The bulk of the voyage passed in much the same way. Erik was still a little hesitant in his growing friendship with David Tanner and Bertie Sedgwick, but grateful for it all the same. Meanwhile Meg became quite close with Josie Tanner and Sylvia Sedgwick. Of the three couples, only the Tanners knew exactly where they would be staying, so Josie gave the Chicago address to both Meg and Sylvia so that they could write and remain in contact with each other once they’d all found places to settle. Meg and Erik also got to know several other families over the course of the voyage; other acquaintances of the Tanners or the Sedgwicks. Still, Meg was more than happy with the situation. With each new acceptance, Erik was becoming less and less uncomfortable about his appearance and more confident in general.
On the morning of the Oceanic’s arrival in New York, a soft bustle of anticipation swept through the ship. Tenders pulled alongside to ferry the steerage passengers to Castle Garden in the Battery, while the ship’s doctor and an officer went through the first class cabins repeating the cursory physical examinations and questions given at the beginning of the voyage. Once those tasks were finished, tugs guided the Oceanic to the piers, where the first class passengers disembarked.
The Tanners, armed with a letter from Josie’s sister and brother-in-law outlining the best ways to avoid the pitfalls common to even the wealthiest of immigrants landing in New York, took charge of not only themselves, but also the Sedgwicks and Benoits. Meg and Erik were especially grateful for the help, considering that neither of them were completely fluent in English yet. David first got them settled into one of the better hotels, where the men left the women to unpack while they proceeded on to the financial district. Once there, they not only exchanged their funds for American currency, but also invested goodly portions of those funds into the new Standard Oil Company started by John D. Rockefeller the previous year, to give their families a modest quarterly income while leaving them each more than enough to get settled in their final destinations.
The three couples regrouped for lunch and discussed their future plans. The Sedgwicks would be leaving the following morning, taking a train to Richmond, Virginia, where they planned to stay while looking for a suitable property for raising horses. With significantly farther to travel, Erik and David decided to stay an extra day in New York, to let Meg and Josie rest before moving on. They would be taking a train together as far as Louisville, Kentucky. The Tanners would continue on the train to Chicago, while Erik and Meg would transfer to a riverboat that would take them down the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans. It would be slower, but a much more comfortable journey, as many of the rail lines in the Deep South were still undergoing repair from the extensive damage they suffered during the recent war.
In the morning, they all gathered in the lobby after breakfast to bid the Sedgwicks farewell. After that, Meg purchased a postal card to send to her mother as she’d promised.
We arrived safely in New York on April seventeenth, she wrote. We’re taking a day to relax, then we’ll set off for New Orleans. We’ve been told that journey will take five to six days by the route we’ve chosen, but that the traveling will be much more comfortable than the quicker option. As we’re in no particular hurry, we’ve opted for comfort. As I said before, a proper letter will follow once we’ve reached New Orleans. Much love, Meg.
Josie Tanner peered curiously over Meg’s shoulder. “I thought your family was against you and Erik marrying?” she asked.
Meg nodded. “That is true,” she said. “But my mother and I were… close, as I am only daughter. I hope that if I keep contact, in time she will forgive.”
Josie smiled. “That’s sweet of you. I hope it works out in the end.”
“So do I,” Meg agreed with a smile. “Will you come with me to mail? And then perhaps we take carriage ride through park before returning for lunch. That will give David and Erik time for business, yes?”
“That sounds lovely,” Josie nodded. “Especially since I know David wanted to look at some other possible investment opportunities today. I’m sure he’d be happy to bring Erik along with him.”
They confirmed their plans with the men and set out on their excursion while David and Erik headed back to the financial district. As the two men strolled towards Wall Street, Erik decided to ask a question that had been plaguing him since the first dinner aboard the Oceanic. “David… forgive if rude, but… why so nice to me all this time? I am… more avoided, for face, than not.”
David gave a rueful grin. “Well… I admit, part of the reason Bertie and I decided to take up with you was because of those jumped up Irish peasants at the table with us. We’d unfortunately met the Sullivans at our hotel the night before we sailed, and we couldn’t stand them. Loud, crude manners, overly demanding as well as rude to the help… in short, they personified the very worst of everything that the aristocracy hates about the new rich. So, when they protested your presence at dinner, we decided to annoy them by chatting you up. And once we did, we found a very likeable chap behind those scars.”
Erik reddened a bit, but smiled. “I am glad. Even if reason was not… best, it is good to make new friends. And good for Meg, that not… all people will avoid her, for being my wife.”
“All the more reason I’m glad we chose to get to know you, then,” David smiled. “Besides which, you make a much better audience for my lectures on investments and finance than Bertie ever did,” he added with a laugh.
Erik laughed as well. “In Paris, I earned much as composer. But here, I do not know if I able do same. So I am… pleased… to learn what you teach, so I always keep Meg in comfort.”
