The Gilded Hour Page 105

“Really, though, it’s always about money,” Anna repeated. “Even when it seems not to be.”

Jack’s eyes were scanning the street, as if he were expecting to be confronted and didn’t know from what direction it would come.

Anna said, “You deal with the worst of humankind, day in and day out. It makes you doubt everybody.”

“I don’t doubt you,” he said. “The first minute I saw you, I knew you for a good person.”

“Because I was treating orphaned children?”

“Because you stood up to that nun. Sister—”

“Ignatia. She made me angry.”

“That was obvious.”

“It was about the children who weren’t vaccinated. Vaccination is free at dispensaries all over the city. She made a decision based on her own fears and superstitions, and put children at danger. There’s no excuse for such ignorance.”

“I got that, too.”

She drew a deep breath and waited for her pulse to stop racing. “So you were attracted to me because I stood up to a nun.”

“I was impressed. Attraction had to do with other things.”

Anna waited, wondering what she was hoping to hear.

He said, “Your hair is hard to overlook. The deep color of it, and the way it curls even when it’s rolled up on the back of your head. It’s always fighting to be free. While you were leaning over one of the children I saw a curl escape from the pins and fall behind your ear along the line of your throat. You have a beautiful neck, Anna. And I had an almost uncontrollable urge to tuck that curl back into place.”

Embarrassed, she said, “I thought I’d never see you again, when I left the ferry.”

“Really?” Jack looked down at her. “I was busy trying to figure out how to make sure you did.”

“You were not.”

“I was. And then there you were, not twelve hours later, going into Alva Vanderbilt’s monstrosity of a new house. You took my breath away.”

All along her spine, nerves jumped. She was afraid to raise her head to look at him.

“This damn city,” Jack said. “No place for a man to kiss his wife without an audience.”

“Jack Mezzanotte,” Anna said, her voice catching. “I never took you for a coward.”

•   •   •

“MAYBE THAT WASN’T such a good idea,” Anna said when they had walked another block. “My knees have gone all wobbly. And my pulse won’t slow down.”

Her hand was trembling a little, but then so was Jack’s. He rubbed a thumb over the juncture of wrist and palm, the silk of her glove whispering.

He said, “Take this off.”

“No.” She pulled her hand away with a jerk.

“Now who’s the coward?”

Her brows pulled down in irritation, but she stripped the glove from her hand and looked at it and then at him, as if she had never seen such a creature before.

Jack held his jacket open. “Put it here, in the inside pocket.”

He wondered why he felt the need to provoke her on South Broadway, of all places. But her jaw was set now, and she was not going to back down. Standing very close, she tucked the glove into his pocket, the one that rested just over his heart.

She was looking him in the eye as she stepped back and let her hand trail down his vest front. Like a blade of grass being drawn over his skin. Her hand continued downward, and he grabbed her wrist to stop her.

“Very funny.”

Both dimples came to the fore. “I thought so.”

“Just wait,” Jack said. “Until I get you home.”

•   •   •

ANNA FELT FEVERED, though the evening breeze was cool. When the house came into view her heart was beating so hard that she could feel it in her eardrums. She thought of the people—the people she loved and cared for—who would want to talk to her and feed her and hear about her day, and she wondered if she could just be honest. Say something like, Jack and I will be back in an hour. Don’t hold dinner for us. But the very idea made her throat go dry with anticipated embarrassment, because of course they would know why and what and even how. But it could not be avoided, and so she turned toward the garden, where everyone would be on a beautiful afternoon like this. Then Jack stopped her by pulling her closer. He pointed with his chin in the other direction.


“Something to show you.”


“Right now.”

They climbed the front stairs to the new house—Weeds, Anna reminded herself, everyone is calling it Weeds—and she waited while he fished a key out of his pocket and opened the door. In the hall he put her Gladstone bag down while Anna peered around, feeling oddly shy about exploring.

Even from where she stood she could see that someone had been hard at work. Everything from the ceiling to the floors had been scrubbed clean, the old paper scraped from the walls, and the floors sanded and polished. The air smelled of lye soap and wax and something else familiar. “What is that—”

“Lemon,” said Jack. “My mother believes in the cleansing power of lemon.”

Then he was tugging her up the stairs.

“They’ll be waiting dinner for us,” she said, holding back.

“They can wait a while longer.”


He raised a brow.

“I don’t have my—”

With a sigh he picked her up and carried her, taking the stairs two at a time. He walked straight to the largest room, the one that would be theirs when they finally moved in, and opened the door by leaning into it.

“Oh,” Anna said.

The walls had been cleaned and painted, the floors polished, and new curtains hung at the windows, simple cream-colored linen over white lace panels. There was a large four-poster bed, neatly made with plump pillows and a beautiful white-on-white quilt; there were two dressers and a table. An earthenware jug filled with white roses and lilac was the only decoration placed on the mantelpiece over the small fireplace, and two chairs angled toward each other in front of it. It was all very simple but pleasing.

Jack dropped her onto the bed.

“When did you manage all this?”

“I don’t think that’s what you mean to say.” He let his jacket fall to the floor and started unbuttoning his vest. “What you mean to say is, ‘Oh, well done.’”

Anna reached up and pulled him down to her by tugging on a suspender.

“Well done,” she said against his mouth. “But I still need my cervical cap.”

He kissed her so thoroughly that she lost her train of thought. Jack reminded her by leaning over to open a drawer on the bedside stand. He brought out a familiar box.

“You are farsighted,” she said. “Very resourceful. Now, do you know what to do with it?”

•   •   •

“AND A QUICK study, too,” she said as he pulled her underneath him ten minutes later. She was already flushed, damp with perspiration, and a little embarrassed, Jack thought.

She arched against him, gasping. He leaned down to suckle the curve of her throat and tasted soap and salt and Anna. She was wriggling, undulating around him, pinned down by the simple fact of his possession, wet and hot and very tight, and Jack thought he would lose his mind if he didn’t start moving in her immediately, but he held off nonetheless.

The heel of her hand struck him above the ear and he laughed, pleased with her and himself.

“Jack,” she said, struggling, lifting against him. “Jack.”

“So impatient.” His mouth moved up her neck to her ear and the flesh underneath it, pulsing warm. He pressed the flat of his tongue there and felt her whole body tensing around him: a clenched fist, dragging at him.

“What are you waiting for?”

She was irritated with him, and he found, just now, he liked that. He kissed her mouth, soft and wet and greedy.

“You don’t like this?”

“You rotter.” Her feet slid up his legs, pressed his thighs. She dug her heels into the small of his back, arching to the exact angle he had been waiting for, the one that gave him the last inch he needed so that he could settle, finally, where he needed to be.

“Too much?” He rocked against her and she put her head back and groaned, a hoarse sound that made gooseflesh rise all along his back.

“Anna. Too much?”

“Jack. Don’t coddle me.”

She could still shock him, a kind of seduction all its own. He set out to test her resolve, and his own limits.

•   •   •

JACK’S PARENTS WERE at the dinner table, and Anna was stuck between them, caught in the web of their curiosity and ready affection. She desperately wanted to at least change her shirtwaist, but they had come in late. It would be rude to ask people to wait any longer. She just wished she could be sure she didn’t smell too much like, well, what she must smell like.

She had little appetite, but filling her plate was something to do while she talked to Mrs. Mezzanotte, who wanted to know about Weeds, which she had seen earlier in the afternoon. Anna didn’t look at Jack, but she knew he was grinning.

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