Queen's Autumn Gambit Preview

 

Queen's Autumn Gambit is nearly ready, but you can preview this new book now.  Here is Chapter One for your advanced reading.

Chapter One

White Pawn Opening

 

Carolyn walked through the orange and red leaves scattered across the sidewalk.  The tree lined street was bursting with fall colors.  The oak and maple foliage had shirked the conspicuous green and revealed its hidden vibrancy.  With the burgeoning of autumn leaves upon the road, the street radiated color under the lamp light. 

The other homes, lining the promenade, reflected thoughtful architectural details of long-forgotten wealth.  As the years changed and other neighborhoods became more affluent, this street of Aylesbury had become diminished and neglected.  Weaving through the tightly parked cars, Carolyn crossed the isolated road toward her building.

The old Victorian-era house had been converted into small flats to facilitate as many tenants as possible into one abode.  The edifice held hints of a glorious past, but presently only showed its derelict façade.  Climbing the sagging porch steps, Carolyn opened the stained glass door. 

The entrance hall’s worn linoleum was chipped and broken in places, revealing patches of wood flooring.  The ground floor had one large flat, belonging to Mr. Clements, the manager.  An expansive staircase rose up from the middle of the room. Tucked off to the side and slightly behind the stairs was a modern attempt at a lift.  Carolyn had been told by her neighbor that it had been out of service for years.

Yet, while the lift did not work, it wasn’t devoid of occupancy.  It was home to a woman and her several grocery bags of necessities.  Yen Li was a remnant of the boat people who fled Vietnam via Hong Kong, eventually settling in Britain.  She was the unofficial doorman and postbox to the building’s residents.

“Good evening, Yen.”  Carolyn smiled.

Yen ceased rummaging through one of her sacks.  “Good evening.”  She bowed her head, saying each word with the residual staccato of a Vietnamese accent.  “You are out late, yes.”  Yen sat crossed-legged and serene.  A fringe of bangs feathered across her forehead, her eyes and mouth slightly downturned with a twinge of sadness.

“I tried leaving early today but was asked to stay and help file information on some new clients.  I missed the train and had to wait for the next one.”

“Do you have time for a story?”

Yen had a penchant for tales.  Carolyn and her sister, Stacey, had often received the benefit of some woven tale of yore.  Carolyn was conflicted.  She eyed the twisted staircase that wound to her third floor flat, and the weariness of the day weighed on her normal acquiescence. 

“I probably should…”

Yen hurried, “The fable will not take long.  You might find favor with it.”

Carolyn realized a small token of her time wouldn’t make the staircase anymore tiresome than normal to climb.

“Alright, Yen, but a short story today.”  Carolyn walked over to the thick banister post and leaned against it.

“A wealthy landowner promised his daughter to a rice farmer.”  Yen’s voice was soft and soothing.  “If the man worked the landowner’s fields, a reward of a marriage would be granted.  Three years passed.  When the time for the wedding approached, the landowner broke his vow by offering his daughter to another man.  The laborer complained and threatened to go to the emperor.  The landowner relented but wagered the laborer hadn’t toiled enough for his precious daughter.  In order to be wed, a bamboo stalk with one hundred segments would have to be obtained as a price for the bride.”

“Did the laborer find the bamboo stalk?”  Carolyn tilted her head with interest.

“It was a trick.”  Yen’s lips turned in a sly, knowing grin.  “The wealthy owner knew it would take years, if not a lifetime to find such a thing.  In the meantime, the daughter would be married off to the other man.”

“Yen, I said a short story not a sad one.”

“No, it is a tale of faith.”  The long sleeves of Yen’s shirt hung over her hands.  Whatever the season, a full garb of simple cotton clothes would cover her whole body.  “The plant of the bamboo is solid and hollow.  It can bend and sway but not break, like the laborer’s faith.  After divine intervention, the laborer triumphs in the end.  He marries the daughter and ends up the landowner.”

Carolyn glanced around at the dilapidated entryway.  It was grungy and dirty, but it hadn’t crumbled, even with the negligence.

“Maybe it is true, if you believe enough, good will happen.”  Carolyn smiled sadly.  “It would be nice, if it was.”  The waning light made Carolyn aware again of the late hour.  “Did the post come for me today?” 

“Right here with the others.”  Yen’s brown gloves moved over the neat piles and grabbed Carolyn’s stack.

Carolyn could see the red envelopes and knew it was mostly full of past-due notices and demands. 

“Thank you, Yen,” Carolyn’s spirits drooped at the thought of more money worries.  She retrieved the stack.  “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

The intricate carving of the twisting staircase was the solitary reminder of the once stately home.  Many of the finely turned spindles were missing.  There were consistent depressions worn in the middle of the stairs.  Even with those injustices, the staircase’s craftsmanship was evident in its solid construction. 

Carolyn ascended to the third level.  Reaching the landing, her flat’s door had a small glow emitting underneath it.  She inserted her key and jiggled the lock.  Twisting the knob, she kicked the bottom corner of the consistently stuck door.  It burst open.

Stacey had been licking a spoon.  She was startled by Carolyn’s entrance.   

“Cara,” Stacey said Carolyn’s nickname cheerfully.  Tucking the utensil behind her back, Stacey added.  “You’re home.”

The whole flat was the size of a modest bedroom.  Carolyn took in the spreading leak on the ceiling above the kitchenette.  A worn mattress rested on the floor in the far corner; it functioned as the sisters’ couch and bed.  Their one piece of furniture, a chair, stood in the middle of the room.  A cardboard box drooped next to the threadbare chair’s arm, as a makeshift end table.  An old lamp listed off kilter between two windows that looked out to the distant canals.  The bright light-bulb illuminated the missing pieces of opaque lining from the shade. 

A door on the far wall showed the small bathroom.  The closet-like room had a standing shower with a nozzle head which dripped constantly.  The toilet’s bowl cycled through filling and emptying water into its basin.  Between the bathroom’s cacophony and the age-appropriate creaks and moans of the building, the girls were serenaded throughout the night. 

“Yes, I’m home at last.”  Carolyn sighed again at the state of their dwelling.  “Did Mr. Clements come to fix the shower head?” 

“No… and the kitchen tap is spitting brown grunge again.”

“I can’t wait for another wonderful conversation with our mythical maintenance man.  When and if he materializes.”

Stacey giggled and held the spoon over her mouth.  She noticed her indiscretion and tossed the utensil quickly into the sink.  “He appears when our rent is due.”

“It is truly amazing how he can manage that little feat.”  Carolyn closed the door behind her and locked it.  With her back turned, she voiced out loud her sister’s obvious behavior.  “Stacey, it is okay you had something to eat.  I’m not an ogre.”

Stacey’s face constricted with worry.  “I’m sorry, Cara.  I know it is between pay periods.  I was very hungry.  We had algebra problems at math today.  I used too much brain power to work out what x equals and y equals.  I was starving before class was over.”

Carolyn twisted around and went over to kiss her sister.  “Stacey, it is fine.  I’ll be paid tomorrow, and we can get more food.” 

Stacey seemed relieved.  “I tried saving something for your tea.  There’s a piece of that baguette from two nights ago and an apple left.”

“You can have it.  I’m not that hungry.” 

Carolyn’s stomach growled with a rumbling complaint.  She hoped Stacey hadn’t heard its objection. Carolyn started flipping through the stack of letters.  Her appetite withered anyway, as her suppositions were validated that the mail was a stack of bills.

