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April 18, 1906: A massive earthquake rocks San Francisco just before daybreak, igniting a devouring inferno. Lives are lost, lives are shattered, but some rise from the ashes forever changed.
Sophie Whalen is a young Irish immigrant so desperate to get out of a New York tenement that she answers a mail-order bride ad and agrees to marry a man she knows nothing about. San Francisco widower Martin Hocking proves to be as aloof as he is mesmerizingly handsome. Sophie quickly develops deep affection for Kat, Martin's silent five-year-old daughter, but Martin's odd behavior leaves her with the uneasy feeling that something about her newfound situation isn't right.
Then one early-spring evening, a stranger at the door sets in motion a transforming chain of events. Sophie discovers hidden ties to two other women. The first, pretty and pregnant, is standing on her doorstep. The second is hundreds of miles away in the American Southwest, grieving the loss of everything...
Year:
2021
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Language:
english
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EPUB, 1.24 MB
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2020
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english
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EPUB, 1.42 MB
Novels by Susan Meissner


			 				The Nature of Fragile Things

				The Last Year of the War

				As Bright as Heaven

				A Bridge Across the Ocean

				Stars over Sunset Boulevard

				Secrets of a Charmed Life

				A Fall of Marigolds

				The Girl in the Glass

				A Sound Among the Trees

				Lady in Waiting

				White Picket Fences

				The Shape of Mercy





		 			 			BERKLEY

			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			penguinrandomhouse.com



			Copyright © 2021 by Susan Meissner

			Readers Guide copyright © 2021 Penguin Random House LLC

			Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

			BERKLEY and the BERKLEY & B colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Names: Meissner, Susan, 1961- author.

			Title: The nature of fragile things / Susan Meissner.

			Description: First edition. | New York: Berkley, 2021.

			Identifiers: LCCN 2020022072 (print) | LCCN 2020022073 (ebook) |

			ISBN 9780451492180 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780451492203 (ebook)

			Classification: LCC PS3613.E435 N38 2021 (print) | LCC PS3613.E435 (ebook) |

			DDC 813/.6—dc23

			LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020022072

			LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020022073

			Cover images: 1906 San Francisco earthquake © Everett Collection Inc./Alamy Stock Photo; figures © Tanya Gramatikova/Trevillion Images

			Cover design by Emily Osborne and Colleen Reinhart

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance ; to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

			pid_prh_5.6.1_c0_r0





For Claire





Contents


		Cover

		Novels by Susan Meissner

		Title Page

		Copyright

		Dedication

		Epigraph

		Chapter 1

		Chapter 2

		Chapter 3

		Chapter 4

		Chapter 5

		Chapter 6

		Chapter 7

		Chapter 8

		Chapter 9

		Chapter 10

		Chapter 11

		Chapter 12

		Chapter 13

		Chapter 14

		Chapter 15

		Chapter 16

		Chapter 17

		Chapter 18

		Chapter 19

		Chapter 20

		Chapter 21

		Chapter 22

		Chapter 23

		Chapter 24

		Chapter 25

		Chapter 26

		Chapter 27

		Chapter 28

		Chapter 29

		Chapter 30

		Chapter 31

		Chapter 32

		Epilogue

		Acknowledgments

		Readers Guide

		About the Author





Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable—and life is more than a dream.

				—Mary Wollstonecraft





1


			INTERVIEW WITH MRS. SOPHIE HOCKING

			CONDUCTED BY AMBROSE LOGAN, U.S. MARSHAL

			CASE NUMBER 069308

			Official transcript

			San Francisco, CA

			November 6, 1906

			QUESTION: Thank you again for coming. Could you please state your full name, age, birth date, and the city where you were born, for the record, please?

			ANSWER: Sophie Whalen Hocking. August 24, 1884. Donaghadee, County Down, Ireland. I’m twenty-two.

			QUESTION: Whalen is your maiden name, correct?

			ANSWER: It is.

			QUESTION: Thank you. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve a few questions for the record, since you and I have not had an opportunity to speak before now. You emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1903 and spent your first two years in this country in Lower Manhattan, New York City. Is that correct?

			ANSWER: Yes. Nearly the first two years. Not quite that.

			QUESTION: So you were nineteen when you emigrated?

			ANSWER: Yes. So why is it you and I have not spoken before? Has the other detective moved away?

			QUESTION: No, Detective Morris is still on the case. I was brought in only recently. I’m a U.S. marshal.

			ANSWER: I don’t know what that is, sir.

			QUESTION: United States marshals serve at the federal level of law enforcement rather than local.

			ANSWER: Oh. So . . . so you are also a detective, then?

			QUESTION: I investigate federal crimes, yes. May we continue?

			ANSWER: Yes.

			QUESTION: Can you confirm for me that you married one Martin Hocking on March 10, 1905, at the courthouse here in San Francisco?

			ANSWER: Yes. Yes, I did. Do you have news of my husband? Is that why you’ve called me in?

			QUESTION: Possibly. Again, for the record, did you report your husband, Martin Hocking, missing six weeks after the earthquake that occurred on April 18 of this year?

			ANSWER: I did, yes.

			QUESTION: Can you tell me why you waited six weeks to notify the police that your husband was missing?

			ANSWER: He travels for his job. I didn’t know for sure he was missing at first.

			QUESTION: You’ve stated previously you fled your home on Polk Street with your stepdaughter, Katharine Hocking, in the minutes following the earthquake. Is that correct?

			ANSWER: Yes.

			QUESTION: And the house on Polk Street was still standing when you left?

			ANSWER: It . . . everything was broken and shattered inside, and the chimney had fallen off, but, yes, it was still standing.

			QUESTION: And when you returned six weeks later was it still standing then?

			ANSWER: I told the police before. It had burned. Every house on the street had burned. Every house in our neighborhood burned. Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but do you not know what happened in this city? Have you not looked around?

			QUESTION: I assure you, I’m not here to mock the loss of your home, Mrs. Hocking. I am only establishing the facts for the record. My record. I apologize for asking questions you have already answered. But I must ask them. You returned to your home six weeks after the earthquake and found it had burned? There was nothing left of it?

			ANSWER: Nothing but ashes.

			QUESTION: And you would have no way of knowing if Mr. Hocking returned to the house after the earthquake but before it burned?

			ANSWER: How could I? I was not there.

			QUESTION: Yes. Now, if we may go back to the day of the earthquake. You have said that you and Katharine found your way to the refugee camp at Golden Gate Park when the fires began. Do I have that right?

			ANSWER: Yes.

			QUESTION: And during your four days at the refugee camp you didn’t hear from your husband, correct? He did not join you there?

			ANSWER: No. As I said before, he was away on a business trip. He travels for a living.

			QUESTION: So, to be clear, your husband left on his business trip before the earthquake and you have had no contact with him since?

			ANSWER: I have not. Have you come by some new information about where he is? I think I have a right to know.

			QUESTION: I believe I have come upon some new information, yes. But I’m not sure if this new intelligence aligns with what we know already. That is why I need to revisit some of the details you provided from the initial investigation into his disappearance, to see if what I’ve recently learned is consistent with the previously reported details. May we continue?

			ANSWER: If this will assist you in finding my husband, then of course.

			QUESTION: Thank you. Now, for the record, then, you married Martin Hocking the same day you met him, is that correct?

			ANSWER: Yes.

			QUESTION: And can you tell me why you did that?

			ANSWER: Why I did what?

			QUESTION: Married Mr. Hocking the same day you met him.

			ANSWER: It is not against the law to marry someone you’ve just met, is it?

			QUESTION: Indeed, it is not. I am curious, you see.

			ANSWER: I married Martin because he asked me.

			QUESTION: You had answered a newspaper advertisement that he’d placed in the New York Times? For a wife and mother. He had advertised that he was a widower with a young child. Do I have that right?

			ANSWER: Yes.

			QUESTION: And then you traveled to San Francisco from New York to marry Mr. Hocking, even though the two of you had not yet met?

			ANSWER: I did.

			QUESTION: Because?

			ANSWER: Because, what?

			QUESTION: Mrs. Hocking, are you declining to tell me why you married a man you’d only just met?

			ANSWER: I am not declining, sir. I married him because I wanted to.





2


			March 1905

			The sun is dissolving like an enchantment as I stand at the ferry railing and look out on the San Francisco horizon. The day will end jubilant. Jubilant. This is the word I chose this morning from Da’s book of words, and I’ve been keen to use it since breakfast. My father wrote that jubilant means you feel as though you finally possess everything you’ve always wanted, you are that happy. I like the way the word rolls off my tongue when I say it. I want to believe the day will end on a jubilant note. I am counting on it.

			Most of the ferry’s passengers aren’t on the deck watching the golden sun fold itself into the western rim of the sky. They are seated inside, out of the bracing wind, but I don’t want to be tucked indoors after six long days on a train.

			I close my eyes as the heady fragrance of the ocean transports me as if in a dream to Gram’s cottage in Donaghadee above the slate Irish Sea. I can see the house in my mind’s eye just as it was when I was young, back when life was simple. I can see Gram making me a cup of sugar tea in her kitchen while a harbor breeze tickles the lace curtains she made from her wedding dress, two days after marrying my Anglican grandfather. On the kitchen table are shortbread cookies arranged on the daisy plate, and still warm from the oven. She is humming an old Gaelic tune. . . .

			But no.

			I’ve spent too many hours pondering what I wouldn’t do to go back in time to Gram’s kitchen, what I’d be willing to give up. What I’d be willing to give. I open my eyes to behold again the nearness of the San Francisco docks.

			Backward glances are of no use to me now.

			I move away from the railing to the shelter of an overhang and tuck loose strands of hair back into place. I don’t want to step off the ferry looking like a street urchin. Not today.

			I look down at my skirt to see how bad the wrinkles are. Not too noticeable in the day’s diminishing light. My journey from New York to California took place on a second-class seat, not in a private sleeping car, hence the creases. I’d not expected anything different, as Martin Hocking had written that he is in good financial standing, not that he is rich. That he has means of any amount is miracle enough. I would have ridden in the baggage car all the way to get out of the umbrella factory and the tenement, and especially away from young Irishwomen just like me who reminded me too frequently of what I left back home.

			If my mother could see me now, she’d no doubt put me on the first train back to New York. But then, Mam doesn’t know how bad it was. I didn’t want to worry her, so she doesn’t know that the room I was subletting with four flatmates was no bigger than a kitchen pantry and that a single spigot in the back alley provided the only water to drink, bathe, and cook with for the entire building. She doesn’t know everyone dumped their chamber pots out their windows because there were no indoor toilets—despite city ordinances requiring them—and that the stink of human waste hung on the air like a drape. The tenement wasn’t a place to come home to at the end of the workday. It was just a shared room with sagging mattresses, a place where dreams for a better life could unravel faster than your threadbare clothes, and where girls like me from Belfast and Armagh and Derry and other Irish towns laid their heads at night.

