a ring of truth michelle cox author mystery historical fiction book image

A Ring of Truth

CHAPTER 1

     Henrietta shifted uncomfortably as she stood next to Clive outside the massive oak double doors of the Howard family home—Highbury, he called it—in Winnetka. Though he had assured her all the way here that his parents would love her, and despite his quick, reassuring wink as they had walked up the flag- stone pathway, she still felt uneasy, and her breath caught in her throat when a servant opened the door for them and welcomed Mister Clive home. Clive smiled at him and casually handed him his hat and motoring coat, but Henrietta felt sure the servant was sizing her up all the while, and was convinced that he was not impressed with what he saw.
     As Clive exchanged pleasantries with the man—Billings, he called him—mostly about the weather and the drive up, Henrietta smoothed her dress and wished to God she had chosen her plain blue paisley. Instead, she was wearing the emerald green dress she had borrowed from Polly to audition in at the Marlowe. It showed off her figure beautifully, hugging her curves and accentuating her bosom, but she felt certain now as she stood there awkwardly that it was all wrong. She had intended to impress Clive’s parents, but with a deepening sense of dread, she began to suspect that she should have chosen something more modest. She attempted to console herself with the fact that she had at least had the sense to elaborately pin up her long auburn hair in a somewhat old-fashioned style.
     It was times like this that she missed Polly the most. Polly would have known the proper attire to wear when meeting the parents of one’s new fiancé. But Polly had not returned from her grandmother’s in Missouri where she had fled after Mama Leone had been murdered at the Promenade, and Henrietta didn’t really blame her. Since then, Henrietta had received a few brief letters from her, but they hadn’t been of any substance. Henrietta had also considered asking Lucy for advice, but she had unfortunately only seen her once since the Marlowe.
 
     They had met for coffee one afternoon and found themselves predictably discussing all of the sordid particulars of their attempt to uncover the “secret” behind the green door at the Marlowe (the burlesque theater where they had both, until very recently, been employed) and how it had all culminated in that terrible night in which Henrietta had been captured by Neptune and his cronies, that is, before Lucy had rescued her—and Clive as well.
     Eventually, however, their conversation had moved to lighter subjects, Lucy remarking how much she and the other girls missed her. Leaning forward across the stained table, Lucy had urged Henrietta to join her and Gwen and Rose at the Melody Mill, where they had all picked up jobs as cocktail waitresses, the Marlowe obviously having since been shut down by the police. “It would be just like old times,” Lucy had urged. Henrietta had politely declined, a smile she could not contain creeping across her face, then, as she bashfully announced that there would be no need of that now that she had agreed to become Mrs. Clive Howard!
     Lucy laughed with delight at the news and begged for all the particulars of the happy event. Henrietta was excitedly able to relate, in great detail, how the proposal had come about, but when Lucy then naturally asked about the wedding itself, Henrietta realized distressingly that she knew very little about the details. They didn’t have a date yet, nor did she yet have a ring, Henrietta admitted with a forced little laugh of her own. Lucy suggested with a shrug and a certain provocation in her eyes that perhaps the inspector was just too busy at the moment with his cases, or some such police thing, to worry about these obviously minor details for now. Doubtless he would get around to it eventually, she had teased. Henrietta knew that Lucy had meant her words to be playful and teasing, but they hadn’t sat very well just the same.
     Not long after this exchange, Lucy had stood up and said she   had to run and wished Henrietta the very best of luck. After kisses and promises to keep in touch, Lucy dashed off down Clark, and Henrietta had wondered as she watched her go, not for the first time, about the wedding, and, more importantly, just what her role as a policeman’s wife would be—if Clive would expect her to keep on working—at something respectable, of course—or if he would want her to stay home and keep house for him. Either way, she assumed working as a cocktail waitress at the Melody Mill would be out of the question, so she let the idea go as she watched Lucy disappear into the crowd before she had herself distractedly made her way to the trolley.
 
     It was an assumption she felt even more certain of now as she stood apprehensively beside Clive in the marble foyer of the Howards’ home, which he had somehow failed to mention resembled a castle, or very nearly so.
     She knew that Winnetka was north of the city, but she had of course never been here. The drive seemed to stretch forever, her dis- quietude growing by the minute, especially when they had finally arrived in the quaint town itself and had zipped past the more modest houses. Sheridan Road curved closer to Lake Michigan now to reveal larger houses—mansions, really—with huge acreage surrounding them, set back from the road, half hidden, if not by symmetrical smatterings of trees, then by privets or brick walls, though Henrietta was able to glance at enough of them to be left speechless.
     Many of the estates backed up to the lake itself, making them surely worth thousands—probably millions!—Henrietta calculated, as she fretfully pulled at her gloves as though by pulling them on tighter, she could somehow make them more presentable. Henrietta had never seen anything like this, except perhaps in the movies, of which she had seen very few, actually, and she couldn’t pull her eyes away, so mesmerized was she, despite her new betrothed sitting beside her, his fedora hat placed firmly on his head and a pipe gripped loosely between his teeth.