“Really, Cara,” Stacey beamed.  Her skinny limbs contracted with excitement.

Carolyn paused and glanced up.  She smiled sadly at her sister.  Stacey’s elation over a piece of bread and an apple highlighted their pathetic predicament.  Carolyn nodded her head and smiled reassuringly.  “I’m fine, go ahead and have your feast.”

Stacey threw open the fridge’s door.  She snatched the food from the empty wire shelves.  There were a few scattered items left inside, but the refrigerator was mostly bare.  Stacey shut the door with her hip, while hungrily eating her meager meal.

Carolyn had moved over to the curved armchair.  The chair’s seat rested on the floor due to missing legs.  The support of the wooden floor bolstered the sagging cushion’s springs.  Tossing the bills one after another onto the cardboard box, the unopened letters spread across the surface.  Carolyn paused at a thick envelope of quality paper stock.  Her name was addressed in cursive.  The sender was unknown. 

Running her finger carefully along the edge, she managed to avoid another paper slice, an occupational hazard with her current employment as a file clerk.  She carefully pulled out the similarly styled paper and unfolded the letter.  Her eyes darted down the missive.  Carolyn plopped onto the chair.  She blinked several times with surprise and absolute relief.  The note rattled in her shaking hand.  She was holding their salvation, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I can’t believe it.”  When Carolyn initially scanned the contents, it seemed ludicrous to her.

Finishing the last bite of an apple, Stacey tossed the core into the bin next to the fridge.  She felt apprehension over Carolyn’s pale face. 

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, what is it?”  Stacey rushed to her.

“It is the answer to our prayers.  We have come into an inheritance.”

“What!”  Stacey stumbled back and flopped onto the floor.  “It must be a gag.”  She bolted upright and pivoted on her knees.  Her eyes were bright with excitement.  “But why now, how much is it?  Can we move out of this horrid flat?”  She scooted closer to Carolyn, trying to peek at the document.  “Who is it from?”

Carolyn giggled over Stacey’s barrage of inquiries.  “So many questions, little sister,” Carolyn stood up.  She glanced over the official document with disbelief.  “The letter is full of formalities and cordial greetings at our untimely loss.  We have been named beneficiaries of an estate.”  Carolyn referred to the letter, “Including a large engineering company.”

Stacey had settled into a seated position on the floor.  “But Mother and Father died a year ago, isn’t it a bit late for sympathy notes?”

“Except it isn’t about our parents, it’s…”  Carolyn faltered and began again with more composure than she felt.  “We have a grandfather, on Mother’s side.  He recently passed away,” Carolyn couldn’t help exclaiming incredulously.

“Mother’s side, but I thought…” Stacey sat up straighter and stared at her older sister.  “I thought they were all dead or something.”

“So did I; Mother never breathed a word about any family.  In fact, once when I was thirteen…”  Carolyn smiled down at Stacey and ruffled her blonde hair.  “A little older than you…”

“I’m twelve and almost a half,” Stacey folded her arms across her chest.  “You weren’t that much older.”

Carolyn chuckled.  “The point is I asked Mother about her family.  She gave Father the oddest look.  Father grabbed her arm and stared at her while he told me they were all dead.  It was very uncomfortable.  I never asked her again, especially since it had made them both so distressed.”  Carolyn choked up and clutched at her throat.  The letter fluttered to the floor. 

Stacey rushed to her sister, wrapped her arms around Carolyn’s waist.  “I miss them, too.”  

Carolyn rested her cheek against Stacey’s hair.  Their situation was some historical tragedy relocated to modern times, two penniless sisters all alone in the world. 

Composing herself, Carolyn commented.  “It was fate how the car accident happened, that both should die instantly and together.”

Stacey started crying.  Carolyn had witnessed her sister grow from carefree teen into a solemn, young woman.  Cooing softly, Carolyn thought how in a matter of months after their parents’ passing, their well-off family had disintegrated into paupers.  It didn’t help that she wasn’t qualified for anything which could make substantial money.  While art was admirable, it didn’t support one person, much less a two-member family.  Carolyn had quickly grasped the adage of a starving artist and been forced to take a job as a file clerk. 

Holding her sister away from her, Carolyn spoke gently.  “Shush now.  We can return to our old life, and you can go back to Eastland.”  Wiping the tears from Stacey’s peach cheeks and brushing wet, long strands of hair from her face, Carolyn smiled tenderly at her sister.  “You don’t have to worry anymore.”

Stacey sniffled and smiled tremulously.  “You mean I could get Buttercup back?”

Carolyn placed her hands on Stacey’s skinny shoulders.  “Yes, Buttercup shall go to the top of the list.”

Stacey’s face lit up and clasped her hands together.  “You promise?”

Carolyn held up her hand and crossed her slender fingers.  “I promise to get Buttercup back well before the Eastland Dressage Exhibition in the spring.”

“Oh, Cara,” Stacey hopped around her sister. 

Twirling around, Carolyn tried to keep up with her sister’s joyful bouncing.  Stacey said enthusiastically, “I can’t believe it.  I thought I would never go back to Eastland.  I thought I would have to stay at that awful, new school forever.  I have no friends.”

Carolyn protested.  “That’s not true, you have Marisa.  She is your best friend.”

Stacey paused, as she thought about Marisa Sinclair.  The two girls had bonded over their experience of loss, when one is too young to cope with the obscure purposes of why.  When Marisa was eight years old, her mother died from breast cancer.  The long illness had snuffed out her mother’s light.  Stacey and Marisa understood the momentous significance of dying.  Death changes more than family dynamics; it marks each individual connected to the loved one. 

“Yes, Marisa has been the sole thing to keep me from being so lonely.  Without her, everything would have been horrid all the time.  Yet, I ached to return to our old home, where it was cozy and safe.  It seemed unfair that we had to be so near it, but not be able to live there.”

“There is no need to fret anymore.  Things can start to seem normal again.”

“You’ve made me so happy.”  Stacey grabbed Carolyn’s hands and together they danced around the room. 

“You silly girl, it wasn’t me.  It was this mysterious grandfather.  I had faith that something better had to come from our tragedy.”

“So, what happens next?”

“I have to contact the London solicitor,” Carolyn paused and glanced at the letterhead again, “Edgar Davenport.”

Stacey wrinkled her nose.  “That is a seriously stuffy name.”

Carolyn giggled, “Yes, it is, isn’t it.”

Scooting closer, Stacey rested her head against Carolyn’s arm.  “What will happen after you contact him?”

“I presume he will set up a meeting to discuss the details of the will and then voilà.”  Carolyn snapped her fingers.  “We are back to our old life.  No more leaky faucets and irritated flat managers.  No more, please, Carolyn do you mind spending an hour after work without pay.  It would help us justify your position.

“Our old life again, I can’t wait.”  Stacey sighed and released all the angst she had held within herself, since the devastating loss of her parents a year ago.  

Stacy’s confirmation echoed in Carolyn’s heart.  The worrying could cease.  At last, the twenty-two year old girl could breathe.  In order to assume the mounting responsibilities of their crumbling life, the worrisome woman Carolyn had morphed into could totter away. 

*********

When Carolyn rang up, Erin was relieved to hear from her friend.  Carolyn hadn’t returned Erin’s calls for several weeks; then, the number was disconnected. 

