Read Bicycle Built for Two Online

Authors: Alice Duncan

Tags: #spousal abuse, #humor, #historical romance, #1893 worlds columbian exposition, #chicago worlds fair, #little egypt, #hootchykootchy

Bicycle Built for Two

 

1

 

A BICYCLE BUILT FOR TWO

 

By Alice Duncan

 

Book #3 in the series “Meet Me at the
Fair”

 

 

 

A Bicycle Built for Two

Copyright
©
2002 by Alice
Duncan

All rights reserved.

 

Published 2002 by Kensington
Corp.

A Zebra “Ballads” Books

 

Smashwords edition March 15,
2010

 

Visit
aliceduncan.net

 

 

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Chapter One

 

“But that’s outrageous!”

Alex English stared, aghast, at his fellow
members of the World’s Columbian Exposition’s Agricultural Forum,
the body of men in agricultural pursuits who had put together so
many of the magnificent exhibits fair-goers daily flocked to see.
Alex himself had donated the oats, wheat, and barley, grown on his
own Illinois farm, that had been used in creating a reproduction of
the Liberty Bell.

“We can’t have that sort of thing going on
here. This Exhibition is meant to be an arena of education. It’s a
place where families can see for themselves what a great country
America’s become. It’s supposed to be wholesome and moral. It’s not
supposed to be a—a—” But Alex couldn’t find words egregious enough
to describe the disgraceful event that had just been related to
him.

“True, true.” Gilbert MacIntosh, railroad
magnate and weekend farmer sighed. “To be fair to the girl, she did
ask the gate men to keep an eye open for the man, and to refuse him
admission if he showed up. It’s not really her fault that he
managed to get past them.”

“But to very nearly strangle his own
daughter?” Alex could scarcely take it in. “What kind of family
does the girl come from? Are we sure we want her sort working at
the Exposition?”

All of Alex’s sensibilities rebelled at the
notion that somebody could attempt murder—and upon his own
daughter, by Gad—at the fair he’d worked so long and hard to
create. He had no patience with people like this girl, this
so-called “dancer,” this benighted “fortune teller.” He’d fought
against admitting that dashed fortune-telling booth to begin with,
believing such truck inappropriate for so high-minded an enterprise
as his cherished World’s Columbian Exposition. Only reluctantly had
he been coerced into accepting Madame Esmeralda’s trashy
enterprise, and only so long as she confined it to the Midway
Plaisance.

“What exactly is her sort?” Gilbert asked, an
ironical twist to his voice.

But Alex entertained no such moral
ambiguities as his friend seemed to possess. “The bad sort. Great
jumping cats, Gil, you can’t honestly believe the girl is of sound
character with a father like that, can you?”

“I think it’s her father’s character that’s
in question here, Alex. Not hers.”

“Humbug. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the
oak tree. No matter what the so-call psychologists that are popping
up all over the place say, such moral laxity runs in families.” He
pounded the table. “It even says so in the Bible. Unto the seventh
generation!” The Bible was an excellent resource, and Alex felt no
qualms about using it as a reference. Not even Gil, who
occasionally entertained bizarre notions, would dare refute the
Bible.

“I don’t think it’s as easy as that.”
Gilbert rubbed a hand across his eyes, as if he were exhausted,
which he probably was. “In spite of the Bible, her father isn’t her
fault, Alex.”

“Bah. His sort breeds his sort, and she’s
his daughter.” Alex knew it to be true. He was sure Gil did, too,
but was being stubborn for some unfathomable reason. Alex had the
Bible on his side, for crumb’s sake.

“You’re not being fair to her, Alex,” Gil
insisted.

