Robert Fallon's high cheekbones and hooked nose, gifts of a Black Irish ancestor, and his piercing blue eyes normally gave him a piratical air some thought odd for a Charleston merchant. He was six feet tall and muscular despite his half-century. Of late, however, worry lay on his face. It was only January, but he knew already that 1822 would be a hard year. The papers piled on his study desk showed clearly that once again there would be little if any profit.
He fingered the black band on his coat sleeve. It was two months since cholera had flared on the Sea Island plantations, two months since his alluring half-sister had died. If her death had eased some strains, it had brought others. Her children, for instance. Charlotte, nineteen, blond and pretty, was no problem, but Edward, almost fourteen ... Edward was a special problem.
Reminding himself that he was to meet that morning with the executors of Catherine's estate, he decided to check the morning mail before leaving. The top letter was from New Orleans. He ripped it open.
My Dear Mr. Fallon,
I take pen in hand as representative of Le Garde, Thibodeau, La Fontaine and Smith, attorneys at law and executors of the late Esteban Lopes ...
The late Esteban Lopes, he thought in shock. Lopes had been a close friend, and a business associate. They had gone in the path of violent times together, before Robert had settled to being a merchant. He read on.
... . Among his papers were documents indicating he had undertaken certain sales for you, and was soon to forward the sum of seventy thousand, dollars in gold. Unfortunately, his estate is remarkably small, and quite unable to come near such an amount. I regret to inform you of this, but it ismy duty to say that Le Garde, Thibodeau, La Fontaine and Smith have no connection with any dealings that you may have had with Mr. Lopes, and can in no way be held accountable for these monies. If you wish to bring a claim against the estate ...
He let the letter drop. A friend was dead, and to his horror he could only think of the seventy thousand dollars. That money had been meant to cover projects already begun. At the foundry Kenneth Graham, his young Scottish engineer, was attempting to duplicate the process for making English steel. He'd had a new steamship, Comet, built for the express purpose of trying to make a profitable steam crossing of the Atlantic, something no one else had yet done. Damn it, he needed that money desperately. It was a good thing he was finally meeting Catherine's executors. He was certain to be made trustee of her estate for the children. That would tide him over, and the money could be repaid in a few years, long before the children were old enough to receive control.
Abruptly he made a grimace of self-disgust. Was he that desperate, had he sunk that low, to risk their inheritance?
Loud voices outside his door pulled him out of his funk. He went out to find the hall filled with gabbling children and maids. Albert Varley, the butler, a tall, thin man with blue-black skin, was trying to restore some semblance of order.
"What in blue blazes is going on here?" Robert shouted. Silence fell, all of them staring at him as if he had appeared by magic.
Edward was the first to recover. "Nothing, sir. It was an accident, sir." Fallon blood had given him high cheekbones and blue eyes, but on him the eagle nose had softened its curve, and his hair was silky light brown ringlets.
He had too much of his mother's looks, Robert thought, making him too handsome, almost pretty. "You up to some mischief, Edward?" he said. Please let it not be Edward this time, he thought. He loved the boy, but sometimes ...
"Yes, he is," Elizabeth said loudly. Not yet six, she stepped defiantly out from her mauma's side, but one hand clutched the stout black woman's skirt. Named for Robert's mother, she had inherited the first Elizabeth's violet eyes in a pretty heart-shaped face beneath midnight curls. "Chloe was hurt, Papa."
Chloe was one of the cook's assistants. Edward took on a sullen expression as Robert eyed him. "What happened to Chloe?"
"Just wanted to scare her," Edward muttered. "Just wanted to make her jump."
"There was a brick, sir," Albert said carefully. He was young for abutler, only thirty-five, and educated beyond a butler's station. Moira had found him doing odd jobs for barely enough to stay alive, and hired him. Robert was under no illusions about Albert's first loyalty. "It ... fell, sir."
Robert waited. Another fit of silence seemed to have taken everyone. Only the two smallest children in their maumas' arms were unaffected. Thomas, a year old, waved a chubby fist at him and gurgled, while Carver, at three, grinned and held out his arms. Each boy had a falcon's beak of a nose. Robert was briefly thankful, for Elizabeth's sake, that the nose seemed to pass the female Fallons by.
Finally he said, "I take it this brick fell on Chloe?"
"That it did," Moira Fallon said, bustling into the hall. She was a small woman, slenderly built, with finespun black hair and an upturned nose. At thirty, ten years of marriage had given her a quiet dignity, but now her normally clear gray eyes flashed and an ominous touch of brogue was in her voice. "I'll be talking to you about this alone, husband."
The children scurried out, maumas herding them, Edward's young valet at his heels.
"In my study," Robert said resignedly. This wasn't the first discussion they'd had about Edward, and it was making out to be as unpleasant as the rest.
He held the door for her, then settled in a wingchair while she paced before the fire. "He dropped a brick from the second-floor porch," she said without preamble, "and hit Chloe as she was coming down the back stair. She's a gash down the side of her head, and if the brick had been an inch to the right, it would've killed her. It's a wonder she didn't break her neck tumbling down the stair."
"Why, I'll blister ..." He drew a deep breath. Punishment did little except make Edward more sullen. "Boys sometimes do rough things," he said awkwardly. "You'll find out when Carver and Thomas are older."
"Will they be tripping a friend down a well, breaking his leg?" she said conversationally. "Will they be talking another friend into trying to ride a stallion in rut? There was a broken arm out of that, and a fractured jaw. Will they be putting a coral snake in the butler's bed?"
"He thought it was a king snake, Moira. An easy enough mistake to make. Besides, Albert wasn't hurt."
"Robert, that boy is a bastard by birth and by temperament. I will not have him in my house."