“Carolyn, where are you?  I’ve been sick with worry.”  Erin clung to the receiver in desperation.

A moment of silence followed.  Carolyn was at a loss as to why she had chosen to ignore her oldest and dearest friend.  The embarrassment of Carolyn’s family situation or what little there was left of their existence had prevented her from picking up the ringing phone.  She couldn’t continually deny the charity that Erin would generously offer or resist the temptation to take it.  It was too much for her battered pride. 

“I know, I’m sorry, I…”  Carolyn stalled over her words.  She cleared her throat, rather than finish her inept reply.

“You don’t have to apologize, you ninny, I’m thrilled you finally called me.”

Carolyn sighed and almost started to cry.  “Oh Erin, I was a fool.  I see that now.”

“Where are you calling from?  Your number was disconnected.”

“The phone company and I had a disagreement.  I couldn’t pay the bill.”  Carolyn gave a hallow laugh.  “They terminated our phone service.  I’m calling from a pay phone, probably the last pay phone in existence.  I can’t talk long.  I had hoped you could help me.”

“Of course, I’ve been dying to do something.” 

Erin held in check a gasp at her insensitive choice of wording.  She pleaded into the phone, fearful that she might have offended Carolyn from finally reaching out for help.  “Let me be a friend to you, like you always were to me.”

Carolyn took a deep breath and pushed through her fragile construction that she could handle things on her own. 

“Would you mind watching Stacey?”  Carolyn asked hesitantly.

“I would love to.” Erin was eager to finally have a concrete means of helping.  “When do you need me to sit on the baby?”  She joked.

Carolyn giggled.  The rhythm of their friendship slipped back into the groove of playful bantering.  “Well, she’s not much of a baby, but she does throw temper tantrums now and again.” 

“I heard that, and it isn’t true,” Stacey said over Carolyn’s shoulder.

Carolyn rounded on her eavesdropping sister.  With a hand over the receiver, the intended muffled response could be deciphered by Erin.

“It’s rude to listen in on calls.”  Carolyn chastised.

“Well, it’s rude to talk about someone, so there.”  Stacey folded her arms and sniffed.

Carolyn held the receiver away.  “I told you I would only be gone for a tick.  You could have waited up at the flat.” 

“I don’t want to be alone, and I’m still hungry.”

Carolyn felt a familiar pang of guilt at the fact that their lives had still tumbled into disarray, no matter how hard she had tried to maintain their old routine.  The harshness melted from her response.  “Wait over there by the swings.  I’ll make some jam and toast for dinner very soon.”

“Again,” Stacey whined.  “We’ve had jam and toast three nights in a row.” 

Carolyn glared at her sister. 

Stacey reminded cheekily, “Besides, the bread is all gone.” 

“Stacey, please,” Carolyn warned. 

Stacey’s shoulders drooped contritely.  She sulked over to the rusty swings of the small park on the common ground.  Soon, the steady creaking of the chains emitted from the old equipment.

Carolyn sighed and raised the phone back to her ear.

“Sorry about that, teens are so predictably unpredictable.”  Composing herself, Carolyn resumed to the immediate task.  “It would have to be tomorrow.  Stacey’s school has been called off, due to a teacher in-service day.”

“Tomorrow,” Erin replied shocked.

“Will that be a problem?” Carolyn asked anxiously.

“I have a shift scheduled at Bongo Java.”

“What is Bongo Java?”  Carolyn asked curiously.

“It’s a café.  Lord and Lady Beckwith finally agreed upon something, that they would no longer finance me if I continued with fashion.  I’ve been working at Bongo Java ever since.” 

“I don’t want you to get in trouble at your job.”

“No, I can switch shifts with Len.”  Erin probed, “But what could possibly be so urgent?”

“I found out that we are getting an inheritance.”

“An inheritance, but…” Erin sputtered.

“The initial letter only mentions me.  Stacey is insistent about coming.  I need to keep her occupied, until I know more details.  I don’t want her to get unnecessarily hurt.”  Carolyn spoke while watching her sister sail back and forth on the swing.  “Shall we meet you at your Father’s house?”

“Actually, I don’t live there anymore.  I was chucked out.”  Erin added sarcastically, “Since my parents’ divorce, my inability to get my life together has apparently united the former adversaries.  I couldn’t run to Mother’s house.  She recently redecorated, and I was firmly informed no children were allowed in her home.  I had to find somewhere else to live.”  Erin gave Carolyn her Covent Garden’s address.

Carolyn exclaimed, “Bongo Java must give good tips.”

Erin laughed, “I have a long story to tell, too.”

After ringing off, Erin reflected on the winding road of their friendship that twisted back to the old school days of EastlandPreparatory School for Young Women. 

University life had separated them for a time.  When the daily contact from boarding school days wasn’t as frequent, the girls would make a point to meet up for weekly luncheons.  In between gossip dates or late night phone chats, Erin had caught glimpses of Carolyn’s occasional society functions in the paper.  It was surprising that Erin’s shy friend would garner any attention, but Carolyn’s then fiancé, Allen, was enamored by anything related to the upper class.  Dragging Carolyn to a host of society events, Allen tried worming his way into their selective enclave.

It was a shock one night, when Carolyn had rung Erin.  She was told of the horrific late night crash of Carolyn’s parents.  The wet conditions and high speed of the car had caused it to spin out of control.  The inspector had informed Carolyn that if the Ainsworths’ car had been able to avoid the lorry, the outcome might have been different for Richard and Jasmine Ainsworth. 

Erin had attended the funeral at St. Mary’s the Virgin.  The bells of the church tolled a death lullaby.  The yellow heads of the spring daffodils dotted the graveyard.  The flowers’ sunny quality attempted to brighten the solemn assembly.  St. Mary’s stone tower climbed to a pointed steeple.  The bright blue clocks were on the four faces of the church’s battlement.  Erin stood amongst the small gathering in the cemetery next to the church.

Carolyn and Stacey clung to each other in front of the two graves.  After the brief ceremony, the sisters passed by Erin with heads bowed together.  So absorbed in their anguish, they failed to acknowledge or even notice their fellow mourners.

Erin had felt helpless watching her friend struggle the months following Richard and Jasmine’s deaths.  Carolyn and Stacey had to auction off heirlooms, due to the collectors calling past debts.  As their tangible memories became fewer and their surroundings danker and smaller, Erin witnessed Carolyn become more haunted and hollow. 

****2010****

On the last night at the Ainsworth family home, Erin had tried to offer her only viable resource to Carolyn. 

“Please come and stay with us?”  Erin begged.  “I’m sure Father wouldn’t mind.  There is plenty of room.”

Carolyn was packing up the last boxes of salvaged mementoes.  The sprawling empty house echoed with hopelessness. 

“Thank you, but we’ll be fine.”  Carolyn didn’t feel comfortable staying with Erin’s father. 

“I don’t understand why you won’t let me help you.”  Erin pleaded angrily.  “You’re my dearest friend.”  She turned away, fuming at her inability to change her friend’s circumstances.

Carolyn reached out and lightly touched Erin’s arm.  Erin reluctantly glanced over her shoulder.  Carolyn smiled sadly. 

“I can’t.  It may seem crazy to understand, but I have to accept my fate.  We must be going through this for a reason.”  Carolyn looked at the ceiling with the dangling crystal chandelier, a tangible reminder of the trappings being left behind.  “I have to adjust to this new life.  I’m hoping it will demonstrate to Stacey that you can carry on even when everything you once knew has been taken from you.  I hope there is a plan for me.  Do you understand?”

