Ash came into this world in an Ash tree.
Not literally, of course. Her mama didn't give birth to her while crouching up in a tree. She wasn't a bird. No Ash's mama just left Ash in the crotch of a tree by the ferry station in Tiburon sometime in the middle of the night. Leastwise she'd been well wrapped and hadn't even made a peep until the mule team pulling the morning's milk delivery started making their own ruckus.
That was why Mr. Porter, who ran the ferry station's cafe, came out and heard the fuss she was making. There he was just wanting to get ready for his day and there was Ash wailing her one day head off in the ash tree out front.
Now if Mrs. Olivera, his widowed daughter, with her own baby at her breast had had her way, Ash would have been named Fresno, and they'd have taken her in. But Mr. Porter said, "Neither one of us is naming this little bastard. Some whore leaves a baby out front of my place of business and expects me to take care of it. Not going to happen." So he'd rowed himself and little Ash the short distance across the bay to Angel Island. He'd presented the baby to the Abbess of the Isla de les Angeles Abbey then and there.
Since he was an honest man, Mr. Porter also handed over the yards of fancy red brocade silk that looked to have come across the sea on one of those clipper ships coming back from China. Since he was a really honest man, he also handed over the gold ring that had been tied to the silk with a ribbon. It was a fancy ring with the symbol of a sailing ship like sailor might want to wear if he had the funds, but it was in no way a wedding ring.
Abbess Ines looked at the baby and said, "As all women are my sisters, this girl is my niece and I will raise her as such." Abbess Ines was good as her word. She named the girl Ash, because she'd been found in an ash tree, and she treated her as her own flesh and blood. Although, she was sure to let Ash know from the earliest age the manner of her arrival in this world and to turn her eyes towards God. In the world, Ash's expectations would be limited on account of the manner of coming into it, while God's ledger held only forgiveness for all sins.
Now the nuns at the Abbey weren't required to keep a vow of silence or anything like that, but they were expected to spend their time in silent reflection and prayer as they went to their labors.
Ash learned to be quiet. When she was younger, the price of being too boisterous would be to go out to the windbreak above the apple orchard and cut a switch the size of her Aunt Ines thumb from a willow tree. Her Aunt was not cruel, but she had a stout appreciation of virtue. Now in Ash's head, when she lay on her bed in the dormitory the night after a punishment, she rewrote the balance of what happened. Instead of telling her to go and sin no more, her Aunt embraced her. Instead, her Aunt would wipe away Ash's tears and enfold her in love. But Aunt Ines eyes were too turned towards God for any such foolishness as that.
Still Ash knew that she was loved and that as the wounds healed, this was a sign that she'd been forgiven by God himself. That's why she loved going to confession. For all that she had very little to confess to doing, as living on an island Abby left little opportunity for sin. Still she'd sit in the box and kick her feet and go on for hours to the priest, who'd come to the Abbey for that purpose once a month.
Sometimes she'd go look at the statues of the saints on the walls of the chapel and imagine them forgiving her for the sin of being found in an ash tree. She liked Paul best with his wild eyes. He looked like he'd give her a good thrashing with a willow switch before enfolding her in God's love, which was patient and kind.
There weren't any other children on the island. This was years before the Angel Island, as it came to be called, became a stopping point for immigrants coming from China and other points east.
Now once a month, the sisters would take their sailboat into San Francisco, where they sold the goods they raised on the island, which in turn supported the Abbey.
Ash went with Sister Marie when she sold their goods and watched her manner change. When she was very young, Ash said, "Why do you act that way when you're talking to Mr. Aligheri?"
Sister Marie smiled, "The same reason Mr. Aligheri renames our lemonchello Angel's Breathe when he sells it." She winked at Ash. "Because being a little sweeter gets a better price."
Ash had been small enough to laugh and look at San Francisco in a new way.
Ash loved those trips. San Francisco was a different world. The island was a woman's world, and the sisters may have all been brides of Christ, but he was an absent husband and only sent a priest around once a month for certain necessities of religious life.
San Francisco was full of all sorts of people and garbage and horses and loud noises and things were always happening. Ash would watch those city streets boiling over with activity and it looked nothing like the way the San Francisco looked from the peak at the heart of the island.
After they'd sold their goods, she and the sisters would volunteer at the Saint Nicholas mission in the Barbary Coast before heading home early the next day. She saw vice retching in the streets, and wondered if any of the women selling themselves along the way was her mama. But try as she might, she didn't recognize her own face in anyone she talked to.
Ash wore her gold ring on a string under the high neck of her black dress on those days and wondered if her papa had been a sailor on the seven seas. She asked the sailors at the mission about the ring, but none of them recognized what ship it might be.
Mr. Budd said only, "Best hide that back away girly. There's salts here that'd knife their mama as take what you got dangling on a string.
She'd put her ring away and learned to stop asking the question.
