Deadly Affairs

Francesca Cahill Romance Novels (Volume 3)

Brenda Joyce

St. Martin's Paperbacks

ONE

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 6,1902—9:00 A.M.
“What do you think of this one, Miss Cahill?”
Francesca Cahill stood as patiently as possible, no easy task. She glanced down at the shimmering piece of apricothued silk fabric that Maggie Kennedy was holding up. “Why, that one is just as lovely as the others,” she said. Was it already nine o’clock? Had her father noticed that one of his morning papers was missing? Vanished, as it were? And would they ever be finished with this fitting? Francesca had two classes to attend uptown at Barnard College, a very exclusive institution dedicated to the higher education of women, in which she had secretly enrolled—and, thus far, not been found out by her mother, who abhorred the thought of her younger daughter ever being labeled a bluestocking.
For being an intellectual—and a Reformer with a capital R—could only interfere with Julia Van Wyck Cahill’s plans to successfully marry Francesca off—and the sooner, the better.
Francesca sighed loudly.
“This blue suits you, too, Miss Cahill,” Maggie murmured from where she knelt at Francesca’s feet. Francesca remained in her undergarments, with pins, a pincushion, and a measuring tape scattered about her.
“Please, Mrs. Kennedy, ‘Francesca’ will do,” she said with a genuine smile, glancing down at the redhead.
Maggie returned the smile tentatively. “So you wish for the blue? I would do it as a day ensemble for you. The fabric is a bit stiff, and would be most flattering in a fitted little jacket and a skirt.”
“That’s perfect,” Francesca said, hardly caring. By now, surely, Andrew had gone down to breakfast and discovered that he had only the Times and the Tribune to peruse. Good God. Had she been insane to allow those reporters an interview last Tuesday while at the Plaza? Apparently her pride had overtaken her common sense. But hopefully no story would come out of that interview now. Yesterday’s news had been filled with the details of the Randall Murder, but no mention had been made of her name.
In spite of the fact that she had solved the case.
“Would you consider a Chinese red for an evening gown? It is a color most blondes cannot carry off, but you are so golden, it would be lovely on you,” Maggie said, standing.
“Oh, I do love red,” Francesca said.
Maggie looked at her oddly, as if sensing that she hardly cared about the ten new gowns she was ordering.
“I mean, I have a passion for red,” Francesca said, wincing a bit. It was hardly true, and after both the Randall Murder and the Burton Abduction, the color red now reminded her of blood.
Maggie walked over to Francesca’s immense canopied bed, which was covered with fabric samples. The bed dominated a large and beautiful bedroom and faced a seating area and a fireplace. She fingered the various silks, wool, and chiffon.
Instantly Francesca was alert. “Is anything wrong, Mrs. Kennedy?”
“No.” Maggie faced her, clutching a stunning piece of dark red fabric. “I was so surprised when you actually called and told me you needed so many new garments.”
Francesca smiled brightly. “My mother will be in heaven when she learns I have finally taken an interest in my wardrobe,” Francesca said, and that was the truth.
Maggie looked at her. She was a faded redhead who had once, undoubtedly, been stunning, but a life of hardship had made her look fifteen years older than Francesca, who was twenty. Francesca guessed she was perhaps twenty-three or -four. But she had four children, and the eldest, Joel, who was eleven, was Francesca’s new assistant. She had recently hired him, as he had been indispensable in solving both the Burton Abduction and the Randall Murder, and he had even gotten her out of two life-threatening predicaments. He knew almost every inch of the city’s underbelly, especially the Lower East Side—as she certainly did not. He had even taught her how to bribe a person in order to gain important information. “Joel speaks about you constantly, Miss Cahill. He does admire you so,” Maggie added.
Francesca smiled. “He is a wonderful boy.”
Maggie did not smile in return. “He is often in trouble with the police.”
“I know.” Her own smile faded. “But he is not bad. Not at all. Quite the opposite, I think.”