“I guess,” Erin smiled.  Both girls squeezed hands. 

While years and absence tried altering their bond, their genuine friendship and understanding for one another could not be broken.  Taking a deep breath, Erin closed the lid of a brown, packing box.

Carolyn glanced around the empty room.  The marble floors felt cold and stark.  She wondered if she was being foolhardy.  The fear of all that she was undertaking began to creep upon her.  Quelling the panic and to stall her apprehension, she pulled back her shoulders and declared out loud.  “We’ll be able to remain in Aylesbury, that’s something at least.  The new flat I found was a good price for what we could afford.  The changes might be good.  I never enjoyed the society girl role.  This could be a whole new adventure.”

Erin hoped Carolyn was right, but dreaded that the truth would be much harder than her friend anticipated.

*********

Now standing on the pavement outside Erin’s flat in Covent Garden, the three girls said their good-byes.  Erin could see her friend’s vibrancy reemerge, after such a worrisome period.  Carolyn hugged Stacey before setting off.  She reminded with a mother’s stern lilt.

“Listen to Erin, I’ll be back soon.” 

“Why can’t I come with you,” Stacey whined.

Carolyn suggested to Stacey, while giving Erin a pointed look.  “Stacey, you are in luck.  Erin is a world class shopper and can sniff out a good buy and the latest style better than Scotland Yard.”

“It’s true.”  Erin grinned sheepishly.  “I have been given a gift.”  She buffed her blunt nails on her shirt. 

“I wish I could get some new dresses and jumpers.”  Stacey held her arms out at her side; the jersey barely crested past her elbows. 

Stacey bent and examined her sad skirt hem, which had been obviously let out but still hung well above her knee caps.  Instead of folded over, her socks were stretched taut.  The attempts to disguise the fact her clothes were ill-fitting had been noble, but unsuccessful.  Carolyn took in her sister’s sad state.  An idea began with a glimmer and grew into excitement.

“I think a buying trip to Harrods is in order, don’t you, Erin?” 

“You mean I can get some new clothes?”  Stacey grabbed both of Carolyn’s hands. 

Carolyn laughed.  It was invigorating to see Stacey come alive again. 

“Of course, it wouldn’t do for you to return to Eastland with those hideous clothes you’re wearing.”  Carolyn informed Erin regally.  “I want you to purchase a new wardrobe for Stacey.” 

“Are you sure?  A new wardrobe is costly.”  Erin had no inkling what or how much the inheritance had bestowed upon the sisters.

“That won’t be a problem for once.”  Carolyn replied confidently.  “After today, I’m sure I can transfer funds to my old Harrods account.  I finally foresee a brighter future.”

“Can I get new riding gear as well, please?”  Stacey pressed Carolyn’s hands together tightly.

“Of course, new riding gear is a must.”  Carolyn grinned at Erin.  “I hope you are taking mental notes.”

Erin curtsied deeply to the ground, holding out a pretend skirt, “Yes, mum!”

“Hurrah,” Stacey leaped into the air and threw her arms around her sister.  “I love you so much!  Oh, Cara, it’s a dream.”

Carolyn disentangled herself from her sister’s gangly embrace.  “I love you, too.  I must leave, or I will be late for my appointment.  It sounded like, when I spoke to Edgar Davenport, that Davenport and Rogers takes pride in punctuality.  I don’t want to make a poor impression, when everything is depending on this.”

As Carolyn hurried off, she chanced a backward glance.  Stacey was gaily skipping alongside Erin, talking animatedly.  Facing forward, Carolyn moved quickly toward her intended destination of Kensington High Street.  She was eager to begin anew, erasing the time since their parents’ car collision.  It was that instant when Carolyn and Stacey’s lives had veered off so suddenly and disastrously.

*********

Even with the amount of time Carolyn allotted, she had misjudged the distance.  It was difficult to calculate the Tube and walking time.  Her past sojourns into London were spent in the back seat of a chauffeured car.  While a taxi would have been quicker, the service wasn’t operated on credit.  She was out of breath when she arrived in front of the shiny, brass plate announcing in crisp font the offices of Davenport and Rogers. 

Carolyn smoothed back the wisps of blonde tendrils.  The hair had pulled out of her ponytail as she had bounded along the pavements of London.  Taking a deep breath, she turned the knob of the door and stepped into the interior. 

The smell and style of the office was typical, old England.  Rich wood paneling lined the walls; paintings of hunting dogs and regal sailing battles were hung with precision. 

An older, stylish woman sat behind the desk and peered at Carolyn.  Her name plate spelled out Prudence Crismore.  With a well-shaped eyebrow cocked, the secretary took in the tattered appearance of the young woman before her.  Her silver hair was coiffed in a perfect coil behind her head as she briskly nodded towards Carolyn. 

“Carolyn Ainsworth.”  Prudence stated rather than questioned.

Carolyn swallowed and refused to show any sign of nervousness or that she suddenly felt younger than Stacey. 

“Yes, I am she.  Miss Crismore, I’m here for an appointment with Edgar…”

Prudence sliced through Carolyn’s words succinctly.  “You may go in and see Mr. Davenport.  He has already started with Mr. Luca Caldwell.”  The secretary moved her head levelly to the far door. 

Turning the brass knob, Carolyn eagerly slipped into the inner office.  The name of Luca Caldwell registered neither shock nor apprehension.  There are many barristers in a large firm such as this, she thought to herself.

As Carolyn stepped through Edgar’s office door, Prudence stared at the girl’s back.  A fleeting softness flittered across Prudence’s rigid face, but the emotions were stifled quickly.  Her efficient carriage resumed.  She retrieved the phone receiver. Her fingers automatically dialed a number.

Carolyn entered the room as Edgar Davenport was droning to a man seated in front of the broad desk.  Luca Caldwell’s casual position indicated a less than passing interest in the solicitor’s speech.  Though sitting, it was obvious that Luca towered over Edgar Davenport.  Luca was suited in a well-fitted and tailored style.  He did not turn around upon Carolyn’s entrance. 

Edgar wiped his face with a crisp linen handkerchief.  He suddenly noticed Carolyn.  “Ms. Ainsworth, I’m so pleased you’ve made it.” 

Tucking the handkerchief in his breast pocket, Edgar started to rise.  Carolyn preempted the solicitor’s courtesy by hurrying to the empty seat in front of the large desk.  She quickly sat down, and Edgar returned to his chair. 

Carolyn stumbled out her explanation in a jumble of words, “I apologize for my tardiness.  It has been a while since I’ve been to London.  The Underground from Covent Garden and walking from the Tube took longer than I had anticipated.”

The room was tensely quiet.  Edgar quickly interjected, hoping to dispel the lurking presence of sudden hostility.  “It is my turn to apologize, Ms. Ainsworth.  This is Luca Caldwell.”

Carolyn rotated in her seat, “Mr. Caldwell.”  She reached out her pale hand. 

It was clasped by a tan masculine one.  Luca’s grip was firm.  Carolyn was drawn up to his eyes.  They were a deep blue, almost black.  His Italian features reflected a strong Roman lineage.  A small cleft in his square chin added to his general appearance of confidence.