			“I had a neighbor lady in Chicago when I was growing up who was from Ireland,” a woman seated across from me said hours earlier, as our train chuffed through the Nevada desert. “She came to America as a young girl during that terrible time when there was nothing to eat in Ireland and nothing would grow. That was years ago. I wasn’t even born yet, so that was long before you were alive. She told me it was something awful, that time. Whole families starved to death.” The woman shook her head in pity.

			There isn’t a soul back home who hasn’t heard of those long years of scarcity. Everyone in County Down called that time the Great Famine. Gram, who defiantly spoke Gaelic until her dying breath, called it An Gorta Mór. The Great Hunger, as if to say it wasn’t the lack of food that is remembered but how that stretch of years made people feel. Ravenous and empty and wanting.

			“Yes. I’ve been told ’twas a terrible time,” I replied.

			The woman then asked if I’d immigrated to America with my whole family.

			I thought of Mason, my brother who came to America first and sponsored me, and who is now living somewhere in Canada with a woman he fell in love with. “No. Just me.”

			“You came all by yourself?” the woman said. “I think that’s very brave. And you’re so young!”

			I smiled at this because some days I feel as though I’ve already lived several lifetimes and others as though I haven’t lived any kind of life at all, that I’m still waiting for it to start. Or waiting for it to start over.

			I answered I was twenty, nearly twenty-one.

			“What lovely cheekbones you have, and such beautiful black hair,” the woman continued. “I didn’t know Irish had black hair. I thought you were all redheads and blonds and auburns.”

			And then the woman asked what was bringing me all the way from New York to San Francisco.

			So many reasons. I gave her the easy one. “I’m getting married.”

			The woman offered me her congratulations and asked what my future husband’s name was. As she did so, I realized I was itching to have someone older and wiser tell me I was making a sensible choice, an understandable one, considering how hard and complicated the world is.

			“His name is Mr. Martin Hocking. Would you like to see his picture?”

			The woman smiled and nodded.

			I reached into my handbag and pulled out the photograph Martin had mailed to me. He was dressed in a vested pinstripe suit, his wavy hair gelled into place and his trimmed mustache partly covering his lips. He wore a fixed, charismatic gaze that I’d gotten lost in every time I looked at it. I’d had the photograph for less than two weeks but I knew its every inch.

			“My, oh my! But he is handsome,” the woman said. “Such striking eyes. He looks like he could see into your very soul.”

			“He’s . . . he’s a widower, newly arrived to San Francisco from Los Angeles. He has a little girl named Katharine. He calls her Kat. She’s only five. Her mother died of consumption and the child has had a rough time of it.”

			“Oh, how sad! Aren’t you a dear to take on the role of mother and wife all at once.” The woman reached for my arm and laid her hand gently across it in astonishment, empathy, and maybe even admiration. And then she wished upon me every happiness and excused herself to find a porter to get a cup of tea.

			I wanted the woman to ask how I met Martin so that I could gauge her response, but even after she came back with her cup, she didn’t ask. While she was off to look for the porter, I imagined how I would’ve replied. I withdraw the photograph now from my handbag and remind myself of that answer as the pier grows ever nearer.

			I’ve not met him yet, I would’ve said to the woman. I answered his newspaper advertisement. He was looking for a new wife for himself and a new mother for his little girl. He didn’t want a woman from San Francisco. He wanted someone from the East, where he is from. Someone who doesn’t need coddling. Someone who is ready to step into his late wife’s role without fanfare. I wrote to him and told him I didn’t need coddling. I wanted what he could offer me—a nice and cozy home, someone to care for, a child to love.

			The woman, surely wide-eyed, might’ve replied, But . . . but what if you are unhappy with him? What if he is unkind to you?

			And I would’ve told her that this is what I’d contemplated the longest in my tenement room before I left it, while rats scurried back and forth in the hall, while babies cried and men drank their sorrows and women wailed theirs, while the couple in the room above banged the walls while they fought and the couple in the room below banged the walls while they pleasured each other, and while my stomach clenched in hunger and I shivered in the damp.

			It can’t be worse than what I’ve already known, I would’ve said. Besides. He doesn’t look like someone who would hurt people, does he?

			I look at the portrait now, at this visage of a man who looks as near to perfection as a man could.

			Would the woman have tried to talk me out of what I am about to do? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Half of my flatmates thought I was crazy, and the other half were jealous I’d found the advertisement and they hadn’t. Mam does not know what I will do when I get off this boat, and I’m not writing her of it until it’s already done.

			Even after I finally tell her how miserable the tenement was, Mam will still want to know what possessed me to marry a man I don’t know. This was not the plan when I left Ireland to come to America. This was not what she’d wanted for me when she helped me pack my one travel bag. I had pondered what answer to give to that question, too. I’d already started the letter I would send to my mother.

			I want a home, I’d written in broad terms, so that if another reads the letter—perhaps one of my two older brothers still in Ireland—they, too, will understand. I want what I had when I was a little girl. A warm house and clean clothes and food in the pantry. I want to sing lullabies and mend torn rompers and make jam and cakes and hot cocoa, like you did. And I want to have someone to share it all with. I just want what you had, back when you had it.

			But what above love? my mother will want to know, because even though Da has been gone for too many years, Mam still loves him. She still feels like she is married to him.

			What about love?

			What about it?

			The ferry is closing in on its slip, easing its way to the dock and the men who stand ready to tie up its moorings. Beyond the ferry building, the spread of the city beyond looks like an aspiring snip of Manhattan, with towers and multistoried structures lifting themselves skyward. The sun is beginning to dip below the buildings, casting a rosy glow that tinges everything with haloed light. The passengers in the main cabin behind me are already making their way downstairs to queue up to disembark.

			I slip Martin’s photograph back inside my handbag and straighten my hat. It was Mam’s years ago, and made from the prettiest blue velvet and satin trim, both of which still hint at their original luster. Even slightly out of style, the hat pairs nicely with my dove gray shirtwaist, the only good dress I own, and I’d written Martin that I’d be wearing it. I reach for the travel bag resting at my feet.

			Every step toward the ramp to the pier is taking me farther away from who I am and closer to who I am going to be. As I step off the ship and join the throngs moving toward the ferry building, I look to see if Martin Hocking is outside it studying the crowd of passengers, searching for me. Is his little girl with him? Is Kat wearing a pretty little frock to meet her new mother?

			I don’t see him in the sea of faces awaiting the arrival of passengers. Maybe he is waiting inside.

			Dusk is descending like a veil and the electric lamps surrounding the ferry building are hissing as they come to life. The crowd starts to thin.

			And then I see him. Martin Hocking is standing just outside the entrance, in a pool of amber light cast by a lamp above him. His gaze is beyond me and to the right of where I stand. Even from many feet away I can see he is as stunning as his portrait. Not merely handsome, but beautiful. He wears a coffee brown suit and polished black shoes. His hair, as golden brown as toast, is perfectly in place. He’s tall, nearly six feet, I’d wager. He is not overly muscular and yet he has strength in his arms and torso, I can see that. He looks like royalty, like a Greek god.

			And those eyes.

			My seatmate was right. Martin Hocking’s eyes look like they could peer into my very soul.

			Time seems to stand still as niggling questions that I’ve ignored for days again needle me. Why does such a man want a mail-order bride the likes of me? This man could probably court any woman in San Francisco looking the way he does. He wrote to me that his desire to secure a new wife was for practical purposes—he needs a mother for his daughter—but also because he needs to be viewed as a fortunate businessman rather than a pathetic widower and father. Appearances matter when you work for a life insurance company and interact with their wealthy clients. And yet why send away to the East for someone, a stranger no less, and why choose a bride as uncultured as myself? And why doesn’t he want the intrigue of romance? I know why I’m not keen to wait for it, but why isn’t he?

			Unless he is so grieved over the loss of his first wife that he can’t imagine ever loving another. Unless he wants companionship and hot meals and a clean house but not romance. Not love.

			Perhaps Martin Hocking wants—more than anything else—a Cinderella of a girl precisely like me, with no family, no background, and the simplest of desires. After all, what do I bring to this arrangement except my willingness? My emptiness? My gorta mór—my great hunger for everything Martin already has and which for me has been so elusive—a secure home, a child to love, food and clothes and a bed that doesn’t smell of poverty.

			If this is true, I am practically perfect for him.

			And then he turns his head in my direction. Our eyes meet. Martin’s closed mouth curves into a relieved, welcoming smile, and it’s almost as if he’d indeed read my thoughts.

			Yes, that half smile seems to say. You are exactly what I wanted.

			I step forward.





3


			Martin Hocking is alone.

			I hadn’t realized how much I wanted his daughter to be waiting there with him until it is clear she isn’t. Perhaps Martin had asked Kat if she wanted to accompany him and she’d said no. Or maybe he’d asked and she’d said nothing. Martin had written me that his daughter had withdrawn into near silence following the death of her mother, speaking only an occasional word here and there. Maybe he’d invited her to come along and gotten no response at all.

			“Welcome to San Francisco, Sophie,” Martin says as soon as he is close to me. His voice is a little deeper than I’d imagined, a little softer. He doesn’t seem nervous, not even a little. And he called me Sophie, not Miss Whelan. My first name fell off his lips as though we’ve known each other for years. He takes my hand and clasps it like we are old school chums.

			“Thank you,” I say, and then, in an attempt to match his relaxed tone, I add, “Martin.”

			He lets go of my hand. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says, without visible emotion, and yet he doesn’t sound insincere. He sounds satisfied, relieved perhaps that I didn’t change my mind.

			“Yes, I’m happy to be here as well.”

			He reaches for my travel bag. “Do you have a trunk that needs to be sent along to the house?”

			I own nothing else and my cheeks warm a degree. “I don’t.”

			But Martin doesn’t seem concerned or amazed that the entirety of my worldly possessions fits into a single travel bag and the handbag I am clutching. “We’ve only a few minutes before the courthouse closes, and they are expecting us.” He speaks the words as though we might merely miss the opening lines of a play if we don’t hurry. We leave the dock and enter the expansive and busy ferry building. We walk through quickly to the street entrance on the other side.

			Delicate wisps of fog are just starting to swirl down upon the city, gauzy as gray silk and so very much like the approach of evening on the northern coast of Ireland. The street bustles with end-of-workday activity. A few automobiles sputter and cough as dozens of horse-drawn carriages and delivery wagons skirt them without much notice or fear. A streetcar full of riders rattles past.

			“I’ve a carriage for us just here.” Martin leads us to an ebony-hued buggy hitched to an even blacker horse that waits curbside. The driver opens the door for me and I step inside. Martin climbs in to sit across from me.

			As the carriage begins to move, he asks if my travel was acceptable.

			“Yes, thank you. It was.”

			He nods.

			“Is Kat waiting for us to return after . . . after our errand?” I ask.

			“Yes.”

			And then, because I must, I ask Martin if he has changed his mind about anything we’d agreed upon in our previous correspondence.