She was still quite young, not yet fourteen, when it so happened that a lot of fancy folks came for a visit to the mission see if they were feeling charitable. But far as Ash could tell, it was mostly to feel better about their own lot in life. But were offered a tour and tea by Father Morales, who ran the mission.
That's how Ash met Baroness Gurun for the first and only time. She was a tall lady and she looked like she'd been beautiful once, but something had gone bitter. That bitter had spread out all over her face and there wasn't a word in five that came out of her mouth that didn't cut a body open like running a hand over a rasp.
Baroness Gurun was putting down her cup of tea while Sister Bridget finished up trotting out that same old story about how they found Ash's bastard self. Sister Bridget liked to tell that story and got more details every time she told it. It was after all the most interesting thing to have happened to anyone on the island.
Ash had heard this exchange so often it didn't hardly bother her anymore. She offered Baroness Gurun a plate of biscuits and asked, "Is it hard to be so far from home?"
Baroness Gurun's brow got all crinkled and said in that high class New York money voice of hers, "Oh, I'm not Europe. My family came over on the Mayflower." She paused to let that sink in. "It's the Baron who came from France to California during the Gold Rush."
"Oh, I know." Baron Gurun was in the newspapers all the time. Baron Gurun had taken his gold money and made himself into a Robber Baron with railroads every which way. She'd even seen him once when he was holding a rally that time he ran for the state legislature. "I meant California's so far away from New York. Do you miss New York?"
Baroness Gurun's expression was about as hungry as any Ash had ever seen at the mission. Baroness Gurun didn't like anything on the young coast and loved everything about the old coast. She missed the society, and history, and under all that, clear as if she'd pulled out a pen and written it all over her face, she missed being the center of her own world instead of just a wife of a fellow more than a little famous for his carryings on. The Baroness felt guilty because she wasn't supposed to be feeling that way, hungry because just because a body wasn't supposed to feel a certain way didn't mean they wouldn't.
Ash looked around the tables at the ladies in their fine dresses that there was no way they could put on themselves. "What you need is something that's just yours. Build your own society. Be a part of something that every person who walks away from will talk about for the rest of their lives." She said it with all the conviction of her fourteen years. She didn't say they were sitting in a place just like that. She thought it was obvious.
Baroness Gurun let out a hiss of a breath. "Oh, Ash." The way she said the sses in Ash's name sounded like steam from a steam engine. "You're very naïve." She sipped her tea. "That's not how it works for a woman outside of your island of Angels."
When tea was over, and they'd been taken on a tour, the fancy folks were pulling out their checkbooks. Baroness Gurun didn't pull hers out. She said, "I don't see the point of this. This money will disappear like a drop in the sea. After all Christ said that the poor will always be with us."
Father Morales bought food and blankets with the donations from those fancy visitors. Ash thought about what the Baroness had said as she ladled soup long after all that money was gone.
Ash never saw the Baroness again. Although, she wrote to her after the Baron's death. She got a letter back from the new Baron thanking her for her sympathy. It was written on one of those new typewriters. She wondered if the signature at the bottom was even the Barons. She saw in the obituaries that the Baroness died six months after the Baron. She hoped some of that bitterness was leached out of her in heaven. But she wasn't quite sure how that could happen.
Time passed. Ash did what happened as a result. She grew older.
The summer she was nineteen, Ash was in the newspapers. It wasn't because she saved a child from a runaway carriage. It wasn't because she saved a puppy from sure death by virtue of uncontrollably falling piano. She was doing what she did one day out of every month when she was in the city. But that day it just so happened that Father Morales had invited a reporter, Mr. Paris, or as he insisted in being called, Jack, to the mission. He was going to do a write up about the work they were doing.
Jack made a sketch of Ash, and insisted on talking about her work there. Ash hardly knew what was going on. She'd never had that much fuss made over her.
She showed Jack the gold ring with its engraving of an old ship. She told him her story in the hopes that her mama or her papa would read of it and come to see her. She very much wanted to ask why she'd been left behind in an ash tree.
Jack asked if he could come out to the island later to write a story about the Abbey. Ash directed her most apologetic smile at Father Morales. Still, it seemed a good opportunity to do her Aunt a good turn. She smiled and said, "Yes, of course, we welcome visitors to the Isla de les Angles. My Aunt's order does not require silence."
She'd dimpled a smile at him and he'd grinned back over his notepad. "This will make great copy."
She didn't see the first picture of her that appeared in the paper with the caption, "The Angel of Angel Island Ministering to the poor." She did see the subsequent article and pictures that appeared after Jack's visit to the island. It was less an article about the Abbey than it was about her, or rather it was an article about an imaginary Angel of Angel island, who thought good and sweet thoughts every hour of the day. Jack came up with all sorts of possible parents for her. She really liked the one about the Russian Prince from old Fort Ross who'd taken up with the famous Opera singer.
