Twenty-three-year-old Laurel Bennett walked up the last flight of stairs to the timber yard office of her father, Edward. A shrewd industrialist, Mr. Bennett had been in the lumber business since the age of ten, some forty years earlier. The Bennett Lumber Company was a small, albeit successful business, and for the past four years, Laurel had kept the books, kept her father’s appointments in order, and generally done everything about the office that a boss didn’t or wouldn’t do.
As she walked, her mind was still spinning with the details of the latest detective novel she’d read. She’d read almost all of the stories published by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The story involved a train robbery and the subsequent chase and apprehension of the villain. It was fascinating to her. She’ thought she’d had it figured out and had been disappointed to have to stop reading and go back to work.
“Ah, and here she is now.” Mr. Bennett’s voice boomed out when she entered the office.
Laurel looked at her father and nodded. He rarely made an announcement about her arrival back from lunch.
“Laurel,” he called out the open door of his office. She noticed another man seated in the room. He looked to be about 40, good-looking, and smug. Just the kind of businessman she couldn’t stand. The kind that thought he was better and smarter than anybody else who might be in the room. The lumber industry seemed to teem with them.
“Uh, come in here, dear.”
She placed her book and handbag on her desk and went into the office.
Mr. Bennett and the other gentleman stood.
“I’d like you to meet Mr. Carlisle. He’s going to be selling our timber. It’s a very important deal for us.
Once we close the deal, we’ll alleviate any strains the company has undergone recently. We’re just about at the point of complete agreement. A couple more meetings ought to do it, wouldn’t you say, Carlisle?”
“Oh. Well, that’s nice. Thank you, Mr. Carlisle.” Laurel smiled and dimples deepened her cheeks. Her clear, green eyes flashed. She wanted to get back to her desk and back to her alternate reality of armed robbers and trains. It didn’t really matter to her who was buying or selling her father’s lumber, even though she knew it was important. Other such offices had opened up in and around the city over the last ten years. It had been obvious that her father was going to need to team up with someone sooner or later. It didn’t seem as if he was desperate. Laurel wasn’t overly concerned about it.
“I’ll tell you what, Bennett,” Mr. Carlisle turned to Laurel’s father, “throw in this little piece and you’ve got yourself a deal…all on your terms. I’ll sign right now.”
Edward Bennett’s eyes widened. “What are you saying, Mr. Carlisle?”
“What I’m saying, my dear man, is that if you’ll give me your daughter’s hand in marriage, I’ll give you as much money as you need to get your business back up and running the way it was before all these other smaller lumber offices began opening. We can buy them out, you and me.”
“Are you suggesting we become business partners?”
Carlisle chuckled. “Oh no…not at all. I’m suggesting I marry your daughter and invest heavily in your company.”
Laurel giggled. She knew her father, if not Mr. Carlisle himself, would appreciate it. It always served to enchant his male customers.
“I’ve been lonely since my Hattie left me almost ten years ago, now. There comes a time in a man’s life when,” he looked in Laurel’s direction and his eyes traveled up and down her figure, “well, when he desires female companionship.”
“Mr. Carlisle, you’re either certifiable or very humorous,” Laurel said. She tossed her head coquettishly.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to be getting to work.” She left the room and went back to her desk where she prepared for the afternoon’s tasks.
Her father and Mr. Carlisle continued their conversation in muted tones. Marriage! What a silly suggestion. Of course it was a joke, but it got her thinking. Laurel had no desire to marry. At least, not at this time in her life. Her dream was to become a lady detective, like the ones she read about in the Pinkerton novels.
The main office of the organization was right here, in Chicago. And Laurel was 23 years old. She couldn’t very well go on living as an unmarried woman in her father’s house. It had been obvious for the last month that Mr. Bennett’s life was on the brink of change. His second, much younger wife was growing impatient.
It had been five years and the 35-year-old seemed intent on a family, which left no room for Laurel.