			“I have not,” he replies. “Have you?”

			“No.”

			“Then we’re settled.”

			“Yes.”

			And then, since we are apparently all set, Martin casts his gaze out the carriage window.

			I had expected nervous conversation in the carriage or a string of questions politely thrown in my direction or perhaps a steady stream of information from him about his daughter or maybe even his dead wife. But Martin doesn’t speak as the carriage makes its way to the courthouse. Perhaps he is shy around women? Or maybe he is choosing to mask any nervousness with silence, just as I am. Some minutes later the carriage comes to a stop.

			“You can leave your travel bag,” Martin says as he reaches for the handle. “The driver is going to wait.” Martin steps out and then assists me. The combined courthouse and city hall looms in front of us like an opulent palace, with great columns of carved marble and a sparkling dome that is half-blanketed in light mist and twilight.

			Inside, we walk swiftly through the echoing foyer and toward the offices of the justice of the peace, the heels of my shoes clicking on the marble flooring.

			We enter a courtroom where another civil ceremony appears to have just concluded. The black-robed judge, graying and portly, is shuffling papers behind his tall desk, and at a table next to him a woman in a dark blue dress is showing the newlywed couple’s witnesses where to sign the certificate of marriage. A photographer is taking a portrait of the bride and groom. The bride is wearing a canary yellow shirtwaist, and her new husband a gray suit the color of thunderclouds. The two of them look like sunshine and rain, but they are beaming—joyful and clearly in love. A trio of lilies rests in the crook of the woman’s arm.

			“Next couple, please?” The clerk of the court—a lean, bespectacled man—looks past the freshly married couple to where we stand. “Mr. Hocking and Miss Whelan?”

			“Yes, we’re here.” Martin reaches for my hand and leads me forward to stand in front of the justice’s immense oaken desk.

			“Stand right here,” the clerk says. “If you have rings, get them ready. The judge will address you in just a moment.”

			“Thank you,” Martin replies, without a hint of uneasiness.

			“No witnesses of your own?” the clerk asks in a bored tone.

			“No. It’s just us.”

			The man turns to the woman in the blue dress. “I’ll need you to stay and be a witness for this last one, Mrs. Farriday.”

			The woman nods as she gathers back her fountain pens and the document from the previous two witnesses. The happy couple in yellow and gray walk away arm in arm.

			The photographer turns to Martin. “I’ll take your photograph, as well, if you’d like, sir. I do nice work. Only a dollar for a nice portrait for your mantel. And I’ll set you up for a set of cabinet photographs for giving away. Only two dollars for a dozen.”

			“No, thank you,” Martin replies, not even looking at the man.

			But I want a photograph of my wedding day. I want Mam to see this refined gentleman I am marrying, and how content I look on his arm. I want her to believe it will be different for me this time. I want to believe it, too.

			I touch Martin’s arm. “Please, may we have him take a photograph?”

			Martin swivels to face me.

			“I would like one for my mother. And one for us. Shouldn’t we have one for us? And maybe one for your parents back east?”

			He considers this for several seconds and then turns to the photographer. “We won’t need a dozen. Just two. One for the mantel and one for her mother.”

			Martin hands the photographer the money and gives him an address. He then fishes out of his pants pocket two gold rings. The smaller one is set with a tiny glittering sapphire. He hands the larger one, a plain gold band, to me. It is smooth and warm in my palm.

			And then the clerk is in front of us, telling us the judge is ready. The vows are simple and short. In a matter of mere breaths, it seems, the judge is finished and the rings are exchanged. The judge pronounces us married and then he stands and bids us good night.

			There is no kiss to seal our vows. Our words did that, and the certificate will bear witness that we indeed said them.

			I am led to a long table, handed a fountain pen, and told where to sign my name. Martin signs next, followed by the woman in the blue dress and the clerk. The judge, gone now, has already signed it.

			“All right, then,” the photographer says to us. “If you’ll just turn toward me, folks. Sir, if you’ll just slip one hand into your pocket there.”

			Martin and I stand as directed and the photographer takes the shot in a burst of bright light from his flash lamp.

			The clerk and Mrs. Farriday are leaving by another door, and the photographer is hoisting his camera and flash pole on his shoulder and heading out of the emptying courtroom. I look down at the ring on my finger. Under the amber light of the ceiling lamps, Martin’s little sapphire sparkles like a tiny moonlit ocean.

			Night has fallen soft and ghostly when we emerge from the courthouse. Swaths of denser fog now hug the streetlamps and obscure the sky like a never-ending bridal train. We climb back into the waiting carriage.

			Martin is again quiet as we ride. The silence doesn’t seem to fit the occasion, even one as unusual as ours. I clear my throat. “Thank you for allowing that photographer to take our portrait.”

			Martin turns his gaze from the window to look at me. “You’re welcome.”

			“So . . . are you sure you don’t want to send a photograph back home to your parents as well?” I am wondering if he, like me, is hesitant to inform his family of what he’s just done. When he doesn’t answer me, I add, “I understand if you’re anxious about telling your parents. I . . . I actually feel the same way about telling my mam.”

			He hesitates a moment. “My parents died when I was little,” he finally replies, his tone betraying nothing of what it might’ve felt like to say those words to me. “I was raised by an aunt and uncle back east. We’re not close.”

			My heart instantly aches a little for him. “I’m so sorry.”

			“It’s all right,” he says easily. “I don’t remember my parents.”

			“Still, I’m sure it was very difficult for you losing your parents so young like that. How did it happen?”

			“They were coming home from an event in the city but were caught in a blizzard no one knew was coming. They lost their way and froze to death in their carriage.”

			“Oh, Martin.”

			“That was a long time ago. I don’t think about it anymore.”

			I wonder if this man has spent his whole lifetime telling himself it was just a small thing that he grew up without his mother and father. How does someone school himself to believe losing parents at such a young age doesn’t matter? I can’t imagine it. I lost my father when I was sixteen and it was nearly my undoing. I wait a moment to see if Martin will query me about my own parents.

			“My mam likely won’t approve,” I say when he doesn’t. “I’m not sure what my father would’ve thought.” I turn my head to look out the window. I see only mist and other carriages and the hulking shapes of buildings in the undulating fog. “He probably would’ve said it was imprudent or preposterous, what I’ve just done. My da liked using fancy words. He collected them in a book like some people collect old coins. He wanted to go to university and become a professor, but there was no money for that. He became a roofer just like his father had been. But he taught himself what he could on his own. He was always borrowing books from the rich people in the village who had libraries. He’d read the books out loud to me and my brothers, and he’d find so many words he wanted to remember. He wrote them in a little ledger. He fell from a roof a few years ago. He never woke up from the fall and died a few days later. He was such a gentle soul.” I turn to face Martin, my mouth suddenly agape. I hadn’t intended to share that much with him. I don’t know why I did.

			Martin is studying me, however, with what seems to be intense interest. Something about what I said has drawn me to him an inch or two. And then the moment passes.

			“How unfortunate,” he says.

			We are quiet as his reply, sincere but distanced, settles about us. The clopping of the horse’s hooves outside the carriage is the only sound.

			After a few more minutes the carriage comes to a stop.

			“I’m afraid we will have to walk the rest of the way to the boardinghouse where Kat and I have been staying. The hill here is too steep for carriages and the cable car doesn’t go up this street. San Francisco is like that.”

			“I don’t mind walking.”

			“You can leave your bags inside the cab. We’re coming back to it.”

			We exit the carriage. Ahead of us is a steeply inclined street packed on either side with three- and four-story townhomes, and whose end, if there is one, is concealed in mist.

			We begin to ascend the hill like a seasoned couple who have strolled it a thousand times already.

			“Kat and I have been staying at Mrs. Lewis’s the last four months, and she’s been looking after Kat for me when I’ve been working,” Martin says as we walk. “But I’ve just taken ownership today of my own place. We’ll collect Kat and then make our way there. I need to get back out to my clients, so I want you and Kat to get settled in right away.”

			I had momentarily forgotten that Martin works for a life insurance company on the road, not from a downtown office. “Of course,” I say a second later.

			We pass a few people on the street who nod their “good evenings.” The steady incline is making me short of breath. I fairly whisper my own greeting in return.

			We arrive at a large, four-story structure with forest green windowpanes and trim. Martin withdraws a set of keys from his pocket and slips one into the lock, and we step inside. The foyer opens to a hallway of doors to the first-floor rooms and a staircase to the second floor. Martin raps at the first door on the left.

			The door opens. Mrs. Lewis—gray-haired, matronly, and plump—looks me up and down. Martin apparently told her who it was he was fetching from the ferry terminal and for what purpose. The woman looks deep into my eyes, as if wanting to divine how I became acquainted with Martin when she has never seen me with him. Not once. And yet here I am newly married to the man.

			“This is my wife, Mrs. Lewis,” Martin says. “Sophie, this is Mrs. Lewis.”

			“How do you do,” I say, as confidently as I can.

			“Pleased to meet you.” But Mrs. Lewis is clearly something other than pleased. Flummoxed, perhaps. Baffled.

			The woman turns to call out over her shoulder into the depths of her front room. “Katharine, your father and . . . your father’s here.” She holds out her arm for the child to come. The little girl appears and stops at the woman’s side.

			Kat is wearing a dress of pale blue that is too small for her, and in her arms is a black-haired doll whose porcelain face has a cracked cheek. The child’s tawny eyes, so like her father’s, seem bright and knowing, as though there is great knowledge behind them—impossible, I know, for a child of only five. Kat’s heart-shaped face is framed by straight hair the color of cinnamon. She stares up at me in neither annoyance nor curiosity nor delight.

			“Let’s go, Kat.” Martin motions with his hand for Kat to come. The child moves to stand by her father, but her gaze stays on me.

			“I baked you folks a little wedding cake,” Mrs. Lewis says. “Since you’re not honeymooning or anything.” She reaches behind her to a pedestal table and a small wicker basket covered with a paisley cloth.

			“Thank you, Mrs. Lewis.” Martin takes the basket from her.

			I’m touched. And a little taken aback. A wedding cake? For Martin and me? I don’t feel much like a bride. “Yes, thank you,” I manage. “That’s very kind.”

			“You’re English.” Mrs. Lewis’s gaze is full of questions.

			“Irish.”

			“Oh.”

			The woman seems loath to let me leave, as if there is something else she wants to ask me. Or tell me. But Martin is ushering Kat away from Mrs. Lewis’s door, and as he does so, he introduces his daughter to me.

			“Kat, this is your new mother,” he says, nodding toward me as we turn for the front door.

			Kat, whose gaze has stayed on me, blinks slowly.

			“I’m so very happy to meet you, Kat.”

			The child says nothing.

			“Thank you again, Mrs. Lewis,” Martin calls over his shoulder. “Just add what I owe you to my final bill. Oh, and here are your keys.” He stretches out his arm and the woman takes a step forward.