Sister Bridget took one look at the article and muttered something about angels and whores, and said a bit louder, "Nothing good can come of this kind of notoriety."
Aunt Ines said, "I have faith that Ash will remember what we've taught her." Her eyes were firmly on God that day. So, her voice had a kind a faint warble as if she were speaking from far away.
Ash hated those pictures. She looked nothing like herself. She looked sweet and kind.
She was not sweet. She was not kind. It was simply that she couldn't afford to be anything else. But under it all, she wasn't like that.
At this point, life on the island became a lot more interesting, as the Abbey started to have a steady stream of young men in city suits and slick ways coming to call on the Angel.
That's when Ash learned that she was beautiful. She heard it every time the Abbey had visitors. She learned that she had hair the color of red gold, and eyes of amber and golden skin and that she had the face of an Angel.
She always wanted to ask what kind of angel they meant, because the angels with four heads, one of them a man's, wasn't much of a compliment. She learned if she said just that in a teasing enough way, she could say what she thought without getting into trouble for it.
The gentleman saying such nonsense usually tried to convince her to go for a private walk in one of the orchards or hike up to the peak, and on the way let him have his way with her, which made her doubt the truth of any of it.
She'd sold enough produce and lemonchello to understand how selling a bill of goods worked.
When she looked at these men with their slicked back hair and waxed moustaches, she could tell that they didn't see her. They thought she was sweet like a lemon pie full of sugar. They didn't want to see she was like a lemon.
Now it wasn't all curdled cream. She enjoyed being beautiful.
She made a game of it. She'd smile at this young man or that one, until they fought over which one she really liked. When Aunt Ines realized what was going on, she was very disappointed in Ash. She said, "I had understood that you were thinking of joining our order, and you would be my sister as well as my niece. It would be just as well if you decided to marry one of these young men, but to toy with them like this is unchristian."
Ash would beg her Aunt's forgiveness and was given sad disappointment in return. She resolved to do better, but after a week of silence, Sunday would come again and she played the same game again.
She'd have thought that after a week or so the city boys would stop coming, but they didn't as the summer wore on. They sailed through the fog that rolled in the Golden Gate to lick Oakland's nose. If Oakland weren't a city and had a nose that was.
Now before we get to the day this all changed, there's another who's history needs to be told.
Edouard Gurun was born in a castle. This sounded a great deal more impressive than it actually was. This castle was nine years old when he was born. It was made of cement that had been shaped to look like stone and mortar and then painted with yellow paint. Here and there were tiles that that depicted pictures of lumps of gold and the gingerbread was picked out in gold. This was the castle on Nob hill that gold and railroads had built. That's the story that Edouard's father told.
Actually, it would have been more accurate to say this was the castle that a silver tongue that could trowel golden words built. Edouard's father had the gift for friendship. He couldn't meet a man, but that they became best friends. He didn't pour sweet words in a woman's ears, but that she fell in deep love with him. Edouard's mother had married because of those honey sweet words. She'd left her fancy east coast life and come out to the west.
Between the gold money and her inheritance, Edouard's father founded a railroad company, Dol Rail. Edouard's father told Edouard that if the United States Congress was too lazy to check that the Central Valley wasn't exactly on a mountain grade and paid him accordingly, that was not his problem.
In the cement castle, there was a marble staircase that had been in a renaissance palace in the Loire in France. The ceilings were carved wood removed from various monasteries and brought to San Francisco.
Edouard father was not a baron or a lord or anything other than a man who'd been very lucky. But everyone called him the Baron. Edouard's father met Emperor Norton once. The made up emperor in his gold fringe coat wrote up a charter for the Barony of Marin on the back of a napkin. His father had that napkin charter framed, and put Baron Gurun on all his calling cards.
Edouard couldn't have said if the castle or the fake barony was any compensation to his mother for putting up with his father's various shenanigans. She never spoke of them, growing ever more ice encased as the years went on.
In any case, when he was six, she put him in a little suit and sent him to a Jesuit boarding school. She said, "You're so like your father."
Even then, Edouard couldn't see how that was so.
What Edouard learned at school, beyond the normal items, was that he was unnatural and cruel and destined for hell, which in the summer when the fog rolled in and covered his city in a thick grey dew seemed a comfort. At least hellfire would be warm.
It wasn't that as he grew older that a young man with riches couldn't have exactly the kind of pleasures that attracted him. His father took him to a brothel when he was fifteen and told him to pick someone, but all he could see was how there wasn't a single woman there who wanted to be. Also, better than most, he understood the cost of whoring, long past when the price of the whore was paid.
The winter when Edouard was eighteen, his father died as he'd lived, drinking in a whore's bed. When the word had come, his mother was lying in her sick bed with the syphilis that Edouard's father had given her. She'd said, "That's a comfort. Think of the savings." She turned her face to the wall until Edouard left. She was never particularly interested in any comfort Edouard could give.