David nodded. “A most excellent reason to learn finance and investing,” he agreed, and launched into a discourse about several investment opportunities he hoped would prove worthwhile, taking the time to explain why he thought each one would be a good risk.
Erik just listened, only asking an occasional question for clarification when the other man used a term unfamiliar to his relatively limited English. By the time the two reached the financial district, he had a fair idea as to where he intended to invest his money. And thanks to David’s friendship, doors were opened for him that he knew might otherwise be closed.
Business accomplished to their satisfaction, the two men rejoined their wives for lunch. They spent a quiet afternoon playing cards and chatting, and retired early in anticipation of their departure the following day.
In Louisville, where the two couples would be parting ways, the train was making a planned three hour stop. Meg and Erik would remain in a hotel overnight and take the riverboat the following morning. Josie invited Meg shopping, but she declined, telling her friend, “I am tempted, but I do not need more clothing, when I do not have a place to keep. I will wait, and shop when Erik and I have a home.” She smiled. “I think I more want to buy chairs and tables, than more dresses anyway.”
Josie laughed. “Understandable! David and I will be staying with my sister and brother in law until we buy or build our own place, but Isabelle and Alex have a large enough home that we’ll be perfectly comfortable staying with them for several months if that’s what we need to do. Since we lived with David’s parents in London, it won’t be much different for us.”
Meg chuckled in return. “In Paris, I lived with my mother, she is widow. But she would not welcome Erik, and so we spent some days in his rooms while we prepared to go to New Orleans.” She grinned mischievously. “They were… smaller than I am used to. But as benefit, he was with me, and so I would not complain.”
Both women giggled at that, then Josie asked, “If you could have been happy even in the smaller flat, why did you decide to leave?”
“Erik is musician, and composer,” Meg explained. “My mother has… power? Non, that is not correct word…”
“Influence?” Josie suggested. “Your mother is a patroness of theatre and such, and so she could get Erik and his music dropped by threatening to remove her patronage. Yes, I understand now. You couldn’t know if she would choose to punish you two for eloping, and felt it was better to go make a fresh start elsewhere before she had a chance to blacken his reputation.”
Meg nodded. “Oui, that is so.”
The two couples went to a tea shop for refreshments before returning to the station. David and Josie climbed back aboard the train, calling their farewells to Erik and Meg who waved from the platform as the train slowly pulled out and vanished around a curve.
When it was out of sight, Meg smiled mischievously up at Erik. “Alone at last,” she murmured.
Erik blinked down at her, and smiled back. “Are you suggesting something, mon coeur?” he asked.
She nodded, her smile warming. “Scandalous, isn’t it, a wife that desires her husband?” she murmured in his ear.
He shivered. “Perhaps, but I will not complain,” he murmured in return, guiding her to the nearby hotel where they were spending the night.
Once in their room, she turned her back. “Unlace me, please,” she requested softly, and chuckled. “I miss the clothes I wore in Paris. I had no idea how difficult it can be to get into and out of the clothing of a proper society woman.”
He laughed softly, trailing tender little kisses down her spine from the back of her neck to the top of her corset as the dress came open. “But it is more fun for me, with the anticipation of what lies beneath,” he said, boldly for him.
“I hope it will always be so,” she replied.
“Don’t, Meg,” he said. “Please… I enjoy the flirting, but… please don’t say things like that unless you mean them.”
She turned to look up at him, deciding to bare her heart, and prayed the consequences wouldn’t be too severe. “I do mean it, Erik,” she said softly. “In the time we’ve spent together, I’ve fallen in love with you. I know it’s too soon, and I am not… not Christine… but I keep hoping that maybe… maybe you could learn to care for me… that perhaps you’d even… even choose to keep me as your wife…”
He stared at her for a long moment, seeing the sincerity in her eyes and her expression. “You do mean it,” he breathed. “Mon Dieu, and I thought I was the only one… I feared to tell you of my feelings because I didn’t want you to think I would attempt to… to keep you in the same sort of gilded cage in which I tried to lock Christine. With her… I created an image of perfection within my mind, and foolishly tried to make her fit that image, and so it angered me when she did not, could not, be what I imagined her to be. But with you, Meg… with you, I learned to know the woman first, with all her little quirks and imperfections. And then I fell in love with that woman. I’d already resigned myself to letting you go, because I love you and want you to be happy, even thinking your happiness would not be with me.” He reached out with trembling arms to pull her closer.
“This is where I am happiest,” she murmured, snuggled against his chest with his chin just resting on the top of her head. “This is where I wish to spend the rest of my life.”
“Will you marry me… properly, I mean?” he asked softly.
“Oh, yes!” Meg beamed. “If anyone asks, we wish to have an American wedding in addition to our French wedding, because while we started our lives together in France, we chose to come to America to live our lives together.”
Erik couldn’t help but chuckle. “And this is one of the things I love so much about you,” he told her. “You always have a plan ready for anything I might suggest, because you have such a quick mind.”
