Episode 38: Escort Service
Tony Bonham walked into the Hopewell Hotel like a man walking into a garbage dump. He looked around the stolid building, built for utility not gentility, and didn't bother to repress a sneer in the direction of the front desk.
Julian Hopewell caught the sneer and its meaning, and came around the desk in a hurry. "What do you want, Bonham? What are you doin' here?"
"I am only here to escort Miss Duniway to dinner at my father's house." He sniffed at Ralph, hovering in the door of the dining room. "I hope to escort her soon to better company and lodgings at the LeFay to boot. Rest assured I will leave this...place as soon as possible." Hopewell gave him the evil eye, but stomped upstairs to get the schoolteacher.
Tony's pocket watch chimed daintily; he took it out automatically and consulted the time. Fifteen minutes until his stepmother's little soirée began. He wondered if she'd bring in some hapless employee of his father's to serve as impromptu butler. Usually educated middle class greenhorns unused to hard labor ended up in the biggest pickles trying to work their own claims; working for his father to raise the money to go home taught them hard labor quick enough, and one of them might do for a butler in a pinch. If not, it'd be Mrs Walters shuttling food in and out of the kitchen, and a worse inducement to appetite he didn't know. Where on earth had Charity found her, and why did she keep such a sour, pinched woman around? He supposed her temperament matched her mistress's--almost as much as if they were related.
He felt eyes on him and looked up; Ralph was still in the doorway, absently wiping his hands on his dirty apron. "Nice watch," said Ralph.
"Don't you have something to do--a possum to skin, perhaps?"
"Naw, Julian said keep an eye on you," said Ralph, unruffled; Tony thought perhaps the man did have a possum to skin. Ralph jerked his greasy head toward the Bonham mansion. "Figured you might steal the silverware, I reckon, seein' as how you're his son."
Tony straightened in icy outrage, but turned toward the stairs at the sound of footsteps. Hopewell was leading Miss Duniway into the lobby. "But I'm not expecting anyone," he heard her musical voice saying.
"Miss Duniway," he said, and stopped. She wore a simple black dress and coat with little in the way of furbelows: tasteful, appropriate to the occasion and her station, and entirely becoming; rather than drabbing down her fair complexion, the black played it up, making her skin even more like a peach and her eyes an almost impossible blue. Her golden hair wreathed her head in gentle curls beneath a black silk bonnet trimmed in gray. A jewel displayed against black satin. Charity will be beside herself.
"Mr Bonham, to what do I owe the pleasure?" she said, and he imagined he heard actual pleasure in her voice.
"This town is none too safe in the evenings. A lady like you should have an escort to my father's dinner," he smiled, just as the door jingled open.
"This town is safe as houses in the evenings for a lady like Miss Duniway, I assure you," came a familiar voice. Tony turned. Damn it: Runnels. "Nevertheless," said the sheriff over the top of Tony's head, "I thought stepping over to the hotel to escort you to dinner was the polite thing to do. Seems I wasn't the only one with that thought."
Annabelle looked from Runnels to Tony. I was here first! Pick me, pick me!... I sound like one of her schoolchildren, he chided himself. She smiled politely and said, "I am lucky indeed, to have two escorts when I expected none. Shall we, gentlemen?" Tony began to offer his arm, but she pretended not to notice and walked out the door.
A brief frustrated glance his way from Runnels was satisfying, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Ralph stick his tongue out at him; he scowled. "Shall we?" said Runnels, gesturing toward the door.
"Not a moment too soon," muttered Tony, hurrying after Annabelle.
They walked toward the mansion in silence, Annabelle staying slightly ahead of her two suitors--when had Tony started thinking of himself as a suitor? When Runnels came through the door; that man had no hanky-panky in mind, he was dead serious. Ah, the Bonham competitive streak rears its ugly head.
His thoughts must have shown in his face. "You realize Simon Prake's in line, too," Runnels said out one side of his mouth.
"Why, whatever do you mean, Sheriff? In line for what?" said Tony. Runnels snorted in scorn, and Tony suppressed a malicious smile. So the Sheriff knew nothing of where young Mr Prake's heart really lay. So much the better for me. Advantageous knowledge was best kept secret.
The door creaked at Tony's knock; Mrs Walters poked her pinched face through the crack, looked them up and down, and opened it the rest of the way. "Come in, Mr Tony." Tony walked past her; for a moment it looked as if she might actually bar the way for the other two, until Tony finally said, "Mrs Walters, they have an invitation."
"I know, I know," she snapped. "Come in, I suppose." She fixed a beady, spite-filled eye on Annabelle, and stepped aside. Annabelle braced herself as if for a confrontation, and passed through the door. She seemed to know what to expect. That's right, she's been here before. He had a good guess what Charity was expecting, and he was pretty sure she sure wasn't going to get it.