She felt as if her mother was selling her off to the highest bidder. An Unlikely Arrangement.

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Chapter 16 – 2

Johnny the Nose looked amused at Horton’s fumbled request.

Eric’s palms began to sweat. Did I just ask The Nose to take out Peter Kirby? Will he laugh or just shoot me? He rocked from side to side, first one foot, then the other.

“A broad, Horton? You want me to take this Kirby guy out for a broad? I don’t know, not exactly my style. I got bigger fish to fry. I operate in the big time, ya know. How much money you got?” The cigar in his mouth bobbed up and down, he pulled it out and rolled it between his index finger and thumb.

Eric reached into the inside jacket pocket and brought out a thick envelope full of hundred dollar bills. “I know it’s not much, but I can get more. Think of it as a down payment.”

Johnny snatched the envelope, opened it, checked the contents, and stuffed it in his holster. “I’ll sleep on it, banker. I’ll let you know. Now get out of here before I plug ya.”

The same hulk of a guy that drove him home on that previous encounter clapped a hand on his shoulder and pushed him to the door. Horton tried to glance behind him as he moved forward, but The Nose and his money were gone.

****

Eric paced the study floor until he thought a path might appear in the expensive carpet. Finally, tired of waiting, he decided to go back to the office. Enraged at the turn of events, he made a quick decision to foreclose on the Squires. “This was nonsense. I should never have trusted their word. Now, they will suffer the consequences.”

The document did not take long to prepare. A final swirl at the end of his signature, and he lifted the telephone and called the sheriff’s office for a deputy to make the delivery. After the officer left, he leaned back in the office chair and clasped both hands behind his head. “I wish I could see their faces when they receive the summons.”

“Mr. Horton, how is it your work is so complete you have time to daydream on my time?” He sat up so fast, his feet tangled in the chair. The boss’s face was red, and the anger in his voice struck fear in his heart.

“What is it you are so gleeful about?” his superior demanded.

“Why, I was not exactly gleeful, sir. A foreclosure was issued on a client…one who has been delinquent for a very long time. I am simply satisfied with the fact no stone was left unturned to save the account.” He did not get along with the elder bank officer…an ancient, white-haired stick in the mud. He needed to retire and let Eric step into those shoes. The old goat did not show signs of giving up the position, however.

“We never take pleasure in a client’s hard time, Mr. Horton. I trust you completed each step, given them every chance. Be sure I will follow up on your handling of this account.” The door slammed as he left.

He quit nodding after the door banged shut and slumped in his seat. Now, what was he to do? If the boss looked too closely, he might find the discrepancy. Maybe there is time to intercept the courier.

****

Deafening silence permeated the room. No one spoke until Peter took the lead. “We came to declare our desire to wed. I know about the foreclosure and the attempt to marry Ruth off to Eric Horton. That marriage will not happen.” He pointed to the young female stranger. “You must be the woman from my homeland. Too bad you came all this way for nothing because I will not marry you or any other. It is Ruth I want.” Peter shifted his attention to the Squires. “I have the ability to loan the money for your mortgage arrears. Please—do not waste breath by trying to refuse. I paid good attention to my business, and since Ruth will be my wife, my duty is to help her parents. That is all I have to say. It is final.” He put one arm around Ruth as if afraid she would flee.

Again, no one spoke.

Hattie stood slowly to face Peter, chin high. “You forget, I have a contract and will take it to court, Peter. All I ask is for a few moments alone to discuss this matter. As I understand it, the engagement between you and this girl is arranged. It is no different from what I propose. Surely, you can give me the same consideration you did this poor mite of a girl.”

Peter looked at his mother, and saw pleading in her eyes, and a nod of agreement. He let out a loud sigh, slumped his shoulders, and turned toward the door. “We will be in the garden.” He offered an arm, and the two disappeared into the cool winter air.

Ruth stood in absolute silence through it all. She looked at her parents…to Mrs. Kirby, and back to her parents. “Why are you here, Mother?”

Priscilla Squire hung her head. “We came to cancel the engagement, Ruth, our senses are restored. You cannot believe we wanted…I really wanted you to marry the awful Mr. Horton. Peter is the one you should marry. Worry of losing the home you were born in twisted my common sense. Of course, you will marry Peter—if we can get him out of this mess. Will you forgive me, daughter? I fear I’ve been misguided for quite a while now.”