It seemed like half the city came to his father's funeral. Men slapped his back and women wept. He had to pay off three of them clutching small children with eyes that looked a good deal like his father's and nothing like his own.
Edouard looked like his mother, who had married for love. She kept her face to the wall until she died. Edouard attended her funeral six months later with only the priest on a cold summer's day.
Edouard took control of his father's company.
Put like that in one sentence, it sounded simple. It was anything but. He was young. He did not have the gift of a silver tongue to lay on golden words. His voice sounded like it was built to lay on low gravel and do the low work of laying out the roads of the world, and the blunt words to go with it. It meant that he was made of grit. He'd been watching his father throw money practically out the castle windows for years. He wanted to build. The young coast was made for young men, who wanted to build.
He did what he had to do. He made himself into the Baron as he saw that role should be played. He made alliances. He built a board out of sober men to lend weight to Dol, too long rudderless.
Saying he took control of his father's company really meant that he was beholding to a whole raft of folks with all sorts of say in the way he lived his life.
He was a young man. He took a young man's sort of risks and reaped a young man's rewards on the westernmost coast. Sometimes, Dol Shipping's steamships on the China Sea route came back with holds full of the wealth of the East. Dol Lumber's mill ground down millennia of redwood forests to build hungry San Francisco. Dol Rail shipped goods all over those United States.
Every year, he made his annual report on the money he'd made for the board and the stockholders. He was in charge. He was in control. That meant he had people to answer to.
He was just twenty when they started calling him the Baron, just like they'd done with his father. The newspapers were full of his victories and defeats. San Francisco had always reveled in its royalty, made up or not.
When he was asked when he was going to settle down and start a family, he would always say, "Marriage is a business and I'm not ready for that merger, and I can't think of a woman who'd want the reverse." What he meant by that was he never wanted to be in that state.
When Edouard buttoned his shirt in the morning, he thought about the work of the day ahead. He thought about work when he left his office and ate dinner every night at the Grand Hotel, a block from his castle. He thought about work when he unbuttoned his shirt in his empty castle on Nob hill.
When he wasn't working, he was working. He was not a recluse. He did social things with social people. It was part of the face of the Baron that he wore. He went to parties and boat races and hunting trips, all the time putting on a regular folk's smile.
Edouard was attending a sailboat race in Tiburon when he first heard of the Angel of Angel Island. After the race, the men stood around the Giarad Mansion's boathouse having men's conversations.
Jerome Collins was sweating into his beer. He said, "Just last week I sailed over to Angel Island to see the Angel. Course, Grant was out there trying to cock block me."
Henry Wittenshire III said, "Stands to reason. We are talking the Angel. I heard her mother was some sort of Opera singer. God, those lips. Things they were made to do wrapped round my cock."
Terrance du Pres puffed out his chest. "I'll ask you not to speak like that about Miss Ash. Miss Ash is an angel and I'd be the happiest man in creation if she'd accept my suit."
Wittenshire held up his hands. "Terry, there is no chance in creation that your mother will let that happen. A man doesn't marry a girl like that."
Now, Edouard wasn't particularly interested cock sucking angels on islands, unless those lips could turn cocks into solid gold. He wandered off to another conversation. Here too talk turned the Angel, whose hair was red-gold and her eyes were of amber, none of which he could break apart and sell.
Edouard couldn't quite see what all the fuss was about over a fad. He said so.
Joseph Girade laughed. "That's our Baron. If you can't squeeze money out of it, you don't care. But if you could see this girl just once, well, she'd turn your world around."
Now it could have happened that that was that and he'd have heard no more than talk about the Angel of Angel Island.
But on that day, the straw that broke the back of the camel, who had crawled inside his tent and made a home there was that Wittenshire and du Pres came to blows over who the Angel liked better.
Joseph Girade laughed into his whiskey. "Fellas, no reason to fight like that. On our way back to the city, we should pay the Angel a visit. Hell, the Baron can decide who the Angel likes best. Just like Solomon."
The looks the men gave Edouard indicated that they thought him capable of actually cutting the poor woman in half, which was gratifying in a way. Soon there was nothing for it, but to abandon the planned entertainments and descend like a plague of locusts on Angel Island.
They landed at the dock next to a small sailing ship. There was a sort of rush to scramble past them onto dry land.
Edouard put his hands in his pockets. "I cannot possibly imagine why this girl hasn't granted her favor to one of you if you behave like this in front of her."
He followed the stampede up a dirt road to where a sprawling stuccoed building with a red tile roof perched on a hill golden with spent summer grass. The men trampled through a wide door into a central courtyard. Benches clustered under a venerable old oak tree in the middle of the courtyard. Edouard could hear a chorus of cicadas sawing their desperate mating calls. He smiled and rocked on his feet as he waited.
