Robert Sawyer didn’t much know why he stood at the large hotel serving salon, talking to the first man who’d ever seen fit to offer him a loan about said man’s only female child. Sawyer ‘bout figured he’d agree to the undertaking Captain Louis Van Yorne wished him to commandeer whether or not he understood the why of it. Not, as most would think, because of the original loan—long since paid off with the proper interest—but because of a much deeper debt.
Van Yorne hadn’t much changed in the six or so years since Robert had seen him last. Still carried the kind of lean bulk that only those unaccustomed to fighting might mistake for thin, weak limbs. Van Yorne’s clothing, while being both a similar color and cut of his own, had the indefinable measure of class and expense Robert’s likely never would. The few changes that did mark Robert’s memory of the great man appeared in the graying temples of his sandy color hair, and the lines upon his generally appealing face—especially deep in depth next to his gunmetal grey eyes and heavily bearded lips.
“She will certainly seem to you to be…apart from what I’ve spoken. But she carries herself as needed, when needed, such as her mother and myself have always directed and allowed her to do so.”
Robert said nothing, as was his usual way of dealing with an issue he had no real opinion on. This only appeared to further please Van Yorne. At least, that was Robert’s assumption until he noticed Van Yorne’s attention had wavered completely from himself, to rest on a attractive chestnut haired matron gussied up in a cornflower silk as blue as her eyes.
When she reached Van Yorne’s arm, he turned to Robert and made introductions, “Sawyer, while I’ve spoken to you of her person, I don’t think you’ve ever had the grace herself bestowed upon you.” The lady blushed prettily at the compliment. “May I amend that now? This is Lady Cassandra née Rochester.”
“I am honored, m’ lady,” Robert offered with all honesty.
She spoke with an accent that marked her as English nobility, even if her appearance and manor had not. “I have heard many stories of you, Mr. Sawyer. My husband speaks well of you. And thank you, before I forget myself, for all your help with my second eldest son. He also has written me of you and your character. I find myself once again thanking you—this time in advance—for the assistance you are bequeathing upon me and mine.”
Van Yorne took over the conversation there, allowing Robert Sawyer to take his leave for a late afternoon nap—or lunch, or whichever his circumstances may require—to return just an hour or so hence, when his children would do also. As Robert’s tall figure cut a swash through the crowd of patrons, Van Yorne turned to his wife—the very love of his life—and asked her for her opinion. It wouldn’t likely change anything, as Van Yorne’s thoughts had already been organized into his humble opinion of humanly perfection, but the feminine perspective would serve much interest in confirming his own idea’s of the young man’s person.
Cassandra’s eyes stayed on the form of Robert Sawyer until she could see him no longer. “He’s a good-looking boy, Louis. Almost pretty, if he weren’t a bit rough. But I have never before seen such a level man. Even keeled, to a fault of passion. Are you certain of all of this, my love?”
“As certain as I am on any of my more extravagant wagers, Cassie.”
“Let’s hope this one fairs you as well.”
As was only proper, Catherine did not speak to the reporters alone. Her second-to-youngest brother, Richard, sat as chaperon, just away from the sitting area but close enough to hear all that transpired. Her youngest brother, Michael, waited, armed, with a smattering of the local law enforcement outside the room of the same establishment her parents currently attend in the salon.
“Is it true, Miss Van Yorne,” a nice woman from the Ladies Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper asked with a smile, “that you have been offered no less than four proposals since your debut?”
“Mrs. Stubbs,” Catherine made an effort not to roll her eyes, “as I find myself often reminding you, I did not debut, nor do I plan to.” She gave the lady a small wink, “And it was five, actually.”
“You’re expecting your colt Blue Blood to do as well as Yankee Fashion this spring?” This from the New York World.
“That or better, Mr. Tinker. Blue is much more temperate than his sire. Not so much of Boston’s meanness runs around in his blood. I’m hoping this will make him an easier animal to train. We shall have to see what destiny has in store for him.”
The New York Journal’s man took a different tangent. “Your family, Miss Van Yorne has plans to make a journey to San Francisco?”