			Mrs. Lewis looks fondly down at Kat as she takes the key ring. “Good-bye, Katharine. Come back and visit me?”

			The child says not a word as Martin reaches for the doorknob.

			Mrs. Lewis turns her attention back to me. “Please do come back and bring the child for a visit,” she says, her gaze like steel. “Anytime.”

			“Thank you again for the cake,” I reply, unnerved by the woman’s stare.

			Mrs. Lewis only nods and watches us leave. She is still standing at the threshold of the open door as we turn to begin the hill’s descent.

			Her image is lost in a swirl of fog as we walk away.





4


			The carriage will take us as far as the Hyde Street cable-car stop a mile away, Martin explains. As we ride, Martin tells Kat that I’ve come a long way to be her mother and that he expects her to be a good girl for me. He doesn’t want to come home from any of his travels to the news that she hasn’t been on her best behavior.

			“I’m sure we’ll get along fine,” I say reassuringly, very much wanting Kat not to be afraid of me. “There were dozens of tots where I lived back home in Ireland, Kat. I used to help my mam mind some of them for the mothers who worked with their husbands with the nets. I lived in a fishing village.”

			I was thinking Kat might warm to me a little knowing that, but the little girl says nothing. And Martin, who doesn’t seem concerned or surprised that Kat remains silent, says nothing, either.

			Martin pays the driver after we step out of the carriage, and a few minutes later the three of us are boarding a red cable car trimmed in yellow and packed with other riders. Half of its benches are sheltered from the elements and half are open-air with only a brightly painted roof over the seats. A gentleman who’d been sitting offers me his place on a bench that is unprotected from the night air. I take it and then hesitantly pull Kat onto my lap. The child doesn’t object. The cable car begins to climb a long hill, stopping at each leveled block to take on new passengers and let off others. I can’t discern how the car is able to move with no motor or engine and no overhead wires. I ask Martin how this is possible.

			“It runs on the steel rail underneath,” he says disinterestedly. “On a track. There’s a slot between the tracks where an underground cable runs at a continuous speed. The car grabs hold of the cable like a pair of pliers and gets tugged along.”

			“But how does the cable run, then?” I ask.

			Martin is too slow to reply. The man who gave up his seat and is standing near me is charmed by my interest and answers my question.

			“The powerhouse over on Mason does the work,” he says proudly, as if he’d invented the cable car himself. “Large wheels spin the cable all day long with hydroelectric power. Quite an impressive thing, isn’t it?”

			“Yes.” I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it. Such power, so easy to go unnoticed.

			After a few stops, we get off and walk a few more slightly ascending blocks. The homes, some amply spaced apart and with views of the matrix of streets below, are nicely appointed with paned windows that are aglow with electric lights. The people who live in these houses are a world away from the tenement dwellers of the Lower East Side. For a fleeting moment I wonder why Martin didn’t pay the extra money for a sleeping car if he can afford to own a house in this neighborhood.

			“Here it is,” Martin says, as we arrive at a three-story house on Polk Street. It is not as imposing as some of the other homes around it, but it is freshly painted a deep blue with ivory trim. Black ironwork adorns the railings and window boxes. As we walked, Martin told me the house is situated a few blocks from Russian Hill, so that I would know which part of the city we are in. It had lately been the home of a doctor and his wife and their two young sons. The doctor had taken a director’s position at a hospital in Argentina, and he and his family had left with only their personal belongings and a few housewares. Martin had bought the home fully furnished.

			We step inside to a foyer lit by a chandelier of incandescent lights. My bag is set down by several other travel cases and trunks filled with Martin’s and Kat’s belongings from Mrs. Lewis’s, which had been sent over that morning.

			“I’ll take all of those up later,” Martin says, nodding toward the collection of possessions. “I’ll show you the house first.” He begins to show me the place, room by room. Kat trails behind us and I’m fairly sure she’s seeing this house for the first time, too.

			The downstairs consists of a sitting room, dining room, kitchen, and library. In the large kitchen there are hot and cold taps at the sink, an ample icebox, and a cast-iron cooking range piped for gas. There is a butler’s table and chairs with a view of the back garden and a pantry full of odd nonperishables that the doctor did not take and a few staples that Martin arranged to be delivered earlier that day. Next to the pantry is a door to a short staircase that leads down to a low-ceilinged boiler room. The back garden has been bricked in and there are empty terra-cotta pots awaiting attention and a painted wrought-iron garden table and chairs. A long and skinny flower bed, perfect for rows of daffodils, lines the tall wooden fence at the property’s edge. Over the top of the fence, I can see the upper back sides of homes on Van Ness, the next avenue over.

			In the sitting room, upholstered sofas and chairs and ottomans in shades of rose and cream are situated in front of a gas fireplace framed in carved marble. A desk, chair, and matching bookshelves with volumes already tucked inside grace the library. The dining room table and breakfront are of the same warm-hued wood, which Martin tells me is redwood stained to look like cherry. Redwood is as plentiful here in this part of California as water in the ocean. The three upstairs bedrooms are furnished with bedsteads, bureaus, and wardrobes. The water closet on the second floor has indoor plumbing, glory be, and is tiled in black, white, and red. The third floor, with its pitched ceiling, contains two rooms. One is empty and looks as if it had perhaps been used for a maid’s room. The other room was painted along one wall with the images of farm animals. It has the look of a former playroom. Each second-floor room contains a gas fireplace framed with mantels and hearths of marble or onyx, and which Martin turns on with a key before we head back downstairs.

			Though it is not the most spacious home on the street, to me it is a palace. I don’t know how much a house such as this one costs. I can’t help but wonder if Martin has sunk himself in debt to acquire it and that is why I’d not been sent a train ticket for a sleeping car. It is more beautiful than anyplace I could ever have hoped to call home.

			Martin had also arranged for a cold supper to be delivered just before he came to the ferry terminal for me. It had been laid out in the dining room on plain white bone china plates that the doctor’s wife likely thought would not survive passage to Argentina. When Martin is finished showing me the house, we arrange ourselves at the table, choosing chairs that I suppose we will continue to sit in for every supper thereafter—Martin at the head, me on his right, and Kat on his left. Under the cloches are cold roasted chicken, pickled beets, and sweet peppers stuffed with rice and currants and capers.

			No one says anything as we begin to eat.

			“My gram used to make chicken like this,” I say after several long minutes.

			Martin looks up from his plate. Meals for Martin and Kat have likely been very quiet of late. He smiles slightly, and it is not a bona fide invitation to continue but I simply cannot eat an entire meal in silence. I begin to tell Martin and Kat about Ireland. I tell them about Gram’s cottage on the hill, and my own family’s little house closer to the water, and the thousand shades of green on the hillsides and in the fields. I tell them about my favorite dishes that Gram used to make, like smoked eel with apple glaze and cinnamony sweet barmbrack.

			After we finish, we move to the sitting room by the fireplace to eat slices of the little spiced cake Mrs. Lewis made. I tell them how my brothers and I would walk along the harbor wall when we were young, while little waves licked the slippery stones on one side and brightly colored fishing boats pulled on their mooring lines on the other, and that ahead of us would be the lighthouse, tall and as white as snow with its steady, fiery light. I tell them how the bells at the Donaghadee parish church would ring out on Christmas morning and that I never tired of hearing them. I speak of only happy things, the things I miss.

			When the hall clock strikes eight, Martin says it is time for Kat to go to bed.

			“I’ll start bringing up the trunks and bags,” he says, and he starts with Kat’s things, taking them to the first room off the second-floor landing. She and I follow him. The child enters the room almost like a sleepwalker, slow and uncertain.

			“Might I tuck you in, Kat?” I ask.

			Kat hesitates before nodding a wordless consent. Martin leaves to attend to the rest of the luggage.

			The room had been the bedroom of the doctor’s sons; this is obvious by the matching bedcovers adorned with a pattern of toy soldiers and the two rocking horses in the far corner. I am going to have to do something with this room. No five-year-old girl would be at home in it. I help Kat with her buttons and get her into a nightgown, which also seems tight and short. The child needs new clothes; she has grown since her mother’s illness and death, and Martin perhaps has not noticed.

			“I think we need to get a few new frocks for you.” I hang the dress in the closet as well as the half dozen other dresses that are in her trunk—all the same too-small size. At the bottom of the trunk is a photograph in an oval frame of a beautiful woman with golden hair and fair skin, and whose nose is the same shape as Kat’s.

			“Is this your mother?” I pick up the frame to look more closely at the image and then glance at Kat, who is sitting on one of the beds, watching me.

			The child nods and a veil of sadness seems to fall across her face. Oh, how I want this child to talk to me.

			“I know what it is like to miss someone you love.” I come to Kat’s bedside, still holding the frame. “It’s the worst ache in the world. My da had an accident some years back and went to heaven, too. Just like your mother. I miss my father very much.”

			Kat is still looking at me, but the look of sadness has merged with one of slight interest.

			“Perhaps you want to sleep with her photograph under your pillow? It will seem like you’re resting your head in her lap. Would you like to do that?”

			The child nods, climbs into bed, and lies back on the pillow. I slide the frame underneath.

			“Do you say prayers at night?” I ask as I tuck the quilts up under Kat’s chin. It is chilly in the room despite the gas fire throwing an orange glow around the room. The child shakes her head.

			“How about if I say a little one for both of us. Will that be all right?”

			Kat blinks and says nothing.

			“My mam used to say this one with me. Close your eyes, now.”

			Kat obeys.

			I close my eyes, too, and then speak the memorized Anglican prayer from a thousand bedtimes in Donaghadee. “Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people which call upon thee; and grant that we may both perceive and know what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

			When I open my eyes, I can see that Kat’s eyes are already open. She is staring at me, wide-eyed, in what nearly looks like wonder. Unexplainable tears are pricking at my eyes.

			“Good night.” I kiss the child’s forehead and rise from the bed quickly. When I reach to turn out the light, I see Martin standing in the doorway with his arms folded comfortably across his chest as he leans against the frame. He’s been watching.

			“Good night, Kat,” he says, and he steps into the room to turn off the fireplace. I follow Martin to the door and he pulls it shut behind us.

			“Should we not leave the door cracked a little?” I ask. “Might she be afraid of the dark in a new place?”

			“No,” he says simply.

			We head back downstairs. The foyer is now empty of travel bags and trunks. In the sitting room we retake our places, my new husband and I—Martin in an armchair and me across from him on the sofa closest to the fireplace.

			“Watching you with Kat I would’ve guessed you’ve been a mother before,” he says, in an almost complimentary tone. It pierces me nonetheless.

			“I helped my mam mind neighborhood children, like I said earlier.”

			We are quiet for a moment.

			“Kat has outgrown her clothes,” I tell him.

			“We’ll buy her some new things tomorrow.” He glances at the worn shirtwaist and skirt I’m wearing. “I take it you need new clothes, too.”

			“I don’t need much. Just a dress or two.”

			A few more seconds of silence.