Maggie seemed relieved. Francesca wondered if she knew the extent of Joel’s activities. He was a kid—a child pickpocket—and the police had his photograph in the Rogues’ Gallery. “I am glad you think so.” Maggie held up the dark red fabric. “You will be the belle of the ball in a gown made from this brocade.”
Francesca looked at the bold fabric—it hardly suited her character, which was serious and intellectual, and although she had accepted every fabric sample thus far shown, she hesitated, thinking about Rick Bragg, the city’s police commissioner. Her heart skipped a little. She hadn’t seen him since Tuesday, when they had spoken intimately on the steps of the Plaza. “Do you really think I can carry off such a seductive color?” she asked, sobering.
“Oh, yes!” Maggie cried, her eyes brightening. And when she smiled like that, the years of hard work seemed to fade from her face, and she looked young, vibrant, and pretty.
Francesca knew she should not imagine wearing such a gown for Bragg’s sake. After all, they were friends, and nothing more. They could never be anything more—he was a married man. Of course, his wife was a horrid and selfish creature who lived in Europe with her various lovers; Bragg hadn’t seen her in four years. He didn’t want to see her. He supported her selflessly, while she spent his every hard-earned penny, not caring one whit that a man in public service earned a moderate income. Thank God she was abroad, Francesca thought with heat.
She had never met Leigh Anne. She hoped never to do so. But she despised her, and she did not care if she was being unjust.
“Maggie, I know this might not be possible, but there is a party next week, on Thursday. My brother’s fiancée, Sarah Channing, is having a ball in honor of her cousin, Bartolla Benevente. Apparently the countess is newly arrived in the city and—”
Maggie smiled. “You know I work at night. I think I can have the gown ready for you, but we must plan on a final fitting Wednesday morning.”
“Really?” For the first time since Maggie had arrived for the fitting, Francesca felt genuine enthusiasm. She could imagine the look in Bragg’s golden eyes when he saw her descend the stairs in that bold red gown. In fact, she felt more than certain he would not be able to take his eyes off her. “The gown should be rather daring,” she said.
“It must be backless and low-cut,” Maggie said briskly. “I have a pattern that would be perfect. Here, let me show it to you.” She walked over to her worn leather valise.
Of course, Francesca knew that she must not think this way and she must not care if he admired her in any manner, much less in that dress. Still, it was easier to command herself to think a certain way than to actually do so. She sighed, suddenly and immeasurably saddened.
“Are you all right?” Maggie asked softly, the pattern in her hands.
Francesca smiled. “I am fine.” She glanced at the bronze clock on the marble top of a bureau. God, it was nine-twenty now. She had to leave for school shortly. “Is that it?”
Maggie held it up. “This is the bodice. It is rather low, but I can make it higher. I can also put two tiny sleeves on it if that would make you more comfortable.” She held up another piece of the pattern. “The back can be made higher as well.”
Her heart skidded uncontrollably now. What was she doing? Thinking? “I rather like it that way,” she said, flushing. Would she be able to be so daring?
And had Bragg seen the Sun? Had he seen what that cur, Arthur Kurland, had written about her? And how had Kurland known about her role in the solving of the Randall Murder? He hadn’t even been present when she had given all those reporters an interview!
Maggie tucked the pattern pieces away. “Well, I am done for now. You have ordered two suits, two skirts, three shirtwaists, two day gowns, and one evening gown. I should love to match shoes for you, Miss Cahill,” Maggie said earnestly.
Francesca was about to tell her to do whatever she wished, when there was a knock on her door. Before she could even answer, the door opened, and her sister, Connie, walked in. Instantly the beautiful blonde’s eyes widened in surprise as she stared about the room.