The Agricultural Forum members spent long
hours, together and individually, overseeing events in the
Agricultural Building and making sure displays inside were kept up
to snuff. Alex had worked like a demon all his life to propitiate
the farming enterprise his great-grandfather, grandfather, and
father had begun and maintained. He’d added a genius for business,
a far-sighted and creative mode of thinking, an interest in new
ideas, farming methods, unique uses for his produce, and boundless
energy and ambition to his inherited green thumb. He had,
therewith, created the largest, most prosperous farming enterprise
in the middle west. He wasn’t about to let a low-bred, low-class
girl from Chicago’s worst slums disrupt his cherished
Exposition.

“What do you mean?” he demanded of Gilbert
MacIntosh. “If the girl is a menace to the rest of the Exposition,
I say get rid of her.”

“Hear, hear,” said Mr. Farley Pike, another
wealthy Illinois farmer. “We don’t want her type soiling our
project.

Alex nodded. “Exactly.” He didn’t much like
Farley, considering him a stuffed shirt, a bore, and assuredly a
hypocrite into the bargain, but he appreciated his support at the
moment.

Gil eyed them both with a
jaundiced air. “You’re not being just, gentlemen. It’s not the
girl’s fault that her father is a drunkard.” He aimed a gaze at
Alex that hit its target like a jab on the jaw.

She
isn’t the
problem. Her father is the problem. And she took the precaution of
warning the gate keepers that he might well make trouble. I believe
she ought to be lauded for trying to better herself and her
foresight, not kicked in the teeth for having been cursed with a
bastard for a father.”

A general gasp went up around the table.
These gentlemen, these salt-of-the-earth farmers—granted, they were
a good deal more prosperous than most farmers—weren’t accustomed to
hearing profanity spoken in their presence. Somebody, Alex didn’t
see who, muttered, “Well, really.”

Alex pressed his lips together briefly. He
didn’t approve of cursing, either. However, it was Gil’s prodding
of his conscience that irked him more than Gil’s unconventional
language. He didn’t like to think of himself as the sort of fellow
who would condemn a person out of hand. An urge to defend his stand
assailed him. “Now, listen here, Gil, old fellow. We all know that
there are certain types of people who can’t be helped.”

Gil eyed him without favor. “And how, pray,
can you be sure this girl is one of them? Have you met her? Spoken
to her? I haven’t, so I prefer to withhold judgment until I have. I
know you’re a good man, Alex, but I think you’re not behaving like
one in this instance. At least talk to the girl and determine her
soundness of character and mind before you deprive her of the means
of making her living.”

Scores of epithets, most containing words
like “bleeding heart” and “soft touch” flitted through Alex’s
brain. He knew he was being unkind to Gil. Gil was as hard-headed a
businessman as any of them. And he was only being reasonable. Alex
knew it, even though he hated acknowledging the truth, because the
truth in this instance was not to his credit. He liked to think of
himself as the reasonable one in any gathering of gentlemen.

After a longish pause, during which Alex
pondered how he could get his own way and rid the Exposition of
this girl, this Kate Finney, who was clearly devoid of morals or
worth, without seeming, even to himself, irrational and
ill-tempered, he said, “Very well, Gil. You’re correct.” He felt
magnanimous admitting it. “I’ll visit the girl and talk to her. If
I think she ought be kicked out, however, you may be sure I’ll
recommend doing so to the Fair Directory.”

“Fine, fine,” Gil said upon a heavy breath
of air. “That’s fair.”

“Thank you.” Alex rose. “Shall we retire to
luncheon, gentlemen? I hear a hamburger calling my name.” He smiled
and his co-agriculturalists laughed, and the men all left their
meeting room in the Exposition’s Administration Building. He
clapped Gil on the shoulder as the two men met at the door. “Would
you care to visit Miss Finney with me, Gil?”

But the other man shook his head. “Can’t,
Alex. I’ve got to see to my Guernseys. My man said one of them
isn’t feeling well. Can’t have sick cows at the fair.”