     Every once in a while on the drive, between strands of conversation, he had taken his eyes from the road to look over at her, and each time, she felt her stomach churn. She was wildly attracted to him, and she thought him so dreadfully handsome with his hazel eyes and chestnut hair, though some of it was already beginning to gray. She had asked him several times since he had proposed to tell her about his family, but he had each time replied that he wanted to surprise her. When they had finally turned into a majestic tree-lined lane, complete with an iron gate and two massive lion statues atop brick pedestals at the entrance, she was filled with dread and hoped this was a joke rather than the surprise he had alluded to. Surely this wasn’t his parents’ home, was it? Henrietta had glanced over at him with more than a little confusion, and, truth be told, a bit of consternation as he had indeed sped down the lane toward the house. Where was the impenetrable Inspector Howard of the Chicago police that she had fallen in love with? Surely he didn’t belong here, did he?
 
     “Tea is to be served in the morning room, Mister Clive,” said Billings, whose thick jowls did not move an inch when he spoke, as if he were wearing a fleshy mask. Only his droopy eyes moved, and even then, not excessively. “I’m to show you through, if that’s agreeable, sir.”
     “I’ll show myself in, Billings, in just a moment,” Clive said, looking down at Henrietta now.
     “Very good, sir,” Billings said with a slight bow of his head and disappeared noiselessly down the hallway.
     “Ready?” Clive asked her with a smile, his eyebrow arched. “Not nervous, are you?”
     How could she not be? she thought, her heart racing, but she couldn’t help but smile at his penchant for reading her mind. “Of course I’m nervous!” she whispered, her eyes darting round the formal entryway and up the grand staircase, lined with larger-than- life portraits climbing the steps to the upper floors beyond. Henrietta had never seen paintings that large before or in such a quantity. Above her hung a gold-and-crystal chandelier that sparkled in the early afternoon sunlight coming through the stained glass of the windows set above the entryway. “Why didn’t you tell me it would be like this?” she chastised. “I . . . I don’t think I’m dressed right.” Again, she looked down woefully at her dress.
     Clive grinned. “Of course you’re dressed appropriately! You look a dream,” he said and bent closer to kiss her softly on the cheek. Despite the welcomeness of his kiss, it did not slip her attention that he had inadvertently changed her phrasing. Her employment as a curler girl at Marshall Fields had brought her into contact with a decidedly more elite clientele than she normally dealt with at Poor Pete’s, and she had striven almost immediately to imitate their more eloquent speech. It was something that Clive had commented on, actually, when he had first met her—that she didn’t sound like a taxi dancer. In truth, she did pride herself on being able to learn so quickly, but she still made mistakes sometimes, as Clive had just subtly implied.
     At the touch of his lips, though, she felt herself melt a little, and she leaned into him, feeling safe, if only for a moment, against his chest. She wished she could stay this way, tucked into him. Clive reached for her hand. “Come on, then. They’re really not so bad. Besides, we’ve done this once already, remember? Surely we can do it again.”
     Henrietta took his hand and blushed at the memory of how just a few weeks ago, they had made their way up the creaking stairs of Henrietta’s apartment building to tell Ma that they were engaged to be married. Henrietta would never forget as long as she lived the look of shock on Ma’s face when she haltingly explained that not only was the man standing beside her in the cramped, shabby apartment not her foreman at the electrics as Ma had been led to believe, though Ma had never actually met him, having only heard his name mentioned and only once at that, but that he was in fact a detective inspector with the Chicago police. That they had been on a case together and, well, had fallen in love in the process. It was not lost on Henrietta that as Clive respectfully removed his hat and shook Ma’s hand, his eyes never wandered once to the miserable surroundings but had instead remained locked on each person’s face with a cordial, genuine smile.
     Elsie, of course, had rushed to Henrietta’s side when the initial shock had been absorbed by all in the room. Stanley, who had only recently, almost begrudgingly, shifted his affections from Henrietta to her sister, Elsie (at Henrietta’s insistence), had likewise jumped to his feet with surprising alacrity, muttering, “Oh, Hen!”
     Clive’s attempt at polite introductions had little effect on Ma, who merely stood with her hands on her hips, eyeing both of them care- fully. “Aren’t you a bit old for her?” were Ma’s first words to the happy couple, delivered bluntly after a few painful moments of silence.
     Clive had tilted his head to the side and gave a slight nod in recognition of the question’s appropriateness. “Yes, Mrs. Von Harmon, I am older than Henrietta. I’m thirty-six, to be exact, nearly twice her age, and I feel at this juncture I should also mention that I was previously married”—here Stan let out a low whistle—“but she died while I was away at the war. Childbirth. The baby, too.”
     Henrietta heard Elsie, still standing at her side, let out a sad little noise, and she thought she detected a slight ripple of compassion cross Ma’s face.
     Clive cleared his throat. “That being said,” he continued, “I’m very much in love with Henrietta, and I wish to marry her.” Here he looked at Henrietta lovingly and took her hand, causing Henrietta to blush slightly and Stan to turn momentarily toward the window, Elsie keenly watching him as he did so.
     Ma stared at them for a moment or two longer and then let out a bitter sigh. “Well, if that’s what you want,” she said with an apathetic shrug, looking intensely at Henrietta and ignoring Clive. “Police don’t usually last too long. Don’t expect me to cry at the funeral.”
     “Ma!” Henrietta cried out, looking as though she were about to say something more, but Clive motioned her to stop.
     “I understand your feelings perfectly, Mrs. Von Harmon. My own parents felt exactly the same when I joined the force after the war. But, you see, I felt I had to try to do some good in the world when I came back, and this seemed to be . . .”