If she could leave her father’s business, she was sure she could get a job with the Pinkerton Agency. There were the facts that she was a skilled actress and a proficient markswoman. Those two things, paired with her considerable natural sleuthing talents, were all she needed. She was sure of it. So many times, in the novels she read, she would come to a conclusion two pages before the action or dialogue was given. That was enough to tell her that her mind worked just as fast, if not faster, than some seasoned detectives.
Laurel knew she would be a success if she were to become a lady Pinkerton detective. They’d been employing females for at least two decades so there wouldn’t be any issues with gender biases.
Laurel’s father and Mr. Carlisle still spoke in the office, the door still open. Their voices rose and fell good-naturedly. Laurel took up her book and found where she’d left off when suddenly the conversation in the other room sounded to take a turn. She heard her father laugh, then he spoke quietly. Tilting her head to hear better, she thought she could hear him speak.
“It sounds like an offer I cannot refuse, Mr. Carlisle. Yes. Your idea has my full support. Of course, we will need to meet with our respective lawyers and then have a joint meeting.”
“Whatever you require, Mr. Carlisle. Whatever you require at all.”
Laurel couldn’t believe her ears. Certainly, the business had felt the sting of having so many similar lumber companies open in the last few years. However, Mr. Carlisle had said he’d invest in her father’s business if Mr. Bennington would agree to give his daughter over in marriage. Surely the man had been joking. Laurel was being silly. She hadn’t heard all of the conversation. It wouldn’t do to make assumptions. Nothing good would come of it.
It was ridiculous to give Mr. Carlisle’s joke any thought. Laurel was fabricating thoughts in her head. She went back to her book and made a conscious effort to muffle the voices still emanating from the office.
The place in the story where the detective’s discoveries were to point to the culprit was coming up. Of course, Laurel had already figured the case out. Finishing the read would only confirm her own discoveries. In the back of her head she heard her father and Mr. Carlisle wish each other a good day, and pulled her attention back to her book.
As she turned the page, she felt something touch her face. She winced and turned, only to see Mr. Carlisle standing beside her. He rested his index finger on her cheek and as she looked him in the eye, he slid the offending digit along her cheekbone. Laurel was so stunned she was unable to move. She couldn’t pull away.
“I can’t wait to marry you, dear Miss Bennett. Or, Laurel. Yes, I should think I’ll call you Laurel during our short engagement.” He leaned down and spoke in her ear. His hot breath smelled of ale. “What I refer to you as after our marriage is entirely up to you, my dear.”
She blinked once and pulled back from his hand as far as possible.
Carlisle straightened up. A hard look had come to his eyes. “I shall call on you at home tomorrow evening.” With that, he walked out of the office.
Laurel watched the door close behind him and heard the knob catch and click. She whipped her head around to look at her father, who was standing in the doorway of his office.
“Papa! What was Mr. Carlisle talking about? I must say I am stunned. Why would you, of all people, allow him to take such a liberty as to touch my face the way he did? It was positively vile. He didn’t behave at all as a gentleman should.”
“I’m sorry, my dear girl. Mr. Carlisle drives a hard bargain. His behavior is something that appears worse than it actually is. Once you get to know the man, you won’t find him so appalling. I promise. He’s actually very well-read. You’ll enjoy talking books with him, I’ve no doubt.”
“Papa! What are you going on about? I must resign myself to nothing. How dare you allow that beast to touch my face?” Laurel could feel her anger reaching an uncomfortable pitch. She breathed deeply, not wanting to make a big deal out of things here in the office. It was important to retain control of her emotions, but her father’s words were worrying her.
“Mr. Carlisle has seen you here in the past. He’s seen you out with me, as well. Suffice it to say he’s had his eye on you for some months now and he’s asked me about you every time I’ve seen him in the last two.”
“So? What does it have to do with me?” Laurel was hoping upon hope that the feeling she had in her gut was wrong. It very seldom was, and she thought she might be better off if she prayed.
“Well, it has a great deal to do with you, my dear. You see, Mr. Carlisle has taken a shine to you.”
“What was he doing? What was that talk of marriage about?”
“Mr. Carlisle is a very wealthy man, Laurel. Some might even say he’s quite rich. And he has expressed an interest in you. He has asked my permission to marry you.”
“He was serious about that?”
