointy chin. Clothes too big for him. Did you happen to see him?"
Cautious, Jocelyn kept her answer short. "Yes. I did see him. He left a moment ago."
Frustration tightened his jaw. Beneath a straight, thick mustache, his mouth pressed into a thin line. Despite herself, Jocelyn's heart skipped a beat, but even as she determined to push her way out the door, to fresh air and freedom, the man swept past her down the aisle, where he proceeded to make the same inquiry of the other customers.
Impatient, Jocelyn quickened her step and walked out of the store. She was behaving like a two-headed goose. Men had gawked at her all her life, even after she was married, certainly after she was widowed. Little could be gained by turning weak-kneed over one of them. His pointed questions marked him as a policeman of some kind, though he hadn't been wearing a uniform. But even if he weren't a policeman and was only trying to find a friend, his affairs had nothing to do with her. The reserved widow Tremayne did not associate with policemen or ruffians.
At what point during her marriage, she wondered, had she allowed herself to become the self-righteous snob the Binghams so relentlessly demanded her to be?
Her head jerked back. "How did you learn my name?" she demanded, concealing her perturbation with words. The sidewalk was filled with pedestrians she could cry out to for help, and her shopping bag, though not heavy, would serve as a weapon if words weren't sufficient. "Surely Mr. Hepplewhite wouldn't"
"No, but one of his customers, a Mr. Fishburn, proved to be most helpful." The man smiled down at her, a smile loaded with charm and not to be trusted. His gaze lifted in a sweeping search around them. "I take it you are unaccompanied, without a maid or your husband?"
Sometimes, usually when caught off guard, the uprush of painful memories would still crash over Jocelyn, stealing her breath as the waves sucked her backward into the past. "My life is none of your business. Please let me pass. I have an appointment. You're making me late."
"Ah." His head tipped sideways while he searched her face with an intensity that triggered a self-consciousness Jocelyn thought she'd eradicated long ago.
Then he touched the brim of his gray bowler hat, one end of his mustache curling upward as he offered a crooked smile. "Take care, Mrs. Tremayne. God doesn't always choose to intervene in our circumstances, and life on Earth isn't always kind to innocence."
Before Jocelyn could fry him with a scalding retort, he was half a block down the street.
"God doesn't always choose to intervene " Bah! Jocelyn could have informed the man that God might exist, but He never intervened. For ten years she'd carried the awful burden of her past, and God never supplied one moment of peace. All that religious doggerel was nothing but a lie to soothe simple minds.
As for the rest of the stranger's insulting remarks, she'd been deprived of innocence long ago, and she couldn't figure out why he had made the observation.
If she ever saw him again, which she knew was unlikely, but if she did, she planned to inform him that he was an incompetent bounder, a slavering wolf disguised as a gentleman in his three-piece woolen suit and natty red tie.
On the way home, when she realized she was pondering her encounter with the mysterious gray-eyed stranger as a curative for her growing sense of isolation, she ground her teeth together, and initiated a conversation with the person sitting across from her in the streetcar.
Micah MacKenzie lost his quarry.
Frustration pulsed through him like an abscessed tooth, but he vented the worst of it by kicking over a stack of empty crates at the back of the alley where Benny Foggarty had disappeared. Benny, the glib-tongued engraver-turned-informant for the Secret Service, was now officially a fugitive, courtesy of Operative MacKenzie.
Thoroughly disgusted with himself, he retraced his steps back to Broad Street, then settled in the shadow of a bank awning. Shoulders propped against the brick wall, he tilted his bowler to hide his face, so he could survey passersby without drawing attention, and mull over his next move. Benny's dash into that store could have been deliberate, instead of a scramble to find a hiding place because something had made him bolt. After nine months, Micah thought he knew the way Benny's mind worked, but he acknowledged now that he may have been mistaken about the expression he'd glimpsed on his informant's face.
Because of one particular woman's presence in Clocks & Watches, a more thorough investigation not only of her, but of the other customers and Mr. Hepplewhite was required, regardless of Micah's personal feelings.
Decision made, he expelled a long breath, allowing his thoughts to return to the woman he'd practically abandoned midsentence when he spotted Benny.
Lord, a bit more warning would have, well, given me a chance to prepare. It was a childish lament. Aside from a miracle or two over the last millennium, life's pathways were mostly paved one brick at a time. Believers learned to call it faith. Right now, however, Micah felt like a brick had been hurled against his head. Chadwick Bingham's wife
The shop owner had addressed her as Mrs. Tremayne, and the obnoxious Seward Fishburn corroborated hearing her addressed thuswhich indicated that Chadwick must have died, and his widow remarried. Though Micah's initial shock had faded, a surprising regret boiled up without warning, catching him off guard. Once again this fascinating woman had dropped into his life, yet once again she was beyond his reachfor more than the obvious reasons.
She hadn't remembered Micah, of course, and why should she? He'd been a gangly college boy without a shred of sophistication, invited to the wedding along with the rest of his family only because his father had been head bookkeeper at one of the Binghams' New York banks.
