Vera's Turn For Love, page 1
Copyright © 2006 by Tamela Hancock Murray. All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the permission of Truly Yours, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., PO Box 721, Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683.
All scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.
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Near Hagerstown, Maryland, 1902
“Who is that man?” Vera Howard whispered in Katherine Bagley’s ear.
The church social hummed with voices, but Vera didn’t want to eye the new man too closely. Trying to conceal her interest, she cast her gaze over other parts of the social hall. A picture of Jesus as a child hung in one corner by an arched window. A few feet away, little girls tried to outperform one another on the upright piano. She watched one group of friends after another as they talked—anything to keep from setting her stare on the irresistible stranger. No need to let the object of her curiosity, with his wavy black hair, flashing blue eyes, and fine form, suspect he had attracted her interest. True, the twentieth century had dawned, but discretion never went out of fashion.
“You want to know about that man?” Katherine’s mouth slackened, and her brown eyes grew wide. “Vera! I’ve never heard you ask such a question!”
Heat rose to Vera’s cheeks, yet she couldn’t resist taking a second peek at the dark-haired stranger. At that moment, he laughed with a gusto that showed his enjoyment of the conversation. She liked a man who could laugh without inhibition. Who wouldn’t be drawn to such vitality and comeliness? Suddenly fearful of swooning, she took a seat, being careful not to let any punch spill on her cream-colored dress. “I don’t suppose I should have asked.”
Katherine sat beside her and nudged her in the ribs. “No, of course you should if you want to know. It’s just that you shocked me because you’ve never asked about a gentleman before this moment. Tell you what. Let me see what I can discover for you.” She finished her punch, set down the cup, and rose to fulfill her promise before Vera could object.
Katherine was right. Vera had never been especially intrigued by any new man at church. Of course, men she didn’t know joined their church or just visited from time to time—comely men at that. But they were usually accompanied by a pretty wife and several young children. This man appeared to be alone.
She eyed Ethel, who was known to be seeking a suitor. No doubt Ethel would bat her long black eyelashes at him all too soon. Vera, with a slight frame and face she thought pleasant enough but not beautiful, decided that she didn’t stand a chance against such a bold and coy rival. Withholding a sigh, Vera fanned herself against heat that seemed to increase as the crowd grew more animated. Or was she hot with emotion?
Katherine returned and sat in the empty seat beside Vera. The brunette leaned toward Vera. “I found out who your mystery man is.” Katherine’s eyes glowed with excitement. “It’s Byron Gates.”
“Oh.” Vera felt a flush of embarrassment. Katherine had said the name as though she should have known the significance of one Byron Gates. But she had no idea.
“Byron Gates!” Katherine emphasized his last name.
Vera set her empty punch glass on a nearby windowsill beside two other abandoned glasses. “Gates. Gates. Hmmm.”
Katherine nudged her. “From Gates Enterprises in Baltimore. You lived in Baltimore. Surely you know of the family.” Her voice rose in pitch, colored with indulgence and impatience.
Chagrined, Vera thought until she remembered. “Come to think of it, I do believe my employer in Baltimore was invited to their home for a reception once. But that reception was held in honor of people I didn’t know, so I wasn’t included. I never did learn more about the Gates family.” She shrugged. “I was just a paid companion. I had no reason to socialize with them.”
“Well, you do now.” Katherine slipped a glance Byron’s way. “I have a heart for no one but Christopher, but I would venture a guess that the other girls here would think you quite lucky.”
“Yes. Haven’t you seen how he’s looked your way more than once tonight?”
Vera thought she had caught Byron stealing furtive glances at her as he maintained conversations with others. Until Katherine had mentioned it, Vera had attributed the observation to an overactive imagination. Or wishful thinking. “I’ve tried not to notice.”
“He’s noticed you. You know how love can catch one unawares. Deep feelings can start with just a look.”
“Like with you and Christopher, perhaps?” Vera teased.
Katherine eyed her husband, standing at a small distance from them with a group of mutual friends. The love in her eyes surpassed all verbal expression. “Perhaps.”
“Nevertheless, let us not speculate about love on my part or Byron’s. I haven’t so much as spoken to him yet. I might find him most disagreeable.” She had a feeling she wouldn’t.
“Once you stop swooning, you can decide.” Katherine studied Byron from the corner of her eye. “I don’t advise passing judgment based on someone’s appearance because it’s the heart that matters, but. . .”
“He is dressed in quite a style and carries himself in a manner that exudes confidence. Do you think he may be just a bit worldly?”
“Maybe a bit, at least in comparison to us out here in the country. Why do you mention it?” Vera asked.
“Just make sure he’s not too worldly. I know you would never want to have a romantic relationship with someone who doesn’t share your love for the Lord.”
“True. I believe I would be much happier with a godly man,” Vera answered with vigor.
“Good. That’s what I knew you’d say.” Katherine smiled. “Come now. Let’s see Clarence.”
