Mae’s left arm was completely numb, which should have rendered her impervious to the slimy sensation of little-boy drool soaking through her sleeve, but alas, life is a curious thing.
Vibrating floor boards and several erratic belches of steam and coal dust alerted the train occupants that another precipitous stretch of track lay before them. Mae temporarily dismissed her anesthetized appendage and gripped the edge of the hard bench seat, seeking fortitude. Though some of the bolder passengers took pleasure in the view of crags and peaks afforded by the small number of windows, most failed to stir from their fitful dozes inside the stifling train carriage and barely shifted in their seats in response to the palsied uphill lurches.
The pitch slowly leveled out, and Mae’s bloodless grip loosened. Soon they would pass through Chetoogeta Mountain via a long tunnel over fourteen hundred feet long, or so she’d heard. Just over eighty miles into her first journey by train, and the experience was proving less than agreeable, though Owen had taken to it like water off a duck’s back. She adjusted her arm, resentful, her entire left side plastered in sweat and saliva. Owen was dead weight, comparable to a sack of potatoes someone had decided to thoughtlessly pitch on top of her.
Her sour mood traveled to the relaxed heap sprawled out on the facing bench. Creighton ought to be suffering this uncomfortable situation, not her, and yet he had an entire seat all to himself to doze in comparative splendor. With legs outstretched and battered hat pulled low, he was the picture of restfulness.
Or perhaps not.
Mae detected an unnatural stiffness in his posture that wasn’t conducive to slumber. She studied him more intently, noting the precise way he held his arms scissored across the span of his chest. It was much too meticulous a pose for a man catching his forty winks and more likely an indication of unease. She traveled the length of his cotton trousers and black knee-high boots, the latter of which jiggled tellingly every minute or so, a nervous affectation. The enduring shadow of beard stubble on his jaw and upper lip, routinely scraped clean every few days, was currently in its half-wild state, which made the flush glowing beneath it all the more significant for being visible.
Not only was Creighton very much awake despite his calculated attempts to seem otherwise, she realized that the tilted hat—originally presumed to aid sleep—was in fact a surreptitious disguise to bolster his spying. His concentrated stare, bright silver and unwavering, was focused on some point just beyond Mae’s shoulder.
“Discovered something back there, have you?”
He didn’t even react, confirming that he was so raptly focused on his subject matter that he wasn’t even conscious of her moving lips.
Mae nudged his foot, and Creighton straightened from his slouch with the intensity of a man receiving a jab from a hatpin. His color was high, whether from embarrassment or excitement, she didn’t claim to know.
“What were you lookin’ at back there?”
“Hmm?” Creighton’s gaze moved furtively beyond her shoulder. “Nothing.”
Some intrinsic female voice inside Mae demanded she turn and blaze the same path, but she found nothing of particular interest in the slumped bodies cluttering the many bench seats. By and large, they were the same exhausted faces present since embarking last night in Marietta, though occasionally a prisoner was reshuffled among the cars, with no discernible pattern that Mae could recognize, save for the army was fond of doing it.
She craned her neck a bit farther and this time her gaze collided with that of a slender blonde who went red in the face and instantly averted her eyes.
Mae turned back in her seat. “Do you know that woman? The one wearin’ the black bonnet with the green crepe leaves and scarlet berries on the side?” She waggled her fingers near her temple in illustration, in the unlikely event there were similarly millineried women languishing about.
A profusion of emotion bombarded Creighton’s face, the prevailing being acute discomfort, with barely suppressed exhilaration taking a close second. He concluded by wiping both clean and concisely enunciating, “No.”
“No? I wasn’t born yesterday.”
He pulled at a small thread unraveling at his cuff and ignored her. If possible, the color beneath his beard heightened. She’d never liked facial hair on a man; it looked dirty and scratchy on other men, but she rather liked it on Creighton, though the whys and wherefores remained a mystery. That its allure should double when paired with the incongruity of a youthful blush was even more inexplicable, though perhaps both existing on the same face was a charming discrepancy and sufficient explanation for its appeal.
