Merciful Vices

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Chapter 4

Heather,

So much has changed, for both of us, I suppose. I wonder if we still share the same stars at night.

Yours,

Charlotte

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

Charlotte’s first week with the Cabarro family had been a whirlwind. It seemed she’d made quite the impression on Mr. Cabarro because he had no qualms about her knowledge of his illicit dealings. She still didn’t know exactly what he was involved in but she knew it was dangerous.

She also knew Tara wanted no part of it. The girl had a mean left hook and was a better than average shot. Two hours every other day, she trained with her bodyguards. Two sourly, mountains of men who only ever spoke in Italian. Charlotte sat the lessons out, trying to preserve her image but she had to admit it all looked like a great deal of fun.

Any free time Tara had was spent reading. She’d share her favorite poems and stories with Charlotte, either in her room before the fire or outside in the luscious estate gardens.

“I am the daughter of Earth and Water,

And nursling of the sky,

I pass through the pores of the oceans and shores.

I can change but I cannot die.”

“That’s Perry Shelley,” Charlotte said softly as she pulled Tara’s unruly curls into a braid.

“You know of his work?” Tara beamed up at her.

“Yes. I am quite well-read for a poor American.” Charlotte quipped.

Tara’s face fell, “That’s not what I meant. You know that.”

Charlotte sighed, ” I know. I’m sorry. I’m just tired.”

Tara sat bolt upright, “Of course you are! I don’t think you’ve had a day’s rest since you arrived. You must hate me! I’ve so enjoyed your company, I completely forgot that it’s being paid for.”

“Tara, I’ve had a wonderful time with you too. I don’t hate you.”

An idea lit up Tara’s face, “Why don’t you take the rest of this afternoon and tomorrow to yourself. Is there some forlorn suiter missing you?”

Charlotte laughed, “Not for a long time, but if you really don’t mind I do have a friend I’d love to go see.”

“Of course! Go. Go! I’ll let father know.”

Charlotte walked into her quarters, she hadn’t been lying about being tired but she needed to get out of the house and breathe. Maybe see Ben. She dug out the one pair of slacks she’d manage to hide from Kane and saddled Tanner up.

In a few minutes, she found herself in the middle of New Orleans, surrounded by the kind of sights and sounds only this city held. Ben’s general store and his living quarters above it were just outside the train station. When she arrived, the storefront was closed. She bound the stairs, up to his room, two at a time. Just as she lifted her hand to knock, the door swung open.

“Charlotte! Oh, I’m so glad to see you.” Ben bellowed and wrapped her in a bear hug.

“Me too! Are you headed back to the store?”

“Not anymore!” He pulled her into the small space and sat her down, “You hungry kid? I made a stew.”

Charlotte felt her stomach growl, “Yes. Please. I have been withering away on all that fancy, rich people food.”

Ben handed her a heaping bowl.

“How have things been?” She muttered between large mouthfuls.

“Oh, you know. Things are quiet at the moment but I’m managing. Ships will be docking in two weeks and it’ll pick back up.”

“If you need money, Ben, I can help.”

“Not at all. I’m doing fine. Your friend, Mr. Romano stopped by to check on me too. Told him the same thing.”

Charlotte almost choked, “He did?”

Ben nodded and Charlotte could not be bothered to press further.

An hour later Charlotte hugged Ben goodbye once more.

“I’ll see you soon, Dear?” It was more a question than a statement.

“I’ll try,” Charlotte called as she spurred Tanner back into town.

She ran a few errands before finding herself in front of the post office. Her satchel seemed to double in weight as her mind drifted to the notebook inside, filled with unsent letters. She had no address for Heather these days. Even if she did, what would be the point in sending the letters? There was far too much between them now.

“Miss Russo?” Lost in her thoughts, Charlotte didn’t recognize her new last name. A hand touched her shoulder and dragged her from her haze. She spun, instinctively and landed a punch square on Kane Romano’s chin.

“Oh, Jesus. Kane. I’m so sorry. I was, well, nevermind. Are you okay?”

He grinned at her and rubbed his reddening cheek, “You have one hell of a punch, Char.”

“Come on.” Charlotte led him into the nearby saloon and went in search of something cold. She managed to find a cold bottle of whiskey but by the time she returned two saloon girls sat at either side of Kane.

“Get.” Charlotte barked, and the poor girls scuttled back to the bar.

Kane laughed and flinched immediately. Charlotte handed him the bottle.

“I’m sorry,” She said again, “I was worlds away. You startled me.”

“I’ve survived much worse, My Dear. I’m glad I bumped into you. I haven’t had much reason to visit the Cabarros. I hoped you were managing alright.”

“I’m doing fine. They have been model employers.”

“Good.” Kane waved a few drinks over to them.

Time got away from them and it was dark by the time they left the saloon. They walked aimlessly along the street. Charlotte felt the sudden need to explain herself.

" I was thinking of Heather earlier, when, well-” She gestured at his swollen face, “I’ve been so busy since meeting you. I suppose I haven’t had much time to wallow in my own shit. It’s been nice.”

Kane placed his hand on her back and guided her across the rickety train tracks to the bustling pier. There he sat and patted the spot next to him, legs swinging jovially off the edge.

“You two were quite the infamous team weren’t you?”

Charlotte laughed at that. It had been so long since all of that.

“That we were. Bloodshed wherever we went and all that.” Despite herself, she felt a tear escape her eye.

“It wasn’t all like that though. That’s just all the newspapers cared about. There was fun too and love.”

Kane handed her a handkerchief and she quickly wiped the tears away.

“Thank you for checking in on my Uncle. That means a lot to me.”

Kane simply nodded. Charlotte rested her head on his shoulder. They sat in the darkness admiring the stars.

“Isn’t it something, that we are all born and die under these stars. Worlds and lives apart but connected somehow.” He said almost too softly for her to hear. He was different here, calm.

Her neck was stiff by the time he stirred her from her thoughts, “It’s late, Char. Are you expected back at the estate tonight?”

She shook her head.

“Stay with me then? Paulina and Garland would be thrilled.”

“And you?” Charlotte teased.

Kane scoffed and helped her to her feet.

They rode through the streets enjoying the eccentrics of the city. Kane’s home stood dark when they arrived. He hitched the horses and led them into the parlor.

“The guest room is still made up for you.” He said, as he took Charlotte’s coat and handed her a nightcap, “I’d love to have breakfast with you before you go.”

Charlotte took the drink and placed it on the mantle before putting her palm to his face.

“Are you sure you are okay?”

Kane cupped her hand in his and moved it from his face, suddenly serious, “This is an awful idea, Charlotte.”

“Probably, but both of us have long strings of awful ideas. What’s one more?”

His brilliant grin returned and he tilted her lips to his.

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