Ruth made quick strides to sit between her parents. “Oh Mother, Father. Of course, I forgive you. At first, to marry a man I did not know appeared absurd. Now, I have gotten to know him, and it is what I want.”

“What of this new woman, Ruth? What of her?” Robert Squire asked.

“Peter will handle it, Father. I know he will find a solution.” One hand covered his.

An eternity passed, almost an hour.

Ruth paced the room, glancing at the door, and back at her parents. Why is it taking so long? Surely, he can convince her to drop this nonsense.

Conversation ceased and everyone sipped tea, china cups rattling the only sound in the room.

Peter and Hattie returned.

The unwelcome woman hung on Peter’s arm and gazed at him as if he were Prince Charming.                                                                                                                                            Peter cleared his throat. “We have an announcement to make.”

****

The garden enclosure was cold, damp, and smelled of mold. “Like my life.” Ruth kicked at a loose stone on the pathway. Alone on the cold hard bench, the world looked dark, indeed. He betrayed her and chose the snooty Ms. Morgenstern. How can it be? Well, fine. I don’t want to get married anyway, right? I fought against it. Freedom is what I’m after. My parents might lose their house. As for me? Off to boarding school. I will not stay here with Peter and his new bride. I’m too young to marry, anyway. A fresh start, a change of scenery is what I need. Tears erupted and streamed down her face.

A spider crawled across the bench, a harmless garden variety. “Where are you off to spider? Off to weave your web of deceit?” The eight-legged arachnid disappeared into the greenery. Hattie Morgenstern—almost ten years older. She must know all the tricks to seduce a man. I am but a girl, with no experience. I cannot hope to compete with a woman of the world. Of course, he would want her over me. I am proud of Mother, though. For the first time, I saw true concern as Peter was about to make the announcement. She grabbed my arm and dragged me out of the house, Father close behind. At least, I didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of hearing Peter’s treachery.

A light rain dusted the greenery, and she hugged herself for warmth, wishing it were Peter’s arms around her. I know I should go in. There is a lot to do to get ready to leave in the morning. A trickle of tears drizzled down her cheeks, again. Why should I care? I have my freedom, more or less. Boarding school won’t be so bad. I’ll meet new friends and be away from my parents. We need space between us, and our relationship needs to heal. She sneezed.

“Ruth, you should not be out here. You’ll catch your death of cold.” Father wrapped a cloak around her shivering shoulders.

“It won’t matter, Father. My life is over anyway.” An involuntary sob escaped.

Robert Squire sat beside her on the cold bench. “You may think so now, Ruthie. The school will broaden your horizons, and eventually, you will find what it is you want to do with your life.”

“Father, why did Mother go to the extremes she did? First with Peter, then horrible Eric Horton. Does she dislike me so very much?” Ruth rested her head on his damp shoulder.

He craned his neck to look at her. “Dislike you? Mother loves you very deeply.”

She sat up straight. “How can she—to sell me off to the highest bidder like that?”

“Princess, you do not understand. Mother sees me as a failure. I am a mere writer, and she aspired to much higher achievements. Oh, her love was true in the beginning. It was very mysterious being married to a writer. Her friends were all very envious. Unfortunately, my writing kept me locked in the study for much of the time. The excitement wore off.”

Ruth thought of the ball gowns and jewelry in the closet…the letters, and was about to ask him about all of it when Mother shouted from the doorway.

“You two get inside this instant. It’s raining, and Ruth needs her rest.”

The spell was broken, and the time with Father was over. He squeezed her hand. They went arm in arm into the house as Priscilla held the door open.

She still found it difficult to look at her mother. There were so many questions. She could not bring herself to sit down and talk. For a moment, she thought Mother might take this opportunity to have a heart-to-heart discussion. They both hesitated outside Ruth’s bedroom door, but Mrs. Squire walked away with a brief good night, and she was left alone, once again. She made sure her parents descended the stairs, waited a moment, and crept down the hall.

Time to take a chance.

Chapters of the novel appear on Monday and Wednesday.

You can learn more about An Unlikely Arrangement on Amazon.

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