“Ms. Ainsworth,” Luca raised his dark eyebrows, “it seems we are bound to spend time together.”

Carolyn dropped Luca’s hand.  Clasping her palms firmly in her lap, she said crisply to Edgar Davenport.  “Is Mr. Caldwell a fellow solicitor?”

Edgar chuckled heartily then recovered by awkwardly dabbing at his shiny brow with his handkerchief again.  “No, no, Ms. Ainsworth.”

“I was informed that this was to be a meeting of my grandfather’s will.”  Carolyn sat forward in her chair with flaming indignation.  “I came to London specifically for this.  I don’t think it is appropriate to have someone unrelated to…”

“Ms. Ainsworth, Carolyn,” Luca Caldwell interjected over Carolyn’s torrent of protests.  “I’m one of the beneficiaries of the will as well.”  He finished, aptly silencing her objections.

Carolyn scooted back contritely in her seat.  She purposely squared her shoulders away from the man next to her.  Her apology was directed to Luca but she refused to look at him.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Caldwell.  Mr. Davenport did not state in his letter to me that you were part of the will.”

Edgar mopped his brow again.  He was sweating more profusely.  “Yes, Ms. Ainsworth, it was a delicate subject that I did not want to broach in such a formal document and with your initial contact as well.  I’m sure you were shocked over your grandfather’s death.”

“Yes, I was shocked, because I had no idea I had a grandfather.”

Luca sat forward with curiosity.  “You didn’t know of Benjamin Hadley of Hadley Industries.”

Carolyn glanced over her shoulder irritated.  “No, I was told my mother’s parents were dead.”

“You’ve never met Benjamin Hadley?”  Luca asked pointedly.

Carolyn turned to Luca.  “It would be quite impossible to meet someone that you never knew existed, now wouldn’t it, Mr. Caldwell?”

Luca shook his head baffled and sat back in his chair, crossing his arms over his broad chest.  “Yes, Carolyn, you would be correct.”  His eyes narrowed.  “It would be difficult to know someone you have never met.”

Carolyn fumed to herself.  The man had nerve to insinuate that she was lying.  The need to get out of the room and away from Luca Caldwell consumed her.  “Mr. Davenport, if you could continue with the will’s contents.  I would like to conclude this meeting as quickly as possible.”

“Yes, of course, Ms. Ainsworth.”  Edgar glanced down at his stack of precise papers and tapped them needlessly into order with the sides of his thick hands.

“Are your parents still alive?”  Luca was intrigued by Carolyn’s situation.  She was so determined to present a professional air, but all her efforts only highlighted her youth.

“No, my parents were killed in a…”  Carolyn visibly swallowed and blinked the tears away. 

This wasn’t how this meeting was imagined; Carolyn felt flustered with the present scenario deviating from what the sisters had rehearsed in fun only a night before.  Carolyn ignored where she left off and stated, “My sister and I are all that is left of our family.  My father was orphaned when he was very young.  Now, we continue in the family tradition.”  She moved more stiffly to the edge of the chair and clutched her hands primly in her lap. 

“I’m sorry for your loss.”  Luca said the words more gently than expected.  He understood what it meant to lose someone.  It was a feeling he didn’t like to revisit.  The pain was too intense.

Carolyn glanced over in Luca’s direction.  His face was tender as he searched her eyes.  Carolyn felt sadness well up inside her again.  She looked away and toward Edgar Davenport.  His detachment and sweaty appearance wouldn’t cause her to slip into any maudlin displays.

Carolyn’s voice was strong as she nodded her head, “Shall we continue?”

“Yes, yes, of course, no reason to delay.”  Edgar tapped the stack of papers into order.  He began to outline the initial legal jargon.

Luca leaned back in his chair.  He had heard the will’s details earlier.  Luca didn’t need it repeated.  He watched as Carolyn intently nodded at the appropriate intervals.  He saw a very young woman who tried to assume the worldly air of an adult.  In truth, Carolyn looked like she was dabbling at playacting. 

Luca marveled how Benjamin never indicated he had grandchildren, and yet Carolyn was sitting next to him.  What could have possibly transpired between the family members to have caused such a rift?  Luca’s own relatives were estranged, but he knew of their existence.

“As I was saying, Ms. Ainsworth, your grandfather has named Mr. Caldwell and yourself as the sole beneficiaries to the entirety of his estate, primary shareholders in Hadley Industries and proprietors of the property of Leah Grove, as well as bank accounts exceeding eight hundred million pounds.” 

Edgar waited for the reactions of the people across his large desk.  It was his favorite part of his job, announcing the holdings of his clients, and then eagerly watching their reactions.  Luca Caldwell sat still and did not reveal any surprise or joy at his sudden inheritance. 

Carolyn Ainsworth made up for Luca’s lackluster performance.  Her face registered full and utter astonishment.  She had reasoned after her preliminary conversation with the solicitor that there might be enough funds for tuition to Eastland, an indulgence of a new wardrobe and a move to a new flat.  The girls would be able to resume a semblance of comfort that they experienced in their preceding life.  The true breadth of the estate thoroughly stunned her.  The amount was more than she could comprehend.

Edgar felt relieved; he was beginning to sense he was losing control of the proceedings, which did not sit well with his orderly world.

“Grandfather chose me,” Carolyn interjected.  “But why isn’t my sister named in the will?” 

“It isn’t indicated within the documents.”  Edgar thought the messiness with Benjamin Hadley had finally finished years ago.  Yet again, Edgar was forced to contend with another one of Benjamin’s projects.  “I believe your grandfather had a brief encounter with your mother sometime ago and that was their final contact.”  He feared a slip in discretion and quickly droned about the inheritance legalities. 

Carolyn’s head was spinning with all this new information.  Could that have been why Father forbade Mother from speaking of her family?  The few facts supplied only generated more questions, and no one in this room seemed to have any answers.  She suspiciously glanced from Edgar to Luca.  Carolyn wondered what other secrets would be divulged. 

Edgar tucked away the handkerchief in his side drawer.  He glanced at the clock on the far wall.  It was slowly ticking past his tea time toward his next appointment.  If he didn’t hurry, his one luxury of the day would be wasted.  Gathering the stacks of papers in front of him, he slipped them carefully into an envelope and tied a string around the bundle.

Standing up, Edgar cleared his throat and said with more authority than he felt he commanded.  “We will have some papers to sign, of course.  I’m sure you will want to see the Leah Grove property.  It has been in your family since your grandmother was a child.  I can assure you the employees are long-time servants of the house.  In fact, I believe most of them were there from the time your mother was small.”

“Don’t you want to tell Carolyn about the condition?”  Luca said evenly.

“The condition…” Edgar stammered.  He quickly opened the side drawer again and pulled out the handkerchief. 

Carolyn snapped out of her rumination.  “There is a condition?  What kind of condition?”  She asked innocently.

Edgar started dabbing at his brow again.  These were times when he questioned why he wanted to become a barrister.  “Well, you see, Ms. Ainsworth, your grandfather had certain ideas about things and the way things should be done.  We here at Davenport and Rogers tried to inform him it wasn’t proper or seemly in modern times to make such specific requests.”

“Come, man, out with it.”  Luca demanded.

Carolyn was visibly perturbed as well with Edgar’s meandering explanations.  “Yes, what is it, already?”

“Mr. Caldwell and you are to be wed within sixty days of the reading of the will to receive any inheritance.”