Catherine proceeded with due caution, “My second-oldest brother, Albert, lives outside the city proper there with his wife. They have a very nice cattle and sliver spread and have since seen fit to add another Van Yorne to play upon it. As the first grandchild for my parents, all deemed circumstances well enough for a visit.”
“Certainly. And you intend to bring a good quantity of stock with you, to aid in his attempt to set-up California as a new racing capital?”
“California has started without the help of the Van Yorne’s, I’m afraid. I’m not sure that ‘a good quantity’ is at all fair, but a few of our proven producers will be presented to Albert upon our arrival; yes.”
Mr. Tinker, from the World jumped in, “You’ll be taking both Yankee Fashion and Blue Blood with you, then?”
“Mmm,” Catherine answered as mildly as possible, “they both are too valuable to be left behind. Blue, of course, is too young to be bred, but I refused to leave him behind while we spend an indeterminate amount of time in California.”
“Surely you wouldn’t wish to have Blue out of this season?”
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Tinker. Blue will be at Churchill Downs come next spring.”
The man from the Journal pressed, “Word also has it that your father is concerned for your safety on the trails, and has engaged the services of the Pickertons to protect you and serve as decoys while en route to California.”
“Why, Mr. Cortland, I was unaware that the Journal had decided to go the way of the gossip pages!” This time she made no effort to hide her rolling eyes—although this time the farce itself was in the act, “I’ll travel with my family as is only proper, though we are a large lot, so we may not all clamber along together. I hope you don’t expect me to divulge the day-to-day doings as I honestly do not have them myself.”
Richard gave the indication that the open forum had come to a close, and Catherine said her goodbyes to the various parties present. She hooked Richard on his right side, keeping his left—gun hand—free. They were joined by Michael and the rest as they exited the room, the men folding in around the three Van Yornes just as they’d been paid to do.
Such a thing probably wasn’t necessary for the short trip down into the hotel’s gallery salon, but the senior Van Yorne left nothing as chance when it came to his children; especially sparing no expense for his three youngest. The hired guns took a loose formation outside the salon, while the two brothers escorted their infamously popular sister to the head table inside.
Catherine recognized everyone as either belonging to or being a close approximation of her family; all except a young man standing stiffly to her father’s left side. This man was dressed well enough, but she had the distinct impression that he gained no comfort from his clothing. As if they more hung upon him than truly covered his person. She wondered what sort of thing he normally wore. Perhaps it was her preoccupation with his posture inside his clothing that distracted her from the man himself, but she quickly found herself there as well.
His hair reminded her of fresh syrup; brown, but lightly so, and kept well in the fashion of the higher class. A nicely trim mustache hung over his lips, with a small triangle resting beneath the full bottom one; Catherine had learned from her favorite cousin, Zelda, such a thing was the signature of a self-sure man and was called an imperial beard. His face was hard planes, with only the barest hint of a cleft at the very base of his chin, all together rather handsome, even despite the coldness in his dark green eyes.
This one protects himself behind walls of iron and stone, she mused to herself.
It wasn’t a truly fair assessment of the man, but she had no way of knowing the trails Robert Sawyer had seen. She couldn’t know that his detached gaze came from a complete and utter fear of embarrassing himself in front of his host—and hero, if it came to that. No matter what he’d earned, what he’d saved and sweated for, Robert still pictured himself as a dirt-poor immigrant with no more polish than a half-charred lump of coal. Standing up at a table full of white linen, silver, china, and crystal—under the scrutiny of the children of Van Yorne who didn’t know him from Adam—had Robert again desperately checking his fingernails for dirt.
As such, he didn’t once get any sort of impression of Van Yorne’s children. The boys all seemed to blend together with Al, the brother he knew in San Francisco, and the girl…well, one glance at her purple dress and blonde curls told him he ought to find other things to occupy his eyes with. It wasn’t until the entire ordeal was almost finished, that the option of avoidance was taken away from Robert.
“Your spread shares a border with Albert, right Sawyer?” Michael, the youngest—or so Robert thought—asked with a leading weight. “What’s the size of yours in comparison to his?”