     Ma cut him off with a disgusted sniff and even had the boldness to roll her eyes. Such “highfalutin” concepts of integrity and justice were lost on Ma, Henrietta knew, but she was furious with Ma’s response just the same. How could she be so rude? What must Clive think! In shock, Henrietta stared at the floor before gathering enough courage to glance up at him now and was surprised to find his face not one of annoyance or judgment, but one of placid patience.
     “If it’s any consolation, Mrs. Von Harmon,” he continued calmly, “I’m usually not in harm’s way. It’s only after the crime that I’m called in to investigate.”
     Ma sighed again as if defeated. “Well, I suppose I don’t have any say in it, anyway. One less mouth to feed. Though I don’t know what we’re supposed to do now, without your wages,” she said irritably.
     “Oh, Ma! Can’t you ever be happy? I won’t leave you destitute!” Henrietta chimed in, no longer able to keep still. In truth, how-   ever, she wasn’t sure how she was quite going to manage that. “And anyway, one minute you’re trying to marry me off to . . . to Stan,” she sputtered, “and the next minute you act like I’m deserting you when I finally do find someone . . . someone that I love. Very much.” It was all coming out badly, and Henrietta didn’t know how to fix it in the heat of the moment. She felt Clive give her hand a small squeeze before he released it.
     “Not to worry, Mrs. Von Harmon,” he said, his hat still in his hands, “I’m quite able and happy to provide for all of you.”
     Ma sniffed again. “On a policeman’s salary? I think not! We’ll find a way. We don’t need charity, you know!”
     “Oh, I don’t know about that, Ma,” Eugene chimed in smoothly from his perch in the corner. Henrietta hadn’t noticed him sitting on the low stool by the fireplace, his hands folded between his legs. He had been staring at the floor, but he now looked sideways at Henrietta. “If Hen’s beau is willing to help us, maybe we should let him, seein’ as he’s gonna be one of the family now.”
     “Eugene!” said Ma angrily.
     “Have you no shame, Eugene?” Henrietta blurted out. “It’s time you grew up and got a job!”
     “I am only sixteen, Henrietta!” he said with a scowl.
     “What difference does that make?” she retorted. “Elsie and I have been working since we were thirteen! Scrubbing toilets or ironing . . . anything! I know you like school, but surely you could find some- thing at night! My God!”
     “As a matter of fact,” Stan interrupted them, “I was just telling Eugene earlier about trying Olson’s. My cousin’s neighbor works there, and he might just know of a position on the delivery trucks, riding in the back, jumpin’ on and off. Right, Eugene?”
     Eugene looked over at Stan now, an odd expression on his face, before he nodded and looked back at the floor.
     “That or I’m always hoping something will turn up at the electrics,” Stan offered encouragingly.
     Ma sank into a chair and put her head in her hands. “That’s another thing! I can’t believe you lied to us all this time, Henrietta,” she said morosely. “All this time I’ve been bragging to the neighbors about you getting a place at the electrics, and all this time you’ve been playing me! I must look a fool to the whole neighborhood. I even baked a cake for you!” she cried, suddenly slamming her fist onto the table. “Well, don’t expect any favors this time,” she said, her voice heavy with disgust.
     “Ma!” Henrietta’s voice quivered as if she were either angry or trying not to cry. “What would you have me do? We needed the money . . . Poor Pete’s wasn’t paying me nearly enough, especially after Herbert and Eddie got the flu and the charge bill at Schneider’s got so high. I heard of the taxi dancer job at the Promenade, and I . . . well, I went for it . . .”
     “A taxi dancer!” Ma cried.
     “See? I knew you’d never approve! That’s why I had to . . .”
     “Lie?” Ma put in angrily.
     “Yes, if you want to put it that way. Sometimes lying is necessary, Ma!” Henrietta said loudly, bitterly reflecting as she said it that she was ironically lying now simply to spare Ma’s feelings. All of them were in a sense guilty of lying, of continuing the falsehood that all   of their woes had to do with their father’s actions and that Ma’s depressed mental state was not at least in part equally responsible for their current sad existence. They had all become very good at pretending. Henrietta longed to accuse her of wallowing in her own apathetic state and making all their lives harder than they had to be. The truth, as far as she saw it, was that if Ma hadn’t become so insular, so retreating from the world since her father’s suicide, she would be able to work to help support them as well. Instead, she took in a bit of washing here and there, but otherwise she remained at home, relying on Henrietta and Elsie to bring in money, while her bitterness and anger continued to cloud her mind. Henrietta knew, however, that she could never say these things—the truth—especially now, that it would make things infinitely worse, so, with extreme effort, she forced herself to remain silent.
     “That’s not the whole story, though, is it, Henrietta?” Eugene asked slyly from the corner.
     Henrietta wanted to slap the smug smile from his face. Sometimes she just didn’t know about Eugene. He was her younger brother, and though they had been close as children, she found it hard to trust him now. He had always been a quiet child, but he had changed somehow after their father’s death. It was as if he had derailed and couldn’t quite get back on the tracks again. Henrietta shot him a hateful look, secretly wondering how he had found out.
     “No, Eugene, it’s not,” Henrietta said in a measured voice, knowing it was useless at this point to try to hide her past activities. “If you must know,” she said to Ma, with a toss of her hair, “I went from there to being an usherette at the Marlowe.”
     “What’s the Marlowe?” asked Ma in a scared, mystified voice, clearly unsettled that she didn’t understand the weight of Henrietta’s revelation.
