A/N: So, for those of you who haven't totally given up on and lost interest in this story after ALL THESE YEARS, I have an update… legit. It may or may not have been worth the wait, but I hope that at least some of you enjoy seeing new material from me.
I continue to be grateful for the response I've received and especially want to say thank-you to the handful of people who've chatted with me thru PM over the years. The in-depth, intelligent comments I've gotten from you all have been awesome and the best thing I could hope for as a practicing writer.
My maudlin teenage writing still annoys me, but, eh. I'm over it. Maybe I'll tidy it up someday.
I took some suggestions from you guys into account here and tried to get the momentum going. I have an idea for another chapter after this that would involve more of a breakthrough so don't think I'm clinging to my snail's pace of plot development.
And sorry if I'm not cohesive with the original text—it's been such a looooong time. I kind of puked this one up without thinking too much about it and might have taken some historical liberties with a few lines of the dialogue.
Holy mother of Christ, how could he have been so cavalier?
Cal was on his knees like a child, like a dog on the ground, overturning wastepaper baskets and desk drawers until papers blew up around him like dust from a bombshell. Appeals, he'd thought nothing of appeals, and the letter from the Philadelphia Stock Exchange—what had he done with it? He hadn't read it, he knew that much. He was losing his goddamned mind.
You have been granted a chance to appeal to the Head of Listing Qualifications Department by such-and-such date, and failure to appeal will mean automatic disqualification for your business(es).
Six o'clock sunlight fell in slices through the partially opened blinds of his office window, and he stopped.
Just stopped, and stared at the mess he'd made, and tried to think.
A sharp knock at the office door. "Mr. Hockley, sir?"
Cal staggered to his feet, grabbing at the back of his desk chair for support, and he caught a glimpse of himself in the brass mirror across the room. His hair hung in his eyes and his stare was reddened and dull.
Clearing his throat, he snatched at his briefcase, ran a hand through his hair and went for the door.
Another knock. "Mr.—"
Cal jerked open the door and met dead-on with the startled face of his young office assistant. "What is it?" he demanded, yanking his coat from the coat rack and shoving an unlit cigarette in the side of his mouth.
The assistant took a few steps back and pushed at the bridge of his glasses. "Sir, I just wanted to ask if you needed anything else of me, or—"
Or if I can go home to my family for the night and live, but words like that would never make it out alive.
Cal shoved past the assistant with a nod into the office. "Take care of that for me," he said, already halfway down the hall, searching himself for a lighter.
The assistant glanced into the office and flinched away as though from fire singe. "What happened, sir?"
"What happened is that I found work for you in my own absence of discipline." Cal's arm threw a blind fistful of money bills behind him as an afterthought. "It's called laissez-faire capitalism, or something like that."
Ten minutes later he was in the backseat of the Renault, lost in a cloud of cigarette smoke, with his jaw clenched.
It was at home, in his office at home, it had to have gone out with the garbage a week ago, because now he remembered tearing it to pieces.
How could he have forgotten the appeals?
He was so stupid.
Sunset stained the sky, tree branches were losing their leaves, and Cal went stalking across the manicured lawn of his home. Servants were underfoot and buzzing around like wasps.
"Mr. Hockley, dinner will be served in—"
"Have at the feeding trough yourself, I don't have time tonight," Cal replied without a thought.
He thrust his briefcase at whoever had spoken to him and forced through the front foyer. He tore off his coat as he stomped up the grand staircase and shoved it at the first maid he crossed on his way to his home study. Nothing and no one could stand between him and this lost opportunity, because perhaps it wasn't lost, perhaps not yet.
More papers, more drawers overturned on the floor of the study.
Nothing in the wastepaper basket. The maids had been doing their job.
"Tell Hoffman I'll be outside in five minutes," he yelled down the hallway at some other servant, and he turned in the direction of his bedroom. "I have to make a run downtown."
"Sir, at dinnertime?"
"Don't question me, you moron!"
"Yes, sir! I apologize, sir!"
This was ridiculous, and Cal understood that for once, but he was a bull in a china shop.
Nothing, no one.
True to his word, he clamored out the front doors five minutes later, his coat back on and his pockets full. The chilled October air burned his tired eyes.
Halfway to the automobile garage, and he halted at the sound of that voice. Nothing and no one could slow him down, except for—
"Cal, what's going on? Will you come over here for half a moment?"
Cursing himself, Cal turned around and retraced precious distance over to the garden tool shed.
"What on earth is going on?" Rose looked up at him from the ground, in a wash of skirts. There was a dead leaf caught in her hair and the sunset shadowing her pale face and an eyebrow raised. "I watched you just a few minutes ago, like a tornado—"
"Why are you on your knees?" Cal interrupted, disapproving instead of snide at the sight of her disarray.
