On the way: Cress on the Bay

I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on Cress in Waterbee. It’s great when people see the vision you see, isn’t it? I’m currently working on the second novel in The Cress Series, entitled Cress on the Bay.

1887. Now ten, Cress Steward is on her way from Waterbee, Vermont to Frimond Bay, a town on the Lost Coast of California. As a biracial child in the Victorian age, Cress is told little about her origins. A man Cress knew as Mister Jake is related to the white family that first took her in. When Cress finds out that Mister Jake is her father, she is certain he cares nothing for her.

Yet a letter invites Cress to spend a year with Jake in Frimond Bay. Knowing little about her white father, and even less about her black mother, Cress accepts the invitation. And while the letter was signed ‘Jake Steward’, he is not the person who invited her.

Here’s a sample. Enjoy!

“Figures.” Jake grumbled. From the window of his study, he watched a rainstorm darken the Pacific. When Jake first bought his estate, its view of Frimond Bay and the harbor pleased him. He was often told that the sight of his home gave greater comfort than the lighthouse. One time his sister-in-law overheard the compliment and said ‘You certainly have the look of a hero.’ The memory of her smugness returned Jake to his desk.

He prepared a letter to his attorney, in response to a petition made by a Virginia Larsson Steward. In similar wording to the document, Mrs. Steward wished to disjoin her affections, estates, and endeavors from the respondent, Jacob Fenimore Steward, by any and all lawful means as specified in California Law Code such-and-such. As of two days ago, the woman Jake had called ‘my dear Mrs.’ no longer wished to be such. He tried to remember the last time he called Virginia by her pet name. When had he last taken her somewhere? The most recent trip was to Paris for their anniversary, nearly two years ago.

Jake had been dragged there several times in his childhood, and this last visit did nothing to improve his opinion of the city. He could not understand why Virginia found Paris so enchanting. When they heard that a 900-foot tower was to be built for the Exposition Universelle, Virginia had been appalled. Jake, however, found the plan intriguing, and the two argued on the matter for some time. He did not want to believe his marriage hinged upon something so trivial, but Jake knew its demise had begun with that argument, in Paris.

He chuckled to himself. “I suppose it’s one more strike against the place.”

Jake’s letter had to be finished by one o’clock, to give his lawyers time to review it. He wanted it to go on the day’s mail train, but doubted Mr. Calvert would send it before tomorrow. Neither could Jake forget the dinner at seven, in which he was to entertain representatives of three ship lines, two bank officers, and the ambassador of the Hawaiian Republic. His house staff went about their work, but without Virginia to conduct the domesticity. A headache would excuse her absence from the dinner, but the word ‘divorce’ preyed on Jake’s mind.

Jake sat behind a mahogany desk, one custom built so that his knees would not suffer as they had under every desk since he was sixteen. All the furniture in his study was built to his measurements—floor lamps were taller, end tables higher, even the sofa sat a few inches above standard. Each wooden piece, from the bookshelves to the armrests, was of mahogany, brown-red and shiny with lacquer.

When his neighbors put themselves upon him for a tour, many came away in irritation. They were told about his orphaned childhood in St. Louis, and his years as a logger in Canada. Some hoped to laugh at Jake’s décor, for his height led them to assume he lacked intelligence. Yet instead of a glorified cabin, the Steward estate claimed all the gentility of a Boston townhouse. And somehow Jake’s oak brown hair and blue-gray eyes smarted the wound. His valiant chin and broad laugh had at first been relegated to charm. But the elegance of the Steward estate left no doubt that Virginia Larsson had ‘landed quite a catch’.

One object in the study did not comply to Jake’s measurements. A crème-colored bulldog lay at his feet, who answered to the name ‘Seamus’. He belonged to Virginia, and Jake had never so much as petted the creature. Yet when Virginia readied to leave, Seamus dropped his bottom in Jake’s chair and could not be moved. Jake hurried from the office as soon as word reached him—not about Seamus claiming his chair, but of Virginia clearing all remnants of herself from their home. And while she moved her possessions from the stead, her dog she could not.

“Don’t expect a great deal of attention.” said Jake to Seamus. “Neither am I one for being licked in the face. And don’t look forward to playing on the rug with me. Long as that’s all right with you, you’re all right with me.”

Seamus perked one of his ears, deeming further movement unnecessary. Yet when a knock came to the study door, Seamus did look to see who it might be.