Mae gave herself a mental shake. Considering she was on her way to prison, she ought to be far more concerned with her worsening circumstances, not entertaining whimsical thoughts about her traveling companion’s beard, of all things.
She tried a different tact. “I don’t recognize a soul in this car—”
“Then no one will see us together. Your social standing is safe and sound,” he guaranteed, purposefully obtuse.
“Don’t put words in my mouth. That’s hardly where I was goin’ with that and you know it. Anyways, as I recall, it was my idea to sit together on the train. You’re the one who did all the hemming and hawing last night.”
“That wasn’t indecision.” An incendiary grin unfurled. “I was trying to be tactful, but you’re not very good at picking up on hints. Ever think that I just wanted some peace from you?”
“It’s a sad state of affairs when a man forgets how to be a gentleman,” she retorted, generously ignoring the bulk of his efforts to vex her. “Most everyone in this here train compartment must hail from New Manchester. Oh! Didn’t you grow up in New Manchester?” she queried, none too sly.
“You know I did,” he bit out, his playful mood drying up.
“And didn’t you work at the mill in New Manchester before you moved to Roswell? You must know some of these people, surely?”
At the rate Creighton was unraveling his cuff, he would be sleeveless by the time the train pulled into the station at Chattanooga.
“Would you change seats with me?” Mae had to prod him repeatedly with her shoe before he consented to a perturbed glance. “Sittin’ backward doesn’t fare well with my constitution, I’m afraid.”
His eyes took on a dubious slant. “You want to switch seats?”
“If you wouldn’t mind terribly? I been sittin’ like this for hours without complaint, but it’s late mornin’ and I’m played out.”
He heaved a sigh—a serrated sound crammed with untold reluctance—and yet he rose to trade positions. Mae pretended like she didn’t notice the egregious exhalation. Not much acting was required. Most of her attention was devoted to the revolting fact that a single strand of drool linked Owen’s mouth to her sleeve, and it was slowly lengthening as Creighton lifted the boy into his arms.
“Why’d you let me fall asleep on her?” The filament of slobber finally detached itself, only to swing precariously from Owen’s lips before an irritated pass from his hand swiped it away. “I hate that dang lady.”
Creighton was unable to decipher Owen’s sleepy mumble, and so he was unaware of his nephew’s deplorable manners. He drifted back into the bliss of drooling childhood dreams almost instantly, and so she decided not to make an issue of it as she boldly examined the car’s occupants from her new vantage point.
Mae easily picked out the blonde in the black silk bonnet. The woman hastily lowered her eyes like a frightened doe attempting to conceal itself among the greenery. It was obvious she harbored an interest in Creighton but didn’t possess enough pluck to risk openly looking.
“You’re positive you don’t know that woman?” Mae challenged, agog with curiosity and willing to make a scene to have it satisfied. “I only ask because she’s lookin’ over here like she might recognize you. No?” she interpreted of his blank stare. “Then I’m goin’ over there to ask who in blazes she thinks she is, rudely starin’ at us like that. Her mama should’ve taught her better.”
Two marching steps past Creighton’s seat, and suddenly Mae was propelled backward. His frantic pull on her hand upset her balance. She capsized neatly upon his lap, clearly not his intended goal if his grunt of surprise had anything to say about it.
Mae decided to take advantage of an advantageous situation and hoped the doe woman was watching. Patting Creighton affectionately on one unshaven cheek, she smiled and preened, “I always knew you liked me! All that talk about disgracin’ myself in public, and here you go, arranging to have me sit on your lap. Seems a bit untoward to me, what with an audience and all, but if this is the sort of thing that tickles your fancy—”
Creighton wasted no time depositing her on the opposite bench. She was forced to swallow an indelicate utterance as she landed in an ungainly sprawl.
“I wasn’t serious,” she snapped, face flaming red as she quickly smoothed her disorderly skirts. “I was only pullin’ your leg.”
“I’ve had enough of your high-jinks, Mae. Moreover, it wasn’t even funny,” he added, some supplementary insult apparently required.