“Oh, quite. And I don’t need to tell you that if you marry him we can save our business.”
“Our business, is it? That’s interesting, Papa. You’ve made it clear to me since you married Elizabeth that it is your business. Your business is to go to her when you die. That has nothing to do with me.”
“Laurel, I cannot keep the business running without some help.”
“So I am to save the day?”
“Actually it’s Mr. Carlisle who shall be saving the day, dear Laurel.”
“How can you say such a thing? I’m the one who will be giving up my life to marry a man I don’t even know, much less have feelings for.”
“It’s the only way, Laurel. We’ll be bankrupt in a year if I don’t take Carlisle up on this offer.”
“This offer! We’ll be bankrupt? Papa! I’m appalled. Am I to have no say in this, this…offer you’re talking about? The offer that requires me to marry a stranger? All so you can save the business for your wife who gives herself airs and won’t come to work here?”
“You mustn’t speak unkindly of Elizabeth, Laurel. She is my wife.”
“I see.” Laurel looked down to hide the tears that threatened to fill her eyes. Her father was, essentially, sacrificing her life for that of his wife. It was a searing blow to her. Her father was more concerned about his wife than his daughter.
“You know how it is for women, Laurel. You must marry well. For yourself. In this instance we have a situation where you can marry well and cement your place in society as the wife of an exceedingly wealthy man. I’ve no doubt that, in ten years’ time, you’ll be thanking me. You have your whole life ahead of you to live luxuriously.”
“I don’t want to live luxuriously if it means marrying an old man I don’t love. The whole idea has nothing to do with me except that I am the facilitator. I cannot do it, Papa. Please don’t make me.”
Mr. Bennett shook his head. “I’m sorry, dear. If I don’t, we’ll all be in the poor house in a year’s time if something isn’t done. And while I don’t care so much about what happens to me, if this business was to go bankrupt, your chances of marrying at all, much less well, will be gone. Forever.”
“Suppose I don’t want to marry?”
“You must marry. It’s the only way a woman, a lady, can survive in our world.”
“I’ve made my decision, Laurel. Please don’t make it harder for either one of us than it has to be.” Mr. Bennett turned and walked back into his office, closing the door behind him.
Laurel felt like screaming. For so long it had been just her and her father. She’d always thought that she would probably meet and marry someone, but had been in no hurry.
However, she was 23 years old and she knew her father had begun to worry about her future. And his own. Three years earlier, Mr. Bennett had married Elizabeth. Laurel should have known the woman would want her out of the house. Indeed, Laurel considered herself lucky that she’d been able to live there as long as she had. Clearly, Elizabeth had designs on having her own family. It was only natural and was something Laurel thought she wanted for herself. Someday.
She was considered a beautiful woman by many, yet men didn’t approach her too often. That was no problem as far as she could see. Laurel had a shrewd, practical nature which made her appear sometimes abrupt and too blunt. She understood that and didn’t make much effort to hide it, except with her father’s customers and business acquaintances. Men, in general, were intimidated by her sharp intellect and precise intuition. Men outside of the office, that was. In the confines of the Bennett Lumber Yard office, Laurel played the charming and subservient secretary to the hilt. But marriage and a family could wait, as far as she was concerned.
The scheme to marry Mr. Carlisle was ludicrous to her. But she knew her father was dead serious in what he’d said to her. She also knew that once his mind was made up about something, there was no swaying it. Mr. Bennett intended that she would marry Mr. Carlisle.
It was time to put her book in her handbag and quietly leave the office. There had to be a way out of her imminent fate, and Laurel was going to find it. She had five hours before Mr. Bennett would leave the office and return home. Her intention was not to be there when he arrived.
She scrawled a quick note saying she had a work errand to run that would take two hours. It was a trip to the new lumber mill on the southwest side. Her father would tell her not to bother. Their problems, the ones Laurel hadn’t known were so bad, were over. Laurel had been sold to Mr. Carlisle in marriage. Well, she refused. She wasn’t going to give up her freedom – or her life, for that matter – because Elizabeth wanted to play the grand lady.