“What is this?” Connie asked, looking from Francesca, to Maggie, to the items on the floor, and then to all the fabrics scattered on the canopied bed. She was almost identical to Francesca in looks; they were often mistaken for twins. Connie, however, was twenty-two, and her hair was a champagne blond, her complexion ivory. Francesca’s skin was several shades warmer in hue and her hair a rich, honeyed gold. Otherwise, their features were very similar: wide blue eyes, perfect high cheekbones, a small, sloping nose, and full rosy lips. Universally they were considered to be beauties.
“I am having a fitting,” Francesca said, hoping her sister would not let this particular cat out of the bag. “I have ordered a few dresses from Mrs. Kennedy. Con, Mrs. Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy, my sister, Lady Montrose.”
Maggie blinked at Connie, who, unlike Francesca, was extremely glamorous, not to mention that she had married an Englishman and gained a title. Connie stood in the doorway in the most stunning pale blue suit, one delicately pin-striped. It was only nine in the morning, or rather about half past, but she wore three delicate strands of blue topaz in a choker around her neck, the brooch in the middle a cameo. Her glorious hair was pulled back and pinned securely at the nape; she wore a matching hat with two dried flowers adhering to the brim. Even her gloves, which she carried, were a powder blue kidskin and stunningly stitched. A huge yellow diamond ring winked from her left hand. Her skirts revealed the frothy French lace of her expensive petticoat.
“Hullo,” Connie said with a pleasant smile. She shook her head. “You have ordered gowns, Fran? What is this? A transformation of character? Has there been a full moon or some such thing? Or has sleuthing permanently damaged your nature?”
Francesca gave her an annoyed and warning look. “Mama has asked me to order new gowns for at least a year,” she began.
“I do believe it is more like two,” Connie returned, serene.
“I simply have not had the time,” Francesca started.
“Or the inclination,” Connie finished.
“I had been intending to order a new wardrobe for quite some time,” Francesca said, becoming annoyed.
“Oh, when? Before school, after sleuthing, or while sleeping?”
“Ssh,” hissed Francesca.
Connie laughed at her. “Oh, this is good, Fran, truly well and good. I cannot wait to find out what—” She stopped. Her gaze went to the red fabric on top of the pile in Maggie’s hands. “You have ordered that!”
Francesca folded her arms across her breasts. “Mrs. Kennedy assures me it will be stunning.”
“I begin to see,” Connie said, arch. “It is Bragg.”
“It is not,” Francesca said, heated and aghast. She glared. “Con, by the way, Mrs. Kennedy is Joel’s mother.”
“And I do have to get going,” Maggie said, looking from the one sister to the other. “I sent a note to my supervisor, telling him I was sick this morning, but I promised him that I would be in at noon. I’d like to order these fabrics before I go into work,” Maggie told Francesca. Maggie worked by day at the Moe Levy Factory. By night, she sewed for private customers at home. Her diligence amazed Francesca no end. In fact, she did not need any new gowns. But she was determined to somehow help the Kennedy family.
“Thank you so much for the fitting, especially at the last moment,” Francesca said, walking Maggie to the bedroom door.
“No, thank you, Miss Cahill,” Maggie said warmly, smiling just a little. It erased the tiny lines around her eyes.
Francesca clasped her elbow. “Please, do call me Francesca. I should like it so.”
Maggie hesitated. “I will try, Miss Cahill,” she said. And she flushed.
“That’s all right,” Francesca said, and she watched as Maggie left.
Connie stared at her sister. She was not smiling now.
“Do not begin!” Francesca erupted.
“Very well, I won’t. But I do hope you are not becoming a peacock for a married man?” Her gaze remained unwavering. “I know how stubborn you are, Francesca. Please, please tell me this is not about Bragg.”
“It is not,” she lied, a little. “We are friends.” And that was the truth. “That is all there is, and all there can ever be,” she said firmly. It hurt when she spoke. But with the hurt there was now resignation. In the past few days she had come to accept what could not be changed.
Or had she?
For he would never divorce his wife. He was too honorable, and his political aspirations were too great.
Francesca shared those aspirations for him.
