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Authors: Penny Richards

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BOOK: An Untimely Frost
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'mon, luv, open your eyes.”
The familiar sound of Pierce's voice nudged aside the comforting shadows. Lilly moaned at the intrusion. She wanted nothing more than to stay wrapped in the cocoon of oblivion that kept away the memories threatening her self-worth and her peace of mind . . . perhaps even her sanity.
“Lilly. Come, my sweet girl. Open your eyes for me.”
The coolness of a damp cloth dabbing at a place on the side of her head accompanied the voice. Rose. The woman who had taken a young, damaged girl into her home and her heart when her mother was murdered. The woman Timothy might have killed if not for Lilly's intervention.
She reached out in a frantic gesture. “Rose!” Lilly had trouble making her lips form the whispered word.
“Thank God!”
“I'm here.” Rose sobbed and dabbed harder at the aching place on Lilly's head.
“Stop!” she said crossly, making another aimless grab. “That hurts.”
Pierce's laughter sent her eyelids fluttering open. She glared at him. He only laughed again. “You'd best stop, Rose. We don't want to get her all in a pucker.”
“I am not angry,” Lilly managed to mumble in a sulky voice.
“No? What would you call it?”
“Enraged.” She didn't sound enraged; she sounded exhausted. Recalling the events that had brought her to this point, she struggled to her elbows, an act that sent the room spinning and another wave of pain through her skull.
“Be still,” Pierce commanded. “You may have a concussion—or worse.”
“I'm fine,” she grumbled, gingerly probing the knot on her head. “Just bloody furious. Did he get away?”
Rose gave a disdainful sniff. “Took out of here like a scalded cat,” she said. “He almost knocked Roxie over as she came in from the theater. She's sent for the police and a doctor.”
“I don't need a doctor,” Lilly insisted, struggling to sit up. “It's just a bump.”
“Maybe so, but I'll feel better if you're checked out,” Rose insisted, propping her up with a couple of pillows behind her back.
“So will I,” Pierce added. “As for the police . . . I don't know how much good they'll be. I have a feeling your Tim's done this sort of thing before.”
Before Lilly had time to consider that, a knock sounded at the door. It was the physician, a middle-aged man with rounded shoulders and thick spectacles, who spent the next several moments asking questions about what had happened, poking and prodding, checking her pupils, and even pricking her hands and feet with a pin.
“Well,” he said, removing his stethoscope from his ears and hooking it around his neck. “You're a fortunate young lady. It appears you have nothing wrong except a very nasty bump on your head.”
“Thank God,” Rose said.
“Of course, there is no way to completely rule out the possibility of a concussion or even a skull fracture, but in light of your responses and state of awareness, I'm not inclined to think the injury is that severe.” He offered a dry smile. “You'll probably have the devil of a headache for a few days, so I advise that you stay in bed and get as much rest as possible.”
“I'd like to return to my own room if that would be all right,” Lilly said, the expression in her brown eyes pleading. Though she feared it was a fool's errand, she wanted to check on the small stash of money she kept there.
“Fine, fine,” the physician agreed with a nod. “But I insist that someone stay with you for at least one night. Mrs. Wainwright?” he queried, looking at Rose.
“You couldn't keep me away,” Rose assured him.
Several minutes later, Lilly was settled into the room she'd shared with Timothy. While Pierce walked the doctor out, Lilly allowed Rose to continue her motherly fussing. It seemed the least she could do. She was about to ask Rose for details about the robbery when Pierce poked his head in and announced that the policeman had arrived and wanted to speak with Rose.
“And I want to speak with him!”
Rose gave the quilts a final pat. “The doctor gave me a wee bit of laudanum to ease your pain and help you sleep, but I left it in my room. I'll be back with it just as soon as I talk to the copper and get my night things.”
Lilly whispered her thanks and gave a compliant nod. As soon as the door shut behind Rose, Lilly opened her eyes and let her troubled gaze roam the bed chamber. Tim's straight razor and soap mug were gone from the shaving stand. The carpetbag that held his clothes was no longer in the corner where he'd left it. No trace of his presence lingered except the faintest scent of bay rum that clung to the sheets. She ran her palm over the place where he'd slept and blinked back the threat of angry tears.
