Merciful Vices

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Chapter 2

Heather,

Not that I’m keeping tabs on you, but I read the paper, they’re calling you the Moonshine Siren. After all that you’ve done to be free of this world, it’s hard to see you all over the papers again.

Charlotte

-Letters I’ll Never Send

*********************

The next morning Charlotte was up bright and early, as though last night hadn’t happened, she hoped Ben would forget it too. He did. He made them breakfast and said he had to go run some errands.

More than happy to be left alone Charlotte washed up and tended to Kane, the Andalusian seemed highly unimpressed with her but warmed up at the appearance of a sugar cube or three.

She saddled up and rode into New Orleans. The city was bursting with life. Street musicians filled the streets with music. Even in the early morning fog one couldn’t deny the city’s charm.

Her mind wandered to how much Heather had hated this city, followed quickly by guilt, at having made her stay. Heather loved the cold, loved the tiny farming town of Cheyenne.

“Uh, Miss? You’re blocking my path.” An elderly man called gently. Charlotte stirred from her daydream and spurred Kane forward, muttering an apology as she went.

The saloon appeared before her and she was tempted to get a headstart on the evening’s pity party, but Sinead’s old mare stood outside. She’d done that poor girl enough harm. Instead, she kept going, through the slums and to the city outskirts. Where her home stood empty as always.

Or not? A white stallion stood outside. Charlotte didn’t recognize it. She quietly hitched Kane and pulled her double-barrel from the saddle. She approached the door and kicked it open.

“Who’s in here? I will not hesitate to blow your fucking head off.”

“Now, now, Miss Locke. Is that any way to treat a guest in your home?”

A man stood from her kitchen table, where he had helped himself to a drink. Charlotte gasped and cocked the shotgun.

The man raised his hands and grinned, “I’m not armed. Aren’t you a right firecracker? I knew I’d come to the right woman. Although, no one bothered to tell me how beautiful you were.”

Charlotte grimaced and lowered the shotgun, “What do you want, Mr?”

“Romano. Kane Romano.”

Charlotte couldn’t contain a snicker.

He looked offended, “My name usually instills fear, not laughter. Perhaps your little breakup has pushed you over the edge.”

In a second Charlotte was across the room, her shotgun pushed him against the wall.

“Get. Out.”

“Oh, I touched a nerve, I see. Look,” He once again raised his hands in surrender, “I mean no harm. I have a proposition that I think you will like.”

Charlotte scoffed at that but he continued, “I can clear your brother’s debt. You could go back into retirement.”

Charlotte perked up at the sound of that, “You have ten minutes. Either I like it or I decorate my home with your innards.”

He grinned, “Fabulous! But first I have to know. What’s so funny about my name?”

“You share a name with my horse, Mr. Romano.”

He laughed at that, “Well, I bet, I’m more handsome.” He gave her a wink and began to lay out his plan.

“I’m not sure I understand what you get out of this,” Charlotte said, as Mr. Romano stood to leave.

“That doesn’t concern you, Gorgeous. Just know you will be compensated more than fairly.”

Charlotte opened the door for him. In truth, she didn’t want to know how their deal would benefit him. Despite his genuine, warm personality he scared her. That rarely happened.

“Oh, and Miss Locke.” He moved to pin her against the doorway. “I am not a man to be trifled with. I like you, don’t make me regret this.”

Charlotte held her breath, too terrified to breathe. She just nodded. Kane took his hat from the stand behind her and tipped it in farewell. She watched that white stallion disappear into the swamps.

She closed the door and latched the deadbolt, before collapsing to the floor in relief. She’d faced men and women from all walks of life. All famously dangerous. But Mr. Romano? He was a different kind of dangerous, she could feel it. But the chance to pay off her brother’s debt was too tempting to ignore.

“I don’t know Char. This seems like a very dangerous game to play,” Ben said over coffee, the next day.

“I don’t doubt that Uncle Ben, but I can’t keep running these small jobs. It’ll take me years to pay Mickey’s debts down. He said this job will take a year or less. I’ll be free again.”

Ben sighed, “What do you need?”

“I need to leave Kane with you. Mr. Romano said he doesn’t fit the part. I’ll be taking Tanner, Heather’s Fox Trotter. I’ll be out of touch most of the time. I will try and stop by when I can but you can’t write me. Okay?”

Ben nodded, “Of course I’ll look after Kane. Just promise me you’ll be careful.”

“I’m always careful.” She wrapped her arms around him, “Thank you for everything Uncle Ben. You couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Two weeks passed. Just when Charlotte began to wonder if Mr. Romano had changed his mind, he appeared at her door.

“Hello, Gorgeous. Miss me?”

Charlotte rolled her eyes, “Is this it? Are we leaving?”

He nodded and she grabbed her bag.

“Oh no, Sweetheart. We won’t need any of that. One small revolver is all you can take.”

“I don’t go anywhere without my guns, and what about all my clothes?”