			“We’ve a lot to take care of tomorrow. We should turn in.” He reaches for the gas key at the side of the fireplace and turns off the flame. The coziness of the room fades a bit.

			We ascend the stairs. On the second floor, the door is open to the bedroom where my bags are; I can see them by the bedstead. Everything in the room that is visible from where I stand on the landing is cast in a peach radiance from the gas fire that has been turned on to chase away the chill.

			I turn to Martin.

			“Good night,” he says, without any hint at all in his voice that he is displeased with my one condition to marrying him. He’d wanted a façade of a marriage, and that was fine with me. I know what that word means: façade. It’s in my da’s word book. It’s how you describe something that appears to be one thing from a distance but is something else when you look closely. An illusion is what Martin said he wanted and I’d replied I would see to it that he had it, which is why I asked if we might keep separate beds until we developed at least a small degree of affection one for the other. He had—surprisingly—agreed.

			I wish Martin a good night, too. And then I walk to the bedroom next to Kat’s, and he to the one across from it.

			He doesn’t look back at me, not once.





5


			Sleep comes to me in fits and starts my first night as Mrs. Hocking. I awaken every five minutes, it seems. At some point during the night I think I hear Martin moving about and perhaps even the click of the front door latch, but I don’t rise to investigate. I don’t want him thinking I’ve already changed my mind regarding which room I want to sleep in. I haven’t. Martin is stunning and the thought of him taking me to his bed makes my insides ache, but I won’t be giving myself over to a man—body and soul—until I truly know him. I won’t be making the same mistake twice.

			Dawn’s light is spilling onto the floor through a thin opening between window blind and glass when my eyes flutter open at daybreak. San Francisco is not as cold in March as other places I have lived, but there is a distinct chill in the room that reminds me of Donaghadee, and I half expect to catch a whiff of a peat fire and Mam’s hot soda bread wafting up from downstairs.

			I fumble for my gram’s watch pin, which I’d placed on the nightstand next to my bed. Twenty minutes past six. I push back the covers and dress in the shirtwaist and skirt I’ve worn for the past six days, thankful the garment doesn’t smell sour. The only other dress I own is a plain wool frock suitable only for housework. I braid my hair quickly and wind it into a circle at the back of my head. When I open the door, I see that Martin is also up; his bedroom door is open and there is a peep of light downstairs spilling from the sitting room. Kat’s door is still closed.

			I use the water closet and then venture down the staircase. Martin, bent over a writing tablet, sits on a sofa edge. Newspaper pages are strewn over the top of a little table between the sofa and armchair. The nib on the writing pen is making delicate scratching sounds as he works. He is wearing a dark blue suit this morning and his hair is neatly coiffed and his face shaven.

			He looks up when I enter the room.

			“Hello,” he says, in a quiet but congenial tone.

			“Good morning. You are up early.”

			“I’ve never been one to sleep past sunrise.”

			I notice he already has a cup of coffee. “I’ll have to rise a little earlier, then, so I’ll have a kettle on for you.” I had seen the drip pot on the back burner of the range the evening before. My landlady at the tenement had a drip pot like that. I’ve only ever made coffee once, when she was ill and she asked if I would make a pot for her. She’d told me how to pour the hot water from her kettle onto the ground coffee beans in the top of the pot, and I watched as the filtered beverage dripped down through fine mesh into the pot below. She said I could have a sip for my trouble. I didn’t hate it, but I wondered why anyone would prefer it over tea.

			I sit down in the armchair by the fireplace that Martin sat in the night before. He doesn’t ask if I slept well.

			I glance down at the tablet and newspaper but can’t read either one upside down. “Are those working papers? For your job?”

			“Yes. I’m heading out tomorrow.”

			“And how long are you usually gone when you go, if I might ask?”

			“It depends,” he says, casually, easily. “Sometimes two days, sometimes three or four. Occasionally a week.”

			“I see.”

			Several seconds of silence pass between us.

			“You take the train when you travel?” I ask.

			“I’ve purchased an automobile. I keep it garaged south of the pier when I’m not out on the road. I don’t bring it into the city.”

			“An automobile?” I make no effort to cloak my surprise. I know no one who owns an automobile. Not a soul. Will he take me on a ride sometime if I ask him? Isn’t that what people with autos do on lovely Sunday afternoons? I wait for Martin to notice my amazement, but he says nothing.

			A few minutes slide by with the only sounds in the room being those of the ticking of a wall clock and the faint scraping of the nib of his pen.

			“May I ask you a question about Kat?” I say.

			“What about her?”

			“Did she stop speaking straightaway after her mother died? I’m only asking because you are leaving tomorrow and she’ll be alone with me and I want to understand better how to care for her. I don’t want to do the wrong thing while you’re away.”

			Martin caps the pen and sets it down on the table. I fear I’ve said too much, and all while he’d been trying to work. But when he opens his mouth to answer, his tone is calm.

			“Candace was quite ill before she died,” he says. “The more her condition declined, the quieter Kat became, and she’d been a quiet child to begin with.”

			“She must have loved her mother very much.” I watch Martin carefully to see if he will react in a way that will clue me in to his own level of grief. His beautiful face is unreadable.

			“Yes.”

			“And Candace’s parents? Were they of help to you with Kat during this terrible time?”

			“No.”

			He says the word effortlessly, as though it doesn’t pain him to say it. As though he’d not been surprised his in-laws hadn’t helped him and Kat walk that hard road since surely they were traveling it as well. “Whyever not?”

			“We were not on friendly terms.”

			“Why is that?”

			He studies me for a moment, as though he is now watching me carefully, gauging how much he will tell me about the intricacies of his first marriage. “They’d planned for Candace to marry someone of substantial means—someone like them—and instead she married me. That was a disappointment to them.”

			“But . . . but even so, surely they cared about their granddaughter?”

			“Kat has never been an exceptionally sociable creature. Even before she stopped talking, she was a sober child who kept to herself. Her grandparents, the few times they saw her, found that behavior bizarre.”

			“Are you saying they don’t have affection for their own grandchild?”

			“Didn’t.”

			“Didn’t?”

			“Candace’s mother died of pneumonia last year. And I hear her father is not well.”

			Poor Kat. Poor Martin. Poor dead Candace. My heart strangely aches for all three of them. How wounded Martin must be inside, and how hard it must be for him to pretend he isn’t.

			As if he can read my thoughts, Martin gathers up the papers and the tablet and places them in a leather satchel resting at his feet. He closes it in a gesture that seems to bring the gavel down on the conversation. “Why don’t you rouse Kat and we’ll have breakfast?” He rises from the sofa with his satchel in hand and I follow him out of the room. He heads for the library next to the room we have just left. As I pass by the open door, I see him open a drawer in the doctor’s old desk and flip through some papers. He glances up, sees me, and waits for me to continue on up the stairs.

			When I open Kat’s door, she is sitting on her bed, already dressed in a too-tight, too-short dress of pale pink and holding the broken doll against her chest. Her cinnamon-brown hair is a tangled mess from sleep, but her eyes—so very like Martin’s—are bright pools of topaz with not a hint of slumber clinging to them. Has she been awake for a while? Was she able to hear the conversation taking place directly below her on the first floor? It is impossible to tell from the blank expression on the child’s face.

			I reach for the hairbrush that I placed atop the bureau last night, and then I sit down beside Kat on her bed. “Did you sleep all right in your new room, love?”

			She looks at me, her eyes communicating an answer that I can’t decipher.

			“I think today we should buy some new bedcovers for you in a color that you like. Do you have a favorite color?”

			The girl looks down at her lap. I wonder if her gaze is drawn to the hazy pink hue of her dress.

			“Pink, maybe?” I say.

			She nods, and it is almost like hearing her voice.

			“I love that color, too. Would you like one braid or two?”

			Kat slowly holds up two fingers.

			“Two it is, then. Can you turn a bit toward your pillow, love?” She obeys and I put the brush to her head and begin to gently loosen the tangles. “My best friend growing up had hair this color. So very pretty.”

			To fill the silence as I attend to Kat, I ramble on about how my mother used to braid my own hair too tightly and how my midnight blue hair ribbons had been my favorite.

			“There,” I say when the plaits are done. “You look very pretty. And we’re getting some new clothes for you today. Won’t that be a treat? You’re getting so tall. You’ve outgrown all your dresses.”

			Kat looks down at her too-small dress and then raises her head to look at me again. The child looks troubled, as if the thought of parting with the constricting dress she’s wearing is too painful a notion to consider. Perhaps Candace bought the dress for Kat before her illness sent her to her bed for good. Surely she had. Of course she had.

			“You like this dress, don’t you?” I say in a more empathetic tone. Kat says nothing. “It’s very pretty. I can make some clothes for your dolly with the material from this dress if you like.” I point to the doll Kat clutches. “I can make a frock for her just like this one. My gram taught me how to sew. I can make her some pantalets to go with it. Would you like that?”

			Kat gives her assent in one slight nod. I want to pull her into my arms.

			Instead I tell her she can help me make breakfast. We make her bed quickly and then head downstairs.

			It takes me a bit of time to familiarize myself with such a well-equipped kitchen. The meal last night I did nothing to prepare, and Martin wanted to leave the plates to soak overnight, so everything about its appointments is foreign to me. It takes me several tries to light the stove, and then I’m opening cabinets right and left to find a skillet. Martin had boxes of staples delivered, so there are eggs and sausage, but there is no bread to make toast. And no yeast or lard or vinegar. I shall have to make a list. As I find my way around, I decide we will eat at the butler’s table in the kitchen rather than in the formal dining room, and I give Kat the table settings to place at our seats. I am nearly pinching myself again at my fortune, strange as it is, as the room begins to take on the scents of cured meat and fried eggs. It’s been such a long time since I’ve been in a warm, happy kitchen making a meal that is setting my mouth to water. At the tenement there was only the hunk of bread in the morning, the watery soup at the factory cafeteria at noon, and at night, the cold sausages shared among the other young immigrant women I roomed with. There was no table and no conversations around the meal, except for when there was an occasional pilfered bottle of whisky to pass from one to another to another.

			After breakfast, we take Kat to a children’s clothing store in the heart of Union Square, where Kat submits to trying on several ready-to-wear dresses in different colors and styles, some for every day and a few for special occasions, the clerk says, like a party or for churchgoing. I ask Martin if he and Kat attend church.

			“No. But if you wish to go and take Kat with you, I’ve no objections. There are plenty of Catholic churches here.”

			“I’m from the North, remember? I’m . . . Protestant.” I say this with a light laugh, a bit surprised he’s forgotten that. I mentioned it in my letter to him.

			Martins shrugs. “There are plenty of the other kind, too.” He turns to the salesclerk and points to the Sunday-best dress Kat has on. “We’ll take this one as well.”

			It’s odd to me that he doesn’t care if I decide to take Kat to an Anglican service, if I can find one, but empowering, too. He trusts me with her.

			Next we step inside a dressmaker’s, where I am measured and fitted for three new shirtwaists and undergarments.