"Josephine had babies, aren't they gorgeous?" She reached to nudge open the shed door by several inches. Rakes and hoes and scythes were propped perilously against the walls, and there, huddled on a bunched linen tarp, was the orange stray. Not bloody now or matted but throbbing with heat and life, her body curled around four kittens. They were so young their eyes hadn't opened.
"They look like rats," Cal said as he leaned impatient against the doorframe.
Rose rolled her eyes. "You can take a closer look, you know," she said. "They aren't rabid."
"Are you sure about that?" asked Cal, but he put his problems out of mind for one more minute and knelt next to her. Close up the kittens didn't look so distorted; the bumps that were their tails and ears would grow soon, and they would seem less aborted and more alive.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" Rose prodded.
Cal looked away from the kittens and found himself at intimate eye level with Rose, and it caught him off guard. "You don't belong on your knees," he said again, more pointed as he plucked the dead leaf from her hair, and he stood and offered her a hand.
There was a touch of extra color in her cheeks, but that could have been the pinch of the cool evening, or perhaps the sunset was making her look rosy. She grabbed onto his hand, pressed her other one against her distended abdomen and heaved herself up with some effort. "What are you in such a huff about?" she asked, returning to the original subject as she brushed more leaves from her cloak.
A form-rejection response was arrow-sharp on the tip of his tongue. He looked at her, at something that had changed in her face.
What had she said, the last time they'd been alone together?
A marriage is supposed to be a partnership.
"I misplaced an important piece of mail," he heard himself saying.
Her eyebrow arched again. "That's all?"
"'That's all' doesn't begin to define the problem," he replied, brusque, as he turned once more in the direction of the automobile garage where he could see his chauffeur waiting.
She hurried to catch up to him as he stalked over the lawns. "Maybe I can be of assistance," she said.
"You can't possibly be of assistance, darling. Go inside, the servants have dinner ready."
"Cal," she said, and this time her tone was hard enough to make him halt. The look in her eyes was intelligent and keen. "I want to know what's going on."
He hesitated. It was uncustomary, altogether unorthodox. She was eighteen years old and a woman and in delicate condition and like a child asking for candy she said, I want to know about what would happen behind closed doors among masters of the universe.
"Well," he said at last, "come along then. I'll take you to a restaurant downtown."
Downtown Pittsburgh wasn't a cesspool of sights and sounds and beating hearts, not like the biggest cities, not like New York. The work day had yet to die down at this hour. There were businessmen trickling out of high-rise buildings and people on the town in their evening clothes. It was daylight and nightfall all at once, conflicting energies balanced on a knifeblade that sliced night and day in two, and it felt against the grain to get out of a vehicle and hurry through revolving lobby doors. Into the world of daytime business, and not away from it.
"Ah, Walter Sullivan," Cal said loudly, his stride breaking midway across the center of the lobby. "Just the man I was hoping to encounter."
Sullivan was in his overcoat, briefcase in hand, going away from daytime business and not toward it, and his upper lip curled as he smiled. "Hockley my boy. What pleasure brings you venturing downtown at this time of night? Dinner reservations with the wife?"
Both their loud voices had boomed against the glass skylight and arched ceilings. This wasn't privacy, and Cal knew it.
"Never too late to ask you for a word in your office, is it?" he said, flashing his own hard-lined smile. "I have a proposition for you."
Sullivan's teeth showed again, but somehow they looked feral.
The two of them rode the elevator up and up and up, chatting about headlines and weather and weaving gossamer threads of careful bullshit.
"Young women these days! Just the other evening I spotted a girl strolling along in downtown Philadelphia by herself—she barely looked sixteen—and I say! The dress she had on, it came up almost to her shins! Have they no decency? Do they not realize they are inciting men to lust after them?"
"I believe that may be the point, Walter," Cal replied, holding the office door.
Sullivan shook his head. "Your wife is around that age, is she not?"
The door closed. Now, faced with the leaping shadows of Sullivan's darkened office, Cal felt his brute burst of confidence lulling away.
Sometimes deals fell through. Sometimes money wasn't enough.
He didn't allow himself down that path.
"I've never seen her looking nearly so scandalous," said Sullivan as he lit the office. "My only impressions have been of a very proper and well-bred woman."
Cal cleared his throat, and Sullivan seemed to recall that he was straying into sensitive territory after the theatrics of several months prior. Sullivan's upper lip raised again, and he hefted himself down behind the desk and beheld Cal, who remained standing.
"Walter," he began, choosing his words carefully, "I have everything to lose."
Sullivan continued to smile, as though this were faintly amusing.
"For you, on the other hand, I'm nothing but another stock market gamble. You're aware that steel has declined as a market commodity ever since the Titanic disaster six months ago. My business isn't such a black spot in that regard. I pose an easy target for you, I imagine, because I'm a statistic in your immediate sphere, but nothing about my struggles as a proprietor are unique."
The smile on Sullivan's scarred face had grown irrefutably smug. "I do believe you're making a speech to an audience of one, Hockley," he said, his hands lacing together. "What flattery."