“Good Gad, no!” The mere thought of a sick
cow, a diseased cornstalk, or a patch of mildew on one of his
pumpkins made Alex’s skin crawl. Once, several years ago, Alex’s
mother had laughingly told him he was too much of a perfectionist,
but Alex didn’t think it was possible to be too careful. It was his
attention to detail that had increased his family’s fortunes so
greatly. Besides, he knew his mother had only been joking.

Gil grinned at him. “Don’t take it so hard,
Alex. If the cow’s sick, I’ll take care of her.”

Alex gazed sharply at his best friend. Was
Gil making fun of him? He didn’t want to think so, but he frowned
slightly. “Of course, you will,” he said more stiffly than he’d
intended.

Placing a hand on Alex’s shoulder, Gil
stopped his friend’s forward progress. Alex turned and gazed at him
quizzically. “Yes, Gil? You want to say something?”

Gil looked troubled. Alex hoped nothing was
amiss at home. Gil had recently married a charming woman. Alex had
been best man at the ceremony, an event that had started him
thinking about setting up housekeeping himself. His mother could
use some help on the farm. Not that Alex didn’t provide her with a
full household staff, but still, managing such a large home and
grounds could be tiring to a lady no longer in the first blush of
youth, especially now that his father had passed on to his just
reward. “Is something the matter, Gil?”

“Yes. No. Aw, hell, Alex, I don’t know.”

Alex allowed his eyes to open wide for
perhaps two seconds. It was unlike Gil to swear this much. In order
to make his friend relax, he smiled. “Out with it, Gil. If
something’s wrong, perhaps I can help with it.”

Gil’s smile slipped
sideways and he chuckled softly. “Actually, you’re the only one
who
can
help.”

“I don’t think I understand, Gil.”

“No, I’m sure you don’t.”

Alex was puzzled by Gil’s air of distress.
Cocking his head to one side, he waited, figuring his friend would
get to the point eventually.

“Alex . . .” Again, Gil stopped
speaking.

More confused than ever, Alex said,
“Yes?”

“Alex, you’re turning into a fussy old man
before my very eyes, damn it!”

Alex blinked at him. He didn’t know what to
say. He didn’t know what Gil meant, for that matter. “Um . . .”

Gil’s hand tightened on Alex’s shoulder.
“Listen, Alex, I’m saying this all wrong, but try to
understand.”

“I’m trying.”

“We’ve been best friends for years. I love
you as I would a brother.” Frowning slightly, Gil emended his
comment. “Actually, I love you a good deal more than I do
Henry.”

At last Alex found a reason to smile, so he
did. Henry was a stuffed shirt and a crashing dullard. Everyone who
knew him agreed.

“But, dash it, Alex, you’re getting to be as
bad as he is!”

“I beg your pardon?” Alex was certain he’d
misunderstood.

“Take this girl, for instance.”

“I’d rather not, thank you.” A good deal put
out with his friend, Alex felt himself tense until his posture was
. . . well . . . rather like Henry’s, actually. The realization
forced Alex to calm down and relax his rigid posture.

“But that’s just it, you see. You’re willing
to condemn Miss Finney before you know her story. You’ve never even
met her, yet you’re talking about forcing her out of the
Exposition.” Gil’s eyes told an eloquent story that Alex didn’t
want to read. “It’s not like you to condemn a person out of hand,
Alex. At least, it’s not like the Alex English I grew up with. I
hope to God you’re not turning into another Henry, Alex, or I might
just be forced to take action.”

He said the last few words with a smile on
his face and a laugh in his voice, but Alex still read the truth in
his eyes. A mixture of indignation, fury, and absolute, bone-deep
hurt kept him speechless.

Gil took note of his silence. “Damnation,
now I’ve wounded your feelings. I’m sorry, Alex. But, dash it, I’d
hate to see you turn into an intolerant old fusspot before you’re
even thirty. You used to be a generous, good-hearted fellow, old
man. I know you’ve always worked like the very devil to achieve
your success, but you used to have a sense of humor and an even
deeper sense of honor and integrity.”

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