Tim had belittled the most precious gift she'd had to offer—her purity. His cruel words hurt far more than the physical pain he'd inflicted. Did the innocence she'd brought to their marriage bed truly mean so little to him? Why had he thrown away everything over the silly argument about money they'd had earlier that morning?
When he'd asked for more money, she had braced herself for yet another battle and reminded him that she'd given him money the day before. To her surprise, he hadn't come back with his usual snide remarks. Instead, he'd looked at her with a tortured expression on his handsome face and told her that he wouldn't ask if it weren't important.
He'd seemed so pitiful that she felt churlish for denying him. Wanting everything to be right between them, she'd given him more money from the bag she kept in her trunk. Grateful, smiling, and incredibly attractive in his victory, he'd kissed her and apologized and taken her to bed. No doubt he'd been plotting to steal her money even then. How could he claim to love her one minute and do such a terrible thing hours later?

You should know that a man will say anything to get what he wants.

Ice-cold and laced with contempt, the scornful words were so vivid that the man who'd spoken them might have been standing next to her. Somehow she knew the words were those of her mother's killer, a man who'd lied to get what he wanted from Kate just as Timothy had lied to get what he wanted from Lilly.
With an angry murmur, Lilly sat up, an action that set off a fresh wave of pain. Moving with care, she eased to the side of the bed and slid the few inches to the cold floorboards. Crossing to the trunk, she yanked open a small drawer, scraping aside the rose-scented garments and tumbling the contents of the other drawers in a frenzied, futile search for the pouch.
Gone. Every cent.
For the first time, she took a hard, objective look at her husband and herself. Tim was an opportunist, plain and simple. And though the live-and-let-live, nomadic lifestyle of the theater was liberating in many ways, that way of life had shielded her from much of society's ugliness, which left her inexperienced when it came to many of the world's workings.
Tim had no doubt taken one glance into her eyes and known that she was as green as grass, and he'd played to that naiveté every step of the way. She'd fallen for an inveterate schemer, following in Kate's footsteps despite every effort not to. What was the old saw? Oh, yes. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
She'd been a child when her mother was murdered, bound by a child's limitations. As a woman grown, she was free of those constraints. She wasn't certain what tomorrow might bring, but she knew exactly what she had to do tonight, and she swore that she would never again be taken in by any man.
* * *
Lilly dressed as quickly as possible. She was anxious to be gone before her plan to go looking for Tim was thwarted by Rose's or Pierce's return. Assuming Tim had not yet left the area, narrowing down his whereabouts was simple. He was probably at MacGregor's, a combination drinking establishment, restaurant, and hotel within walking distance of both the boardinghouse and the theater.
Dressed and bundled in her red cape, she left her room, sidling furtively down the hall and out into the cold night once again. She grimaced against the icy wind that blew clouds as insubstantial as her marriage across the face of the quarter moon. Rain clouds. Weather typical of early March in Chicago.
It took just two blocks for her to realize that wrath and righteous indignation could carry one only so far. Her head ached dreadfully, her stomach churned, and for the first time since conceiving her impulsive plan, she became aware of the unfamiliar darkness surrounding her, taunting her with its dangers.
Buildings bordered either side of the street, their storefronts indistinguishable beyond the glow of the flickering gaslights. Raucous, masculine laughter mingled with a shrill female giggle. Raw wind tugged at her cape, carrying the scent of approaching rain and the faint, ever-present stench of rotting flesh and burning hair from the Union Stock Yards in the distance. Faint though it was, the revolting odor robbed her of her tenuous hold on her nausea and she doubled over, emptying the contents of her stomach into the gutter.
Drawing a handkerchief from her reticule, she wiped her streaming eyes and mouth and leaned against a brick building until the pain and dizziness subsided, rousing only when an owl's chilling
whoo hoo
echoed from somewhere in the inky blackness. A frisson of unease slithered down her spine. People disappeared at an alarming rate in Chicago. Reminded again of the dangers of the desolate streets and shadow-shrouded alleys, she quickened her pace.