Robert made sure to wipe his mouth twice, just for good measure. “Yes, Sir, we share a border, but not an equal portion of land. I have what I need, plus a bit. There’s quite a distance between Al’s main house and mine, but courthouse has us mapped out as neighbors.”
“Despite Mr. Sawyer’s modesty, his claim is not much less than forty acres different. In addition to that, Albert wrote me that he would still have half a house to finish, if not for the help of Mr. Sawyer,” Mrs. Van Yorne added pointedly. “That, if he weren’t so generous with his aid in the city proper, many a townsfolk would have fallen to extreme hardship.” While Robert furiously tried to beat back his blush, she added, “And I’ll not have you talking of matters as course as quantity of land or yearly earnings, Michael. Mr. Sawyer has earned his place, and more than that has come to this family further intending to provide assistance. When you have regained both your manors and your common sense, please grace us with the pleasure of your tongue. Until then, bite it.”
“Michael meant no harm, Momma,” the girl-child of Van Yorne spoke up. Robert expected her to move in defense of her brother, but was surprised by her acid turn. “He’s just been trying to find a new angle on courting one Mary Steinweiler, and figures the promise of a big range out in California might soften the blow of a seventh son’s inheritance.”
The son in question stuck his tongue out at his offending sibling, while the others in attendance attempted—in various forms of seriousness—to conceal their amusement. Before her mother had the chance to chastise her as well, the sister turned to Robert, waited until he met her unwavering baby blue eyes, and then offered her sincerest apology for any offense or discomfort she may have caused him in the process of familial banter.
Robert wished he’d kept his head down. Then maybe he wouldn’t have seen how pretty Van Yorne’s daughter was. Sure, in the brief hour he’d spent walking the thoroughfare, he’d heard a stitch of conversation or two about her and her looks. Seeing as her momma was sweet enough to look on—and her father and brother he knew to be both well-respected figures of masculinity—it made nothing but sense that the girl would be too.
But he hadn’t expected the almost heavy looking berry colored lips. The fresh, smooth skin too golden to be compared to cream, and her high cheeks of equally ripe color all hidden behind those big blue eyes. Her long blond hair had been curled, and few sections hung down long enough in front to start him thinking about what lay under them. Covered in purple and corseted in lilac and white, even seated as she was, Robert could see she had the sort of figure that sent calm headed men off in a frenzy like a new buck in his first season.
Dangerous, she was, there was not a question in Robert’s mind.
After so long without a response, the girl turned her attention away, freeing Robert from his captivity. “Daddy, may I be excused?”
“We’re not quite finished yet, Catherine.”
“Yes, Daddy, but I thought I’d go see to the horses one last time before our trip gets underway…” she returned her stupefying eyes back to Robert, “I thought Mr. Sawyer might enjoy seeing them. Get away from all this family silliness.”
Robert could tell she wanted him to immediately acquiesce to her suggestion, but he came a little back to himself with her assumption. The minx was used to getting her way. She knew she was more than fine to look at and, being the only girl in a litter of seven, likely often got her way based on her sex alone. He raised an eyebrow at her, as if to ask what, exactly, was in the deal for him.
She met his challenge with one of her own and while she addressed her father, she answered directly to Robert. “Albert had written of Mr. Sawyer’s interest in thoroughbred racehorses. I’d just thought he might like to see with his own eyes the only foal out of Fashion, sired by Boston.”
Robert felt his heart klurplunk to a dead stop in his chest. That Boston and Fashion, arguably two of the ages’ best racehorses, had ever come together to produce a foal was something close to legend. Even though he knew the story from Al, Robert couldn’t prevent the opportunity to see the horse himself in person. “I’d be much obliged, Van Yorne.”
The master and misses Van Yorne exchanged a brief nonverbal conversation, then gave their blessing to the endeavor. Robert almost fell over his chair in his haste to stand up before the girl did so herself. Luckily, he maintained his balance enough to offer her his arm. The thing certainly had its own sense of humor, as she was the one directing him and not vise versa, but they both pretended the case was otherwise, happy to be free from the conditions and constraints of the dinner table.