"You seem to forget I'm a bastard, too. If my father hadn't taken me in--"
"You weren't Michael Fallon's bastard by his half-sister!"
He flinched. "For God's sake, how many times does that have to be brought up? You know I've never made excuses, but she could reach insideme, twist my thoughts till I didn't know what I was doing. God knows I tried to break away, but she ... It was Edward gave me the strength. The horror of it. That gave me just enough strength to flee Charleston."
"I know," she murmured. Her slender fingers brushed his brow.
"Pacific typhoons and Malay pirates seemed no more than fitting payment for ... And then there was you. You gave me the strength to return to Charleston, the strength to resist Catherine's witch-powers. Don't you see, Moira, it'd be all too easy for me to turn my back on Edward, but I can't. The only expiation I can make is to try to make certain he grows up to be a fine man. Don't you see? I must."
There had been a moment when he thought she might be relenting, but that moment had passed.
She drew a shuddering breath. "It's out of the house I want him, Robert. It isn't his birth, or maybe it is, but there is something frightening about him. He does things, and people are hurt, and he doesn't care. He scares me, Robert."
"You're letting your imagination run away with--"
"I know what I feel! He must go!" She had rounded on him with her fists clenched, and he found himself on his feet facing her.
"I say he stays!" He knew his face was carved in stone.
"In that case, husband," she said coldly, "we must attend the Alyards' party tomorrow night. We have already accepted. But I will thank you to move your things into one of the guest rooms." She slammed the door behind her.
Why wouldn't she understand? he thought. She knew it all. About James, too, his other son. Long before he met her, he had been going to marry Louise de Chardonnay, just as soon as he returned from a voyage to France. Only the Barbary pirates had intervened, and after two years in a North African quarry he'd returned to Charleston to find Louise had borne him a son, James. Almost to the last she had waited, then, sure he was dead, she had married Martin Caine and gone to Louisiana. He had never been able to find the boy--man, now, if he was alive--though he kept New Orleans lawyers on retainer to try. Surely Moira could understand that he couldn't abandon Edward, too.
The chiming of the clock reminded him of his appointment, and with an oath he hurried to get his hat and walking stick.
James DeSaussure's offices occupied a two-story brick building on Meeting Street. A discreet brass plaque near the door proclaimed that James DeSaussure was an attorney at law. He was also something of a banker, or moneylender, for merchants, factors, and planters of sufficient solvency, something that wasn't mentioned on the plaque.
The door was opened by a stooped, chocolate-brown man in the blacksuit of a butler who ushered Robert inside and took his curly brimmed beaver and gold-headed stick. "Mr. DeSaussure is expecting you, sir."
Robert followed him upstairs. The room looked more like a drawing room than an office, with a fine Turkey rug on the floor, Chippendale chairs scattered about, and a fire burning beneath a carved marble mantel.
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Fallon." DeSaussure's bass voice belied his size. He was a small man, almost delicate, with tiny hands and feet, and deep-set eyes that gave him the appearance of timidity. The appearance was misleading. DeSaussure had twice faced his man on the field of honor. "You know Oliver Huger, don't you?"
Huger, a dark-complected, frog-faced man with tiny ears and thick lips, jerked a nod. "Mr. Fallon." He regarded Robert unpleasantly.
"A chair, Mr. Fallon?" DeSaussure said. "We can do our business over a glass of wine, certainly. Madeira? Or port?"
"Madeira," Robert said. He sat, taking the glass DeSaussure handed him, and waited for them to begin.
"First," DeSaussure said, "let me apologize in advance. Your sister's will is still in probate, of course, but I fear I must tell you that you are not to be the trustee."
"Not!" A little of the wine slopped onto Robert's wrist.
"Looking forward to that, were you?" Huger said.
Robert's voice chilled. "What do you mean by that, sir?"
"Oliver, please," DeSaussure said. "Mr. Fallon, I fear Oliver, in his rudeness, has stumbled on your sister's fears. Forgive me, but your business difficulties are not exactly secret. Apparently she feared some, ah, temptation."
"Ridiculous!" But it was close enough to his own earlier thoughts to make him angry. "And it's damned offensive!"
"My apologies," DeSaussure said gravely. "It was your sister's reasoning, sir, not mine."
Robert acknowledged the apology with a short nod. "Is this why you wanted to see me?"
"Oh, no, Mr. Fallon. As you're no doubt aware, your sister divided her property roughly into two equal parts, one to be held in trust for her daughter, Charlotte Holtz, and one for Edward Fallon, her adopted son. These will be turned over at age twenty-five, unless either makes a marriage without the trustees' consent, in which case the bulk of the legacy will be divided among that legatee's children when the youngest reaches twenty-five." He paused. "The children, I fear, are the problem."
"Problem?" Robert said. "They're safe in my house, taking lessons from a tutor I hired."
"Exactly," Huger broke in. "Picking up your strange ideas against slavery."
"Be quiet, Oliver," DeSaussure said. "I objected to the way Mrs. Holtz cut you out of her will, Mr. Fallon. Not mentioning you would be one thing, but to specifically state you were to receive nothing ..." He spread his hands. "Are you certain that won't color your attitude toward the children in time?"
"Of course not! I love those children."
DeSaussure nodded thoughtfully. "There's nothing in the will to exclude you having the children. Though you realize it would be impossible to give you anything from the estate toward their support."
"I wouldn't take it if offered," Robert said. He wanted nothing of Catherine's. Nothing but the children.
"I still say," Huger began, but DeSaussure cut him off.
"It's settled, then. And I think the children are in fine hands."
If only Moira was as easy to convince, Robert thought. Damn the woman! Damn her!
Copyright © 1982 by James O. Rigney, Jr.