Cal knew that barriers had broken and that now was the time to throw wild cards on the table. He took a step closer to the desk, reached into his coat pocket and thrust out his clenched fist.
"You leave me to my business," he said, "and I'll leave you to your own personal fortune."
Blue shards of light cast from the diamond.
Sullivan's eyes squinted without expression at the object, and then rose up, still squinting, to meet Cal's. "You would offer me this?" he said, a rhetorical question. "You ask me to put my good name at risk, all for the promise of riches?"
It was Cal's turn to smirk. "You're in the business of paper-pushing, Walter," he said. "You do it every day."
Sullivan swiped a pudgy hand out, but Cal pulled the necklace back.
"Well?" he said. "Do we have a deal?"
Sullivan didn't smile. He seemed to give the concept a real moment of contemplation, and then at last the corner of his mouth twitched. "I fancy your wife, you know," he said, his voice almost a drawl.
It was nothing Cal had to be told. "And?" he replied.
"Suppose you give me this diamond, and a night with your wife, and in exchange you never hear a word from my department again."
Cal felt something then, and it was like ice forming in his gut. "A night with my wife," he repeated, flatly.
A nod of confirmation.
And the dam broke.
"Are you fucking insane?" Cal spat.
Sullivan leaned back a bit as Cal shoved the diamond in his pocket, his hand shaky with rage and not fear. He slammed his fists onto the desk.
"My wife is three months away from giving birth to—"
The words got lost.
Sullivan attempted another smile, but it was weaker. "I won't turn down a rain check," he said.
"I'll destroy you, mark my words." Cal knocked over a chair and stormed away from the desk. He caught one last flicker of a smirk on Sullivan's face.
"Consider yourself delisted, Hockley!"
The door blasted shut.
"Someplace with a private room, Hoffman," Cal barked, grabbing for the handle.
His fist ached from hitting the chair in Sullivan's office, and he either needed or wanted a brandy, he couldn't tell which.
He saw Rose jerk, startled, as he slammed back into the automobile. "What happened?" she said, narrowing her eyes.
He thought about lying to her.
Smooth sailing, sweetpea.
"I just want to put it out of mind," he replied, trying to rub the first twines of a headache away from his temple, and to his surprise and relief, she didn't press further.
Later, sitting down to a fantasy world of candlelight and linen and madeira, Cal had managed to keep his headache at bay. He regarded Rose across the table over the rim of his wine glass with a new sense of jaded awareness.
She was a market commodity, and so was he. She was using him. They were using each other.
This was worse than he could have imagined.
"More wine, sir?" said the server, and Cal held out his empty glass without a word.
The server flitted off, leaving them alone to await the arrival of their first course, and the candelabra trickled wax in the center of the table.
"Well then," Rose said, looking through the panes of the glass wall into a nightscape of lights sparkling over Allegheny River. She was uncomfortable, he was making her uncomfortable, and she was being subdued about it, and it destroyed him all the more. "This was nice of you, to bring me out."
"I would take you anywhere you like at a moment's notice," he replied, dull and unguarded, because he had everything to lose.
"We haven't seen much of each other these last several weeks," she said, toying with her napkin.
"Do you like that?"
"I get—bored, at times."
Bored wasn't her original word choice, he could tell. "I apologize," he said as he raised his glass.
She looked up from the table, and candlelight played across her face. "Am I a child to you, Cal?" she asked.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do you think I'm too fragile and naïve to handle the truth about life and the world—about yourself?"
Cal didn't have a form-rejection response, this time. He couldn't say yes and he couldn't say no. "Sometimes," he said, "my burdens aren't yours to bear."
"What if I want to share your burdens?"
"I want to make you happy."
"Don't you understand that understanding you would make me happy?" she said, frustrated.
Cal studied her, and drank, and didn't say anything, and at last he set down his glass.
"The business is in jeopardy," he informed her.
She waited for him to continue, the look in her eyes intent.
"I tried to buy off Walter Sullivan, and do you know what the son of a bitch said?"
"What did he say?"
"Suppose you give me this diamond and a night of animal passion with your pregnant teenage wife, and we call it dead even." He picked up his glass again and knocked back without etiquette, his posture less than ruler-straight.
She didn't flinch. "Then what happened?"
"I've been delisted." He reached for the wine bottle. "You don't know what that means."
"Well," she said, "are you going to tell me?"
He looked straight at her through the haze of his chagrin, and felt as though he were seeing her for the first time.
"I'm not bankrupt," he said, slowly. "But the risk factor has been introduced."
There were several moments of lull in the conversation. The truth of it all seemed to settle and take hold.
I'm nothing to you without my money.
He didn't expect the way she didn't react, or her hand reaching across the table to take hold of his. Her fingers trembled as they squeezed but there was strength in her grip.
"Cal," she said, and something about her was resolute. "Thank you."
For what she was thanking him she didn't specify, and he didn't ask, because he was in no position to look a gift horse in the mouth.