A man of forty entered, dressed in a morning suit and carrying a telegram. He had a reddish complexion, white skin that little more than burned in the sun. His hair was light brown, cut short and combed back. His walk betrayed an out-of-doors upbringing and made other butlers wonder why he chose such an occupation. “Sir, this just come for you.” He spoke with an Australian accent, and bowed before handing Jake the telegram.

“Thank you, O’Reilly.” Jake looked out to the hallway. “Come in and shut the door.”

O’Reilly obeyed, then stood in front of Jake’s desk. “Sir, have you finished the letter to Mr. Calvert?”

Jake heaved a sigh. “Hardly know how. I am hardly coherent. And tonight I must be my most eloquent! In some way or other I’ll do it, but just now I am trumped.”

O’Reilly shook his head. “You’ll pardon the cheek, sir, but the missus mighta waited a mite before leaving as she did. Jist outta courtesy.”

Jake nodded. “I will pardon you, as I wouldn’t have put it so kindly. But I am no stranger to madness. In all,” he leaned back in his chair “I’ve decided to look upon the marriage as a failed venture—after meeting every demand to satisfaction, what else can one do but cut his losses?”

O’Reilly smiled. “Perhaps the missus’ll return yet. She can’t have thought long on the matter.”

Jake took a letter opener from his top drawer, one made of pewter with a clipper ship at the handle. He stared at it for a moment, then blinked. “I fear she’s done little else these past months. She said she was through with being the ‘second Mrs. Steward’, and the business had taken over my life. It was she who encouraged this Hawaiian business. Did she think the expansion would take care of itself? Now I’m the one who is committed. I’ve no choice but to see this through, and all for someone who’s taken up with another man.”

O’Reilly stood aback. “You aren’t serious, sir?”

“Do I look of the comic lot? She confessed it without a blush. Whatever my faults as a husband, an extra man hardly solves the problem.”

“There’s where I’d agree with you, sir.” O’Reilly picked up a tea tray he had left before. “Now you needn’t think on supper, as I’ve arranged for three musical recitals courtesy of Mr.’s Chase and Waxsmith. Their daughters received your personal invitation to perform this evening, and accepted with enthusiasms galore. They’re to perform jist after dessert, which’ll give you time to rally your wits and buy the ambassador’s good-mate. And with the menu full of cream sauce, roast turkey and port, no one will object to an early evening.”

Jake nodded. “Fine idea.”

“We can’t have the week be a total bust, now can we sir?” O’Reilly paused, then laughed. “Seeing as it’s only Wednesday, the trouble may right itself yet. Given your age and place in the world, your bachelorhood’s bound to be a short one. I’ve seen plenty of ladies who would gladly take the place of your departed. I’m betting the second wife will show up tonight. Or Friday at the latest.”

Time hurled backward and took Jake with it. He stood on the deck of a ship, heard water splash its starboard side. A girl stood next to him. Her hand trembled in his, but stopped when he placed his lips on hers. Jake gave his head a shake. “Yes. The second.” Just then Jake remembered the telegram. He looked again at the letter opener, then sliced through the envelope.

O’Reilly picked up the teapot. “Sir, you hardly drank any. But who’d want anything save a pint about now? Anyhow your supper clothes are pressed, the meat’s roasting, and a corsage awaits each female guest. All have been informed of your wife’s headache, and send wishes for—”

“Call the staff.” Jake rose as his incredulous eyes read the telegram.

“Beg your pardon, sir?”

“Call the staff!” Jake shoved the telegram in his pocket, checked his watch, and bounded from the study. His face had gone white, eyebrows falling to a dark brown line. He looked all about as he catapulted down the staircase, as if he were in someone else’s house with no memory of how he got there. O’Reilly sped past him and rang the servants’ bell. Within moments two chambermaids, a parlor maid, two cooks, two gardeners, a driver, and a stable keep stood at the foot of the staircase.

“Everyone,” Jake stood before his staff “as if this day weren’t hectic enough, a young . . . colored girl and her chaperone have arrived from out of town and expect to be put up here. I shall return with them, so please have the necessities in order.”

The driver and stable keep ran to prepare the carriage. The chambermaids scurried up the staircase and the cooks descended to the kitchen. O’Reilly gave Jake his coat, but only Jake could comfortably reach his hat shelf.

O’Reilly opened the front door, peering up at his employer. “Anything the matter, sir?”

Jake laughed a bit. “Not at all, friend. Only spilled milk compared to two days ago.” Yet as he waited, Jake’s head pounded until each beat throbbed his ears. The old headache, the ones he used to get before a blackout, readied to take hold. How appropriate, he thought.

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