Carolyn exploded from her seat.  “What!  It is completely barbaric!  You can’t be serious.”

Edgar opened the handkerchief to its full width and ran it across his whole face.  “I’m afraid so.  If you do not adhere to this point, the company will cede to the shareholders, all properties will be sold and the monies distributed to a few select charities.”

Carolyn lowered herself into the seat.  The answers to her prayers were not from an angel but a devil.  She was taken from one hellish situation and placed firmly into a bigger one.

“I can’t do this.  It’s wrong.  You marry for love.  My parents married for love.”  Carolyn pleaded at the man across the large desk.

“I’m sorry.  It is the only way to receive the inheritance.”  Edgar looked anxiously at the door behind Carolyn.  He wished fervently that Miss Crismore would announce that there was some other matter that needed his immediate attention.

Luca sat relieved in his chair.  He had worked his whole life to gain control of Hadley Industries, but he didn’t want it this way.  It was refreshing to think that there was one female not full of artifice and design.  He felt pity for Carolyn and something else that he hadn’t experienced in a long time.

Carolyn thought of Stacey, telling her that her dreams were crushed again.  The mere idea was unbearable.  Her sister had lost two parents; that was enough pain to endure for a young life.  Carolyn owed it to her sister to wed a stranger, marry for the money, and then get a divorce.  After Allen’s betrayal, Carolyn never thought she would fall in love again.  Yes, she could marry Luca.  It was a small price to pay in return for Stacey’s happiness. 

Looking up, Carolyn said firmly.  “I will do it.”

Luca was surprised how easily Carolyn had acquiesced to this ridiculous clause.  He sat forward in his chair. “You didn’t tell her about the next part.”

Edgar fiddled with his papers and cleared his throat.  “You must stay married for at least five years.  If any proof comes to light that it isn’t a true marriage, the estate will revert to what I outlined earlier.  If for any reason, one of you agrees but the other doesn’t, then the whole of the fortune goes to the party who was willing to accept the terms dictated by Mr. Hadley.”

“Five years.”  Carolyn shook her head. 

Luca sat back in his chair with relief.    

Carolyn swallowed and pictured Stacey walking away earlier today with not a care on her twelve and almost a half year old self. 

“Yes, I can do it.  I must do it.”  Carolyn said firmly.

“Excellent, I will make preparations.  Your grandfather was very specific about the wedding.  He wanted it in the chapel on Leah Grove and…”  Edgar waved his hand that had the handkerchief.  It flew before Carolyn like a white flag.  “I don’t need to bother you with any of this.  I will confer with my receptionist.  She will contact you about any details that you need to be privy to, et cetera.”  Edgar spoke rapidly while he retreated from his office.  He quickly closed the door behind him and rushed to his tea.

With the click of the door, Carolyn was suddenly cognizant that she was sitting next to her fiancé:  a man she had just met.  She felt like letting out a hysterical giggle but suppressed it.  She stood up from her chair and moved around the opposite side, away from Luca Caldwell.

“Well, I’m sure I will see you…” Carolyn trailed off and finished abruptly.  “Good day to you, Mr. Caldwell.”

“Wait!” Luca was up and astride next to her.  “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I, I, m, m, g, go” Carolyn’s childhood stuttering predicament reemerged whenever she felt nervous or awkward.  Straightening, she faced Luca squarely.  Confidence eradicated her haltering speech.  “I’m going home.  There isn’t any other reason for me to be here.”

“I think there is every reason for you to be here.”  Luca stood next to her.  He towered over her five foot eleven frame, which not many men had accomplished in her company.

“I don’t know what you mean?”

“Well that illuminates quite nicely what I’m getting at, you don’t know me and I don’t know you.  Don’t you think we should get to know each other?” 

Luca’s face revealed nothing of what he was thinking.  Carolyn searched it.  He stepped closer to her and Carolyn involuntarily retreated.  He had anticipated her reaction and reached around to put a hand on her back, stopping her.  She felt a shiver from his touch. 

“Mr. Caldwell, I would like you to relinquish your grip on me.”

“Now that you’re my fiancée, can’t you let yourself call me Luca, Carolyn,” He had leaned toward her ear and whispered her name along with this simple challenge, “or are you afraid?” 

Carolyn felt confused.  Allen had kissed her, but they were always chaste and respectful.  He had insisted on preserving the integrity of their relationship.  Her parents had been demonstrative and tender with one another.  Her mother had never approved of Carolyn’s relationship with Allen. 

****2009****

“Darling, I want you to be with a man who will make you be someone you never thought possible.”  Jasmine pleaded with Carolyn one morning.

“Mother, I’m satisfied with my current state, why do I need to change?”  Carolyn stuffed her sketch book into her satchel.

“Life has a way of ending up differently than you thought.”  Jasmine’s eyes clouded over.  “It is curious that way.”

*********

Carolyn hadn’t heeded her Mother’s advice.  Allen had felt safe and secure; he never made her feel flustered.  He didn’t seem to want anything from her.  Of course, he later betrayed her and revealed Carolyn’s main attraction had been her father’s burgeoning wealth; when that had disappeared, so had Allen and his intentions.

Carolyn wet her lips, “Luca.  See, I said it.  I’m not afraid.”

“Good, cara,” Luca spoke sarcastically the Italian form of endearment.  “Now see, if you’re afraid of this.” 

Luca leaned in closer to Carolyn.  She placed her hands on his chest to push Luca away.  His heartbeat was solid and steady.  Luca’s lips came down and crushed Carolyn’s.  They were hard and felt brutal.  Coming to her senses, she struggled away from him.  Luca held her tighter and ran his hand over her back.  Carolyn felt like she was going to buckle beneath him.  She finally wrenched herself free and slapped him across his face.

“Don’t ever touch me again!”

Luca neither rubbed his cheek nor registered shock from her physical retaliation.  The spot she had struck on his face was darkening slightly.  His tan skin obscured the obviousness of the mark.

“Well, that was an interesting experiment.”  Luca said dryly.  He brushed back his wavy, dark hair from his forehead.

Carolyn had steadied herself for flight, in case he tried to grab her again.  When he made no attempt, she stepped forward angrily at his statement.  “Experiment, how dare you?  You don’t know me to take such privileges.”

“And yet, you’re willing to marry me.”

“Yes, but it doesn’t give you any rights.”

Luca rounded on her and grabbed her by the arms.  Shaking Carolyn, he demanded.  “What do you think your grandfather meant by staying married for five years?”

“You’re hurting me.”  Carolyn’s eyes were wide with panic.  She looked down at his clenched hands. 

Luca relaxed his grip, but held onto her.  Carolyn peered up at him, frightened by what he might do next.  Her pale skin had a rosy color on her cheeks from her angry outburst. 

Luca felt that pull in his gut again.  His plan to make Carolyn relinquish her claim to the estate was faltering.  Yet, he managed to squash the glimmer of regret germinating from his brash actions.  He must not let Carolyn Ainsworth inherit what he had worked for and built at Hadley Industries.

And yet, for all of his doggedness, Luca couldn’t help his tender words.  “Five years is a long time to be married.”

“Not so long, we can have separate lives.  It will go by in a flash.  Eventually, we can get a divorce, never see each other again.”

Luca’s voice hardened.  “I’m not living in a platonic existence for that long.”

“Lots of couples live happily together and never have passion.”

