Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Ruby Brooch Chapter Forty

TWO WEEKS LATER, Cullen arrived in California amidst the salty air and the rumble of wagons rolling over the plank streets. He had travelled all over the Far East and Europe, and while his Highland home surpassed every place he’d ever been, the sparkling bay and the seven surrounding hills made San Francisco one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.

With some impatience, he dodged the men thronging the streets wearing their plaid shirts and miners’ boots. Although he had visited the emerging city only a few months ago, in his absence, buildings had sprung up and new businesses had opened. San Francisco had grown and changed like all living creatures. And he had, too.

He pressed his fingers against his throbbing temples. Almost three weeks after the attack, headaches, blurred vision, and nausea still plagued him, and his memory remained hazy. All four ailments probably resulted from hitting his head when he fell. Other than taking Tylenol when the pain became unbearable, the only cure was time.

Time was also his enemy.

He rode past the docks and theaters and churches toward the Adams & Company Building on Montgomery Street. Upon reaching his destination, he tied his horse and pack mule to the hitching post, and glanced up toward the stylish second-story law offices of Matthews & Phillips. Cullen would never forget his and Braham’s excitement during their first visit to Phillips’s office. They were determined not to leave until they had offers of employment. Not only did they get lucrative offers, but they also received an invitation to a soiree to meet the firm’s clients.

Cullen paused at the first landing to steady his legs then slowly made his way to the top floor. Underneath the Matthews & Phillips Counselors at Law sign was Braham’s full name. Cullen winced, not at the sight of Braham’s name, but at the absence of his own.

His hand shook as he opened the door and walked into the well-appointed office filled with John and Thomas Seymour chairs and sofas and straight-legged Hepplewhite tables. On previous visits, he had reveled in the accoutrements of wealth and power, but after weeks of listening to Kit extol the creative genius of eighteenth and nineteenth-century furniture makers, he had a new appreciation for objects he’d once viewed and used for their utility alone.

The heady fragrance of China roses filled the room. The fragile petals of a yellow bloom reminded him of Phillips’s garden where he’d stolen a kiss from Abigail. He felt ashamed of the way he had used women. He’d even set out to seduce Kit simply for the pleasure of enjoying her body, only to discover the true pleasure was her mind and her heart—fragile petals of a blooming rose. 

The firm’s secretary stopped in mid-stride halfway across the room. Wide-set, intelligent eyes discreetly perused Cullen’s dusty trousers and muddy boots. Then, he said, “Mr. Montgomery, I wasn’t expecting you today.”

Cullen scratched his whiskers. “I’m not here to see clients. In fact, if there are any in the office, don’t introduce me.”

The secretary gave a nervous laugh. “May I show you to your office?”

Culled waved him away. “I know where it is.” Instead of opening the door bearing a brass plaque with his name, he knocked and entered Braham’s office.

His friend looked up from reading a large volume spread open on his desk. His jaw dropped in surprise. “Hell, didn’t expect to see you so soon.” 

Cullen met him as he rounded the desk. They embraced, slapping each other’s back. Some of Cullen’s tension drained away.

Braham stepped back and searched Cullen’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Where’s Kit?”

Cullen headed for the sideboard. “I need a whiskey.”

Braham blocked his path. “Tell me where she is and you can drink all you want.”

“She’s gone.”

Braham clenched and unclenched his fists.

Cullen pushed against Braham’s arm. “No need to beat it out of me, I’m going to tell you everything. Just give me a damned drink.”

Braham splashed generous amounts of single-malt scotch from a decanter on the mahogany sideboard into two crystal goblets. They toasted, then emptied their glasses in a single swallow. Cullen held out his glass for a refill. Braham raised an eyebrow, then poured more of the golden liquid. After downing the second drink, Cullen sat in a straight-back chair in front of the desk and helped himself to a cigar from the oak-and-brass humidor.

Braham handed him a match. “I thought you quit.”

“I thought you did, too.”

Braham set the whiskey bottle on the table as he took a seat. “Tell me she’s not dead.”

“She’s not.” 

“Where is she?”


“That’s a relief.”

Cullen sighed. “Her home. Her time.”

Braham sank deep into his chair. “Why?” 

“She thought I was dead.”

Braham picked up the bottle of whiskey, frowning as he swirled the liquid. “We don’t have enough to drink, do we?”

Cullen shook his head.

“You probably haven’t eaten either. Come on.” Braham grabbed Cullen’s arm as he rose to his feet. “I bought a house on Rincon Hill off a banker heading back east. It came furnished with plenty of whiskey and a decent Chinese cook. Plus, I have a right of first refusal on his brother’s identically furnished house, if you’re interested.”

“Not now, but if it’s a good investment, hold on to it.” Cullen allowed Braham to drag him upright. Blood rushed from his head. He staggered and dropped his glass.

“You can hold your whiskey better than that,” Braham said.

“It’s not the whiskey.”

“Then you need to see a doctor.”