“Well, if you are not strutting for him, then this must be a charitable endeavor,” Connie said, eyeing her cautiously.
Francesca sighed. “I give up. She works so hard to support her four children—”
“Say no more. I thought so.” Connie walked over to her and hugged her, hard and surprisingly. “You are the kindest person I have ever known.”
“Con”—Francesca took her hand—“are you all right? How . . .” She hesitated. “How is Neil?”
Connie took a deep breath and looked away. “He is fine.” She smiled brightly at Francesca. “Let’s forget what happened last week. After all, it is past. The present and the future are what is important now.” Her smile seemed lacquered into place.
Francesca could only stare. Surely Connie was not suggesting that they pretend that last week she had not left her husband, even if just for two nights? With her two daughters? Or that he had committed adultery—causing Connie to take her daughters and stay with a friend? “Have you and Neil had a chance to speak?” Francesca asked finally.
“Why, we speak every day!” Connie cried, too loudly. “Just last night we discussed Reinhold’s new opera and the city’s current fiscal condition. Everything is fine, Francesca, just fine.” She smiled again—and she never called her sister Francesca. It was always Fran.
Francesca studied her with worry, but Connie turned quickly away. If only Connie would express her feelings, Francesca thought. She knew how she would feel if Neil had been her husband and she had found out that he had taken a lover. Neil Montrose was not just titled; he was a gorgeous, proud, and intelligent man, a doting father, and, until recently, an adoring husband. Had Neil been her husband—and when Francesca was younger she had wondered what it would be like to be the older sister and to be married to such a man—she would want to die. And then, probably, she would truly hate him.
But maybe not.
Francesca did not know what had happened between Neil and Connie, but up until the past few weeks she had admired him, thinking him an honorable man. Who was she to decide how Connie should act or feel? Especially as she did not know what had truly happened between them?
Perhaps she would call on Neil later and test the waters, trying to comprehend if all was as well as Connie claimed. Francesca did like that idea. She switched her thoughts. “You are here early. Are we having breakfast?” And as she spoke, she wondered why Connie was not sipping coffee and reading the Tribune at her own breakfast table, with Neil at its head, as was customary for her.
“We most certainly are, so get dressed,” Connie said. “Oh, and by the by, Papa is quite annoyed. He cannot find today’s Sun, and you know how devoted he is to all three morning papers.”
Francesca smiled, and it was false. “Poor Papa. The paperboy must have made a mistake. Or perhaps we have a new boy on our route.”
“Yes, that must be the case,” Connie said.
Francesca’s fingers were crossed behind her back. What were the odds, she wondered, that Papa would not see a copy of that day’s Sun at the office or on a newsstand?
Because if he did, it would be almost impossible for him to miss the headline glaring across the front page. In fact, the paper with its headline was under her own canopied bed. But Francesca felt no guilt.
For the headline read:
MILLIONAIRE’S DAUGHTER CAPTURES
KILLER WITH FRY PAN
Above her head, the Ninth Avenue El thundered past, leaving a cloud of smoke and soot. Francesca winced until the elevated train had passed.
She stood on the corner of 23d Street, having just got off the train. The street was icy and the snow mostly black; wagons loaded with wares rumbled past her, while the pedestrians moving about the street were mostly immigrant workingmen. In this neighborhood, German was spoken as frequently as English. Two women in drab brown coats with scarves on their heads hurried into a brownstone, which Francesca knew was a factory. But those women had been speaking Russian. She glanced around for a cab.
It had been the worst morning. She had not been able to concentrate, worrying about the feature story in the Sun. On Thursdays, Francesca had two classes, Biology and French Literature. She was behind now in both courses, due to the past two cases she had helped Bragg solve. Her Biology teacher had actually given her a warning that her grades were dropping at a precarious rate. Francesca had not gone to all the trouble of secretly enrolling and scraping together the tuition, some of which she had borrowed from Connie, in order to fail.