Tennessee Waltz - Sample Chapter
New York City
"Shhhh! Listen, Stephen. Did you hear that?" Sarah pulled her escort to a halt and tilted her head. They'd lingered inside the opera house chatting with friends until they were among the stragglers leaving, and without the crowd noise, she clearly heard the sound when it came again.
"It's just a stray cat," Stephen said. "Come on. It's cold."
"It's not a cat," Sarah said. "It's a kitten. Look! Oh, the poor thing."
Dropping Stephen's arm, she hurried to the side of the building, where a tiny gray and white head peeped out from beneath a bush. Disregarding the damage that would result, she pulled her cape forward and knelt on the edge of it. The kitten meowed plaintively once again, then scuttled back under the bush when she reached for it.
"Sarah," Stephen called imperiously. "That thing will bite you, or at the very least scratch your hands right through your gloves. Forget it and come on!"
Peering through the dimness, Sarah ignored him. The light from the opera house shone through the windows above the bush, penetrating through the dense branches, winter-bare of leaves. She bent forward, her gloved hands landing in a slushy pile of snow.
"Here, kitty," she called. "Come here, you poor thing."
From a couple yards away, the kitten meowed again. There was something else back there, too, and Sarah gasped when what she'd at first taken for a bundle of rags moved. Oh, God, it looked like a small child lying there.
"Stephen! Come here!"
When he didn't appear immediately, she glanced over her shoulder to see him talking to another man and paying not the slightest bit of attention to her. He did that a lot, she recalled, assuming she would obey his commands without question. His carriage rolled to a stop beside him, the clops of the horses' hooves and sound of the wheels on the brick street drowning out her words when she called to him again. Chewing on her lip, she debated barely five seconds. Then she dove beneath the bush, struggling through the dense branches toward the prone figure beyond the kitten.
She touched the figure and realized she had been right — a live child lay inside those rags. Or at least the child was alive right now, since it moved in response to her touch and moaned pitifully. Sarah took a second to brush some matted hair from the child's forehead, making a guess that it was female by the delicate features she uncovered. She quickly ran her hands over the slight body, checking for any noticeable injuries. Protruding ribs and a hollow stomach spoke of malnourishment, but she didn't seem to have any broken bones. She shivered uncontrollably, then opened her eyes slightly.
"Mama?" she asked on more of a sigh than an actual utterance.
"No, darling," Sarah murmured in reply. "But I'll take care of you."
"S . . . so hungry," the child slurred. She dropped into unconsciousness again, and a lump choked Sarah's throat.
Grasping the tiny shoulders, she crawled backward, tugging the little girl along while the kitten followed. Free of the bushes, she gathered the child into her arms, rose, and studied the bedraggled figure in the better light.
In the dirt-encrusted face, the child's eyes remained closed, and it was impossible to determine the color of the matted curls covering her head. Sarah couldn't repress a shudder as she imagined what filth she also held in her arms. On top of that, despite her concern, the smell almost made her gag.
"What in God's name are you doing, Sarah?" Stephen said from behind her. "The carriage is waiting."
"Stephen!" Ignoring the smell and dirt, she gathered the child closer, wrapping her cape around it. "This little girl was under the bushes. She can't be more than five or six, and she's unconscious and shivering horribly. We need to get her to a hospital!"
Stephen glared down his nose at Sarah and her burden, his face wrinkling into a sneer. Hurriedly, he pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and held it to his nose. "Not in my carriage, you won't. Take that . . . that foul thing inside and leave it with the opera house staff. Have them call the authorities."
The child stirred in her arms and the kitten meowed at her feet, then rubbed against her ankle. Sarah stared at Stephen in horror. She'd known he was self-centered, but she evidently hadn't realized the depth of his callousness.
"You're more worried about your carriage than a child on the verge of death?" she asked, grasping the child even tighter. "Then call me a rental carriage. I'll take care of this myself!"
"Don't be silly, Sarah . . ."
"I'm not being silly! I'm being human and concerned for another human being — a child, at that!" She pushed past him and went to the curb, where a doorman from the opera house directed carriage traffic picking up the few remaining gowned and jeweled opera attenders.
"I need a conveyance," she ordered the doorman. She knew Stephen well enough to realize he was standing there fuming at her defiance and probably humiliated if any of his friends happened to be watching. Her disregard of his dictate surprised even herself somewhat, but she had a more pressing worry at the moment. The child groaned again, and a hacking cough erupted from her chest.
"Please call one of the rental hacks up here," she commanded the doorman when he hesitated and glanced behind her, presumably at Stephen.
"Ma'am?" he questioned. "But you arrived in . . ."
"Did you hear me?" she spat. "Get me a conveyance! Now!"
The doorman turned away and reached for a whistle hanging around his neck just as Stephen's hand fell on her arm. "Get in my carriage," he said through gritted teeth. "I'll not have the gossip tomorrow being that I left you here and you had to get home on your own."
"I don't understand you at all, Stephen," she said, shaking her head. "I personally could care less that New York City society thought I had more compassion for a child than I did for their gossiping ways!" Turning from him, she hurried over to his carriage and climbed in without waiting for his footman's assistance. When Stephen started to enter, she blocked the doorway.
"Don't forget the kitten," she said.
"What? Now listen here, Sarah. I only agreed to take that child in here! I'm not . . ."