Cullen leaned against the edge of the desk. “There’s nothing a doctor can do.”

“Let’s get you some food, a bath, and a good night’s sleep. See how you feel tomorrow.”

“Doesn’t matter how I feel. If there’s a ship leaving for Panama, I can’t miss it.”

LIGHT FROM THE gas street lamps and a full moon filtered through the windows and added to the warm yellow glow cast by the brass chandelier’s fourteen tiered candles. Braham and Cullen pushed away from the drop-leaf dining table and carried cigars and brandy to the library where bookshelves lined two walls and overflowed with richly bound volumes. Cullen perused the titles and authors.

“This is an impressive collection—Defoe, Pope, Swift, the entire works of Robert Burns, a complete set of Shakespeare, plus the Greek philosophers. The previous owner was very well read.”

Braham smirked. “Or wanted to be.”

Cullen took in the rest of the room with an eye toward what Kit would notice. The tall case clock had a deep, two-inch scratch at the bottom, but was otherwise exquisite. The Brazilian Rosewood grand piano had a cracked leg, needing extensive repair. The Victorian reading table snuggled in the small space before the window faced south, limiting the afternoon sun. The Persian carpet, although beautiful, hid the wide-plank oak floor, and she’d much prefer a patterned fabric upholstery on the leather sofas and winged chairs. God, when and how did he come to know her so well?

He imagined her in the room though, reading and listening to music. Regardless of what Henry had said, she would listen to Bach and play the guitar again. Music was enmeshed with her soul.

“This is a beautiful house.” Kit could be happy here with the music and the stables and gardens he’d seen earlier.

Braham sat in a wing chair next to the fire, crossed one leg over the other, straightening his trouser leg. “There has to be a way to get her back.”

 “What do you suggest? That we write her a letter? Dear Kit, I’m alive. Come back. Should we mail the letter to MacKlenna—“

“Stop it. You’re acting like an arse. Self-pity doesn’t become you.”

Cullen’s face heated. He tipped back his brandy, then set the empty glass on the mantel. A red-gold fire danced in the hearth. “Do you remember Kit’s vision of me selecting Thomas MacKlenna’s gravesite?”

“The ghostly appearance that didn’t make sense.”

“I’m going to Kentucky.”

“You think that will bring her back?”

“I believe there’s more to the vision than picking out a gravesite.” He poured another drink from the bottle of brandy Braham had set on table next to his chair.

Neither man spoke for several minutes then Cullen asked, “Have you identified the man in the portrait?”

“His name is Donald Shelly. He owns a fleet of ships, and he’s rarely in town. Phillips went to Boston following Abigail’s funeral. Until he comes back, we’re not likely to learn anything more.”

“I’ll send him a telegram when I get to Kentucky.”

“I’m going with you. In your condition—”

Cullen touched his friend’s shoulder. “If you leave town while Phillips is gone, the business will fail. This has been our dream since our early Harvard days. You’re the one who said, ‘people who dream small dreams, live small lives.’ Don’t let our dream die.”

CULLEN DIDN’T SLEEP well. He rolled over in the large four-poster cherry bed in Braham’s guest room and reached for Kit. Her taste, her scent were forever embedded in his memory, but she might never be beside him again. Not in this world.

His splintered heart cracked wide open, and he wept into the pillow where her head should have rested. When the tears subsided, he reached for the half-full bottle of painkillers. He needed to ration the Tylenol. After today, he’d only take them at night.

He sneaked out of Braham’s house before the sun rose, before he had to face his friend and another round of arguments he might not have the will to win. The pain in his head made logical thinking damned near impossible, and he needed all of his wits to focus on what lay ahead—a sixty-day trip to MacKlenna Farm. The difficult journey would take him across the Isthmus of Panama during the rainy season, into the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Mississippi River. Not an easy journey for a man physically fit, but if he waited until he was well enough to travel, he wouldn’t reach the farm before Thomas MacKlenna died in January.

He arrived at Long Wharf and discovered the Golden Gate was scheduled to depart for Panama with the morning tide. He booked the last stateroom. As he trudged up the gangplank, fighting a bout of dizziness, he wondered if he had set himself on a fool’s mission, and a very dangerous one. Someone tapped his shoulder and he turned aside to make room on the gangplank. When he looked behind him, his heart pounded with surprise.

Cullen was too emotional to speak, and Henry too was silent. Finally, he said, “It’s my fault we didn’t find you. Kit begged me to cross the river and search the other side. I didn’t think …” His eyes glistened, and he cleared his throat. “You’re weak. You need help, and I don’t give a damn what you say. I’m going with you.”

At one time Cullen would have sent Henry back to Oregon, but that was before his ordinary life became unordinary. That was before the tightness in his chest immobilized him, before waves of grief consumed him, and before headaches temporarily blinded him.

He leaned on his friend for support. “We’d better board. Don’t want this ship to sail without us.”

And they trudged up the gangplank together.

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