Abbess Ines and several nuns came out to greet them. She was more gracious with her invaders than he'd have expected, but he supposed she was used to it.
Then the Angel walked into the courtyard.
Now, here our story becomes somewhat more of a braided tale.
Up until that moment, Edouard had been under the misapprehension that by Angel they'd meant some sweet strumming creature.
Ash, and how well she was named, made him think of an image from an illuminated manuscript from the middle ages. That picture had been of an Ophanium, which spun fiery wheels within wheels with a thousand burning eyes. Ophanium were a type of angel created for submission to God, who sat upon them as his throne and chariot. Those angels did not have fingers to strum. They crushed the wicked under their flames.
Like fire evacuating the air from a building, Edouard felt the breath leave his body when his eyes met the Angel's.
Edouard couldn't have said what Ash looked like. That wasn't important. What was important was the absolute force with which she looked at a person. As if every bit of her were bent on examining the weft and weave of their soul.
Up until the moment she came out into the courtyard, Ash had been thinking of nothing so much as the joke she was intending to play. She looked into the eyes of the only stranger and she quite forgot games. His eyes made her think of Saint Paul. They flayed her open. She felt them do it. She felt those eyes peel back her clothes and her skin and her flesh and look straight into the soul of her. This stranger didn't think she was sweet or nice or beautiful. Caught on the force of his look, she was seen.
Ash couldn’t have said what he looked like. She couldn't have said the color of his hair or his clothes.
She had to turn away. She knew with a sort of sunlight clarity that this was the sort of look that had filled her mama's belly with sin. She turned to the rest of her visitors. She greeted them each with a dimpled smile that she'd practiced over many an afternoon.
He saw her turn away from him. It was not a dismissal.
Mr. Jamie Brooks, who was always after Ash for a private walk, pointed a thumb at the stranger. "This here's Baron Gurun. The Baron's got fingers in every pie, but don't you worry, he's not here to steal you away from me."
Which caused half the men there to protest and jostle each other. She said, "No one could possibly steal me away. Why I was just thinking about you." She held up her basket and said, "I've just picked these from our garden. Who would like one?"
Mr. Henry Wittenshire III laughed and said, "I'm man enough to take a pepper from such a lovely lady's hand." She gave it to him. He bit down and his eyes grew wide. He coughed and gasped and said, "Water." That earned him claps on the back and general laughter.
They practically jumped to prove that each one was better than the others and could bite down without reacting.
She gave the Baron a command performance as she showed off how far she could get her suitors, like so many mongrels, to leap and snarl at each other.
Edouard felt it was quite literally impossible to feel jealous of them. She didn't care a whit about a single one of them, which struck him as very sad.
He was further confirmed in his belief that most people were idiots in that not a single on one of them noticed.
She smiled and implied that each one should be man enough to eat her peppers, which they did. Almost to a man they coughed and gasped and begged for water from their Angel's hand.
When two of them started to argue over it, Edouard drawled, "I'm surprised at the lot of you. Disrupting a house of God like this. I've half a mind to make you all swear to leave this poor girl alone." He lowered his lids a little and smiled at Ash, "Unless you'd like to express a preference right now."
Her tongue darted out of her lips to stroke the bow curve. "How could I possibly choose among such a company?" She felt something curl up deep inside and went so far as to shoot a dimple in his direction. She said, "Would you like a pepper?" Everyone elbowed each other, expecting to see the Baron brought down at least a peg or two.
She wondered if he'd be just like the others.
He plucked out a long thin pepper and took the greatest chance of his life on what he dearly hoped was true. He held it to her lips.
Her heart caught in her mouth. She opened her lips to accept what he was offering as he slid the pepper into her mouth. She bit down and relished the burn that bloomed like a tinder catching fire in a granary.
Sweat bloomed on her cheeks and tears welled in her eyes.
She felt in that moment sad for the innocent she'd been as she'd picked the peppers as a joke. She had this sudden fantasy of kneeling next to Baron Gurun at some sort of broad baronial table. In that vision, he reached down and fed little tidbits from his plate like she was a dog. She smiled for herself then, as she took that verbal thought to its logical conclusion.
Edouard was likewise in the sway of a fantasy of sitting at his empty table in his castle with her kneeling next to him in nothing but the clothes God gave her and taking food from his hand. This fantasy crackled with the way she licked her lips at that pepper.
He winked for the benefit of the crowd, both the men and the watching nuns, and turned away.
Ash watched him walk away and told herself that it was for the best.
Even with his back to her, Edouard knew that if he could not have Ash as his then he would have to curse his fate. Edouard told himself, "I make my own fate." He pulled out a small notepad from his pocket and wrote a number on a page. He folded the paper in half.
He put on his most charming smile and strolled over to Abbess Ines.
