The Gilded Hour Page 72

“Did you think I meant to seduce you in a hotel room?” He propped a forearm against the tree trunk just over her head and leaned in to smell her hair. “Is that what you imagined?”

She pushed at him, half laughing now. “Get away.”

“But I just got back.” He nuzzled her temple as she pushed and pushed at his chest, and then, relaxing, slipped her arms around his waist and turned her face up to his.

“Did you really think I was taking you to a hotel room?”

She bit the lining of her cheek. “If you had just told me—”

“You did think I was taking you to a hotel room.”

Anna ducked as if to slip away, but he caught her up again. There were people on the paths, people who could see them and at this moment, he didn’t care and more than that, he didn’t want Anna to care, either. So he kissed her until she forgot about the tree at her back and the park all around and the people in the park and everything in the world but the two of them.

Then he took her hand and pulled her away, to run with him through the park, breathless and flushed with a youth he had thought long past.

•   •   •

THERE WAS A chalkboard just outside the hotel lobby bracketed by the American flag on one side and the Italian flag on the other. An announcement had been written out carefully in English and Italian both: Monthly Meeting of the Italian Benevolent Society Today at 6 p.m.

“Wait,” Jack said, holding her back a moment. “I have to confess. This meeting is being held in a room. In a hotel.”

Anna pinched him with her hard surgeon’s fingers and was satisfied with the yelp he produced. Then they were in the lobby and surrounded by a crowd of men who came toward Jack as if he were a long-lost son, stopping in an almost comic way, all at once, when they saw Anna. Jack put his arm around her waist in an overtly possessive gesture that should have irritated her. But she could not be agitated about his willingness to claim her publicly, nor could she even deplore that inability in herself. Because Jack was home and he had brought her here to show her off. She was vain enough to be pleased, and embarrassed too.

They were shopkeepers, carpenters, restaurant owners, cigar makers, laborers, masons, stable owners, grooms, manufacturers of pianos and pipe and hairbrushes. And they all held Jack in high esteem, and extended the same to her.

There was a meeting during dinner, all of the discussion in Italian. Anna recognized some words now, thanks to the Russo sisters and Jack: orphan, family, money, school. While she picked at her food—small square noodle packets filled with spiced meat, all in a combination of soft cheese and cooked tomatoes—Jack was asked a question and he answered in a tripling Italian that made Anna realize how slowly he had spoken otherwise.

Finally the liquor and cigars came out and Jack squeezed her hand and gestured with his chin toward the door. Anna felt like a child let out of school, but she resisted the urge to hurry. She was a highly educated, mature woman who did not have to give in to every impulse. But the urge to skip stayed with her all the way home.

All the way home they talked. About Chicago and the taciturn chief of detectives, about Anna’s cases over the last week, about Bambina and Sophie and the wedding. Not once did Jack stop to kiss her. She wondered why, and then explained it to herself in a half-dozen reasonable ways. He was exhausted after such a long and difficult trip; his sisters were waiting at home and would begin to worry; he still had to go into the station to make a report, and so on and so on until they turned onto Waverly Place and her disappointment got the upper hand.

“You’re just taking me home?”

His brow quirked. “You have an early surgery tomorrow, didn’t you say?”

She found herself staring at him, dropped her gaze, and lifted it again, unsure of herself suddenly.

He was saying, “Tomorrow will be busy for me, too. It may be late evening by the time I’m finished. Should I come by then?”

“Yes.” Her voice sounded a little hoarse. “I would be glad to see you.” She tugged on his hand and he looked down at her. “I’m glad to see you now, Mezzanotte.”

But all she got for her trouble was a chaste kiss at the door and a promise about the next day. He was truly tired, or he was making the point that he could be patient. Something Anna had not asked him to do or be, because it was a skill she lacked herself.

•   •   •

OVER THE NEXT few days Anna saw Jack often, but never for more than a half hour at a time and always in the middle of a crowd of people who wanted to see him almost as much as Anna did.

She realized that the inability to keep Jack to herself for any amount of time at all was making her cranky, but there was no easy solution. His cousin Umberto’s lodgings at the greenhouse had been claimed by a different cousin whose rooms had been damaged in a fire, news Bambina shared with Anna when they met for dinner on Monday. Bambina’s tone was entirely too satisfied.

Out of his sisters’ hearing Anna told Jack about this. “She knows about—you know.”

He raised an eyebrow in mock confusion. “About?”

The rotter.

“About the night before you left for Chicago.”

And when he still pretended ignorance, she poked him so hard that he captured her hand and held it still in self-defense. He was trying not to laugh.

“They don’t know anything. And if they suspect, does it really matter?”

It didn’t matter, but it felt as though it did. And that irritated. She was a seething mass of irritations.

Bending low to speak directly into her ear, Jack said, “Are you feeling deprived? Because—” He tightened his hold ever so slightly. “I am.”

Somehow that made it all better, and Anna went back to the dinner table with Jack right behind her, so close that she could feel the heat of his body all along her spine.

Celestina, always the peacemaker, asked Anna about the search for the Russo brothers, a subject that made both girls put aside their gifts and turn toward her.

“I’m afraid there’s not anything of substance to report. We’ve written to forty-six—”

“Fifty-one,” Rosa corrected her. “As of last night, fifty-one.”

Anna smiled at her. “—different places, asylums and child welfare agencies, individuals who might have some information. I hired a young man who was once a newsboy and is very well connected to ask questions. But we’ve had no positive responses.”

“Sixteen letters weren’t answered at all,” Rosa said in a low voice.

“Rosa keeps track of the correspondence,” Anna explained.

“You can read English?” Celestina asked, and Rosa sat up very straight. “I’m practicing every day. Auntie Margaret says I’m making excellent progress.”

“That she is,” Anna said.

Lia took hold of the conversation by telling Jack’s sisters about the stories they were hearing at bedtime. She got off her chair to act out part of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, so delighted with this opportunity to pass the story on that they had to laugh with her.

The little girl had managed something that had seemed to Anna too much to hope for: the tense expectation that radiated from Bambina let up and then disappeared. And another thing for which Anna was very thankful: the impromptu storytelling crowded out any questions that might have been coming her way about wedding plans.

•   •   •

LATER WHEN JACK walked her home, he said, “They are trying not to be impatient, but it’s hard to hold back the questions. My mother is just as bad; I get a letter almost every day.”

Anna’s life had always been busy. She could spend every waking hour at the hospital and never run out of things to do, and now there were two little girls, two missing brothers, Sophie’s wedding, Cap’s farewell, and the entire Mezzanotte clan, and the idea of her own wedding to juggle. And Jack.

“Do you belong to a lot of associations like the Italian Benevolent Society?”

He shrugged. “Two or three. When there are legal matters to deal with I’m often called in. There aren’t many lawyers in the city who speak Italian.”

Anna considered. The obvious question was, did he want to be that lawyer? He was not too old to read law, after all. But as forward thinking as Jack Mezzanotte might be, few men liked having their career choices challenged. Instead she said, “I should learn Italian.”

“It would be helpful.”

“If I can find the time.”

“You have a willing tutor right beside you.”

“We’ll never have a moment’s quiet time.”

Jack squeezed her hand. “Italian lessons can happen any time. Spontaneously.”

Anna was glad of a cool evening breeze on her cheeks. “On demand?”

“If there’s a room available, certainly. Or a suitable hotel.”

And here they were back at the original problem. Not for the first time she wondered what other people who had no place to be alone together did. The birthrate was evidence that such things happened constantly and everywhere, and not just between married people who shared a bed.

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