     “It’s a burlesque theater downtown, Ma,” Eugene answered coolly, enjoying Henrietta’s angry glare.
     “God in heaven!” Ma wailed. “Oh, Henrietta! Not another scandal! I always knew this was bound to happen with you! This is all your father’s fault, you know!”
     “Scandal? There’s been no scandal, Ma!” Henrietta retorted, trembling now. How dare she continually blame everything, including this, on her father. It was taking every ounce of her self-control not to blurt out her belief that her father’s death was in part caused by Ma’s relentless nagging! Elsie was noiselessly crying now, and Stan had moved to her side and put his arm protectively around her.
     “This has gone far enough now,” Clive finally put in, firmly but not unkindly. “Mrs. Von Harmon, please. Let me explain. Henrietta only took the position at the Marlowe as a favor to me.  It was quite wrong of me, and I regret it now, except, of course, that it brought me closer to her. I asked Henrietta to go undercover for me, as an usherette, to get information on a case. I . . . I misjudged her age . . . and her experience,” he said tacitly. “If anyone is to blame, it would be me.” He paused here to clear his throat. “It should likewise be stated here, though it is by no means necessary, that Henrietta behaved quite admirably.  More than that, really.” He glanced at her briefly. “She was everything you might be proud of, Mrs. Von Harmon, a model of decency and virtue. She stands before you quite without reason for reproach. On any account,” he said evenly, looking pointedly at Eugene as he did so. “So much so that I have quite fallen in love with her and have asked her just this evening to be my wife.”
     He turned his attention now back to Henrietta and continued as if they were alone in the room, looking directly into her eyes. “I’m very much in her debt, not just for her help on the case, which was extraordinary”—he smiled here—“but for teaching me to love again. And she has quite unexpectedly accepted me, for which I shall ever be grateful.”
     Henrietta thought she heard a scoff come from the corner where Eugene was still perched, but she ignored it. Clive did as well and instead addressed Ma and the little group before him. “I earnestly hope that we have your blessing and that you will wish us well. If not for me, then certainly for your daughter’s sake,” he said, looking at Ma before turning his attention to Eugene specifically. “And your sister’s,” he added with a certain finality.
     There was silence in the room for several seconds before Elsie finally broke it. “Well, I’ll say it,” she said, grasping hold of Henrietta’s hands and then releasing them to embrace her tightly. “Congratulations!” Shyly, then, she moved to embrace Clive as well.
     Stan, too, approached and held out his hand to Clive.
     “No hard feelings?” Clive asked him with a wink.
     “Nah!” Stan answered, though no one noticed, except perhaps Henrietta, that he trembled a bit as he bent to briefly kiss her cheek in congratulations and that he did not exactly meet her eyes.
     All of the smaller Von Harmons, who had up to this point been standing in the back of the room along the wall, silently watching the drama unfold, now looked to Ma to see what her reaction would be. Slowly she stood up from the chair by the table, a look of sad resignation on her face. Clive took a step toward her, and Henrietta held her breath.
     “Mrs. Von Harmon,” he asked forthrightly. “Do we have your blessing?”
     “I suppose so,” Ma said stiffly with an absent wave of her hand. “I don’t see what it matters, anyway.” Clive’s quiet, commanding presence seemed to have oddly calmed her, or perhaps it had merely deflated her. “You lot,” she said, turning toward the little ones.   “Get over there and congratulate Henrietta and then get off to bed.” At this signal of encouragement, the five of them ran to Henrietta and hugged her, causing her to laugh and kiss each of them affectionately on the head.
     “Does this mean you’re going to be my uncle?” Jimmy asked Clive with a wispy sweetness, his blanket to his nose.
     Clive laughed. “Something like that.”
     Henrietta glanced at the corner where Eugene, the only one to have not offered his congratulations, had been sitting, but he was already gone, having presumably slunk off to the bedroom. She looked at Clive, whom she saw had noticed as well, and shrugged. In response, he gave her the quickest of winks and smiled at her, causing her heart to explode with love for him all over again. He had been wonderful with them.
     Ma shuffled toward the kitchen. “I suppose I should offer you some coffee. I don’t think we have any tea.”
     “Coffee would be lovely, actually. Thank you,” Clive answered.
     Ma turned back toward him. “You don’t exactly sound like a policeman,” she said suspiciously. “What did you say your surname is?”
     “Howard. Clive Howard,” he answered respectfully.
     “Howard?” Her face took on a blanched tone and her eyes narrowed. “Where did you say you’re from?”
     Clive cleared his throat slightly. “I live downtown just now, but as it happens I grew up in Winnetka.”
     “The Howards of Winnetka?” Ma asked faintly.
     Clive did not hide his surprise. “Why, yes! Do you know them?”
     Ma looked horribly shaken, almost limp, as she turned slowly back toward the kitchen. “Now how would I know them?” she asked as she went with what sounded like a tremor of worry, or was it outright fear in her voice? “Must of read it somewhere is all,” she mumbled.
     “I’ll help you, Ma” Elsie had volunteered, following her mother to the kitchen.
     As soon as the swinging door had shut behind them, Elsie went straight for the cupboard to gather some mugs, saying as she did so, “I can’t believe it, Ma! Can you? Henrietta engaged! It’s a shame we don’t have anything else to celebrate with!
     “Well, we don’t!” Ma said bitterly, leaning tiredly against the deep sink after the unexpected turn of events of the evening. “Coffee will have to do, though I’m sure that one out there’s been used to much finer. Oh, Elsie!” Ma cried suddenly, holding her hand up to her mouth, as a mystified Elsie looked on. “What are we going to do?”