She gave him a saucy grin. “I have a plan for right now, too, mon coeur. Shall I explain it to you?”
He looked down at her with a chuckle. “By all means.”
She stepped back long enough to shake off her dress and bustle as he admired the picture she made in her stockings and corset, her full breasts nearly spilling from the top of the garment. She moved back towards him and dropped to her knees. Reaching out, she unfastened his trousers and drew forth his member, which hardened rapidly in her hands. He forgot to breathe when she leaned forward and took him hesitantly into her mouth. He twined his hands into her hair with a moan at the new sensations as she grew bolder, licking along his length and sucking gently.
“Stop, cherie,” he moaned. “I need to be inside you.”
She pulled back, looking up at him with desire in her eyes and her lips red and swollen from her activity. “I need you inside me,” she whispered back.
He lifted her up and shuffled to the bed, uncaring that his trousers were still around his knees. Her hand was on him, guiding him to her center even as he deposited her on her back. Her wet heat engulfed him as he thrust smoothly into her tight passage with a groan. She lifted her hips to meet his thrust with a soft cry of her own, wrapping her legs around him as he started to move within her.
“Je t’amie, my Meg,” he whispered as he leaned down to nuzzle her ear.
She trembled as his fingers teased at her node. “Je t’amie, my Erik,” she replied, gasping as his lips found a particularly sensitive spot on her neck. Leaning up, she licked at his ear while sliding her hands over his backside and pulling him closer still. He obliged, increasing the pace as her breath caught. “Mon Dieu, Erik!” she cried as she slipped over the edge.
The feel of her passage throbbing around him drew him along after her. He thrust deeply as he spilled his seed with a harsh cry of “Meg!”
They fell asleep still half-dressed and entwined together.
For both of them, the river voyage took on an air of a true honeymoon now that they’d confessed to having feelings for one another. They spent their days on the upper deck watching the countryside change from the rolling hills of Kentucky to the swamps of Missouri’s boot heel and eventually to cypress forests as they neared New Orleans.
The forest soon gave way to the bustle of the city. Erik and Meg watched as the riverboat glided easily up to the docks. They smiled at each other as snatches of conversations in French as well as English reached their ears from some of the workers on shore. “Welcome to our new home, Mme. Benoit,” he murmured as he took her hand to escort her ashore. Moving with his newfound confidence, Erik saw to their luggage and hailed a cab to bring them to one of the city’s better hotels. Once they checked in, they ordered dinner sent up and settled in to make their plans.
“Should we start looking for a house right away?” Meg asked. “Or do you want to try to get in with the French Opera House and establish yourself in the local musical world first?”
Erik shook his head. “Neither one, actually. David Tanner gave me some letters of introduction that will get me in to speak with some of the bankers and solicitors here. So that’s the first thing I’ll be doing. It’s far less likely we’ll be cheated with such men acting in our behalf. If they know of any properties for sale, certainly we will ask to see them… I want you to choose our home, Meg. While neither of us grew up in a traditional home, you at least have had some education in how to run a household, yes? So you will know better than I what the good and bad points of any place we might consider are. With the income we’ll have from the investments I’ve made, we’ll be financially secure, more than able to hire servants for the household, so don’t feel that you must opt for the smallest or least expensive place. If things go as well as I hope, we may well end up in the highest of social circles here.”
Meg nodded, giving him a soft smile. “Have I told you how very proud of you I am? Listen to yourself. A month ago, you would have balked at the very idea of speaking with a stranger, let alone making plans to become a part of the highest social circles.”
He blushed. “I couldn’t have done it without you pushing me,” he confessed. “I still don’t know how you did it, but your magic worked.”
“Bah, there was no magic involved,” Meg smiled. “Only my love for you, and my wish to see you become the man you never had the chance to be, the man I just knew was hiding behind the mask of the Phantom.” He turned brighter red and she chuckled, giving him a soft kiss.
The next several weeks flew by. With the help of their lawyer, they found a house in an affluent part of town. It had originally been taken for taxes following the recent war, and bought by an unpleasant Carpetbagger and war profiteer, but he had been killed several months earlier in a saloon brawl and had no heirs. Their new neighbors, a mix of old French families and slightly more recently settled Americans welcomed them all the more warmly because they had no part whatsoever in the war. The local gossip as learned from their newly-hired household servants spoke of Erik as “a real gentleman in spite of his scars and the wife is a delight, everything a lady should be.”
Meg wrote to Josie Tanner as well as to her mother, giving their new address. Josie wrote back and gave her Sylvia Sedgwick's address as well, and the three young women established a lively correspondence between them. Both Josie and Sylvia rather envied Meg when she wrote that she and Erik renewed their vows in the oldest French church in New Orleans so that they would have an American wedding to start their American lives. As much as the two English women cared for their respective mates, they couldn't help but wish their men were as romantic as Erik.