“I’m not lots of people.  You heard the terms, any indication that we aren’t really married,” Luca said dryly, “And the estate is reverted, and this experiment was all for naught.”

Lowering her eyelashes, Carolyn thought about what had occurred between them.  Her stomach knotted.  She had no choice.  Carolyn had gotten through her parents’ funeral, and the steady erosion of everything she had known.  Five years would seem like nothing.  With steadfastness, she stared up at him and stated with firmness. 

“I have to; I must go through with it.”  Carolyn squirmed slightly, refusing to ask Luca to release her.  She wasn’t willing to concede even that defeat.  Any trepidation could push her farther from her intention to inherit.

Luca dropped his hands and turned away in agitation.   Collecting himself, he faced her and presented a more logical counter offensive.  “Why?  You said so yourself, you wanted to marry for love.”

“I must have that money.” Carolyn said emphatically.

Luca replied with disgust.  “Typical woman response, money is all that you care about.” 

“Isn’t that what you’re doing, marrying me for money?”  Carolyn retorted.  “What makes you better than I?”

Luca stepped forward angrily.  “I worked for your grandfather for years.  I built Hadley Industries into what it is today.”

“We both have our reasons.”  Carolyn tilted her chin, defying him to challenge her.  “One doesn’t make one better than the other.” 

Luca suddenly laughed, a deep robust sound.  It shattered the tension between them.  “Very true, cara,” He touched her face lightly and ran his hand down her cheek. 

Carolyn’s stomach twisted again, but this time for a different reason.  They stared at each other intently.  Luca stepped closer to Carolyn.  She refused to back away, even though she was inches from him.

The door opened suddenly.  Edgar Davenport shuffled inside.  “We will need to meet frequently, until all matters are settled.  In light of the circumstances, I figured the sooner, the better.” 

Edgar prattled on, happily ignoring his clients.  He had realized, over a cooled cup of Early Grey that the best conclusion to this situation was to expunge himself from the sordid equation.  Edgar decided to finish the business between Luca and Carolyn quickly.

Luca held out his hand to Carolyn.  He said ironically, “Come, cara.”

Carolyn looked down at his open palm.  She placed her smaller one in his and watched as his fingers closed around the paleness of hers.

Following after Edgar, Luca and Carolyn exited the inner office.  The secretary began the process of gathering papers and constructing the needed documents to begin Carolyn and Luca’s merger.

Edgar went through the general procedures for the wedding.  He asked Luca and Carolyn to contribute their opinions.  Luca gave a lack luster response to the invitation.  Carolyn was too dazed to respond.  They agreed to Prudence’s jurisdiction for making the primary wedding decisions.    

Luca and Carolyn’s paper relationship was orchestrated with rapid precision.  Prudence’s nimble fingers performed the multiple tasks with absolute focus.  The motions were automated as if this moment had been rehearsed. 

Prudence reached across her desk to the sharpener.  As she plunged her dulled pencil into the machine, her left shirt sleeve crested above her wrist.  A faint tattoo was revealed.  It began with the two letters ZW, followed by a random series of numbers.  The faint black ink ran up her left forearm.  The crisp white shirt obscured the end numbers. 

The pencil buzzed in the sharpener.  The whir of the blades trimmed off the wood with mechanical speed.  It was pulled free with a freshly pointed tip.  The cuff covered the tattoo again. 

Carolyn glanced at Prudence’s face.  The secretary showed no sign she had noticed her shirt had betrayed a secret.  Prudence fired a flurry of questions at Carolyn.  The interrogation diverted a trail of thoughts about the secretary’s past and how she came to work for Edgar Davenport.  The present was insistent and much more demanding then the secretary’s origins.

*********

Stacey and Erin were waiting for Carolyn at the Covent Garden flat.  Stacey clamored for details when Carolyn entered.

“So, how rich are we?”  

Carolyn had been determined to tell the truth of the inheritance right away, as getting it out would be cathartic.  Seeing Stacey’s eager face and knowing Erin’s practical attitude, Carolyn realized it would be impossible to tell them the truth.

With resignation for the improbable situation, Carolyn admonished automatically, “It isn’t polite to talk about such things.”

Stacey stopped bouncing.  “Cara, of course it is, that is the fun part of being rich; you don’t have to be polite.” 

“She’s right, you know.”  Erin burst out laughing.  “If you’re poor, it is too depressing to talk about money, because you are reminded how broke you are.  While when you’re rich, you can talk about all the glorious things you will do, go to and…”  She trailed off wistfully.

“You two have rather good points.” Carolyn moved around to the comfy large chair and sank down.  “The answer to your question is that we are fabulously wealthy and can live the life of leisure quite comfortably.”

Erin may have seen her finances change, but the Covent Garden flat was decked out in style.  Her knack of finding cast-offs and turning trash into treasure was unique and handy in shifting economic times. 

Stacey squeezed herself next to her sister and rested her head on Carolyn’s shoulder.  “I can’t wait to go back to Eastland.”

Carolyn pulled free her arms and wrapped them around Stacey.  “What else would you do?”

Stacey replied dreamingly.  “I would like to eat ice cream again.”

“Ice cream,” Erin exclaimed quizzically. 

“We couldn’t afford luxuries like ice cream or take away.  It was bread and jam most nights.”  Carolyn clarified.

“And mornings and afternoons…” Stacey began to rattle off.

“Alright, we get it.” Erin laughed.  “Well, if I came into an inheritance, I would not fill another cup of coffee again that’s for sure.  I would finally design a High Street fashion line, beyond the low-end casual wear for wait staff.”  She swung her legs over the couch’s arm.  “What would you do?” 

“I don’t know.  I’ve never thought about money before my parents’ death and afterwards that’s all I could worry about.  I guess I could paint again?”  Carolyn added for lack of a better idea.

“That’s a great idea, Cara.  Everyone loved your paintings.”  Stacey nodded.

Carolyn shrugged, than winked at Erin.  “At the very least, I could help Erin become a world class couture designer.  Think of all the creations you could come up for me.  It would be like the old days when you were at the fashion institute, and I was your live mannequin.” 

“That’s right, in the excitement we forgot to show you all the clothes we bought.”  Erin swung her legs off the arm rest and popped off the couch.  She dashed into the back bedroom.

“Cara, you aren’t going to believe what we got.” Stacey leaped up and beamed. She chased after Erin calling earnestly, “Wait!  Let me help you.” 

The rummaging, a clatter of boxes and sounds of crumpled paper, emerged from Erin’s bedroom.  Stacey’s excited squeals of remembrance over some item or another punctuated Erin’s directions for organizational viewing.

A phone shrilled in the flat and rang again. 

Carolyn called out, “Do you want me to get that?”

“Yes, please, I’m drowning in frocks.”  Erin shouted from the back room.

Carolyn picked up the receiver and spoke, “Erin Beckwith’s residence, Carolyn Ainsworth speaking.”

“Good evening, Mr. Luca Caldwell for Carolyn Ainsworth.”

Carolyn gasped, “What, how?”  She jumped off the chair and furtively glanced around the room in a guilty response.  Hissing into the phone, she demanded, “Why did you call here?”

“How quickly we change?”

Carolyn scuttled over to the corner of the living room.  “What is that supposed to mean?”  She could still hear Erin dictating to Stacey.  Stacey whined out periodically or chirped eagerly depending on Erin’s order.