Upon entering the stable she took back her hand, them both missing the heat of the other without making a comment as to such. Robert watched her remove her white lace gloves and tuck them up into the stay of her lilac corset. He wondered if he’d ever seen hands so small, but strong…as if they were the hands of some god-child from Greek mythology.
She directed him to a few of the stalls, informing him of the animal’s lineage and future in San Francisco, while blowing in its noise and rubbing a hand or two along its neck. Her manor was both mater-of-fact and whimsical. It made him think that, while she meant to be as much the businessman as her father, she lacked the true detachment from her subject she’d need to pull off the coup.
He knew when they approached the stall of the infamous Yankee Fashion because she asked him to stay back a bit. Sliding open the door, she lead out the top earning American thoroughbred with nothing more than his halter and her bare hand. Robert had only seen Boston run once, and that had been as a very young child. But the rangy chestnut before him looked very much the same.
“Both his parents were chestnuts, but he takes more after his Sire, as you can see. Same color, same two white socks on the hind. A star on the forehead and one on the nose.” She rubbed the aforementioned snip affectionately. “I’m sure you’ve heard the story from Al, but I found him years ago, nearly beaten to death, outside our hotel in Connecticut. I’d seen paintings of Boston running against Fashion, and thought for sure that the bloody colt before me must belong to the same lineage. Daddy, probably thinking he was indulging me, offered the liveryman five dollars for him. The liveryman refused, saying his owners were at the local saloon, and would not favor well returning to one less horse to gamble away. No one ever explained to me why he was hurt in the first place, but I can assume.”
Robert watched the small, sturdy hands ease the stallion as she talked. Disconnected from the girl herself, he felt free to admire those hands. He could see the skill they knew, the training they’d experienced. He half imagined God used those same hands to calm a raging storm gone out of turn.
“I can’t say for certain why Daddy did it. I like to think it was for me, but he could have just thought it worth the risk; regardless…he walked over to that saloon and won me my barely breathing colt…right along with the papers that proved he was the only living cross between the two fastest thoroughbreds to ever walk this continent.” She smiled; not so much at him, but enough for Robert to see how much it gentled her, softened her. “It took me days to nurse him back to health. I wouldn’t let anyone else near him. I even slept in the cargo car with him on our journey home. He wasn’t any bigger than me, back then, so I suppose they didn’t think he could do any real harm.”
“He grew up to be one of New York’s favorites,” Robert couldn’t help but try to encourage her to continue.
“Yes. He ran just like his parents, although his temper is one to rival his father’s.” Quietly she turned the stallion back into his stall, whispering to him about the coming days, and what was in store for him…for them both. It was as though Robert had ceased to exist. She latched the door and turned back to her human companion, “Al has imported several mares from Europe. A couple he purchased from the Godolphin Stud in England. Among the lot he’s got two mares out of Spendthrift and a filly out of American Eclipse. Yank is one of the stallions he hopes to cross into them.”
Robert read her expression, “You disapprove.”
She shrugged, “He’s mean. I don’t think that is something a breeder should wish for in his barn.”
More from a want to understand, than a desire to argue, Robert pressed, “Al mentioned you had already produced a quality colt from him.”
“Yes. A colt bred with care…and caution. Years of finding the right match, not rushing to create produce.” She stopped after a series of empty stalls in front of one that held an oddly tall, blue-black splashed with ample white. This door she slid open with no warning; nor did the colt wear any sort of harness for her to hold onto. He waited patiently in his stall until she told him to ‘step up,’ which he did, walking out of his stall and into the walkway to stand alongside Robert.
“This is Blue Blood. He’s an almost three-year-old Yankee baby out of a French hunter mare we called Bonnie Blue. I was shocked to see him drop as he did. Never had a bald faced foal, let alone one with enough white to show pink on his nose, or stockings up to all four knees.”
“Never seen it in a Thoroughbred,” he agreed. “Can I touch him?”