And it wasn’t that Laurel wished ill on her father, but she wasn’t going to marry against her will to save his business. She wasn’t going to be turned out of the house she’d grown up in, all because Elizabeth had to have everything her way and Mr. Bennett strove to please her at all costs.
And now, he had turned his back on Laurel. If he had only come to her with his fears. If he had talked to her about how dire their situation was, she would have been able to figure something out. Instead, her father had callously thrown her own life away from her. Well, it was unfair, and Laurel refused to do it. Closing the door quietly, she made her way down the narrow stairs.
Outside, she looked this way and that, squinting her eyes against the sun. It was important to think fast. She headed across the street and hurried in the direction of the house she shared with her father and his wife. His wife who refused to work.
As she mulled it over in her mind, Laurel saw a hansom across the way and raised her hand for it. She needed to utilize her time well. It wasn’t that she wanted to run away, and it was imperative she remind herself that her father was looking out for her best interests. Or was he?
She settled herself in the cab, sat back against the cool leather seat, and closed her eyes. Everything depended on her precise planning in the moment. She had no choice but to leave her father’s home. In fact, she should probably get out of Chicago.
If only Elizabeth wasn’t such a demanding woman. She’d known she was marrying a well-to-do man when she did so. She’d married a wealthy man, even. But not a rich man. So then why did Elizabeth insist on acting, and spending her husband’s money as if she had married a business tycoon? It was Elizabeth who was behind this crazy scheme to marry Laurel off to a timber baron. Laurel knew it was. When she thought of Elizabeth, she nearly trembled with fury.
She took up her pendant watch and unclasped the enameled cover. If Laurel was correct, Elizabeth was at the weekly Wednesday afternoon hearts game at her Ladies’ Auxiliary. It was a chance Laurel had to take.
The hansom cab pulled up to the large and stately, yet modest, house in Hyde Park. It was a genteel neighborhood, but not Lawndale where richer people resided and where Elizabeth wanted to move to.
Laurel paid the driver and went around to the side door of the house. Inside, she went directly to the kitchen stairs and up to her room. The house was empty except for the cooks, who sat at the table having a cup of tea. Laurel heard them discussing the evening meal as she tiptoed past the partially open door and slipped upstairs.
In her room, she hastily packed some things in a carpet bag. She had no idea where she was going to go; only that she had to leave. Abruptly, she took her handbag up from the bed, dropping it accidentally. The contents fell on the floor. Hastily, she stuffed the items back in. She held her Pinkerton detective novel in her hands. It was one more thing to carry. She opened the carpet bag and removed a pair of shoes wrapped in paper. Laurel had never worn them; they were brand new. Well, she had no use for them now. She placed them on the bed and tossed the book into the carpet bag.
A quick spin around, and her eye didn’t land on anything else she thought she might need. She took a deep breath. It was time. Leaving the room without another look back, Laurel made her way down the front stairs and out the front door. Her hastily thought-up plan told her she should head immediately to the train station. It didn’t matter where she went, actually, she just needed to get as far away as she could. Her father would be livid when he found her gone.
She glanced around quickly. It was time to move faster. What time the next train out of Chicago would be, she didn’t know. But there would be an engine going somewhere in the next hour. Laurel was sure of it.
The Great Central and the surrounding area in which it stood were dodgy, even in the daytime, but Laurel had no choice. There was no one who could have escorted her without it getting back to her father. She squared her shoulders and stood a little straighter. Then she walked to the corner down the street from her father’s house for the last time. She prayed that a nosey neighbor wasn’t at one of the windows that bordered the walk. It wouldn’t do for someone to mention to her father that they’d seen her out walking. Alone. She pulled her hat over one eye and looked down at the walk, quickening her pace. The adventure was about to begin.
Owen Collins finished his coffee and sat back. His lady friend smiled.
“It was wonderful to see you, Owen. I do have to be getting back to work.”
“Oh, of course.” He stood and pulled the lady’s chair out for her. “I enjoyed our lunch, Clara.” He offered his arm, which she took, and the two stepped outside into the bright April sunshine.
“It’s been so good seeing you, Owen. Now, you be sure to let me know the next time you’re in Chicago.”