“It was a little bit funny,” she refuted, her voice small.
“Since you obviously can’t mind your own business, yes, I know that woman,” he tiredly replied. “Her name is Sadie Levine.”
“Sadie Levine?” Mae started upon recognizing the name of New Manchester’s most sought-after beauty and reputed victim of Creighton Branagan’s villainous lust. She’d already dismissed the rumor as absurd, but she’d never anticipated there could be an actual Sadie Levine, and the inferences left her feeling painfully green-eyed.
“Tell me more about this extraordinary Miss Levine. I’m all aflutter with anticipation.”
“I doubt that.” His severe expression was exacerbated by his unkempt facial hair and rumpled clothes. “I’m not telling you anything. I would’ve sent you packing days ago, had I known what a thorn in my side you’d turn out to be.”
“And I would’ve gone and happily at that, had I known what a crusty old codger you’d turn out to be. See what you’ve gone and made me do?” she needled, smiling wickedly and bolting up the aisle in the ethereal Miss Sadie Levine’s direction.
Creighton realized her intent too late, and she easily deflected the sweeping arc of his arm. Without further ado, she plopped into the seat directly facing the startled woman.
Mae composed a quick study of her overall appearance. It shouldn’t have been possible, not after hours of constricted movement aboard a train, but the profusion of ruffles embellishing Sadie’s skirt didn’t show a single crimple, and the lace trimming the cuffs and collar looked crisp and clean instead of wilting. Beneath the bonnet’s brim, her hair was that colorless blond hue that glowed of moonlight, each and every strand pinned neatly into a coil. Her complexion was equally pale, and the bones in her face and wrists delicate; most certainly they were filled with air like that of a sparrow’s and not the hardy marrow that existed in earthier creatures like Mae.
She instantly discounted her feelings of inadequacy. If Creighton had ever kissed the incomparable Miss Sadie Levine, he hadn’t done so with the fierce passion he’d shown her on that one memorable occasion outside Great Oaks. His feasting mouth would have shattered this pixy being like cracked glass.
“I’m Mae Parrish. You must be Miss Levine?”
Enormous eyes, their color reminiscent of a frosted lake, instantly rounded with distress. “How do you know my name? Do I know you?”
The voice was as meek as the timid body containing it. Mae tamped down an urge to blow on the sprite and see if she fractured into tiny slivers.
“No, but I believe we both got an acquaintance in common?” She indicated the direction in which the peak of Creighton’s hat bobbed uncertainly up and down, as if he were contemplating rising from his seat, but repeatedly found the discipline to remain in place and wait to murder Mae upon her return.
“Gracious! Mr. Branagan, of course. Yes, I’m acquainted with him.” A rosy blush stole up her rimed cheeks. “Rather, I was acquainted with him, but that was quite some time ago.”
“No time like the present to get reacquainted.”
“I couldn’t!” Black net mittens covered the dainty hands fluttering nervously at her waist. “What I mean to say is, I shouldn’t want to trouble Mr. Branagan.”
Mr. Branagan, was it? Mae felt more of her confidence return as she reached out and encouragingly patted one of those airy hands. “It’s no trouble. I insist, as does Creighton,” she lied. “He sent me over to fetch you.”
“He did? Oh! Heavens, in that case…”
Their approach catapulted Creighton from his seat.
“Look! It’s Miss Levine, your friend from way back when.” Mae’s grin was pure orneriness. “You were right, Creighton, to take it into your head that you recognized her. The two of you must be burstin’ to catch up on old times! Let’s sit for a spell and remedy that.”
Creighton stood with hat respectfully removed, his expression circumspect and entire body stretched tight as a drum.
Some of Mae’s glee faded. She’d never seen him so focused, so centered on another’s presence, and jealousy’s corrosive voice began whispering in her ear. He’d certainly never behaved that way around her; in fact, he didn’t even seem aware of Mae’s existence, and she swiftly realized that her headstrong insistence to solve the rumors associated with Sadie Levine would be to her detriment.
PART II CONTINUED ON 8/15/16