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Authors: Kathy Lynn Emerson

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Fatal as a Fallen Woman

BOOK: Fatal as a Fallen Woman
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FATAL AS A FALLEN WOMAN

 

A Diana Spaulding Mystery

 

 

Kathy Lynn Emerson

 

Chapter One

 

April, 1888

 

The contents of the lodgers' rooms at Mrs. Curran's boarding house on Tenth Street in Manhattan were simple—a narrow brass bedstead, a washstand with all the standard furnishings, and a small, comfortable chair flanked by a pie-shaped table surmounted by an oil lamp. Diana Spaulding had filled the remaining space with a Saratoga trunk, a large Gladstone bag, a crocodile-skin gripsack, the capacious tweed bag she sometimes slung over her shoulder for ease in carrying, and assorted boxes.

"Cart ahead of the horse," she muttered as she surveyed the chaos. She should not begin to pack her belongings until
after
she mailed the letter accepting Ben Northcote's proposal of marriage.

Diana could feel a smile blossom on her face at the thought of Ben. They'd had such a whirlwind courtship, filled with so many extraordinary events, that at first she'd been afraid to trust the strength of her feelings for him. She'd made the mistake of marrying in haste once before and had lived to regret it. Life with Evan Spaulding had consisted of soaring highs and dizzying descents into misery and had quite literally brought her to the brink of ruin.

This time would be different, Diana thought as she reread the brief missive one last time, then folded the single sheet of paper and tucked it into an envelope on which she'd already written "Dr. Benjamin Northcote, Bangor, Maine." Like Evan, Ben was charismatic. Like Evan, he was handsome. Six feet tall, dark of hair and eyes and superbly well coordinated and fit, Ben had a deep, resonant voice and a face sculpted by a master. But it had been his gentleness that had won Diana—his kindness. Ben was a man to whom hearth and home mattered more than fame or fortune. He loved his family above everything, and a fortnight earlier he had asked her to become a permanent part of that intimate circle.

She had not given him an answer at the time. She'd felt she needed to take a step back, to think. And so she'd left him in Bangor and returned to New York City. Since then she'd examined both her mind and her heart and realized that her love for Ben was no passing fancy, no enchantment, no foolish young woman's misguided romantic daydream. What she felt was real and lasting.

He'd never shared her doubts. She smiled again as she remembered how he'd looked on that most memorable of days. Weary but confident, his eyes full of love for her, he'd made her a promise:
If you haven't returned by the end of April, I'll come to you.

Each day's mail had brought a new declaration of devotion until finally, yesterday, she'd made her decision and resigned her position as a journalist at the
Independent Intelligencer
. Last night she'd composed the most important piece of writing of her life. This morning she had only to take that letter to the post office and send it on its way north. She'd spend a day or two saying goodbye to a few old friends and shopping for a gown in which to be married. If all went well, she'd be ready to depart by the end of the week.

Humming softly, Diana tucked the letter into her skirt pocket. The latest spring fashions were on sale at Redfern Ladies' Tailor on Fifth Avenue and in the shops on West Twenty-third Street—Best and Company and nearby Stern Brothers, who'd advertised newly arrived imported walking dresses. She did not have a great deal of money to spend on clothing, but she wanted something special for her wedding to Ben. When she'd eloped with Evan, she'd been wearing a white dotted Swiss dress, the most bland of schoolgirl frocks.

She grimaced at her reflection in the mirror above the washstand as she released and recoiled thick, mahogany-colored hair. With a few deft movements, she shaped it into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She'd just added a small green hat with feathers when someone rapped at her door.

"That man is here again," Mrs. Curran called.

In an involuntary movement, Diana's hand clutched the cameo broach she wore at her throat, a gift from Ben. The scalloped edges of the gold setting bit into her palm. "That man," to Mrs. Curran, meant only one person—Horatio Foxe, editor and publisher of the
Independent Intelligencer
and Diana's former employer.

"I've put him in the small parlor," Mrs. Curran added, making Diana chuckle in spite of her sudden anxiety. Her landlady would have shown a valued guest into the more formal drawing room. She hadn't forgiven Foxe for all the trouble he'd caused Diana with unauthorized additions to her column. In a quest to boost the newspaper's
sagging circulation he'd gone after scandal, heedless of the harm he might cause to those whose foibles he revealed in print.

"I'll be along directly." Diana removed the hat and hung it on a peg alongside the dark green, fur-trimmed coat she'd been about to collect. It might be mid-April, but there was still a chill in the air.

As she left the room and walked briskly along the corridor, where a hint of lavender lingered to mark Mrs. Curran's recent passage towards the stairwell, Diana told herself it was foolish to feel nervous just because Foxe had come to call. She could guess what he wanted. He planned to make one last attempt to convince her to stay.

Her column, "Today's Tidbits," was popular with readers, even without the scathing reviews and theatrical gossip Foxe had tried to persuade her to add. More significant, the news stories she'd written during the past two weeks, reporting on criminal activity in New York from a woman's point of view, had drawn new readers to the paper.

Foxe would try flattery first. Then he'd attempt bribery—he'd already offered her a generous raise and a permanent spot on the police beat. Finally, he'd work on her sense of guilt, demanding to know how she could think of leaving him in the lurch after all he'd done for her.

It was true she had reason to be grateful to him, but Diana knew she'd more than repaid his many kindnesses. In fact, he was the one who should feel guilty. He could be unscrupulous when intent on getting a story and just recently his pursuit of headlines had ended by putting her life at risk. She owed him nothing more than the courtesy of hearing what he had to say.