“Clarence?” Vera studied the tall, dark-eyed man with chestnut brown hair. He stood erect, cocksure of himself as always. “What does he have to do with all this?”
“Everything. Byron is here visiting him.”
“My, but you do work fast.”
“Out of necessity,” Katherine said. “Did you see Ethel watching him like she’s an owl and he’s a rat?”
Katherine wasn’t certain she liked the idea of Byron being compared to a rat, but the allusion to prey wasn’t lost on her. “Ethel eyes all the new men like that. And some of the old ones, too.”
“I know.” Katherine squeezed Vera’s hand with urgency. “Let’s show Mr. Byron Gates someone much prettier. There’s no time to lose. Ethel is moving closer, as though she plans to strike any minute.”
Vera looked toward her rival and saw that Katherine was right. Still, Vera tried not to look too eager. She did want to meet Byron but had no desire to run over top of Ethel to do it. Besides, Vera wasn’t the most flamboyant woman in the room by any means. Certainly, someone with more fire in her appearance would attract a bachelor whose residence in Baltimore and association with Clarence suggested sophistication.
The closer they got to Byron, the faster Vera’s heart beat. As Vera and Byron were introduced, she noticed Ethel casting a narrow-eyed look her way.
“I am enchanted to meet you,” Byron said in greeting.
“Enchanté.” She nodded and wondered how she had managed to form a welcome in French. If one was to utter a gr
He moved closer, bringing with him a clean scent of shaving tonic. “Ah, so you respond in French. Did you study abroad?” The way he cocked his chin in her direction showed that she had gotten his attention.
Vera suppressed a giggle. Study abroad! Hardly. She was merely a farm girl who was once a companion to an elderly Baltimore lady. Now she was home, helping her sister tend to her small son.
“Don’t let her fool you with the errant foreign word. Vera’s from around these parts, and she hasn’t ventured far,” Clarence offered. “The farthest she’s ever been is from Hagerstown to Baltimore.”
“Clarence,” Katherine chastised him, “Vera may not have traveled far from this county, but she is able to hold her own against any sophisticate.”
Clarence tilted his head and seemed to be holding back an urge to say something unpleasant. Vera tried not to wince. Obviously, Clarence wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of her conversing with his friend from out of town.
“So you’ve been to Baltimore, eh?” Byron’s eyes lit, and he focused his full attention on Vera. “Visiting friends?”
“I did more than visit.” Despite Katherine’s enthusiastic support and encouragement, Vera struggled to maintain a favorable posture and a lilt of confidence in her voice. “I lived with the Aldens.”
“The Aldens.” Byron gave the briefest of pauses before recalling the name. “You must mean the lawyer, Raleigh Alden, and his mother, June?”
Vera nodded and looked at the points of her shoes.
“Vera was June Alden’s companion, but now she’s home helping her sister, Alice,” Katherine pointed out.
Vera was not ashamed of helping her sister. Still, she wished that her former status as nothing more than a paid companion had to be mentioned, June Alden’s high regard for her notwith-standing. Vera held back another wince. Immediate honesty was the best policy.
There’s no point in putting on airs, only to have the wind knocked out of my sails.
“Had I known the Aldens employed such a lovely companion, I might have ventured there a time or two myself,” Byron told her.
Vera looked quickly into his blue eyes, then sent her gaze back down again. Byron was a bold one.
Byron whistled as he made ready to retire for the night. He couldn’t remember a time when he had met any woman in a church social setting who had captured his imagination with the liveliness of the delightful Vera Howard. In fact, he couldn’t remember having been in a church setting lately. The thought shamed him.
No wonder he had recently felt his life spiraling downward. He remembered how he had been rebuffed by one of Baltimore’s outstanding debutantes, a certain Miss Elizabeth Josephine Reynolds. Elizabeth wasn’t the greatest prize of Baltimore society, so her rebuff of his advances had taken him aback. Her refusal hadn’t been delivered with the practiced skill of a popular debutante, either. No, she had laughed in his face. Had he been such a rake as all that?
Apparently his reputation was not the best, and the social set in Baltimore knew it. He desired a woman of fine breeding and a high level of patience who would share his future responsibilities in running his father’s manufacturing interests. Was this type of woman to be found?
He thought about his office and the responsibilities he had left at home. He wasn’t afraid of work, but he wished the promised position offered more than worries and columns of numbers. The idea of sitting all day at a desk, working over accounts, managing inventory, vexing about how to keep workers happy with their pay while earning the company a profit, being sure the quality of goods was maintained, and then overseeing their shipment out from the Baltimore docks on time—none of these chores lent themselves to his particular interests or talents. Why couldn’t his father have been a prosperous merchant so Byron could use his charm to sell fine goods? Or perhaps a lawyer with a position for Byron in his firm, since Byron could debate with the best of them?
Byron’s father had already reminded him that his days of few responsibilities were numbered. “I am looking forward to passing the torch of Gates Enterprises to you, my eldest son. My boy who has grown into a fine specimen of a man.”