She was wondering if she would make it when she saw light spilling from the windows of a brick-fronted establishment, illuminating a sign beside the door in the shape of a crest. Red letters outlined with white spelled out M
. She paused, wondering at the best way to proceed. When she'd left the boardinghouse in a vengeful snit, she'd had no plan beyond finding Timothy.
A sudden memory of her newest character, the irrepressible Priscilla Dunlap, sprang to mind. With no fear of what others thought of her or her actions, that incorrigible miss would march into the tavern as if she frequented such places every day. She would belly up to the bar and demand answers. She would not act uncertain or afraid. As an actress, Lilly could do the same.
Taking a breath, she lifted her chin and stepped inside. Assorted impressions assaulted her senses: welcome heat from a nearby potbelly stove. The clink of glassware and dozens of individual conversations. There was so much smoke her eyes and nostrils burned. Rough male voices overwhelmed the backdrop of feminine laughter and the tinny tinkle of a piano in dire need of a tuning.
She hesitated in the doorway, fighting another round of queasiness and allowing her gaze to move around the alien world.
In keeping with many Irish-owned saloons, MacGregor's boasted a standup bar. Tim had done his best to convince her that taverns were not necessarily dens of iniquity. Besides offering drinks, they were places laborers learned of employment opportunities, paychecks were cashed, and the latest gossip could be overheard. Some establishments offered free lunches, usually something cold, though the more fashionable taverns offered fancier fare. A few even boasted restrooms and safes for items too precious to leave at home, a notion Lilly now realized held considerable worth.
Though hard-used, MacGregor's was relatively clean, and its patrons looked prosperous enough. Several men knocked back shots of whisky while squinting through a fog of smoke at a skimpily clothed chanteuse belting out a naughty song in a liquor-roughened alto.
Most of the women, whose painted faces were less pretty than pathetic, wore nothing but undergarments that pinched their waists to unnatural smallness and pushed their bosoms scandalously upward. They moved from table to table, bleakness in their eyes, forced smiles on their painted lips as they leaned suggestively over men who sat with one hand clutching a spread of cards, the other toying with a pile of chips or grasping a drink or cheroot.
And to think that much of society looked down on actresses! More than a bit scandalized, and seeing no sign of Timothy, she was about to cross to the bar to question the bartender when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She whirled, an action that caused the room to dip.
A very large man, with biceps the size of her thighs and a handlebar mustache that nearly hid his mouth, stood before her. His narrowed eyes were dark with menace beneath heavy eyebrows that were drawn together so that they looked like a single bushy ledge.
“I'm sorry, ma'am, but if you want service, you'll have to come in through the rear door.”
Accustomed to the more impartial treatment women of the theater received from their male peers, Lilly had little patience for the silly customs the male-dominated world sought to impose on women. A knock on the head was not about to change that. She bit back a reply unsuitable to a lady and responded in an arrogant tone that would have done Priscilla proud. “I am not here to be served, sir. I'm looking for my husband.”
The brute crossed his arms across his massive chest. “Rules is rules, ma'am.”
Lilly met his gaze head-on and schooled her tone to one reeking with calculated patience. “As you can see, sir, I am already inside, so what good is it for me to go out and come in another door? Now,” she said, as if the matter were settled, “would you kindly point out the owner?”
Uncertain how to handle the situation without resorting to force, the bouncer jerked his head toward the bar.
“Thank you.”
She stepped around him and marched across the tavern to the long span of mahogany scarred with cigar and cigarette burns and dulled by years of spilled alcohol. The splotched, hazy surface of a mirror hanging crookedly behind the bar reflected the happenings in the smoke-filled room as well as the back of a stout man in a white apron who was drawing a mug of foaming beer. His fleshy face sported at least two days' stubble of beard below a thick, untidy mustache that drooped at the corners, giving him a frowning appearance. When Lilly plopped her beaded handbag down next to a bowl marked C
, he looked up in feigned surprise—as if, she thought crossly, he had not witnessed her encounter with the ape guarding the door.
BOOK: An Untimely Frost
8.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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