* * * *

The small parlor doubled as Mrs. Curran's sewing room, where she displayed her collection of thimbles in a special glass-fronted cabinet. Copies of the latest
Godey's Ladies' Book
and the E. Butterick & Co pattern catalogue for summer 1888 were scattered here and there, even on the looped carpet. An adjustable dress form wearing a pale blue silk afternoon dress stood in one corner. Next to it was a sewing machine with a nightgown draped across it. It appeared that Mrs. Curran had been interrupted while making repairs. The fabric, although still held in place by the needle, trailed down over the treadle as if it had been abandoned in haste.

Horatio Foxe sat perched on the edge of a plush-covered settee, plainly ill at ease in these surroundings. He'd taken off his hat and run ink-stained fingers through his sand-colored hair, a nervous habit that meant he was either irritated or upset.

"What's wrong?" Diana demanded.

Foxe bounced to his feet, both hands outstretched. In the depths of his hazel eyes, Diana encountered an emotion she'd never seen there before. It was pity. "Bad news, m'dear. I'm so sorry."

Please, God—not Ben!

A suffocating anguish engulfed Diana at the possibility that something terrible had happened to Ben Northcote. She knew too well how easily, how suddenly, a vital life force could be snuffed out. As she fought for breath, her limbs turned to ice and frozen muscles refused to carry her farther into the room. Only with great effort did she manage to speak.

"Tell me quickly," she begged. Whatever news Foxe had brought, it could not be more dreadful than the appalling scenes crowding into her head. She had a very good imagination and more than a passing acquaintance with the stuff of horror stories.

He reached into the inner pocket of his four-button cutaway suit coat and drew out a sheet of paper. She recognized it at once as the typescript of a news dispatch sent by way of the special telegraph wires the Press Association leased from Western Union. Foxe regularly reviewed everything that came in "over the wire" to decide which items would most interest his readers. "I recognized the name," he said as he handed it over. "William 'Timberline' Torrence."

Not Ben!
Relief broke over her like an incoming wave before the undertow caught at her ankles and sent her staggering again. No, not Ben, but someone who had once been as dear to her . . . her father.

As she took the paper, Diana's fingers trembled. The headline read, "Silver Baron Murdered in Denver Hotel."

"Dead?" she whispered in a shaky voice. "Murdered?"

It did not seem possible. Her father was a monolith, as unyielding and immutable as a rocky cliff. Nothing short of an explosion should have been capable of bringing him down.

"I'm sorry, Diana," Foxe said, "and it gets worse. You'd best read the entire dispatch for yourself."

The page rustled in her hands. She knew there were words written on it, but they swam in front of her eyes. The tears surprised her. In the past she'd shed so many because of her father that she hadn't thought she'd have any left to mourn him. With icy fingertips, she dashed the moisture from her cheeks.

William Torrence hadn't been one to grieve, or to forgive. When events moved beyond his control, he reacted with cold anger.

"You are dead to us now,"
he'd said to her the last time she'd seen him.
"Your name will never be spoken in this house again."

On that fateful day six years ago, when Diana had brought her new husband home to meet her parents, her father had seized the family Bible, taken up a pen, and blacked out her name. While she stood still stunned in appalled silence, he informed her that she was no longer his daughter. He'd never
had
a daughter.  She was not just dead to him from that moment on. She had never even existed.

And now he was the one who was dead. Diana had expected to feel nothing when this day came. Hadn't she already mourned his loss? But she had to swipe one hand across her eyes before she could bring the text of the dispatch into focus.

The facts were brutally clear, even if the details were sketchy. William "Timberline" Torrence had been stabbed to death. The person believed to have killed him was his former wife.

Former
wife?

With each word Diana read, her chest constricted. Her heart was hammering so loudly in her ears that she scarcely noticed when Foxe grasped her arm and steered her towards the settee.

"Sit before you fall," he ordered.

Since her knees were about to give out, she obeyed. She shook her head in an attempt to clear it, then wished she hadn't. The room spun wildly.

"Thunderation, Diana! Are you going to faint on me?" Foxe sounded equal parts alarmed and annoyed.

"Not if I can help it." She swallowed convulsively, then took several deep breaths. She flattened the dispatch on her lap and held the edges in a white-knuckled grip.

Regrets assaulted her, along with a sense of guilt. She had made no effort to see either of her parents again after that hideous confrontation in the parlor of the Torrence mansion, not even during the month she and Evan had spent in Denver before moving on to Leadville. She could have attempted a reconciliation. Why hadn't she? Even if her father had refused to acknowledge her, she might have talked to her mother. She might have . . . what? Ended the estrangement?

More likely she'd have created greater dissension among people who were already bitterly unhappy. She stared at the lines of print. The words were a blur again, but it hardly mattered. They'd been imprinted in her memory. According to the dispatch, the "former wife" who had killed Diana's father was her mother. Sometime during the six years since they'd disowned their only child, her parents had also rejected each other. An agonized sob escaped Diana in spite of her best efforts to hold it in.

"Mrs. Curran!"

Foxe's shout made Diana jump. Her thoughts fragmented, leaving her light-headed.

"Fetch smelling salts!" Foxe bellowed. "Confound it, woman! Get a move on!"

His fingers bit into Diana's shoulders as he shoved her head into her lap. The pounding at her temples had begun to diminish by the time the swish of bombazine and a whiff of lavender heralded Mrs. Curran's arrival.

"And what is it you've done to her now?" Diana's landlady demanded, the lilt of Ireland stronger than usual in her speech. It got that way when she was agitated. 

"Did you bring smelling salts?" Foxe demanded. "She's had a shock."

"I did, yes."

"No," Diana protested. "No smelling salts." The mere thought of being forced to inhale Mrs. Curran's powerful homemade blend of liquid ammonia, rosemary, lavender, bermagotte, and cloves was sufficient to bring her bolt upright. She blinked away the last of the dizziness and straightened her spine. "I am quite recovered now."

BOOK: Fatal as a Fallen Woman
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