Mr. Romano rolled his eyes and took an exasperated breath, “You can bring the guns to my house, they will be safe there, but that is as far as they can go. As for clothes, we’re going to pick up some new, more appropriate clothing.”

“What’s wrong with my clothes?”

Mr. Romano laughed, “You’re pretending to be a lady’s maid. Not a- well-” He gestured loosely at her.

“I should have shot you.” Charlotte snapped. She couldn’t help but get caught up in his teasing tone.

“That would have been no fun, Miss Locke. Now let’s head into town. My friend is an excellent tailor. We’ll get you a new wardrobe.”

“I look ridiculous!” Charlotte groaned and squirmed.

Kane laughed, “You look like a fish out of water, beautiful nonetheless. Get changed back into your clothes. It’s quite a ride to my home, you’ll suffocate in that corset.”

The tailor boxed up the clothes and handed them over, “Good luck Miss. Good seeing you Mr. Romano.”

He hadn’t been exaggerating, the ride was long. They stopped in a wealthier part of the city. Charlotte had ridden passed the breathtaking homes many a time, she would never have imagined ending up anywhere near them.

“Over here.”

Charlotte realized Mr. Romano had led his horse behind a stunning home.

“Stables are back there. Hitch Tanner up and the stable hands will set her up with a stall.”

The house was magnificent but sparsely decorated with basic furniture. Charlotte set the box of clothes down in the kitchen.

“Paulina, Dear. Take Miss Charlotte’s things up to the guest suite. We’ll take lunch on the terrace.“He packed her guns into a large hall closet, where Charlotte spotted an extensive collection of his own.

“Just how rich are you?” She asked.

“I’ve done fairly well for myself.” He poured them each some whiskey and led her to the terrace and motioned for her to sit. He pulled an envelope from his suit pocket.

“I’ve got you some new papers. Charlotte Locke is dead.”

She took the papers from him, “Charlotte Russo. I’m Italian now?”

“By blood only, you grew up here. There’s no hiding that southern accent of yours.”

Just then Paulina brought two plates of salad to the table. It smelled heavenly.

“Thank you Paulina, you can leave us for the rest of the day.” He refilled their glasses, “Eat, I will fill you in.” He took a bite of his own food and continued, “You will be working as a lady’s maid for Miss Cabarro. She is the daughter of a very powerful man. He is not a good man.”

“Are you?” Charlotte interrupted.

“No.” He replied bluntly, “They are a dangerous family, but they are good to their staff. They will be good to you. I wouldn’t send you in there if that weren’t the case. Tara, Miss Cabarro, is very easy on the eyes too.” He winked at her.

“What do you want from them?”

“I can’t tell you that just yet. You’ll have to trust me. More importantly, you have to get them to trust you. Once that is established I’ll give you further instruction.” He paused. “Don’t look so nervous. I know you can handle yourself and I won’t be far.”

Charlotte refilled her glass once more. She took in the man before her. Stoic, intense. She felt overwhelmed. Before everything with Heather, she would not have gotten involved with any of this. She’d become so reckless lately, she knew somewhere deep in the back of her mind, she wanted one of her ridiculous endeavors to end badly.

“Charlotte. Are you okay?”

She snapped back to reality, “Sorry Mr. Romano. ” I was miles away.

“Please. Call me Kane. We’re friends now. You must be exhausted. I’ll show you to your room.”

Friends. She didn’t like the way the word sounded on his tongue. Charlotte didn’t get much sleep that night. She couldn’t help but feel she’d made a deal with the devil.

A knock on the door woke her, “Mr. Romano requests your company for breakfast.”

She dragged her heavy head from the exquisite pillow, “Thank you, Paulina.” She looked from yesterday’s filthy clothes to the box of new ones. She picked out a yellow and black skirt and a black camisole.

“You look ravishing,” Kane said as she entered the kitchen. For the first time, she heard a hint of his Italian accent.

“Thank you. But I feel so uncomfortable, where would I even holster a weapon?”

Kane raised an eyebrow, “There are few things more attractive than a pistol in a woman’s garter. However, you cannot carry a weapon, Charlotte. You can hide one of your revolvers in your luggage, but it has to stay there, to be used only as a last resort. As for how uncomfortable you feel. We will work on that today.”

“I haven’t been without my guns since I was thirteen. There is no way I’m going to be unarmed all the time. You said yourself that these people are dangerous.”

“They are, but they won’t hurt you as long as you play your part.” Kane sighed as Charlotte crossed her arms defiantly. “You are a stubborn one aren’t you? Fine. A compromise.” He stood and left the room. When he returned he had a leather band with what appeared to be a knife sheath attached. Charlotte took it from him and stared at him quizzically.

He laughed and kneeled in front of her, “Don’t kick me!” He lifted her skirt and buckled the band around her upper thigh. His left hand lingered and she glared at him. He extended his other hand for the knife he knew she was hiding somewhere. She handed it over and he sheathed it.

“There, you keep that on you. Do you feel better?”

She nodded.

“I’m glad. Now back to breakfast. I have a feeling we will be working on table manners for a while.”

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