(With thanks to my beta, Terri Derr)
“You were awfully eager to do Aggie this favour.” Scott glanced at Katie as they drove over the bridge, leaving the Conway ranch behind them. They had agreed to take a detour on their way back to Lancer so they could drop some sheet music off to Connie Reynolds.
“I was just being neighbourly. Isn’t that what people do here?” The corner of Katie’s mouth flickered upwards, but she kept looking straight ahead, her wide-brimmed sunhat throwing shadow across her face. Scott turned his attention back to the dirt road ahead of him.
The buggy rocked over uneven ground and lurched as the wheel hit a pothole. Katie bumped gently against him, and he got a faint whiff of rosemary. Long curls, freshly washed, tumbled soft and shining down her back, held back by an emerald green ribbon. It matched the sash around her waist. God give him strength, between her hair and what Scott always imagined doing with that sash, he found it very hard to carry on a conversation.
Changing position on the black leather seat, he swallowed. “Why do I get the feeling, there’s more to it than that?”
“I’ve no idea, but I do have another reason for offering. I’ve some information about colleges and boarding establishments for Miss Harriet Reynolds. I brought it with me on the off-chance we saw one of the family in Green River as we passed through. I was going to ask if we could visit later in the week if we didn’t, but this way is better.”
Scott was not sure about that. For his part, he preferred to keep as far away from the Reynolds ranch as possible. “Did Harriet ask you to find out about colleges?” His memory must be playing tricks. Two months ago Harriet and her sister had attended a speech about women’s suffrage, presented by Katie’s mother. Katie had been in great demand afterwards, because she was considered an expert on higher education and vocational training for women. Several young ladies had asked her for help in one way or another, but he didn’t recall Harriet being among them.
For a short time, Scott had walked out with Harriet’s elder sister, but there’d been no spark between them—well, he didn’t think so. He’d been at pains to avoid Connie Reynolds since Christmas, because of a rumour that she saw things a little differently. As if to prove it, she’d pounced on him as soon as the Reynolds sisters walked through the door at The Occidental. With no means of escape, he was obliged to introduce Connie and Harriet to Katie—one of his more embarrassing moments. It hadn’t been all bad though. With an impressive display of her social talents, Katie had rescued him from Connie’s attentions, and a little hug of his arm had fanned his hopes of something more.
He had walked on eggshells with Katie for most of the Eliots’ ten day stay, but they’d come to an understanding two weeks later in San Francisco. Since then her father had given his permission for them to court, and not even Dr Eliot’s rather odd way of doing it could dampen Scott’s spirits now. Katie had returned to the San Joaquin for a second visit two days ago. They had the whole of May ahead of them.
“Like most men, you’re very bad at reading between the lines. Harriet wants higher academic education, not ‘finishing’. Teresa confirmed it for me after Mama and I went back to San Francisco. Harriet would like to study botany, but her father doesn’t take much notice of what she wants. He simply sees his daughters as a way of keeping his house, adorning his parlour for guests, and ultimately expanding his empire through marriage. I believe he had you in his sights for Connie.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen.” Scott steered the buggy off the direct route to Lancer and onto the side road that led to the Reynolds place. The grass in the fields was already turning yellow from heat and lack of rain.
Katie laughed and fingered the gold bracelet he had given her as a welcome back present. “No, given that we’re now officially courting, I would hope not.”
Scott smiled. He’d wondered, when he saw the bracelet in Greenspan’s window, if the gift would be considered too much too soon, but memories of Katie in the moonlight at her uncle’s house the evening before had decided him. He’d been on his way to the station to catch the train home, and the bracelet with its delicate fern etching had jumped out at him from its bed of green velvet. He just had to buy it for her. Crazy really; he didn’t even have enough money in his wallet. Luckily the jeweller took pity on him: “Take it, lad. Leave your watch as collateral”. The sacrifice had been worth it. He could see how much Katie liked the bracelet every time she looked at her wrist.
“So Harriet wants to go to college, but her father intends to send her to the same finishing school as Connie to make her ready for the marriage market?”
“Yes. It’s like fattening calves for the slaughter, don’t you think? I’ll give Harriet all the material I’ve collected, but my real challenge is to sow some seeds in the mind of her father. By the time I go back to San Francisco, I hope Mr Reynolds will be planning to send Harriet to a very different kind of school.”
“And how are you going to achieve that?”
“By taking advantage of what Mr Reynolds probably sees as a handicap. Harriet has not got Connie’s more obvious attributes.”
That was an interesting way of putting it. Harriet was studious, mousey and boyish-looking, chicken-breasted by common description. In contrast, Connie was self-confident and colourful, well rounded in all the right places, and she knew it. Harriet was simply lost in Connie’s shadow most of the time.
“She’s still young.”