"Either get the kitten or I'll get back out," she said in exasperation. "It might belong to this little girl."
He glared at her for a long second, his jaw tightening. Finally, he huffed in frustration and backed from the carriage door. A moment later, as she settled on the cushioned seat, he climbed in with the kitten in his hand. Shoving it at her, he sat down opposite her.
"I told my driver, Hans, to go to the hospital. Is that what you want?"
"No," she said, quickly changing her mind. "Tell him to go directly to my house. I think that will be better. We might be at the hospital for hours before anyone could look at this child, and I can send for Dr. Jones from home."
The light from a street lamp shown on him as he thinned his lips, but Stephen shifted over to the side window and raised it. Sticking his head out, he delivered the revised destination to his driver and leaned back.
"This isn't the way I expected the evening to end," he said, petulance plain in his tone of voice. "We've only been engaged two days and here we are fighting."
Sarah cuddled the tiny child closer to her breasts. The kitten clawed its way up her arm and onto her shoulder, sniffing at the child and mewling in a low tone. Sarah let the tiny animal stay, although her scalp tightened at the thought of fleas. The kitten's ragged fur was far from clean, its weight barely discernible, speaking of its undernourished state also.
The bundle of bones and dirty cloth in her arms stirred again, and she mentally urged Hans to hurry. The child's breath feathered in and out, fostering a slight hope, although her breathing had a slight rasp to it. She hadn't coughed again, which Sarah took to be a good sign.
"We'll talk about this later, Stephen," she said. "Right now I'm more concerned about this child's health than I am your hurt feelings."
Though she had tried to conceal her disgust at his selfish actions, Stephen evidently comprehended her displeasure. He immediately changed his tactics.
"Of course," he said soothingly. "It's just that I'm terribly disappointed at our evening being interrupted this way, darling. As soon as you turn that child over to your servants, we'll talk. I really do want us to discuss setting our wedding date."
The carriage wheel bounced over a rut, and Sarah gripped the child tighter. The change in Stephen's attitude made her recall the conversation she'd overheard during the break in the opera performance earlier that evening. The petulant blonde had evidently just been informed of her betrothal to Stephen, and the haughty sniff from the other side of the large plant had drawn Sarah's attention.
"I suppose Sarah has a large enough dowry to satisfy Stephen VanderDyke," the blond woman Sarah had recognized as the newest belle of the season, Petula Hardesty, had smirked. "I'll admit, I wouldn't have minded having Stephen in my bed for a while, but I didn't fancy knowing that a year or so down the road he would have probably run through my entire dowry. Even Stephen will be hard put to make a dent in the Channing fortune, though. And we all know that every bit of that money will soon be at Sarah's disposal, when her father dies. From what I hear of the old man's health, that could be very soon."
Distracted, instead of listening to the performance, Sarah had pondered what she'd heard during the entire second half of the opera. She'd known all along that Stephen only wanted her for her money, but then, her father had warned her ever since she was old enough to understand the spoken word that she would have to buy herself a husband. Her father hadn't even bothered to hide his own lack of sympathy for Sarah's plainness or his jealousy of his friends who had more comely daughters.
The reality of her father's words had sunk in even deeper when she watched her friends being courted and getting married, without even one of the men Sarah found herself attracted to showing an interest in her. Instead, she always sensed a tolerance of her homeliness beneath the veneer of the men who did come calling — and a deep concern as to her future financial state. If she overlooked that, her father made sure he passed their not-so-subtle inquiries on to her.
She'd managed to sidestep the few proposals she did receive, even getting her father's cooperation in that. It seemed he was in no hurry to pay out the large dowry it would take to secure her a husband. But by the time she had reached the almost unmarriageable age of twenty-five, her desire for her own home and children had been soul wrenching. Wouldn't everyone in New York City society be surprised if they knew she had only pretended to be infatuated with Stephen, having decided to finally secure herself a husband?
Why did her heart ache so horribly then, at the thought that society was well aware the Channing fortune had been Stephen's aim all along? The child stirred in her arms, moaning softly and reminding her of why she had to have a husband. A husband was necessary to have children. She yearned for children of her own — children who would give her the love she had been denied all her life.
When she had decided to seriously look for a husband, handsomeness had been the top priority in her list of characteristics. Stephen definitely fit that requirement. She never wanted to bring children into the world who were plain and nondescript like herself. Stephen's seed would, hopefully, be dominant, and the children he fathered would be beautiful and loved by all. They'd never spend their childhoods being hidden away, or worse, having their plainness excused over and over again by their parents.
Perhaps if her mother had lived, things would have been different; but Sarah didn't even have a slight memory of her. Her mother had died in childbirth, as her father always reminded her when he deigned to talk about the beautiful woman in the portrait beside his, which hung in the mansion's art gallery.
Stephen's carriage stopped in front of Channing Place, and Sarah barely restrained herself until her fiancé alit first. He turned to assist her, withdrawing his arm with a look of aversion on his face when she tried to pass the child to him. Awkwardly, Sarah climbed down unassisted, sweeping by Stephen and up the walkway. She heard him mutter a half-hearted apology, which she disregarded as the insincere statement she knew it was.
Not waiting for her butler, she pushed the door open, calling for her housekeeper. The kitten raced past her, skidding on the marble floor until it regained its balance. The heartrending meow it emitted corresponded with Sarah's concern for the pitiful child.