Merciful Vices

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Chapter 3

Heather,

Knowing you was like knowing a wolf. I found myself so wrapped up in your love and loyalty, somehow I forgot about your teeth. I foolishly acted as though that was a part of you that I could take away or file down to nubs.

But that’s not how it works, is it?

Yours,

Charlotte

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

Charlotte spent the rest of the day with Kane and Paulina, working on her Southern Charm. Etiquette hadn’t been particularly high on her list of life ambitions. Paulina turned out to be an absolute angel. She was clearly enamored with Kane. He remained kind but disinterested.

Kane also had a beagle named Garland. He took to Charlotte immediately and when it came time to wind down for the night, he set up camp in her lap in front of the fire.

“You did great today, Char.” Kane handed her a drink, the nickname had come about at some point during their long day.

“I’m off to bed. Mr. Cabarro and his daughter arrive in New Orleans tomorrow. I’ve written them letting them know an acquaintance of mine would be a perfect helping hand. That’s you,” He winked. “We know each other from the theatre. You were a dancer.”

“Got it. Thank you for today. I had no idea what a slob I was.” Charlotte half-joked. Kane laughed, kissed her cheek and headed upstairs.

Charlotte woke with a stiff neck. She’d fallen asleep on the floor with Garland. The frills of her camisole dug into her armpits. She slipped upstairs. Paulina had put together an appropriate outfit for her. she squirmed into the yellow and black skirt with a black blouse. Just as she was wondering how she would manage to get into the garish corset Paulina walked in.

“Let me help you with that, Dear.” She tightened the corset around Charlotte’s waist, it felt like a cage.

“Charlotte! Are you ready to go?” Kane turned to see her descending the stairs. She looked so different. A corset adorned her tiny waist and a large black sun hat obscured her eyes. She pushed the hair from her face and looked up at him.

“What? Oh God, I look ridiculous don’t I?”

“You could never. You look- you look marvelous.”

Charlotte grinned at him, “Are you blushing Mr. Romano?”

He cleared his throat and offered her his elbow. She took it and he led her to the waiting carriage.

“We’re not going far. The stable hand will bring your horse around.”

“Kane Romano! I’m so glad you could make time for us.” A large man bellowed as Kane stepped out of the carriage.

“Anything for the Cabarro family. My father spoke very highly of you and your brother.”

Charlotte wondered if she had imagined the venom dripping from Kane’s voice.

“I’m so glad to hear that! We are not everyone’s cup of tea. As the British say. Please will you and Miss Russo join us inside? Ernesto will bring in your bags Sweetheart.” With that, he put his hand on the small of Charlotte’s back and guided her into his extravagant mansion, bigger and more ostentatious than Kane’s. It took everything in her power not to shove his arm away. Instead, she thanked him for his hospitality.

She’d spent many a night looking at this very mansion with Heather. They’d made up lives for the people living in it. They’d pretend to be rich and snobby until they laughed so hard they couldn’t breathe. Neither of them aspired to riches. It all seemed so very absurd. Now standing in a breezy sunroom, taking it all in, Charlotte felt so very much like the imposter she was.

“Charlotte, can I offer you a drink.” Mr. Cabarro called from his office. Charlotte followed him into the dimly lit room. She teetered between an appropriate and authentic answer. She’d known men like him before. Something told her he’d appreciate the latter.

“I’d love a whiskey, neat, if that is not too forward, Sir.”

“Not at all! I admire that in a woman, only wish my daughter had more of it in her.” He poured her a hearty glass from an unmarked bottle on his desk. “I was left this as a housewarming gift, so don’t judge me if it is sewer water.”

Charlotte laughed, genuinely. She’d been nervous but Kane was right. He may very well be bad but she had a feeling they would get on just fine.

“It’s actually very good. Whoever left it must like you.”

“Oh, my dear. No one likes me. Not even your friend out there. However, lots of people want to impress me.”

Charlotte laughed, “That’s fair. I don’t mean to cut our meeting short but I’d love to hear exactly what you are expecting of me, Sir.”

“Straight to business. I like you more and more Miss Russo.” He straightened himself in his chair and lit a cigar.

“My daughter is a good girl, naive even. Especially for the world in which she exists. I’m hoping, obviously, you will tend to her daily needs. But more importantly, I hope you’ll be a friend to her. She has her head in the clouds and could use a less obvious influence than I have tried to make of myself. She’s an heir. No, the heir. To my business and my fortune. She is the one that will lead the Cabarro name to excellency and likely infamy, here in America.” He stood and leaned on his desk before Charlotte.

“Now. I know that that is not what is expected of most young women. But believe it or not, I am a man before my time. I believe she is more than capable. Consequently, I have not worried about any other heirs. However, she seems set on a peaceful life. Husband, children- whatever. Kane says you are quite the pioneering woman yourself and I suppose I am hoping you might rub off on her.”

Her past flashed before her eyes and Charlotte desperately clutched her glass. She’d been pioneering in exactly the way she felt Mr. Cobarro meant. For the first time, she wondered if Kane had been completely transparent with her.

“I fear I may have been oversold to you, Sir. But I will do my best.”

“Oh. I don’t doubt that, Miss Russo.” He offered her a hand and led her back into the parlor where Kane stood talking with his stable hand.

“Charlotte.” He beamed effortlessly, “Your horse has been stabled outback. She has been fed but you may want to go check on her and reassure her that you are here.”

“Excellent! I’m sure the poor beast is confused. Tara, Bellissimo. Show Charlotte where the stables are and then her quarters. Would you?”

“Of course, Father.”

Charlotte turned to see Tara had removed her hat and corset. She looked relaxed and friendly now. So unlike the raven-haired heiress, Charlotte had met only briefly outside.

“Charlotte. I am so glad Mr. Romano set this up. I am an utter mess without my maids here. You are going to be a lifesaver I just know it!”

Charlotte smiled and took Tara’s outstretched hand. She radiated joy and Charlotte couldn’t help but bask in it, if only for a minute.

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