			We take a streetcar to the Palace Hotel on the corner of Market and Montgomery to have lunch in one of its lovely dining rooms. The multistoried palatial building has an open center entrance that until recently buggies could drive into to unload their passengers. The open court is overlooked by all seven stories and framed with white-columned balconies and decorated with exotic plants, statuary, and fountains. The American Dining Room, with its linen-topped tables and golden high ceilings, has just begun to serve the midday meal when we arrive. We lunch on consommé, duckling croquettes, and endive salad, with glazed peach tarts for dessert. It is the finest meal I’ve ever eaten and it’s a challenge to pretend it is merely an ordinary lunch on a busy day.

			After our meal we make our way to the Emporium to outfit Kat’s new room with proper toys and décor for a little girl.

			On the ten-minute walk to the Emporium—a multilevel department store that carries everything—I see more of the city’s bustling retail area. I take note of a shoe repair shop, a milliner, a stationer’s, a grocer, a bakery, and a hair salon.

			The outside of the immense Emporium is as large as many of the buildings I’d grown used to seeing in New York, taking up nearly a whole city block on Market Street. We take an elevator to the fourth level and walk past displays of sporting goods and bicycles to the children’s toy section. The display cases are laden with dolls and doll carriages, miniature tea sets, train sets, boxes of colored wax crayons, and paints. There are dollhouses and little wooden barns with carved farm animals and books and puzzles and looms and jointed stuffed bears and armies of toy soldiers.

			Kat is drinking in the sight of all those shelves, I can see that, but she makes no move to walk toward any of them. Martin just waits for her to do so. I reach for her hand and lead her to a doll carriage upholstered in robin’s-egg blue fabric, with chrome and rubber wheels and a collapsible hood trimmed in wide white lace.

			“How about if we try out this carriage with your own dolly,” I say, convincing Kat to lay down the doll with the cracked cheek inside the satin-lined bed of the miniature buggy. A glimmer of a smile tugs at Kat’s lips.

			“I’ll find a clerk to help us,” Martin says, and off he goes to find an employee to tally Kat’s choices.

			I help Kat select a second doll so that her first one can have a friend, and some dresses for them and one of the doll-sized tea sets. We choose wooden beads with string and the wax crayons and a tablet of paper, and sets of children’s picture books and three jigsaw puzzles meant for older children, but which Kat is clearly interested in.

			“She likes figuring them out,” Martin says of these, after he returns to us. “She’s good at those. You’ll see.”

			Our last stop is a grocer’s, where I am able to get the things for the kitchen that Martin did not think to buy. Martin arranges for all our purchases to be delivered to the house. The day has been a stretch of satisfying hours so foreign it is almost as if I am watching another person’s day unfold. We leave the grocer’s and walk to the cable-car stop.

			“Kat is tired,” Martin says, as the cable car clacks to a stop and people start getting off and on. “And all those deliveries are coming. You need to be there to receive them. Here you go.” He lifts Kat onto the open car and then holds out his arm so that I can board. I turn to face him once I’m standing on the car’s polished floorboards. Martin’s arm is outstretched; he is handing me the key to the house. Our house. I encircle my gloved hand around it.

			“I’ve got details to see to before I leave tomorrow. I’ll be home later,” he says.

			I nod, draw Kat toward me, and take a seat on one of the benches. The car clangs as it grasps the cable deep in the slot, and we begin to move forward and up. Martin turns from us and walks away. I watch him until he is gone from view.

			Back at the house, Kat and I explore all the cupboards and closets, discovering a great many things the doctor and his family decided to leave behind. The china cabinet still holds a good supply of dishes and glassware, and the linens closet is half-full. I imagine the doctor’s wife had to choose just her most favorite items to take, perhaps only those things that had been given to them as wedding gifts. I wonder if Candace was given beautiful linens and dishes when she married Martin, and if she was, where are they? Did Martin abandon everything that was theirs when she died? Did he sell them to pay for the move from Los Angeles to San Francisco? I wonder how long it will be before I can ask him a personal question like that.

			In the boys’ room I take off the toy soldier bed linens as we await the delivery of the new pink bedcover and linens we purchased at the Emporium.

			“Do you want that extra bed in here?” I ask Kat, who is silently watching me. Kat looks at the second bed and then back at me. She slowly shakes her head.

			“That’s what I would do, too. You’ll have more room for your new doll carriage in here if we dismantle it and take it upstairs. Shall we?”

			With minimal help from Kat, I drag the frame, the posts, and finally the mattress upstairs to the empty maid’s room and lean them up against one of walls. We head back downstairs, and I make tea for us—sugar tea for Kat like my gram used to make—and we sip our drinks as we await the first of the deliveries and also Martin’s return.

			The groceries arrive first, then the Emporium goods, and then the undergarments and corsets and hosiery from the ladies’ clothing store. The new clothes for Kat arrive last.

			Dusk begins to fall and I am anxious for Martin’s return. I set about turning on the electric lights in the house, and then the gas fireplace in the sitting room, as the day’s warmth is leaving the house. As we wait, Kat and I sit by the fire and work on one of the puzzles she chose—a tableau of sketched butterflies of every shape and color. When darkness falls completely and Martin is still not home, I light the stove and place pork cutlets that I rubbed with butter and dried sage into a roasting pan alongside potatoes and carrots so that supper will be ready when he finally returns.

			But he is still gone when the food is ready, and Kat is yawning. I fix her a plate, which she eats, and then I take her upstairs and draw her a warm bath, all the while expecting to hear Martin’s footfalls on the stairs. But I don’t. After her bath, I tuck Kat into bed.

			I kiss her good night and close her door nearly all the way, but not quite, despite what Martin said the previous night.

			Back downstairs I don’t know what else to do but sit in the dining room with our now-cold meal and wait.

			When Martin finally arrives home, it is after nine o’clock and I have fallen asleep at the dining room table, slouched in my chair with my chin at my chest. I awaken to his touch on my arm as he says my name. I startle, nearly knocking over a goblet of water. Martin catches it. Relief mixed with anger races about inside me as Martin sits down in front of his cold supper.

			“Where were you?” I say. “I was worried.”

			“I told you,” he answers calmly. “I had details to take care of.”

			“But . . . you were gone so long.”

			“There were a lot of details.”

			He doesn’t sound angry or defensive or even conciliatory. I can’t name the tone with which Martin is answering me.

			“I was concerned. I didn’t know . . . I didn’t . . .” My voice drops away as the right words don’t come.

			“Did you need something while I was out? Did all the deliveries arrive? Was anything amiss?”

			“No. Everything is fine. Everything arrived. I put it all away. I made supper. I fed Kat and I put her to bed. And I waited for you.”

			“Then what is wrong?”

			He is looking at me with those eyes that still nearly take my breath away.

			“Your supper is cold.”

			“It’s easy enough to warm up, isn’t it?”

			I stand to take our plates. Martin bends down to retrieve a newspaper from the satchel he placed by his chair leg.

			Martin works as he eats, and I wonder if this is how he was with Candace the night before he left for a spell on the road, absorbed in his preparations. How did Candace sit through a meal like this one with their daughter already in bed and the scraping of tines on plates, the scratching of Martin’s pencil, and the rustling of a newspaper being the only sounds at the dinner table?

			After five minutes of watching him work and eat, I break the silence.

			“The pork tastes good, I trust?”

			He looks up briefly, chewing a bite. “It does.”

			His tone is sincere, but the next second he is back to his work.

			I hesitate only a moment. “May I ask you a question?”

			“What is it?”

			“It’s about Candace. If you don’t mind.”

			I thought he might glance up at the mention of his first wife’s name, but he does not. “Yes?”

			“Was it . . . was it hard for her when you were out on the road so much? Was this kind of life one that she got used to rather quickly?”

			He looks up. “This wasn’t the kind of life we had.”

			“No?”

			“I didn’t work for an insurance company in Los Angeles. I worked at a riding club.”

			“A riding club? Do you mean . . . with horses?”

			His gaze is back on his work. “Yes.”

			He doesn’t seem the barnyard type. Not at all. “Were you raised around horses?”

			Martin answers without looking at me. “No. I worked as a ranch hand in Colorado when I was younger. I met a man while I was traveling west who saw I needed someone to teach me a skill. I stayed at his ranch for a few years, learning to ride and care for horses, break them, and herd cattle with them.”

			“Oh. And then . . . then how did you come to California?”

			“When that man died, he left me a little money in his will, and I decided to come out to the West Coast. I got a job at a riding club in Los Angeles where highbrow families send their daughters to learn to ride.”

			“And that’s where you met Candace.”

			“Yes.”

			“But then how did you switch to working for a life insurance company?”

			He pauses and I wonder if he is annoyed I am asking so many questions. But then he answers me. “One of the men who brought his children to the club for lessons sold insurance. He liked to talk, especially when he was doing well at his job. I knew I didn’t want to work in a stable the rest of my life, so I listened.”

			“And now you sell insurance, too?”

			“I assess risk for potential clients.”

			“Oh.”

			“I must get back to work here.”

			We eat the rest of our supper in silence.

			When Martin is finished, he stands and thanks me for the meal. “Good night.” He gathers his papers and leaves the room.

			I watch him cross the foyer, enter the library, and close the door. I catch the merest whiff of women’s cologne on him as he walks past me. It is so faint I question whether I detected it at all after he is gone.



* * *



			• • •

			I awaken the next day before daybreak. While the house is still quiet, I dress and make my way downstairs. I find it easier to strike the match and put my hand inside the stove to light it. I prepare the coffee and set about making cinnamon scones. As I’m rolling out the dough, I’m joined by Kat, inexplicably dressed in her old, too-tight pink dress. She quietly helps me cut the dough into triangles and then place them onto a baking sheet. I soft-boil some eggs and fry a rasher of bacon. I ask Kat if she’d like to set the small table there in the kitchen by the back garden window, and she does so without a word.

			I am just pulling the baking tray out of the oven a few minutes before seven when Martin appears in the kitchen, shaved, dressed, and clearly ready to be off. He is wearing a heather gray suit that he looks particularly striking in.

			Martin sets down his satchel, grabs a coffee cup, and reaches for the drip pot.

			“You have time to eat something before you go, don’t you?” I ask.

			“You can wrap up one of your biscuits for me.” He takes a gulp of coffee.

			“They are scones, and if that’s all you want, I can do that.”

			“I need to be on my way.” He sets his cup down and reaches into his suit pocket, pulling out a few dollar bills. He places them on the countertop. “Here’s some money if you need anything while I am gone.”

			Martin takes another swallow of coffee.

			“I’m off,” he says. “It will take a little while to get to the automobile and then out of the city. Even on a Sunday.”

			I follow him into the foyer and Kat trails behind me. “And if I should need to reach you, is there an office or person I should ring up who will know where you are?”

			He is shrugging on his coat. “We don’t check in with the office when we’re out.”

			“But what if something should happen?”