“I will, Clara. Look, here’s a hansom. Shall I escort you back to the office?”
“No, dear, you run along.”
Owen kissed her hand and opened the carriage door for her. The cab took off almost before the door was closed.
He looked around. Where to next? Another night in the city left before heading back to New Mexico. The time off had been a welcome respite from three cases in a row. And because he’d solved them, his boss, Andrew Stein, had offered him a paid week off.
As Owen walked, the more he thought about making an early night of it. Some movement on the other side of the nearly empty street caught his eye. There was a young lady, a very attractive young lady, hurrying along toward the train station, alone. And a man was following her. The man was almost upon her when Owen looked right then left and started across the street. The young lady looked to be without an escort and, as such, she was an easy mark.
Owen stepped up onto the curb just as the man placed his hand on the young lady’s shoulder. He lurched forward but before he reached them, the lady whirled around and decidedly poked her index and middle finger in the man’s eyes. When he pulled back, she sent a resounding knee into his groin. The man doubled over in pain and Owen nearly burst out laughing. Where did the girl learn to street fight?
He was immediately intrigued and he continued forward to offer his assistance – not that the girl looked like she needed it. He was more interested in meeting her and interviewing her. She’d be perfect for the Pinkertons, and Andrew had expressed an interest in bringing more women on board.
The man recovered himself as Owen approached. He made a lunge toward the lady and Owen stepped in front of him, landing an emphatic jab that sent the man sprawling backward. He waited until the man recovered his balance and ran away in the other direction, then he turned to the young lady.
“Pardon me, Miss. Owen Collins, at your service.” He swept his hat off and bowed from the waist. “It’s my pleasure to meet you.”
Extending her hand she smiled, showing even, white, teeth. “Thank you, Mr. Collins,” she said, grasping his hand with her own. Her handshake was quite firm for a woman, which conveyed to him a sense of confidence and self-surety. Owen felt strangely odd for a moment. It was an altogether unfamiliar feeling, yet it was as enjoyable as it was mysterious. The lady was charming him without having said a word.
Now that the troublemaker had run off, Owen was surprised to see that she seemed not in the least bit frazzled about the event that had just taken place. What a cool head. And she knew how to get the man away from her. Extraordinary. Here was no shrinking violet waiting for a man to come to her rescue. This was a woman who dealt with situations head on.
She would be perfect for his team of Pinkerton detectives! He was sure Andrew would approve. Owen wondered how to broach the topic with the young lady. Just because she appeared to be a natural in terms of quick thinking and improvisation, he had no idea of who she was, if she had a husband or a family, or even if she lived in Chicago. She was in front of the Great Central Station, after all.
“I’m Laurel Bennett.”
He looked into her smiling face and the strange feeling overtook him again. She was certainly a beauty. Her deep brown curls were festooned up on the sides and under her bonnet, leaving the back tresses to cascade down past her shoulders. The simple deep green dress was nearly the same color as her large, up-tilted, deep green eyes.
She looked to be in transit. There was a carpet bag on the ground near where she stood, her dress was suited for traveling, and she seemed in a hurry. Owen had no doubt she was there to catch a train. That made his mission somewhat difficult. How was he to get her to stay in Chicago long enough to have her meet Andrew?
That was providing she was interested in listening to anything Owen had to say about it to her. Still, as he stood next to her wondering what to say, his instincts told him that she would hear him out.
“Uh, Miss Bennett, I couldn’t help but see, from across the street, how you took care of that man who was harassing you.”
She looked at him quizzically.
“You poked him in the eyes and then, well, when you got him with your knee, I couldn’t help but wonder where you learned your self-defense techniques.”
She blinked as if trying to ascertain if he was serious, then the tinkling of her laughter showered him. “Oh, that! I honestly don’t know what came over me. You’ll have to excuse my lapse into unladylike behavior.” She looked down.
Was she trying to hide her consternation at having been seen in a street fight? He figured she was probably embarrassed. She thought he was reprimanding her! That had to be it.