“It means that you were all cordial, but the politeness vanished at mere mention of my name.  How is that suppose to make your fiancé feel?”

“You are not my fiancé.” Carolyn barked loudly.

Erin called out.  “Carolyn, who is it?  Is everything alright?”

Carolyn’s eyes widened with fear.  She pressed the phone to her breast to muffle her answer.  “It’s nobody; the solicitor needing some last minute things.”

“Alright then, we’re almost finished.  We’ll come out to the living room soon.”  Erin informed.

“Can we put on a fashion show?” Stacey pleaded.

“Of course, what else would we do?” Carolyn called

Stacey clapped gleefully, “Hurry Erin, I want to start soon.”

Carolyn took a deep breath and held the phone back to her ear.  “I don’t have much time…”

“For nobody particularly important,” Luca finished dryly. 

“Yes, no,” Carolyn rubbed her temple.  “I was trying to say that I don’t have time for this.  What is it that you want?”

“We need to meet to go over some things.”

“We did all that at the solicitor’s.  I’ll see you tomorrow at the office and Mr. Davenport said he would handle everything else.  What more could there be?”

“There is a lot more that we need to discuss in person.”

“We can’t and…” Carolyn added before he could suggest another alternative, “especially not over the phone.”  Changing the direction of the conversation, Carolyn demanded again. “How did you get this number?”

“You gave it to Miss Crismore, in case she needed to contact you.” Luca answered dryly.

“Yes, well…I still don’t see why it is so necessary to meet.”

“I think you need to understand the situation.”

Carolyn turned and faced the wall.  Her brow crinkled in temper.  “I’m fairly familiar with the situation.  I have no other choice but to go through with it.”

“Go through with what?” Stacey spoke suddenly.

Carolyn whirled around startled.  “Thank you and good-day,” Carolyn hurriedly rung off.  She smiled cheerfully.  “Let’s see this fashion show.”

Stacey eyed Carolyn suspiciously and repeated more forcedly, “Go through with what?”

Carolyn’s mind raced, and her answer tumbled out of her mouth as quickly as it formed in her head.  “You know how I feel about clothes.  I might as well go through with the fashion show.  I want to be a good sport.”  Her face froze in anticipation of Stacey’s acceptance of the falsehood.

“I don’t know…” Stacey trailed off, as she studied her older sister doubtfully. 

Erin waddled into the room, barely seen over the pile of clothes in her arms and bags hanging at her elbows and concurred with Carolyn’s explanation.  “Your sister has proudly illustrated through the years her cluelessness to all things trendy, popular and becoming.”

“Erin, that’s not true!” Carolyn exclaimed with slight humor. 

“Need I remind you of the old lady blouse,” Erin stared at her friend pointedly.  She carefully placed the pile of clothes onto the couch.

“I like old-fashioned things.  They’re very sensible.”  Carolyn returned the phone to the base. 

Erin really did have an eye for fashion.  Her designs for friends were always perfect in tailoring and style.  Carolyn had favored the more conservative cut, which had received constant berating from her friend.  

“That’s the problem, you’re too sensible.  You need to wear clothes that accentuate your positives.”  Erin insisted.

Eliminate your negatives and don’t mess with Mr. In-between.” Stacey sang.

 “I don’t like a lot of attention.”

“Well, I do!” Stacey declared as she flounced around the room.  “Now, tell me how wonderfully gorgeous I look in this dress.”

Carolyn stood at attention.  “You look gorgeous in that beautiful frock.”

Erin quipped, “You forgot wonderfully.”

“Yes, wonderfully, too!”  Carolyn turned to her friend and bowed exaggeratedly, “Well done, Erin.” Carolyn sat down on the couch and folded her hands, “On with the show.”

When Erin had gone shopping with Stacey, apparently it was decided that Stacey wouldn’t be the only one to receive a new wardrobe.  Carolyn was also benefiting from a new set of garments.  Boxes and bags of clothes piled in Erin’s living room as the two girls showed Carolyn the array of purchases.

Stacey and Erin held up all the clothes for both sisters.  Outfits and dresses were tried on and displayed.  Carolyn was astounded at the amount.  Her recent poverty balked at such extravagance, but she reasoned quickly that one of the perks of her arrangement wouldn’t be to worry about money again.  She indulged her friend and sister over the purchases and responded accordingly at the appropriate intervals.  Carolyn clapped at the end of the parade. 

“Bravo, I must say I enjoyed that more than I thought.” 

Stacey and Erin collapsed onto the sofa, careful to not crush any of the clothes. 

“We should clean up and prepare to leave.”  Carolyn glanced around the room. Noticing the clock on the far wall, she commented on the late hour.  “I hope we can still catch the last train to Aylesbury.”

Stacey sat up straight and pleaded.  “But why must we leave?”

“I have to work in the morning.  I was lucky to get one day off.” Carolyn replied sensibly.

“But you hate that job.”  Stacey reasoned.  “With the inheritance, you don’t need to work anymore.”

“Yes, but we still have to go back to the flat to sleep.”  Carolyn countered, though the notion to return to the cold and empty house held no appeal.

“Why don’t you stay here?”  Erin piped in logically.  “I have two extra bedrooms as you know.  At my income I shouldn’t even be able to look at this flat, much less live in it, but Aunt Sossie lets me live here rent free.  Granted, I must pay my own bills, but rent isn’t one of those worries.”

“See, being cut off financially from your parents does have some good turns.” Carolyn chuckled.

“Exactly,” Erin raised her hand in a pretend toast. 

“Can we stay, please?”  Stacey pressed her hands together and tilted up her head in a beguiling way.

Carolyn thought about her detestable job and shivered involuntarily.  The loathsome flat the sisters occupied did not spell home sweet home either.   She squared her shoulders and shrugged with happy defeat. 

“It looks like I am gratefully outnumbered.  We will stay for a little while, until we can get our own place.”  Carolyn felt relieved to be residing in a home that held the warmth of friendship and family.

“It’s about time you came to your senses.”  Erin smiled broadly then sobered.  “What about your job and flat?  Will it be tough to get out of both constraints?”

“Not in the least, I will phone my resignation to the filing company.  I am finally set free from my alphabetic purgatory.  The company was only keeping me on out of a remaining allegiance to my father, who had helped fund their initial startup.  I was barely adequate at my job.  The flat shouldn’t be an issue as Mr. Clements repeatedly reminded me how many tenants were eager to occupy our pitiful, little home.”

Stacey added, “Anytime Carolyn asked him to fix something, he grumbled how lucky we were to be there.”

“It shouldn’t be that hard for him to find someone new.”  Carolyn concluded.  If she was harassed by Mr. Clements, a gentle reminder of building code violations would eradicate any distress at the Ainsworth girls’ sudden departure. 

“It seems like everything is settled satisfactorily.”  Erin brushed her hands together.  “How about celebrating, I’m in the mood for a nice junk-food feast.”  She grinned.

“Hurrah,” Stacey jumped around the room.  “Our fortunes are turning.”

Carolyn grinned at her sister and Erin, as they combed through cupboards.  They brought out bags of crisps and a pint of ice cream from the freezer.  Their joyous acceptance that all was right and every problem resolved was endearing.  Carolyn wished she could be as enthusiastic.  Her smile dimmed as she thought of Erin and Stacey reacting to how the new fortune was acquired and what the true cost entailed.

 

Copyright 2012 Kristen Kindoll. All rights reserved.