 
     “I suppose you’re right,” Henrietta said, trying to push away the memories of that embarrassing evening when her family had eventually toasted her and Clive’s engagement with mugs of coffee, though Ma remained subdued through it all until Clive had taken his leave shortly after.
     Clive had the good manners not to refer again to that evening’s events, more specifically to her family’s reaction to him, as a topic    of discussion, but Henrietta had longed to try to explain it all to him. She didn’t know where to even begin, though, how to describe Ma or even how to bring it up again, so it had remained untouched between them. Now, as she stood in this grandiose house with chandeliers and paintings and servants, of all things, she couldn’t help but blush all over again at the mean surroundings she had introduced him to that night.
     “I love you, remember?” Clive whispered to her as she gripped his arm tightly. He led her, then, across the massive foyer to a set   of closed pocket doors made of thick walnut. Henrietta smiled up   at him gratefully and took a deep breath as he rapped a couple of times with his knuckles before sliding one of the doors open just wide enough for them to pass through side by side.
     Henrietta tried not to gasp as they entered the large, bright room. Everywhere she looked was luxury and beauty like she had never seen before. The walls themselves were covered with gold damask wallpaper, and everywhere sat neat little groupings of white painted furniture with royal blue upholstery. She imagined that this was what a room in a palace might look like, as her eyes darted from a large urn overflowing with roses on a blue silk-covered table in front of a huge bay window, itself draped with thick blue curtains with gold trim, to the intricately patterned Oriental rug underfoot. Above them hung more paintings in thick gold frames, and along one wall was a large fireplace with low bookshelves on either side that held what looked like small curiosities and trinkets along with various books. A small fire was burning in the grate despite the fact that it was late June, but it somehow did not seem out of place, nor was it too warm.
     On one chair in front of the fire sat a woman, presumably Clive’s mother, with ramrod-straight posture. She was wearing a fitted silk dress of navy blue, belted at the waist with flared sleeves, matching heels, and, of course, a small pert silk hat perched on the side of her head, her hair perfectly pulled up in the latest style. Near her, next to the fire, stood a man whom Henrietta naturally assumed was Clive’s father, wearing a jacket and tie and holding a small pipe in his right hand. Except for a slight paunch to him, he still cut a dignified, elegant figure. There was no doubt he had been very handsome in his day, and still was, Henrietta thought generously.
     She could feel both pairs of eyes on her as they made their way into the room.
     “Hello, Mother,” Clive said, dutifully bending to kiss the woman seated before them. “Good morning, Father,” Clive then said deferentially.
     “Hello, Clive, darling,” his mother responded with muted emotion.
     Clive took a deep breath and turned to Henrietta, smiling. “Mother, Father, I’d like you to finally meet my fiancée, Henrietta.”
     Henrietta’s face burned as she felt Clive’s mother carefully assess her and saw the slight frown that resulted when her eyes lingered on her dress. Henrietta forced herself, however, to meet her gaze before turning to look at Clive’s father.
     Mr. Howard gave a little cough, then, and stepped forward briskly.
     “Hello, my dear,” he said with a distinct English accent, taking her hand and grasping it delicately. “Alcott Howard. Very pleased to meet you.” He looked up briefly at Clive, though Henrietta couldn’t read what was in his face. Clive’s mother then rose and embraced her in the very loosest definition of the word. “You’re very lovely, my dear. I can see why Clive is so taken with you.” She produced the briefest of smiles, which seemed to Henrietta to be decidedly false.
     “Thank you,” Henrietta said quietly, not sure what else to say.
     “Shall we sit down?” Mrs. Howard motioned stiffly toward a small settee opposite her chair. “Tea is on its way.”
     “Wonderful. Just what’s needed after a long drive,” Clive said, clapping his hands together enthusiastically as he sat down next to Henrietta, casually crossing his legs while Mr. Howard made his way to the armchair next to his wife. “I hope Mary’s prepared some of her strawberry scones,” Clive said cheerfully. Henrietta thought him not nervous exactly, but he did seem a little on edge. But perhaps she was only imagining it.
     “Yes, I made sure of it,” Mrs. Howard said with what Henrietta thought was her first genuine smile. “I know they’re your favorite.”
     “I say, how was the drive, anyway?” Mr. Howard said, leaning back in his chair as he took a deep puff of his pipe, startling Henrietta in his sudden resemblance to Clive. Without waiting for an answer, Mr. Howard went on. “You took Sheridan, I presume? Did you happen to observe what they’re doing outside the club? A disgrace, that’s what it is!”
     “I can’t say that I did, Father.” Clive turned to Henrietta and smiled. “My mind was rather on other things, you see.” He seemed to be relaxing now, and Henrietta only wished she could.
     “Putting up a sign, that’s what they’re doing,” his father continued, seemingly unaware of Clive’s comment. “A bloody big sign, as if all the world need know the whereabouts of the entrance. It’s members-only, anyway, so I don’t quite see the point. Damned regrettable. Whatever was wrong with the little stone sign we had previously? Served its purpose. Gaudy as hell this one is.”