“Oh, not at all, Miss Bennett. In fact, I would like to speak with you more about it. I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee or tea…”
The bright green eyes narrowed. She appeared to study him. Of course she would be suspicious. Here she was, an unescorted woman, having been approached by a stranger to have coffee. He held his breath as he waited for her to consider his invitation. Her head tilted slightly to the side, then she broke out into a bright smile once again.
“Very well, Mr. Collins. Tea it is. I accept your offer.” She looked around and picked up her carpet bag.
Owen was delighted at his good fortune. Now he would have the opportunity to coerce her to meet Andrew.
He couldn’t give it away, of course. If he told her he wanted her to interview for a position within the Pinkerton Detective Agency, she might run in the other direction as quickly as her – what he was sure must be lovely – legs would carry her. He sniffed in his breath. This was about business and business only. There was no time or reason for him to appreciate her womanly wiles. He needed to be professional.
“Allow me, Miss Bennett.” He took her carpet bag with one hand and offered her his right arm, which she took.
Next door to the train depot, there was a small tea house. It was after lunch hour. Owen was able to secure a table for them in a dim corner of the room. He’d noticed that Miss Bennett had looked around quite a bit. She seemed preoccupied, almost frightened of something. Or someone.
Owen’s natural skill and training as a detective allowed him to read Miss Bennett pretty well. She was running from someone. It all made sense. Her nervous demeanor, the lightly packed bag, the hasty toilette. He’d noticed one of her gloves was buttoned on wrong, as if she’d donned them in a hurry.
“Will this table suit you, Miss…Bennett?” He wondered if it was her real name.
“This is lovely.” She smiled again and took the seat that faced the wall, leaving her back to the room.
That was all the confirmation Owen needed and he wondered if maybe he was making a mistake in thinking he could recruit Miss Bennett for the agency. Well, they had already settled in at the restaurant.
He would continue his impromptu interview and before they finished, he would know if he should ask her to meet Andrew.
“I couldn’t help but notice you’re traveling. Leaving town? You seemed to be in a hurry before that cad caught up to you.”
Her face was inscrutable. He was gratified to see that she was good at hiding her true feelings and thoughts. Another good sign. But he was getting ahead of himself. He had no knowledge of the lady or her life. Why, his first question hadn’t been answered yet. Was she coming to Chicago or leaving? If he had to say it, he’d say the latter.
A waiter came to them and took their order. Tea and cake. Miss Bennett handed her menu to the server and sat back, removing her gloves as she did so. Owen took in every one of her movements. He wondered briefly if he’d been in his line of work too long. He was profiling her ability to hide what was actually going on in her head. And was, most likely, reading into it. He was getting carried away at the thought of bringing someone to Andrew who could actually be trained and employed by the detective agency. The last two people he’d brought into the offices had not worked out and Owen blamed himself.
It was up to him to make things right with Andrew for having wasted his time with people who weren’t right for the job. Owen tried to keep his thoughts about Miss Bennett in check. So far, though, everything she did was consistent with bending the truth and remaining unreadable.
“Forgive me if I am being somewhat impertinent. I realize you’re not the type of lady who regularly takes tea with a complete stranger.”
She smiled and shook her head. Their tea and cake were delivered to the table and he noticed that she waited for the waiter to pour. That spoke to him of her spending time in tea houses or in the company of servants. There was also something demure in her manner. Owen thought she would find it easy to get into places that other women, who seemed tougher, couldn’t go.
Miss Bennett seemed to have it. It being the necessary traits associated with a detective. He hoped her sleuthing abilities were as adept.
“And what makes you say that, sir? You know nothing about me. Nothing at all.” She smiled again.
Owen had to admit to himself that she’d beaten him at his own game. Not an easy feat for most, but she’d disarmed him without even batting an eye. He found the thought exhilarating and smiled back at her, wondering what his next move would be.
“Right you are, Miss Bennett. Please accept my apology.”
She smiled again and nodded, stirring two lumps of sugar into her tea. Oh, she was good.
They sat in silence for a moment, then Owen took another approach. “Uh, Miss Bennett, although I know nothing about you, I have observed that you appear to be the type of person my employer would want to meet.”