This time, her smile caught him full on. Robert thought he smelt his toenails burning. “Yes, Mr. Sawyer, this one you may touch.”
Even as he cautiously reached out to graze the silky, dark coat of the colt—a part of him certain both the horse and the woman would disappear the second he made contact—Robert couldn’t stop himself from saying, “Please, miss, Robert is fine.”
“Mmm, why is it my father has asked you to serve as my personal bodyguard on our journey to San Francisco?” She kept her voice devoid of emotion for the benefit of her colt, but Robert recognized the warning.
“Your father gave me my first start in—”
She interrupted his excuse, “My father has given many people their first loans—and first starts, Mr. Sawyer. What I want to know is, what makes you so different then all the others? What makes my father treat you in a way I’ve never seen him treat anyone outside his family, ever? What makes you think you know him well enough to umbrella yourself under the safety he provides?”
Catherine almost started as Robert Sawyer’s eyes flashed molten fire in her direction. She amended her earlier thought—that his eyes were cold—along with her idea that his eyes were green. At this proximity, she could see no less than nine colors; the body of which was made up of shades of green, blue, and streaking flecks of gold. “I’ve known your father longer than you have, girl.”
“Ah,” Catherine smirked over closed teeth. “Away to me,” she commanded the colt.
A bit over-eager, Blue Blood almost stepped on Robert Sawyer’s feet in his haste to obey his lady’s command to return to his stall. If not for Sawyer’s speed, the Robert surely would have come back with at least a bruised toe to show for his troubles. Catherine slid Blue’s door shut, cooing reassurances to the colt that he had done nothing wrong.
She leaned a little against his door, hoping her father’s agent didn’t notice the weakness. She was tired of being the cautious one in her family. Couldn’t they all see that? Why now, after everything, would her father bring a new man into the fold? Despite what both she and her mother spouted out of propriety, neither had received a letter from Albert about the young man before her. It was simply the story her father had told her to align with before his arrival.
“I have a proposition for you.”
This time with much less enthusiasm, “Yes, ma’am?”
“Do you have any idea why it is that my father has hired you—beyond, of course the obvious task of protecting me?” She saw hesitation in those strange eyes, and that alone made her soften her anger against him. “You are loyal to him, I can see that. But surely you are curious as well..? No? Hmmm. Alright, Mr. Sawyer, perhaps I can tempt you with this. I have three mares nearly ready to drop by the aid of my fine—if a bit mean—stallion; son of Boston out of Fashion. All three were chosen by me, were chosen after years of forethought, much like the dam of my Blue Blood was. I promise you, Sir, first choice of the three—for fair payment, of course—if you agree to my proposition.”
Starbursts of green and gold and blue narrowed in on her. “I’d first know the proposition.”
“We have, at best estimate, eight weeks ahead of us before we reach San Francisco.”
Robert nodded, “At the very best estimate, yes.”
“I propose that, before we arrive in San Francisco, I not only offer you first choice in what is sure to be horseracing’s next crop of champions, but a full and complete explanation as to why it is you’re along for the journey in the first place.”
“And in return?”
“In return, I ask only that you confess to me—and me alone—why it is you feel you owe my father such a debt.” At his hesitation, she pressed, “A debt that, by your own claim, was made years before my conception. Something that seems impossible, considering you can’t be much more than five years my senior.”
“You were born in?”
Strangely, she felt as though she’d been called upon by a stern teacher, “Seventy-two.”
“I agree to your terms, Miss Van Yorne.” With every efficiency, he shook her hand, then turned on his heal for the door.
She couldn’t keep herself from shouting after him, “And when were you born, Mr. Sawyer?”
He responded, but did not turn, “Sixty-four, Miss Van Yorne; sixty-four.”
Catherine fell asleep dreaming of horses and debts and green-eyed wild cats that made her want to leave the safety of her family for the ferocity they promised.
Robert couldn’t immediately seem to call sleep to him, but, upon doing so, found himself dreaming of the lady Godiva, riding naked, bareback upon her great stallion…her blond curls hiding all he longed to see.