     “Alcott,” Mrs. Howard put in warningly. She was a thin woman with a long oval face and high cheekbones. She had a relatively small tight mouth, and when she smiled, Henrietta did not fail to notice her perfect teeth. Her hair was still very dark and thick despite her age, and she had small dark eyes. She was not what one would call beautiful, but she was not unattractive either. In her stylish dress, adorned only with a single strand of pearls and a matching pearl brooch, she exuded a discreet, classic sense of beauty and elegance. Her face was very serious, but it held what Henrietta hoped was at least a hint of kindness.
     “Sorry, my dear,” he said respectfully. “I get carried away, you know.”
     “Yes, but I’m sure we have other things to discuss with Clive and his . . . fiancée,” Mrs. Howard said the word almost with difficulty, “than the club’s new signage.”
     “Quite right,” he said agreeably. “Quite right.”
     There was a faint knock on the door, then, and another servant, a younger one this time, came in carrying an enormous silver tea tray. He set it expertly on the low table between them and stood back.
     “Will there be anything else, Madam?” he said stiffly, not looking at anyone in particular but instead straight out the window.
     “No, James. Thank you. That will be all for now.”
     Before he could depart, however, Henrietta spoke to him. “That’s funny, I have a brother James, though we call him Jimmy,” she said, looking first at Mrs. Howard and then over at Mr. Howard. She was mortified when neither of them, nor the footman either, for that matter, reacted except for perhaps a small attempt of a smile from Mr. Howard, though it really resembled more of a polite grimace.  The footman bowed slightly and retreated from the room.
     “Yes, you must tell us all about your family,” Mrs. Howard said almost with a frown as she leaned forward and began to pour out steaming cups of tea. “Sugar?” she asked Henrietta.
     “A little, I suppose,” she answered meekly.
     “One, then?”
     “One?”
     “One cube? Or two?”
     “Oh. Just one, thank you.” Henrietta felt her face flush again. She rarely had tea and certainly never had a sugar cube. The stuff they got from the Armory was always loose in a two-pound brown bag.
     “Milk?”
     Henrietta wasn’t sure whether she liked milk in her tea or not, so she answered, “No, thank you,” to appear less a nuisance and in case it would require answering more questions. Mrs. Howard handed her the delicate china cup and saucer, then, and went on to arrange the rest of the cups, obviously already knowing how everyone else preferred theirs. Clive reached down and handed her a china plate and a pale blue cloth napkin, for which she was grateful, as it provided    a sort of makeshift shield. He seemed to sense her unease, though it probably wasn’t too difficult to deduce.
     “You must try one of Mary’s scones,” he said to her. “They’re simply delightful. Here, allow me.” He reached across and put one on her plate for her with a pair of silver tongs. Henrietta smiled her thanks, but she didn’t try it right away. She wasn’t sure what    to do. Should she just pick it up with her fingers? Or should she use a fork? She looked at the tray and saw four forks stacked neatly to the side, but no one was reaching for them. Surely if she were supposed to use a fork, Clive would have handed her one, wouldn’t he have.
     In truth, Henrietta was amazed at the amount as well as the beauty of the food displayed on the tray. Not only was there the basket of scones wrapped up in a crisp, linen cloth, but there was a three- tiered tray holding tiny sandwiches cut into triangles, pastries, and even fresh strawberries. Beside the teapot was a large pot of jam and a huge block of what looked like real butter. It was all too lovely to eat, and Henrietta wished Elsie could see it. Mr. and Mrs. Howard were busily arranging things on their plates, though Henrietta observed that they only took a few items. She must exercise restraint, she wistfully noted, though she could have easily polished off the whole of the tray’s contents herself.
     “Well, aren’t you going to try it?” Clive asked.
     There was no way around it. She would have to just pick it up and hope it was the correct way of doing it. She shot him a look of despair and then tentatively lifted the scone to her mouth with her fingers and took a small bite. It was quite good, she thought, but dry.
     Clive laughed a little. “Don’t you want any butter or jam on it?”
     Henrietta shook her head, not wanting to admit her faux pas. “No, I like it plain,” she fibbed and took a sip of her hot tea.
     “So, Henrietta,” Mrs. Howard said, peering over her cup, “as I was saying. You must tell us about your family. Clive’s been positively silent on the matter.  Saying we must meet you first. And so, here we are,” she said, sitting up very straight. “What did you say your surname is?” she asked.
     “Von Harmon.”
     Clive retained his relaxed air, Henrietta noted, his arm now stretched out casually on the settee behind her. He seemed unaffected by his mother’s line of questioning, almost as if he didn’t hear it, but instead sat looking at Henrietta, a slightly amused, slightly disbelieving look to his face, as if he couldn’t get enough of her, as if he couldn’t believe she was his.
     “Von Harmon?” Mrs. Howard seemed puzzled. “That rings a bell, does it not, Alcott?”
     “Can’t say that it does, my dear,” Mr. Howard said lazily, stirring his tea as he reached for another pastry.
     “I’m sure it does,” Mrs. Howard mused. “I’m sure you’re related, Alcott, to the Von Harmons somehow. Cousins, I believe, on your mother’s side. You know, the ones in France? Or is it Germany these days?”
     “Perhaps, my dear. I’m not really sure.” He looked up and gave a general smile to the company assembled, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
     “Are you French?” Mrs. Howard asked Henrietta.
     “I don’t know,” Henrietta said nervously. “My father used to tell us stories about how the family was originally from somewhere called Alsace-Lorraine, I think.”