She held up her hand and said, "I will tell you what I have told all the others. I am an Abbess. Not a Procuress. Abandoned as Ash was by whatever mother that bore her, I will not abandon her. I will not give you leave to be alone with my niece. In fact, as unlikely as it may seem in this moment, I have every reason to think that she'll eventually join our company as a sister, as well as my adoptive niece."
While there was much that was very evocative in that statement, Edouard would have time to explore that later. "I think you misunderstand my reasons for being here, and my apologies for descending on you like this. I mentioned to some acquaintances that I was thinking of coming out here and I found myself with a dozen or so extras. But actually my business is with you."
Abbess Ines raised her eyebrows, and she'd clearly read the papers about the Baron. Still she said, "My apologies Baron Gurun. How can I help you?"
"With the possibly Augean task of washing my soul." Eduard did his best to look rueful. "My parents were Catholic, and my mother, God rest her soul, was always very concerned with the state of my soul."
The Abbess murmured something about mothers and souls.
He put on a rueful expression that clearly said he knew this rich man's soul would not get through the eye of a needle. "I've been thinking about her more and more the last few months. I'll been twenty-five in a few weeks and she didn't live to see that."
The Abbess with her soft heart in her eyes murmured her condolences.
He looked off into the distance so he wouldn't have to look in those kind eyes. "I've been trying to decide what she'd think of the man I've become. It seemed to me that it would do me good to retreat from the world every once in a while. Your Abbey here seems about perfect. You've got loads of the feminine influence I lost when my mother died. You're close by ferry, but far enough away to actually be a place of retreat." He tapped the folded paper once against his lips. "I was thinking that as a balance for my disruptive self that I should make some sort of philanthropic donation. I was thinking of this sum." He handed the folded piece of paper to Abbess Ines.
She opened it and even that woman of God widened her eyes at the number he'd written. He tilted his head. "Do you think you could do a few good works with that kind of amount?"
"Yes," she swallowed, "I do believe that we could."
Eduard smiled his regular folk's smile. "If you're amenable, I'll be back on Tuesday. We can discuss my spiritual needs without this lot hanging around. If that discussion works out, I'll hand you a check then and there."
"Yes, certainly. Yes, I would be," Abbess Ines looked back down at the paper, "I would be amenable." She was dazed by that number. Since this didn't sit well with a woman of God. She put it in a different context. "This is a place where those who wish to grow towards God are welcome. However," she paused clearly casting for a way to say what she had to say without insulting a potential benefactor, "Our order emphasizes work as a form of religious experience. While you'd be welcome at prayer, the only way I know to guide you spiritually is if you joined in our labors."
Edouard had no problem with work. He wasn't lying when he said, "I wouldn't know what to do with myself if you wanted me to spend my days in meditation. By all means, put me to work."
This makes the conversation sound simple. There was more than that. The Abbess wanted to talk about his soul. He kept on his regular folk's smile and said what he thought she wanted to hear.
He made the rounds after the Abbess. He spoke to each nun and noted their interests in the ledger of his mind.
Ash strained to pay no attention to him, but she couldn't.
Still, it all came to the same end. Edouard walked back to the plague he come with. He nodded at Ash. "Pleasure to meet you Miss Ash, but I'm afraid we must be going."
Ash's lips still burned from the pepper and it seemed as if from a distance heard her suitor's groans. There was one outcry of, "But I didn't get to tell the story about losing my pants at the Ferry Building. I practiced it and everything."
"Yes, I'm sure an anecdote showcasing your idiocy would be just the thing for impressing a young woman contemplating becoming a nun." He raised his eyebrows at the lot of them, and smiled his real smile. They were very quickly on their way.
She didn't watch them go. She drank glass after glass of water. That didn't ease the burn.
The trip back to the city was full of laughing conversations about the Angel. The more clever ones muttered, "I can't believe even the Baron wants her. Fuck, did you see the way he gave her that pepper?"
He smiled and didn't say a damned word. He wanted Ash for himself, and not for a fad.
That night, Edouard did not think about work when he dined. He cut his meat and made entirely different types of plans.
That night, Ash was deep in the well of her thoughts as she ate at the common table with the sisters. She was aware of every bite, as her lips and mouth still felt the memory of that pepper. She told herself it did not matter. She knew she was lying to herself and lying was a sin just as sure as stealing.
Over breakfast the next day, it was her Aunt who asked, "What do any of you know of the Baron?"
Sister Marie coughed. "I don't think he's actually a Baron. They just call him that because of his wealth. Although, I did hear from Sister Deborah at Saint Andrews that he donated five hundred dollars in gold to have a thousand rosaries prayed for his mama after her death." She waved a hand to help that number sink in.
Sister Bridget blinked. "That's fifty cents a rosary."
Ash said, "We met his mama once. Don't you remember, at Saint Nicholas'? It was years ago."
Sister Bridget nodded. "That explains it then. Not to speak ill of the dead, but that was a cold woman. She'd need all the rosaries she could get."