Her eyes widened ever so slightly, but she held to her original pleasant countenance, smiling and sipping her tea. “Is that so, Mr. Collins?”
“Yes, it is.” He’d used the word the person and not woman to put her at her ease somewhat. He didn’t want her to think that he was soliciting her to get involved in something sordid or untoward. He would forge ahead and tell her everything he’d ascertained about her in their short time together and explain to her why the traits he’d seen her exhibit made her a worthy candidate to meet Andrew Stein of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
“You see, I can’t tell you what it is exactly that I do. I’m talking, of course, about my career choice and how I make my living. However, in the time I’ve had in your company, I’ve made an assumption. That assumption is just what I’ve already told you. You appear to be the type of person my employer would want to meet.”
She looked to be interested in what he was saying. His effort to show her that he was a gentleman, that he was credible and trustworthy, appeared to have put her at her ease. He felt, rather than saw, her relax. Owen hoped that Miss Bennett would show herself, or at least part of herself, to him.
“So, for some reason you cannot tell me who you work for or what it is exactly you do. Very well, Mr. Collins. I’ll take the bait. I can’t say that your story is not intriguing. Give me the details, will you?”
Owen was pleased at her decision to hear what he had to say. Or what he could tell her, anyway. She waited, her face quiet, the teasing smile vanished.
“First of all, I couldn’t help but see that you’re alone. You had no escort here. I’m sure the man who attempted to rob you was aware of that fact also. And that brings me to your skill in protecting yourself. Where did you learn to fight that way? The way you defended yourself was most interesting.”
Miss Bennet still said nothing and daintily bit into a cake. Owen was growing impatient. He didn’t know if she was going to give him any more information. The possibility that maybe he was wasting his time presented itself and he sighed in frustration.
“Miss Bennett, I am a detective with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. That’s all I can tell you at this time. If you consent to meet my employer, then you will be privy to other information.”
After about a minute, she spoke. “To tell you the truth, Mr. Collins, I’m escaping from my father. He has sold me to a business acquaintance of his. He’s sold me in marriage to a man I don’t love in order to keep his business safe.”
He was stunned. He’d imagined it possible that the lady had had a fight with a beau. That she was on her way to stay with an aunt or friend up in Evanston, for instance. Her story was much sadder in the delivery than even the facts of it.
“I see. Well, there’s something that’s kept you in Chicago long enough to join me for this discussion. I have a proposition. Allow me to purchase a hotel room for you for tonight. In the morning, if you wish, you can meet with my employer. I certainly hope you’ll accept my offer.”
Again she narrowed her eyes and studied him. Without warning she dropped her chin and made to stand up.
“Miss Bennett, what is it?”
“I cannot accept your offer, sir.”
Gone was the self-assured woman who’d fought off a robber with minimal help from him. He watched as she took her carpet bag up and stood to go.
Suddenly, it was as if a light went on in his head. “Miss Bennett, the room will be for your private use. You and you only. Will you accept?”
It was as if the idea of it was too much for her to refuse and she sat back down and nodded her head.
“Ok, Mr. Collins. I accept. I will meet your employer tomorrow morning.”
“Very good. Let me escort you to the hotel. If anyone is looking for you, they’re bound to search the train depot. After I secure your room, you will be visited in the morning by a colleague of mine. Her name is Mary Ann Lowe. She will be around at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Is that agreeable?”
“Yes, Mr. Collins, it is.”
Owen couldn’t help but notice that Miss Bennett’s mood had taken a serious turn. He wanted to ask her for details of her father’s plans to marry her off, but thought better of it. He could tell she was a bit skittish about it and he understood why. Here she was, sitting with him, and about to take him up on the offer of a hotel room.
They finished their tea and left the shop, heading for the hotel a block away. Owen noticed that she, once again, was looking this way and that way, presumably for a pursuer. He took his watch out. Already four o’clock. He’d spent two hours in Miss Bennett’s company. The time had flown by and now it was time to part ways.
At the hotel he paid for a room and walked to the elevator. “Shall I walk you to the door, Miss Bennett?”