     “There! I was right! She must be a Von Harmon!” Mrs. Howard said approvingly. “How extraordinary! It’s a wonder I didn’t make the connection before,” she said, looking at Clive. “What does your father do, dear?” she asked in a decidedly more friendly tone.
     “He . . . he’s gone. Passed away several years ago.” Henrietta glanced up anxiously at Clive, who smiled at her reassuringly.
     “Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that,” Mrs. Howard said sincerely. “So much tragedy these days, is there not?” She paused for a moment as if out of sympathy and then continued. “But what did he do, when he was alive, that is?”
     “He worked at the Schwinn motorcycle factory. On Courtland?” Henrietta explained eagerly, glad to be able to share something about her father, whom she still missed terribly.
     “Ah, in business,” Mrs. Howard said understandingly. “A vice president, perhaps?” she asked, not being able to keep the hope from her voice and meanwhile chancing a glance at Alcott, who did not appear to reciprocate any interest beyond that of the pastries laid before him.
     “Oh, no!” Henrietta smiled. “He was on the line! He was an assembler, I think he used to call it.”
     “A laborer?” Mrs. Howard said incredulously.
     “Well, yes, I suppose you could call him that,” Henrietta answered, realizing now that she had said something wrong again.
     “Nothing wrong with an honest day’s work, is there, Father?” Clive chimed in, coming to her rescue.
     “Not at all, my boy. Not at all. But not always nice to get one’s hands dirty, though, eh? Not nice at all!”
     Clive merely sat back, giving Henrietta a wink as he did so.
     Mrs. Howard cleared her throat. “And your mother? What of her family?” she asked weakly.
     Henrietta sighed. “Well, I’m not sure, really. She never speaks of them. Her maiden name was Exley, I believe. Martha Exley.”
     Mrs. Howard stopped stirring her tea and remained motion- less now as she stared at Henrietta. Even Mr. Howard paused in his efforts. The silence in the room was deafening until Clive broke it with a noise that oddly resembled a chuckle.
     “That can’t be,” Mrs. Howard said finally, ignoring Clive and set- ting down her teacup with deliberation. “It simply can’t!” she added, still mystified.
     “Exley, did you say?” Mr. Howard butted in, finally interested, it would seem, in the conversation.
     “Yes, I think so,” Henrietta said nervously again, wondering what horrors the Exleys must have committed in the past, judging from the Howards’ initial reaction. She looked at Clive for an explanation.
     “The Exleys are part of their set,” he explained languidly, with a noticeable lack of the drama that had just come before. “They go way back. John Exley and Father are quite good friends. Both at Cambridge together and all that.”
     “Well, surely it must be a different Exley,” said Henrietta delicately. Her mother never spoke about her family, always saying it didn’t matter, and Henrietta had assumed they were either dead or far away. On more than one occasion, however, she now remembered disconcertedly, she had sometimes suspected that her mother had come from a well-to-do family simply by the way she often spoke or how she sometimes held herself.
     “Exley is not a very common name,” Mrs. Howard pointed out slowly. “Where is she from?”
     “I’m . . . I’m not really sure. She never speaks about them.”
     “I’m sure John’s sister was named Martha,” Mrs. Howard continued, turning to her husband after musing a few moments. “Think, Alcott! You must have met her at some point.”
     “Hmmm . . . Martha . . . Could have been her name. I think I may have met her at a dinner or a Christmas party, some such thing. Very quiet. If I did meet her, didn’t say two words to her. Ran off and got married, I think John said once. Not very forthcoming about the whole thing was John. Bit of a hush-hush, you know. Not really the thing one asks about now, is it?”
     Mrs. Howard allowed herself to absorb this information before she took up her teacup again. “Well, really!” she said almost to her- self, managing a smile before turning back to Clive and Henrietta. “What a morning this has turned out to be!” she continued cheerfully. “To think we may have a Von Harmon and an Exley sitting before us! Who would have known you would be so clever, Clive? We thoroughly approve, don’t we, Alcott?”
     “What? Oh, yes, of course, dear. Course we do, old boy. Any more tea in the pot?”
     “I think there’s been some mistake, Mrs. Howard,” Henrietta offered feebly, unable to accept the past they so clearly wanted her to claim. “I really don’t think I’m who you suppose I am. I’m sure my mother isn’t this John Exley’s sister.” Henrietta couldn’t imagine her mother growing up in a place similar to this and leaving it all for her father. But then again, could this perhaps have been the reason for her bitterness all these years? she wondered. Had she regretted her decision? And what about all of her father’s stories about how their family back in Alsace were part of the “ruling class,” as he had called them? She had assumed as she had gotten older that they were just stories he had made up for their entertainment, something to help their meager dinners to go down easier and hopefully last a bit longer, but suppose they had been true? They couldn’t be, though, could they?
     “Nonsense! I’m sure of it, my dear,” Mrs. Howard countered. “Your mother must have had her reasons for keeping quiet on the subject. At any rate, perhaps we’ll find out.” She paused, but only for a moment. “I know! We must have a party! An engagement party! It’s the only sensible thing to do; get the families together again. I’m sure your mother would be happy to be reunited with her long-lost family, would she not? How perfectly splendid!”
     “Oh, no!” Henrietta exclaimed before she could catch herself. “Oh, please! I don’t think that’s a good idea! Do you, Clive?” She looked    at him desperately.
     “But why ever not, my dear?” Mrs. Howard asked, puzzled. “Surely you want to meet Clive’s friends and relatives? They’ll be positively thrilled to meet you; they’ve quite given up hope for Clive, you see, poor thing. And such a beautiful choice he’s made.”