Aunt Ines pursed her lips. "But what of the Baron's character?"
Sister Marie looked up and off to the left as if calling upon God, but really she was just trying to remember "According to Sister Deborah, he still attends mass at Saint Andrews, but his soul is dedicated to Mammon."
Sister Marguerite waved her fork at the table. "A common failing of these rich men."
Her Aunt laid her hands on the table. "I ask because Baron Gurun has offered to make a sizeable donation to the Abbey as a compensation for letting him stay here from time to time in order to work upon the state of his soul." She raised her eyebrows expressively. "A donation more than sufficient to repair the damage to roof of the Chapter House." She glanced over to the pot that was in permanent residence under the leak in the roof, "As well we could extend the plantings in the west side of the Abbey and increase our assistance to Saint Nicholas." She rubbed at the mole half hidden by her wimple on the side of her face in a familiar gesture. "It is quite literally a Godsend." She let out her breath. "And if we provide this separate space that Baron Gurun needs to refresh himself spiritually, how much more likely that his actions will be Godly ones."
Ash did not clap in slow appreciation of the Baron's move. It was perhaps immodest, but she was under no illusions about the reason for his charity. A wealthy man such as that would think to buy what he wanted. She knew that she couldn't be the first woman he'd tried to purchase like this in order to think of it so quickly.
She'd been warned all her life that once a man had what he wanted, he'd leave. As if the lesson of her own abandonment in a tree didn't have a tale to tell. She could see the chain of events as if painted on a pane of glass. She'd be seduced and abandoned before the year was out. She wondered if her Aunt would enjoy her new roof then.
She didn't have to voice an objection.
That's what Sister Marguerite was for. "Do you think it's wise to allow a man to live so closely to a house of women?"
"What exactly are you implying?" said Sister Bridget, who could be trusted to be insulted by any remark.
While Sister Celia pushed her glasses up her nose. "It isn't as if we don't host men in the guest house occasionally. Father Riley stays there at least once a month."
Sister Marguerite crossed her arms. "Well, I for one am concerned about Miss Ash's virtue." She glared at Ash. "Don't think we didn't all see your display today with all those young men."
Her Aunt held up her hands. "I have faith in Ash's good judgment." She rested a hand on Ash's for an all too brief moment.
Ash felt a swell of love in her heart at her Aunt's earnest express. "I love you all, and I would never bring shame to you." Even as she said it, she licked at the memory of burning lips.
As they left the Chapter House to begin their chores, Ash tried to focus on pinning the laundry to the clothes lines. She was full of the resolution of day as she picked up wet fabric and hung it from the lines to dry in the weak sunlight.
She was less resolute at night. She woke up in the still hours thinking about him. She lay under the thin wool blanket and imagined his hands, he'd had lovely hands, touching her.
In the hazy thoughts of night, she unfolded a scenario in which she'd been summoned before the Baron in his castle, because she'd taken or done something. He tied her to a rack or hung her bound hands from a hook. It was wrong what she'd done, so he punished her. With justice done, he comforted her. She unlaced her night dress and tentatively touched her own breast. She scraped her fingers across her nipple, because this was wrong. The burning pain along the lines of her fingers reminded her of nothing so much as a whipping.
She shifted and her bed creaked under her. She paused, but no one woke.
She felt again the shape of the pepper in her mouth and the scene shifted. She had to please him to save her life from one of the deaths by torture that saints were always enduring. But instead of resisting and bleeding milk or some such thing, she was wicked and gave in. She took his member in her mouth and she imagined that she pleased him. She pulled up the hem of her nightgown and slid her fingers through the slit in her pantalets, where the folds of her body had grown wet and felt subtly swollen. As she touched herself, she imagined that she was being touched by him. It was his fingers teasing at her. It was his fingers that slid inside her. His tongue. His member.
In the hazy thoughts of night, he was everywhere and nowhere and this went on for hours. Somewhere she fell back into sleep. Only to be woken too soon by the bells for Matins' prayers.
She knelt in the chapel and felt the weight of her own sin. This was what had led her mama into error. She resolved to be good and had to stifle a yawn.
She set herself to her chores. This was the quiet world she was choosing for herself. Not that she had so many options to choose from.
She woke again in the hazy hours and wiled the night away in fractured fantasies.
In the morning, as before, she resolved to be good.
At night, she fell once more into sin.
Her Aunt said, "Ash, you don't look well."
Ash toyed with the fruit on her plate. "I haven't been sleeping well."
"You should take a walk. The fresh air will do you go." Aunt Ines nodded sharply, but Ash doubted the resolution would be so simple. She thought, "Perhaps if I avoid the Baron altogether, then all will be well."
He would be at the Abbey that very day to discuss his spiritual needs, and perhaps her Aunt would see through him. This was unlikely. Perhaps he'd change his mind. There had to be easier ways to seduce a body. There had to be prettier women in the world.