			“Like what?”

			I blink back my surprise. “What if . . . what if Kat should get sick or the house catches fire or I fall and break my leg?”

			Martin smiles easily. “I am confident in your abilities to see to any circumstance, Sophie. And what could I do from miles away if any of those events should occur?” He turns to get his hat off its hook on the hall tree, setting it on his head as he reaches for a packed valise on the floor. “I should be home in four days, maybe five. Be a good girl, Kat.”

			He doesn’t seem to notice Kat is wearing one of her old dresses, or he doesn’t care. Or maybe he believes I am better suited to getting Kat to relinquish the dress and therefore it is better if he says nothing.

			Martin turns to me. If we were a normal husband and wife, he’d lean in at this moment to kiss me good-bye. But we are not a normal husband and wife.

			He looks eager to go, as though he is about to embark on an adventure that he is keen to begin. Perhaps this is another way he deals with his losses: by looking to the open road and the beckoning horizon as an escape from the reminders of all that has been taken from him.

			“Have a good trip,” I tell him.

			Martin opens the front door and steps out into the cool mist of a quiet Sunday morning.





6


			 				March 30, 1905

				Dearest Mam,

				You’re surely wondering about the return address on the envelope that brought this letter to you. I have married a man who lives in San Francisco. His name is Martin Hocking and he’s the one pictured with me in the enclosed photograph. Martin is a widower with a little girl named Katharine. She’s five years old and we call her Kat. I hope to send a photograph of her to you sometime soon.

				It truly doesn’t matter how I met Martin; I will just say that our paths crossed at the right time for both of us. I know you thought I could begin a new life for myself in New York, and I appreciate so very much everything you did to get me to America, but I couldn’t stay in Manhattan any longer, for many reasons. It was no place where you’d want me to be, Mam, and all that you truly wanted for me, I now have. Martin makes a good living, he has a beautiful house here in the city, and I lack nothing. I even have my own bedroom, which is what I wanted, and he did not object. I think he still grieves his first wife’s passing. He doesn’t talk much about her, and I’m glad he doesn’t. He travels most days for his job; he works for an insurance company.

				I wouldn’t say that Martin and I are good friends yet, but I think we could be someday. What Martin and I do have in common, aside from old wounds, is our wanting to provide a good home for sweet Kat. She has taken the death of her mother so very hard. The wee thing doesn’t speak more than a word or two. I can see the pain of her loss in the way she looks at me, at everything. It is my hope that in time, the ache of her grief will lessen and she will want to again hear her own voice.

				Kat and I find things to do while Martin’s away and when it’s not cold and rainy. There are many parks here, and a library and shops. The ocean is nearby and I can always get fresh fish. Occasionally the earth trembles here in San Francisco. There was a shuddering just a few days ago that lasted only seconds, and yet alarmed me greatly. But Martin assured me it is the nature of the earth to correct itself from time to time. This is how it does it. I will get used to the quaking, he said. Everyone who lives in San Francisco does. I’m sure he is right.

				There is a lady who lives across the street with a baby. I have seen her coming in and out of her house and I hope to meet her soon. The other people who live on our street are older and are cordial enough when we pass one another on walks. They seem a bit wary of me and I mentioned this to Martin. He said people here are wary of all immigrants. We live not too far from Chinatown, which I don’t visit, but when we are downtown I see the way some people glower at the Chinese men with their long braids trailing down their backs.

				I think I can be happy here in San Francisco and I don’t want you to worry. Martin is a rather private person but it’s possible that in time affection may grow between us, and as you know, I am in no hurry. If you hear from Mason, please tell him I do not hold it against him that he left me in New York like he did. It was hard after he left, but I’m happy now being Kat’s mother, especially since she will likely be the only child I will ever be a mother to.

				Give my love to the brothers and their wives and all the wee ones. I miss you and think of you often and I’m so very glad you let me take Da’s old word book with me. I know how much you loved it. Every morning I peek inside and choose a word for the day. Today I chose the word renaissance. It means to be reborn. That’s how I feel, Mam. I finally feel like I’ve been given a chance to start over.

				I’ve often wished I could turn back time and do things differently, but maybe it’s better to start anew than to go back in time and hope you have the courage and wisdom to make different choices.

				Please be happy for me, Mam . . .



			Kat and I return from posting my overdue letter to my mother—one that I’d rewritten half a dozen times—just as a steady rain begins to fall. That we had to venture out under threat of showers was because I had no postage stamps and Martin keeps the desk in the library locked. I know this because I have tried its drawer pulls before—not to pry but because the days are long when Martin is away and there was a day when I thought Kat and I might pay a visit to Mrs. Lewis, since she made it clear to me she wants us to, but I didn’t know how to find her place again. I had hoped to come across her address in Martin’s papers, but the desk was locked. On another day I’d wanted to use one of Martin’s fountain pens, as mine had run out of ink, and the desk was locked. At the time, I’d sat back in the chair wondering why Martin felt the need to lock every drawer in the desk when he was away. If he keeps money inside I could see where he might secure that one drawer, but all of them? It seems he doesn’t want the contents of the desk safe as much as he wants them secret. What could he have in the drawers besides files for his job, ledgers maybe, a bank book or two?

			I had asked him about the desk when he was home again, told him I’d needed to use a fountain pen while he was gone because I had no ink for mine, but instead of seeing it as a problem of access he told me I didn’t need approval from him for every little purchase. If I needed ink, he trusted me to use the money he gave me to go to the stationer’s to buy whatever kind of ink I wanted.

			Today when I realized I needed a stamp to at last post the letter to Mam, I again tried the desk, on the off chance there were stamps inside and he had left it unlocked. He hadn’t, and Kat and I ambled down to the post office under the grayest of gray skies.

			I suppose Martin’s wanting to have his desk all to himself is just how some men are with their desks. I wouldn’t know. Da didn’t have one.

			In any case, we are back from our postal mission and are taking off our wraps when I notice a small envelope that was dropped through our mail slot and is now resting on the entry rug. Kat actually sees it first. She is at last wearing her new clothes after my telling her I would make dresses for her dolls from her old, too-small frocks. She bends to pick up the envelope and the crinolines under her skirt sound like they’re whispering, What’s this?

			“Why don’t you open it up, love, and we’ll see who it’s from.” I hang up our capes and watch as Kat carefully opens the letter, sealed with just a bit of wax and a monogrammed letter E. She unfolds the single sheet of paper inside and hands it to me. At the top of the paper is the name Elizabeth Reynolds in embossed ink that shimmers like bronze. I read the note aloud.

			“My dear Mrs. Hocking, If you are receiving guests, Timmy and I would very much like to stop by this afternoon at half past two to welcome you to the neighborhood. We shan’t stay long! If it’s an inopportune time, just send a note over to the house directly across the street from you and we will look to schedule another day. Cordially yours, Libby Reynolds.”

			I look down at Kat. “Are we receiving guests?” I ask her, unable to rein in the smile breaking across my face. Finally meeting the woman across the street after living in this house for nearly a month is too delightful a thought.

			Kat just blinks up at me.

			“We’re going to have company, love!”

			For the next hour I go from room to room making sure there are no cobwebs, no dull tabletops, no dusty surfaces. I have little to do all day but keep house and entertain Kat, so the house is clean, but I scurry about the rooms with a feather duster anyway. A few minutes before half past, I put a kettle on low, hoping Mrs. Libby Reynolds can be persuaded to stay for tea, and then I straighten Kat’s hair ribbons and smooth back the hair from my face.

			I am thinking we probably shouldn’t hover at the door. I turn to Kat. “How about we look at some books while we wait for the lady across the street, hmm?”

			We settle in the sitting room with our books and wait. Kat, like me, keeps an alert ear for steps on the stoop. The bell rings and I force myself to rise slowly like a lady who is receiving guests. Kat gets to her feet, too.

			“Ready?” I ask her, and she nods.

			We head to the door and I open it wide. The skies have cleared a bit and the street and every leaf on every tree are glistening.

			The woman from across the street is standing there in a beautiful pea green shirtwaist with cream trim, with her little boy resting on one hip. In her other hand she holds a plate with a linen napkin over the top. Her eyes widen slightly, as if she’s surprised Kat and I are at home.

			“Hello,” I say in the most cultured way I can muster, but I sound just like I always do.

			She seems to recover from whatever it is that surprised her.

			“Hello, I’m Libby Reynolds,” she says cheerfully. “And this is Timmy. We’ve been wanting to welcome you and your husband to the neighborhood, and here I finally send a note to you and the weather nearly kept us from meeting. I’m so glad the rain stopped.”

			She’s a bit shorter than me, rounder, with honey blond hair, full lips, and wide straight teeth. Her little boy looks to be a year or so.

			“And I’m Sophie Hocking. Please, won’t you come in?”

			“If it’s not an inconvenience?” she says politely.

			“Not at all.”

			She steps inside and I close the door.

			“How strange and wonderful it is to still see Mrs. Kincheloe’s furnishings!” Libby says, looking all around the foyer at the hall tree, the chandelier, the Oriental rug at our feet, the little table by the stairs where I put the day’s mail.

			“Mrs. Kincheloe?” I say.

			“The doctor’s wife. This was her house.”

			“Yes. Yes, of course.” I lead us into the sitting room. “Won’t you have a seat?” I gesture to one of the sofas. Libby sits down and positions her son on her lap. I sit across from them in an armchair and Kat retreats to her book on the floor by the hearth.

			“From your accent I would guess you’re not from around here,” Libby says congenially.

			“No. I’m from Ireland originally. The North.”

			“And this is your little girl?” She nods to Kat, seated on the rug near my feet.

			“Um. Yes. This is Kat.”

			“Kat?” Libby grins.

			“It’s short for Katharine.”

			Libby looks down at Kat. “What a pretty thing you are. And how old are you, Kat?”

			Kat stares at the woman for a moment and gazes up at me.

			“She’ll be six in June,” I say quickly.

			Libby raises her head slowly, understanding, it seems, that something is a bit amiss with Kat. “Well,” she continues. “It’s a pleasure to welcome you. You and I are the only young mothers on the block! I was sad to hear Dr. Kincheloe had taken that fancy job in Argentina. His wife, Margaret, was a dear, always willing to take in Timmy if Chester had a nighttime function that I was suddenly expected to attend. My husband’s the assistant headmaster of a private academy and they’re always putting on plays and concerts. And I’ll miss those two little Kincheloe boys, too. Timmy loved watching them run and play. It was quite a nice surprise to see you and your husband moving in and that you have a little girl. Is she your only one?”

			“Y-yes,” I answer clumsily.

			“And where did you move from? Somewhere else here in the city?”

			Again, I stumble over my answer. “Ah, well . . . My . . . my husband had been working in Los Angeles and then . . . ah, he came up here to begin a new job.”

			Libby stares at me with curious eyes. Answers to easy questions like these should fly off my tongue.

			“How nice,” Libby says. “And what is your husband’s job?”