     Henrietta blushed and looked at Clive again. He was absently tracing the fabric on the knee of his trousers. For once she wished he would read her mind. Finally she detected what she thought was the smallest smile on his face as he looked up at Mrs. Howard.
     “Mother, we don’t want a fuss. Surely we can avoid all this?”
     “Well, the families do have to meet each other eventually, Clive.  Don’t worry; it will be modest. Just a few friends.”
     “I’ve seen your ‘modest’ before, Mother,” Clive grinned. “All right, then,” he sighed. “Very small. We don’t want to frighten Henrietta away, you know.”
     “But . . . she’s . . . she’s not been well!” Henrietta sputtered. “I don’t know if she could make it!” Henrietta felt panicked. Why had Clive so readily given in?
     “Why, it won’t be right away, dear,” she smiled sweetly. “We’ll need some time to plan it, and of course, the wedding itself. Have you set a date?”
     “Not yet, no,” Clive answered. “We haven’t gotten that far, have we, darling?” he asked, lightly touching her hand.
     Darling? He had never called her that before, and she wasn’t sure if she liked it or not.
     “I’ve got it! I’ve a simply marvelous idea!” Mrs. Howard looked excitedly from one to the other. “You must come and stay with us for a time, my dear, if your mother can spare you, that is. That way we can get to know each other better and plan it all out! It will be splendid. Just the thing, I’m sure. Don’t you agree, Alcott?”
     “What, what? Oh, yes! Yes, of course, my dear. Enchanted to have you.”
     “Oh, no! I couldn’t possibly . . . I’ve . . . I’m very needed at home, you see.”
     “Clive! Surely you can convince her . . .” Mrs. Howard pleaded.
     Clive put his hand on top of Henrietta’s. “It might not be such a bad idea, you know,” he said, looking at her now.
     “Clive!”
     Clive sighed and stood up. “Perhaps I should show Henrietta the rose garden. It’s quite lovely this time of year.”
     Mrs. Howard peered at him in confusion before a look of under- standing then crossed her face. “Yes, dear. Of course. Splendid,” Mrs. Howard agreed, leaning back in her armchair now.
     Clive reached out his hand to Henrietta. “Shall we?”
     Henrietta’s suspicions were aroused by this abrupt suggestion, but she desperately wanted to get out of the room, and fresh air sounded heavenly. “Yes, let’s,” she said eagerly and took his hand, Mr. Howard politely standing as she rose.
     Henrietta followed behind Clive to a set of French doors which, when opened, led out onto a wide terrace. Clive led her across the huge slate slabs and down two stone steps to the formal rose gardens that lay beyond. Any other time, Henrietta would have been enthralled by the sight of the maze of shrubbery and roses before her, but she felt too peevish now and a bit nauseous, if truth be told.
     Expertly, Clive led her into the maze, and as soon as they were far enough into the garden to be out of sight of the morning room windows, he stopped and pulled her to him, kissing her deeply, entwining his fingers gently with hers. She was shocked at first, completely taken off guard, but after a few moments she felt herself giving in to him, felt herself melting at his touch as his hands traveled down her back. She could not help responding in kind, breathing in the scent of him and wanting it to last forever. After what seemed only a few minutes, however, he pulled away, breathing hard.
     “Oh, Clive! What are we going to do?” Henrietta moaned, her heart still racing from his kisses.
     “Go through with the party, I suppose,” he grinned, still holding one of her hands.
     “That’s not exactly what I meant,” she said and wondered what she had meant. “I can’t stay here!” she went on, choosing to address the most obvious problem first.  Surely you can see why?”
     “Well, when Mother’s got an idea fixed in her head, it’s very difficult to unfix it,” he sighed.
     “Clive!” she said evenly, “you know I can’t possibly leave them all.”
     He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it as he looked into her eyes. “But you’re going to have to sooner or later, dearest . . . when we marry. Is that not so? You weren’t still planning on living with them afterward, were you?” he said, his accompanying smile kind.
     Henrietta closed her eyes in defeat. He was right, of course, but she hadn’t had much time to think about it all. “Clive . . . I . . . they need my wages,” she said as she stared at the ground, her face burning.
     “I know,” he said tenderly. “I’ll take care of that.” He lifted her chin with his finger so that he could look into her eyes. “Say you’ll come and stay. Just for a little while? Get to know Mother and Father and all of this,” he said, glancing around the huge property. “Please? It would make them so happy. And me.”
     Henrietta felt herself weaken before the warmth of his gaze upon her. She wanted to please him, to be near him. “I suppose,” she sighed. “But not for very long. And I don’t know what I’m going to tell Ma.”
     “Just tell her the truth. Always the best policy, don’t you think?”
     “I’ll try,” she said, though she still felt unsure about this whole idea.
     “Thank you, darling,”  he  said,  bending  to  kiss  her  again,  and Henrietta, the “darling” still ringing unnaturally in her ears, fervently hoped she wasn’t making a dreadful mistake.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Left alone in this extravagant new world, Henrietta soon gets caught up in the disappearance of an elderly servant’s ring, unwittingly drawing her into a deeper, darker plot. 

As Clive and Henrietta attempt to discover the truth in the two very different worlds unraveling around them, they both begin to wonder:

…Are they meant for each other after all?

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Positively intoxicating! Buy Now!

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