She looked up at him. Gone was the poised young woman of the tea house. Gone also was the unshakeable heroine who’d physically fought off a man using her smarts and her instincts. Her large green eyes were clear and trusting. He felt himself pulled into their heady glow and quickly composed himself.
Was it possible he was making a mistake? He knew Andrew was going to go for the idea of hiring her. It was clear that Miss Bennett naturally possessed many of the traits of a detective that were the most difficult to teach. She was artful and cunning. If Owen was to work with her, he didn’t need any complications. Allowing emotions to come to the surface would, most certainly, put him in an uncomfortable predicament. Especially the kind of emotions he found himself experiencing. There was something amazingly intriguing about her. He would need to remind himself to keep his distance.
Laurel answered that he didn’t need to walk her to her room…the room he had just paid for. She informed him that she would expect his colleague to come and pick her up the next morning. She extended her hand, which he took, and then she was gone. Almost as if she’d vanished.
Owen walked out into the bright sunshine. The ill luck that had that brought Miss Laurel Bennett into his life had turned into a boon for him. He was sure of it. Having her meet Andrew and Mary Ann would benefit him and, he was sure, the entire agency. Providing Miss Bennett had told him the truth about her current circumstances, she would profit as well.
He hailed a hansom cab and gave the driver directions to take him to his favorite gaming room in the city. Then he sat back and let his mind relax. He imagined how Miss Bennett’s imminent meeting with Andrew might go in the morning. It had certainly been Owen’s good fortune to happen upon the lady, and it was his hope that he could keep his lucky streak alive at the gambling den.
The carriage stopped in front of the joint and he hopped out. Owen hoped to enjoy his evening, which meant he wanted to win big at the card table. It was the last free evening he would have for some time.
In a few weeks he would be sent from Chicago to work on a new case. It had become his life, actually. Case assignments, travel, different options for false employment, and an undercover persona complete with a made-up backstory. It took time to prepare for each assignment and it took time to recover from each one also. And then there would be a few days off doing whatever he wanted until the cycle started again.
It had been that way for the last seven years. Had it really been that long? Unbidden thoughts of his dead fiancé caused him to swallow hard. Sally was gone and there was nothing to do about it. It had been five years.
Owen shook his head. This wasn’t what he wanted to do right now. He refused to spend another evening drinking whiskey with the sole intent of putting Sally from his thoughts.
He walked into the card room. A few men, acquaintances, waved or said hello.
“Ok, gentlemen, who’s ready to lose some money?’ Owen grinned and strode to the blackjack table.
“Deciphering His Enigmatic Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Laurel Bennett is a dutiful daughter, working as a secretary at her father’s office. Her life is about to take a terrifying turn though, when her father cold-bloodedly, in a bid to save his floundering business, agrees to marry her with a crude, older man. Desperate to escape, she sees no other choice but to run away in the middle of the night. To make things even worse, she is being attacked by a dangerous man, but, luckily, a total stranger, Owen, comes to her rescue. Although Laurel realizes she is in a tight spot, she is rather hesitant towards Owen’s unusual but exciting proposal to meet with the Pinkerton’s boss. Will she dare to follow someone she has just met? Is this her one chance to fulfill the yearning for adventure she’s always harbored in her heart?
Owen Collins, a talented Pinkerton’s private detective, is devoted to the hunt of bad guys and the excitement of working undercover. From the very first moment he lays his eyes on Laurel he feels amazed by her vigor and determination to protect herself, and he knows that she will be a perfect addition to the team. Soon, he will undertake a bizarre, yet fascinating task with her, but acting to be Laurel’s husband appears to be a real challenge. To his surprise, his role feels much more natural than he expected, and falling for her seems to be beyond his power. Will he be able to keep their relationship strictly professional and balanced? How can he focus on this important mission when his mind is overwhelmed by emotion?
Misunderstandings, past heartbreaks, and fears of losing themselves cause Laurel and Owen’s relationship to fluctuate from a sincere understanding to a tangled web of secret thoughts. As their paths begin to entwine more than either of them expected, will they be able to tame their deep feelings?
“Deciphering His Enigmatic Heart” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.