“I agree, and I wouldn’t give up hope of her developing into a very attractive young woman, if she’s permitted to be happy. I hope to persuade her father that she’s more likely to blossom and find a husband if she’s allowed to pursue her own interests.”
“You think he’ll come around to the idea?”
“He’s a successful businessman. He must understand the concepts of playing to ones strengths and ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’. I’ve not met Mr Reynolds, but I’m quietly confident.”
“I’m sure my professors at Harvard would be appalled to hear their teaching described in such terms, but I have met Reynolds, and you could be right.” Scott pulled the reins to the right, and the buggy turned off the public road onto the private one leading to the ranch house. “Is that the only other reason for this visit?”
“Well, Miss Constance Reynolds did seem rather put out that you hadn’t informed me of her existence or the grandeur of her father’s estate. As I’m here on my own and for a longer stay this time, I thought it was only polite to call.”
“And stake your claim.” Scott grinned, peeking sideways.
“Oh, I don’t think there is any need to stake my claim. You’ve already made it known that we’re keeping company. Mr Reynolds has the reputation of being an astute man. I doubt he would waste his time trying to encourage your interest in his daughter now.”
Katie turned her head, and their eyes met. She laughed. “But, unlike the charming Miss Reynolds, I didn’t attend Miss Beauchamp’s Academy for Young Ladies in Washington DC. I lack the social graces that prevent me from rubbing salt into wounds.”
“You have such an elegant way of being catty.”
“Thank you. I’m pleased you appreciate the skill.”
Scott slowed the buggy to cross a small ford. Reynolds must have diverted water from the main stream. Scott was sure this runnel hadn’t been here last time he visited. “I always meant to ask you what you did.”
“What I did when?”
“In Green River when I introduced you to the Reynolds sisters. You did something to cheer Harriet up.”
“Did I? I don’t remember.” Katie shaded her eyes with her hand and looked towards the large clapboard ranch house, now coming into view between the trees. Whitewashed rails surrounded a neat garden to the side and rear, and a broad yard at the front separated the house from the barn and other buildings.
“If I wasn’t a gentleman, I’d suggest you weren’t telling the truth.”
“Ah well, like I said, I never had the professional ‘finishing’ enjoyed by Miss Constance Reynolds. Mama and my aunts are responsible for my training in etiquette and the social graces. I haven’t had Miss Reynolds’ advantages. There are perhaps some serious flaws in my make up as a result.”
“Perhaps, but I thought you had the very best education money could buy.”
“Arguable. I had nannies and a governess before attending school. Most recently, I had two years at Vassar, but it has a different approach to education for women—similar to Oberlin. ‘Modern’ is the word I believe Miss Reynolds would use, though personally I wouldn’t deliver it with the same tone of distaste. I really quite enjoyed my time there and learned a great deal.”
“So you have a degree too, like Emily?” Scott pushed his hat back on his head. Why didn’t he know that? He had seen so little of Katie after the war. It was only when she returned from England that he’d become really conscious of her again.
“No, I didn’t do my final year. I went abroad with Aunt Dottie instead. By the time I got back to America, I wasn’t in the mood for more study. Besides, Boston University is finally coming out of the dark ages and will issue degrees to women soon. I thought if I wanted to finish later, I could transfer and attend classes from home.”
“So what did you do?”
“Literature and history.”
“No, I didn’t mean, what did you study at Vassar? I meant, what did you do at The Occidental to cheer Harriet up?” Scott cocked his head and grinned. “You can’t avoid telling me by changing the subject.”
“It wouldn’t be proper etiquette to poke fun at a girl’s sister when she’s standing three feet away. I’m surprised you’re suggesting I would do such a thing, even with my flawed education.”
“You’re not going to give me details, are you?” Scott drove into the Reynolds yard and reined the carriage to a halt.
Katie straightened and beamed. “Think of it like the Freemasons. They will not allow women into their secrets, and women have secrets best kept from men.”
Scott jumped down from the buggy. They were running out of time for this conversation. He could see the Reynolds family emerging from the house and coming to welcome them.
He lifted Katie down, but when her feet touched the ground, he didn’t let go. “I’m not a Freemason.”
“Really? My father will be disappointed.” Katie looked down at Scott’s hands, firm around her green-sashed waist. “You’re forgetting something, Mr Lancer.”
“Indeed, and what might that be, Miss Eliot?”
Katie smiled and removed his hands from her waist, one by one. Then she leaned forward, her breath tickling his ear. “I am a woman.”
Well, he couldn’t argue with that.
With a quick peck on his cheek, Katie turned to greet their hosts.
And shaking his head, laughing, Scott accepted defeat.
1. This story is part of the Eliot Series: Past Imperfect, 2015; The Visit, 2015; Unfinished Business, 2015; The Only Way to Have a Friend is to be One, 2015; Letters of Friendship: My Dear Friend, Katie, by Doc, 2015, and Dearest Emily, 2015; Permission, 2015.