But as he mulled over their recent encounter, he realized that although she might not have remembered the awkward college boy, she had recognized Micah on some level. Her eyes, still long-lashed, a unique swirl of green and amber and nutmeg-brown, had flared wide in surprise and what he chose to hope was gladness before she cut him off at the knees. Her frosty voice had been stripped of the soft Southern sweetness he remembered.
The Bingham family had done their job well.
Micah tucked his thumbs inside the pockets of his vest, struggling to reconcile the enchanting bride with the embittered woman on the sidewalk in front of Clocks & Watches.
Even on a cloudy day her hair still glowed with color, shot through with every hue of red in God's palette. And the freckles still covered her face, making a mockery of her chilly disdain.
Lord, of all the people in the world, she's the one I don't want to be suspicious of.
A raindrop splashed onto Micah's nose. He tugged down the brim of his hat, and set off across the street. Regardless of his feelings, and her current marital status, Jocelyn Bingham Tremayne required thorough investigation.
She would have children, of course.
For their sakes as much as hers, Micah hoped his investigation would prove her innocent. Deep in thought, he caught a passing horsecar and rode to the terminus at New Reservoir Park, where, instead of tending to his duties, he watched the sky gradually clear of rain clouds. When sunset turned the western horizon glowing red, he breathed a silent prayer for strength, then caught the last horsecar back to town.
It rained once more during the night, but the next morning brought enamel-blue skies and the fragrance of fall in the air. As she patiently curled snippets of her hair on either side of her forehead, Jocelyn abruptly decided to take a drive in the countryside.
The spit curls on her forehead were forgotten as she yanked the pins out of her topknot and began twining her hair into a braid instead. Trying to look fashionable while driving an open buggy was not only vain, but ridiculous. She may have turned into an eccentric, but she would not stoop to silliness.
Katya, the day servant she employed to clean house and do the laundry, had just arrived and was filling a pail of soapy water when Jocelyn clattered down the stairs to the basement kitchen.
"Morning, Katya. I'm going for a drive in the country."
Katya smiled her crooked smile and nodded. The Russian girl had suffered some dreadful accident when she was a child, and though she could hear, she could not speak; the right side of her mouth remained paralyzed, her vocal cords somehow damaged beyond repair. Jocelyn had spent the past two years teaching her to read and write English, so for the most part communication between them remained snarl-free, but Katya was as reticent about her past as Jocelyn was. If sometimes the silence in the brownstone chafed a bit, Jocelyn could always go next door and talk to her neighbors.
"I should be back early this afternoon. I made some hot-cross buns last night, and there are preserves in the larder. Make sure you eat something, all right?"
The girl gestured to the pantry.
"I'll stop by the market on my way to the livery stable, pick up something for lunch. I can put it in my shopping bag."
Jocelyn grabbed some extra handkerchiefs to stuff inside the bag, as well, since any drive in the country included dust or, since it had rained the previous night, splatters of mud flying from the buggy wheels and horse's hooves. When she thrust the extra hankies into the bottom of the shopping bag, however, her fingers brushed against something hard and round. Puzzled, Jocelyn withdrew what turned out to be a man's watch.
What on earth?
Jocelyn laid the shopping bag on the seat of the hall tree without taking her gaze from the watch case. It was a handsome thing, made of gold, with an intricate design engraved in bas-relief on the bottom half of the lid. But when she flicked it open, instead of a timepiece, she found a piece of paper. When she unfolded it, to her astonishment it turned out to be a ten-dollar bill. Inside the bill was a ten-dollar gold piece.
Jocelyn turned the coin over and over, not recognizing its markings, knowing only that it was not like any coin she'd ever seen, or spent. As for the ten-dollar bill Carefully she smoothed it out, turned it and saw that the engraving on the back was slightly blurred, the print not as crisp as it should be. Goodness, but she was holding a counterfeit bill! Written in a hurried black scrawl across the blurred engraving were the words "Remember to use " That was all.
Fear crept into her mind, dark as a blob of ink staining the paper. Trembling, she stared down at the forged bill, the coin and the innocent-looking watch case until her icy fingers cramped.
She couldn't stuff the thing away in a drawer and pretend she didn't have it, nor could she pay a visit to the police station.
Nobody in Richmond, or even in the state of Virginia, knew that the widow Tremayne was legally the widow Bingham, whose husband, Chadwick, had hanged himself from the fourth-story balustrade of their Hudson River estate in New York, precisely five years and twenty-six days earlier.
A flurry of telegrams throughout the next two days left Micah exhausted, edgy and exhilarated. Chief Hazen, head of the Secret Service, had been furious over his blunder with Foggarty, yet placated by Micah's assurance that he had stumbled onto the possibility of the first solid lead in a case plaguing the Service for eight years.
Micah steadfastly refused to divulge names, or details, citing his concern over accusing an innocent civilian in the absence of definitive proof.
An express letter from Hazen arrived while Micah was eating breakfast at the Lexington Hotel. Your obfuscatory explanations are duly noted. A contradiction exists between what you deem a "solid lead," and your fears of unjust accusations. While strict adherence to Agency policy is required, obfuscation is not appreciated.