			Finally, an uncomplicated question. “He does work for an insurance company. On the road, though. Assessing risk.”

			“I have a cousin who sells life insurance. In Portland,” Libby says. “Which insurance company does your husband work for?”

			My face warms with embarrassment. I haven’t asked Martin the name of the company he works for. I haven’t cared. And until Libby asked this question I hadn’t considered that maybe I should care. Martin had said it is important for prospective clients to see him as a fortunate family man—because no wealthy man wants to be confronted with the actual proof that tragedy could befall him, not even when buying insurance, which is why he sent for me. But in the month I’ve been married to Martin, I’ve not met one client, not answered one work-related telephone call—the thing never rings—nor have I taken in any mail related to Martin’s employer. I can’t even look for an envelope and guess who my husband works for.

			Libby is waiting for my answer. “He . . . that is, it’s a new job and I’m not . . . I don’t . . .” My voice falls away.

			Libby cocks her head in a gesture of concern. “Is everything quite all right, Mrs. Hocking?”

			Here is a question with such a bizarre answer, I can’t help myself. “That might depend on how you look at it,” I say with a laugh, and then immediately wish I could snatch the words back.

			My neighbor’s eyes widen in alarm. “Is your husband involved in some kind of illegal activity?” she whispers.

			“No!” I gasp. “No. It’s not that. It’s . . .” Again, I let the words die on my tongue.

			Libby regards me for a moment, and then she leans forward and lifts the cloth off the plate resting on the table between us. Lovely petits fours are arranged like little bud-topped houses. “I say we have something sweet and a cup of tea and a long chat. Shall we ring for it?”

			Ring for it?

			Libby looks behind her, as if expecting someone to enter the room. She swings back around to face me. “Does your maid have the day off today?”

			My maid. This is why Libby looked so surprised when I answered the door. She expected my maid to do it. Never did I think I’d be getting a maid when I married Martin Hocking, and apparently he didn’t think so, either. He’s never spoken of it.

			“We haven’t hired one,” I say, as delicately as I can.

			Libby stands, hoists her son to one side, and grabs the plate. “It’s hard coming to a new place and not knowing anyone. I know people who know where to find a good maid. I can ask for you. Here. You and I can make the tea, can’t we?”

			I want to tell her I make it all the time. I want to tell her I don’t think I want someone else keeping this house. Besides Kat, it’s the only thing I have that feels like it belongs to me.

			“Of . . . of course. Right this way.” I lead her to the kitchen, where the kettle is already simmering. She smiles at me.

			“Well, look there, thinking ahead like that. You’ve already got the water going!” Then Libby asks if Timmy can play with some pots, pans, and wooden spoons so that he won’t grow fussy. I ask Kat to find the makeshift playthings and she readily complies, sitting down on the floor with Timmy as he bangs away on a copper pot. Libby leans up against the pie safe and crosses her arms across her chest. I turn up the heat under the kettle.

			“Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your husband’s name?” she asks.

			“Martin.” I pull a tin of tea out of the cupboard.

			“And he’s from Los Angeles?”

			“Not exactly. He’s originally from back east but he came to Los Angeles a few years back.”

			“So you met him in Los Angeles, then?”

			I am either going to tell my new friend the truth or I’ll have to concoct a mountain of lies that I will forever have to remember. The truth will probably come out eventually, won’t it? Maybe it makes sense to watch what it’s like for someone to hear what I’ve done. Then I’ll know if mine is a story that other people can listen to and not judge me a fool after hearing it. The only other option is to fib.

			I glance down at Kat, who at this same moment looks up at me. Kat is aware enough of the truth. I don’t want to lie in front of this little girl who is just beginning to trust me. I want Kat’s trust more than I want Libby’s friendship, and I know I always will. I turn my attention back to Libby as I set the tin on the countertop.

			“I didn’t meet Martin in Los Angeles. I met him here in San Francisco a month ago. At the ferry terminal.”

			“You met him a month ago?” Libby echoes, her eyes wide.

			“And then a few minutes after I met him, I went to the courthouse and married him.”

			For a second Libby says nothing.

			“Did he make you do this?” she asks a moment later, with obvious alarm.

			“No. He didn’t make me, he asked me. In a letter, a few weeks before. And I said yes.”

			“But . . . but you had never met him!”

			“No. Not in person.”

			“Good gracious! Why would you do that?”

			The kettle starts to whistle and I turn off the flame. As I make the tea and then carry it to the little table, I tell her the barest minimum about having immigrated to America. I tell her about the horrible job and tenement in New York, and that I had seen Martin’s advertisement and had been very keen on having a new life and a child, because doctors in Belfast had told me I’d never have children of my own. As we begin to sip from our cups and share the little cakes with the children, I tell Libby that Martin has his own list of woes, with a tragic upbringing, in-laws who did not approve of him, and a sick wife whose wasting disease had stolen her from him and left him a widower with a five-year-old daughter.

			“One of my brothers was already here in America when I came. Mason had written me that there were jobs in New York. But I had only been in Manhattan for four months when Mason fell in love with a woman from Montreal, and he moved to Canada to marry her. I thought maybe he would ask me to come with him, so that maybe I could rent a little corner of his home with his new wife, but he didn’t ask. I had to find my own place. It wasn’t the best situation. It was awful. And then one day, I read Martin’s advertisement. I answered it.”

			“I’ll be damned,” Libby murmurs, and then quickly adds, “Beg your pardon. I just . . . I’ve never heard such a story.”

			I smile lightly. “Nor I.”

			Libby fingers the delicate handle on her teacup, her brows knitted. Then she looks up. “So. Is Martin . . . kind to you?”

			I know what she means. It’s the language of women, I suppose.

			“He’s been a gentleman. In every sense of the word.”

			Libby can tell my answer means something different than what those simple words suggest.

			“Are you saying the two of you haven’t . . .” Her voice drops away as her face flushes.

			“We both feel strongly now is not the time for that,” I say, which is not exactly the truth. I don’t know what Martin would have done if I’d said nothing about wanting my own bed in my own room, but I barrel on. “I think he still misses his first wife. She was sick for a long while, but she’s only been gone five months.”

			“Yes, but . . . but then why did he marry again? Why did he not just hire a nanny for the child, if that’s all he wants?”

			“It’s not all he wants. He needs to maintain his image and how potential clients look at him and his employer. He needs to look successful, not tragic. He told me people purchase insurance in case something terrible happens, but they don’t want to see the evidence that it can. He needed to look fortunate. Smiled on by Providence. So he needed a wife.”

			Libby ponders this for a moment. I can tell there is so much more she wants to ask me, but it’s highly improper, I’m supposing, to discuss what we’re discussing. In front of children, no less. She takes another long and thoughtful sip of her tea and then sets the cup back on its saucer. She glances down at Kat and then back at me. “The child’s not said a word the whole time I’ve been here,” she whispers.

			I know Kat surely heard the softly spoken remark.

			“Kat may be quiet, but she’s also smart and strong and brave, and she misses her mother very much. I know she is thinking about what she wants to say, and when she’s ready, she’ll say it.”

			Clarity falls across Libby’s face as she realizes those words were for Kat’s ears. She looks from Kat to me with a mix of chagrin and a bit of admiration.

			“She’s very lucky to have you,” Libby says.

			“As I am lucky to have her.”

			Timmy, tiring of the pots and pans, toddles now toward the pantry.

			“Well! We’d best be off. He’ll be needing a nap.” Libby gets up out of her chair to fetch her little boy, and I can’t help but think she is ready to go home for other reasons. I am not like Libby’s former neighbor, the doctor’s wife. Not by any stretch. Libby and I are not the same kind of wife and mother.

			“Must you go?” I ask.

			“We’ve outstayed our welcome, surely.” Libby scoops up her son. “And he truly does need his naptime.”

			We begin to make our way out of the kitchen, Kat following. “I’m so glad you came,” I say, in a bright-toned attempt to recapture the hopes I’d had for our meeting. “And thank you for the sweets.”

			“My pleasure,” Libby says politely. “Just bring me the plate when you’re through.”

			I like the thought of there being a reason to walk across the street and ring the bell at Libby’s house on another day. “Certainly.”

			I swing the front door open and Libby turns around before stepping across the threshold. “If you need anything, anything at all, do come right on over.” Her gaze is tight on me.

			“I will, thank you,” I reply, deflecting the concern. I don’t want Libby thinking of me that way, as a troubled woman who’s made a bad decision and who might need an escape route someday. “And please do the same if you should need anything. I would be happy to watch little Timmy if you ever need me to.”

			Libby offers a noncommittal smile, perhaps wondering, what would I know about taking care of babies when I’ve only been a mother to a five-year-old, and for less than a month? I watch as Libby, with Timmy in her arms, crosses the street and enters her own house—a large brick structure on a sloped, landscaped lot—before closing my front door.

			I look down at Kat standing next to me.

			“That was nice, wasn’t it? Making new friends?”

			Kat says nothing, but she is close enough to me to lay her head against my hip for a moment, as if to say the experience had been exhausting.





7


			Not long after Libby’s visit, Martin arrives home from several days on the road. He looks tired, out of sorts, and I ask him if he is feeling well. What should come across as simple concern from a spouse seems meddling somehow. He tells me in a clipped tone that he is fine.

			I don’t need to be told twice to mind my own affairs.

			I make us a supper of roast beef and roasted turnips and carrots and serve the last of Libby’s petits fours for dessert.

			“Kat and I had company on Thursday,” I say as I place two little cakes on a plate in front of Martin.

			I tell him about meeting Libby and Timmy and that she brought the sweets and we had tea together. I wait to see if he will ask what Libby and I talked about. He does not.

			Martin either doesn’t care that I might’ve told the neighbor across the street how very strange our marriage is, or perhaps he assumes I would never divulge our personal business to a person I’d only just met. This thought makes me chuckle out loud because, of course, I’d married someone I’d only just met.

			He looks up at me when I laugh.

			“I just thought of something funny.” He doesn’t ask what it is. “She’s very nice,” I continue. “Perhaps we can invite her and her husband over for supper sometime?”

			Martin swallows the bit of cake he has in his mouth. “I don’t want you making plans for me when I’m not here to discuss them with you.” The clipped tone from before is gone. He says this without a hint of anger. But with no kindness, either.

			“I didn’t suggest that to her. I am suggesting it to you now. I haven’t planned anything.”

			My husband wipes his mouth with his napkin. “No.” His voice is calm.

			“No, we can’t invite them over for dinner sometime?”

			“I don’t want to entertain guests during the little time I have here at the house.”

			He rises from his chair and heads to the library to work, as he does every night he is home. When it’s time for Kat to go to bed, I bring her into the library so that he can wish her sweet dreams. He does so with his head bent over papers.

			As I take Kat upstairs, I tell her that sometimes when fathers are unhappy they keep all their feelings wedged deep inside so that they don’t have to talk about why they are sad. I figure she will understand that. When I tuck her under t