As Father made the announcement, meant to be a supreme compliment, Byron had tried to appear enthusiastic. He even managed a smile. But his zest for running the family business ran cold.
Too restless to sleep, he took a seat in a corner chair and laid his head back against the leather. His thoughts wandered back to his childhood friend Daisy Estes. A man who flirted with as many women as Byron expected the occasional refusal, but he never worried. Not only did most women succumb to his engaging manner, but he also imagined that one day he could count on Daisy to marry him if all else failed. At least, that’s what he had assumed for years, until he and Daisy realized one day that they could never step over the romantic line. Still, he felt hurt that she had turned her attentions to Horace Moore. Plain, dull Horace. Byron couldn’t imagine his lively friend, so coquettish in her manner, saddled with such a bore. If she wouldn’t become Mrs. Byron Gates, couldn’t she at least have displayed better taste when she rebounded?
Even worse, he hated the thought of disappointing all four of their parents. The Estes and Gates families had always been friends, with the elders remarking what a fine match Byron and Daisy would make one day. They spoke not in jest.
Against his will, Byron recalled God’s commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
Though his parents had no intention of forcing a marriage, Byron felt a sense of duty toward them. How could he, their eldest son and heir to the family business, not abide by their fondest wishes? As for being close to God—Byron had hardly been a monk, but he still kept the Lord’s wishes in the back of his mind. Church teachings he learned as a boy were more than happy to oblige, popping into his head whether beckoned or not.
Clarence chose that moment to burst into the bedroom. “There you are, old man. I must say I’m surprised to find you here. I can’t believe you are retiring for the night already. Unless you in fact plan to change clothes for another round of festivities.”
“Festivities? Are you saying you know a place where celebrations of life are beginning anew?”
“I know of none. I was hoping you did.”
“I’m not the one with connections here.”
“True. No, old man, I’m afraid I know of no other place to go now. They roll the sidewalks up at five o’clock, to be sure. We must make our own entertainment out here in the country. Not that we’re too shabby about that. But you can hardly expect our humble establishments to be as active as the big gaming halls and places of frolic that you might find in the city. In fact, by local standards a church social is considered a fine night of vigorous entertainment.” Clarence sighed. “My, but I do miss the gala atmosphere of Baltimore.”
“Yes, we did have a fine summer last year, didn’t we? But surely you don’t neglect to see the charms of your home.”
Clarence surveyed the room and shrugged. “I suppose.”
“I find the country quite charming indeed.”
“Really? I’m surprised you’re not bored already. Unless. . .” He sent Byron a cunning look. “You sly dog. You’ve found a woman, haven’t you?”
Byron crossed his arms, shifted in his seat, and studied Clarence. As usual, his friend had ventured a correct guess. Relishing triumph, Byron allowed a smile to slip upon his countenance. “As a matter of fact, I have found a woman.”
“I knew it!” Clarence rubbed his hands together and grinned. “I can see by the cat-that-swallowed-the-canary look on your face that you’re confident she returns the favor. But why should I doubt it? You seem to find a woman anywhere you go.” Since the bedroom had but one chair, he sat on the side of Byron’s bed and positioned his foot on top
“You exaggerate, my friend. I confess that this woman is not the usual type I pursue. She is very charming and a lovely woman indeed, yet in a way that displays no affectations.” Byron looked into space, thinking of Vera. “I have drawn the distinct conclusion that this is one woman I shall never forget.”
“A woman you shall never forget, eh?” Clarence rubbed his chin. “I’m thinking back on all the women you spoke with at the social.”
“You’ll be thinking a long time, then. People out here are quite friendly, and I spoke to many this evening.”
Clarence chortled. “Friendly, yes. But I’ve never seen the women quite as friendly as they were tonight. They were drawn to you like bees to honey, old man. I can only stand nearby and hope some of your charm rubs off on me—or that I can be around to mend the hearts you break.”
“You sell yourself short, Clarence. Besides, women—and fellows, as well—will always be fascinated by the new man in town. That’s not to say you’re old hat, but you certainly are well-known around these parts. I, on the other hand, am a stranger. To them, my story is new.”
“Everything you say is indisputable. But remember, I’ve seen you operate in the city where you are well-known.” He tilted his head and sent Byron a mischievous look. “I’ve always admired you for how you can charm any woman you have a mind to. So who is your latest victim?”
Byron felt the smile slide back to his feet. He cringed. “Victim?”
“A willing victim, no doubt,” his friend hastened to assure him. “So who might the lucky woman be?”
Byron wished Clarence wasn’t staring at him, waiting for an answer. So women associated with him were considered victims, eh? Byron resolved at that moment to improve his reputation. He took in a breath and held it as if to affirm his resolution.
“My, but she must be quite a prize. Let me guess.” Clarence rolled his gaze upward and tapped his chin with his forefinger. “Is it Carolyn?” Clarence leveled his eyes toward Byron.