She found herself sitting on the stone bench by the green house thinking of nothing at all. Sister Claire puffed up the path followed by the Baron in his dark city clothes as if Ash'd summoned him by not thinking of him.
Sister Claire said, "I… am… giving… Baron Gurun… the tour. Lemme me just catch my breath." She heaved herself down onto the stone bench next to Ash. Ash looked up at the Baron. They did not exchange pleasantries. Instead, Ash said, "Sister Claire, why don't you rest here? I'll finish the tour and bring the Baron back."
"Bless you." Sister Claire mopped at the sweat pouring off her wide brow with her sleeve.
She did not allow herself to think about the ways this was unwise. She wanted to do this, and if she was good, then there could no harm. She let him into the green house. She pointed out tomato plants and she lingered briefly over the peppers. She showed him the wild orchids that Sister Maria loved to gather from the woods.
He was examining a particularly tender purple orchid when he said, "You're not surprised to see me."
It was a statement. She made her own. "My Aunt mentioned that you were thinking of becoming a benefactor to the Abbey.
"I am." His smile was a mixture of cruelty and avariciousness. She swallowed, feeling tender and vulnerable under the curve of his lips.
She was crackling with excitement and light headed from lack of sleep. "I wouldn't think you'd give anything away without getting something in return."
"Your Aunt is graciously allowing me to stay here for the betterment of my soul, which should give us plenty of time to get to know each other." There was absolutely nothing in what he had said that was wrong or wicked. But seeing the way he looked at her, she wanted to look away, so he'd be forced to force her to look at him. She did not give into that impulse and held his gaze. He said very softly, "I'd like to see the guesthouse now."
They left Sister Claire, who waved them on from her seat. They walked along the path through the apple orchard. He said, "I understand from your Aunt that you plan on becoming a nun."
She planned to say yes. She opened her mouth to say that one word. "I haven't decided yet."
He pulled an apple from one of the trees. It wasn't ripe. None of the apples would ripen for at least two months. "An interesting choice. Giving all the power of your life to a city of ladies in retreat. Putting the responsibility for all your sins on something other than yourself." He pulled out a pocket knife and cut the apple open. "Then again, why else sin, if not to be forgiven?" He tossed the slice away. "But if that was what you wanted, you'd already be a sister."
She looked back at the pale slice on the dirt. It was just a slice of unripened apple. She said, "And what do you think I want?"
She waited for him to be wrong.
"Forgiveness." He cut another slice of the apple and threw it away.
She knew very well what apples meant. She knew that it wasn't ripe. Still, she wanted those slices that he threw away.
Sister Claire was watching from the green house. They were not touching. They were not even particularly close, but she was very aware of his steps. She was very aware of the fractured scales of night time thoughts sliding into day.
They came to the guest house. It was a small building. Little more than a single room with a south facing window that looked up toward the mountain. There was a cabinet for clothes and a bed across from a small fireplace. He stepped inside the room and she didn't follow him inside. She waited outside the door. She waved at Sister Claire.
Sister Claire waved back. The Baron emerged from guest house. "This will be perfect." The Baron cleaned his pocket knife with a handkerchief. "Will you walk with me to the top of the orchard?"
She laughed and it sounded ugly in her own ears, a sort of grating noise that rasped the ears, and it was wonderful to be ugly with someone. "You can't know how many of the men who come to see me, ask me to walk with them out in the orchard. What each and every one of them means is will the bastard fornicate with them. They know that when God gave out the cup of original sin, my mama was foolish enough to go back for another serving."
He put his hands in his pockets. "My own father never met a cup of sin that he didn't drain dry."
He started walking up the path through the apple orchard, then stopped looking back. "But, we were speaking of control. You want to give away yours." He plucked another apple, and cut another slice with his pocket knife, which he threw away. "I want you to give it to me."
She breathed in. It might have been a laugh. It might have been a sob.
They walked back through the Orchard without speaking. When they reached the top, they came to the windbreak of tall willow trees. He paused in front of one where over the years she'd cut many a switch the thickness of her Aunt's thumb. "There was a similar set of trees at school. When your aunt whipped you for a misdeed," he brushed his fingers along a stub, "you felt cared for. When it was done, you felt the sweet relief of forgiveness. How many years has it been?"
"Too long." Ash hadn't meant to sound quite so breathless. "Dear God, but I am an unnatural creature."
"I have thought that for some time about myself." He turned back the way they had come. "But since seeing you, I have revised that opinion." He steadied her arm as she stepped over a root in the path and let go. "But if God made us to be this way, how can what is in our natures be unnatural?"
She had no answer. She wanted him to be right. They walked on in silence.
All too soon they met up with Sister Claire by the green house.
Sister Claire said, "What do you think?"
He smiled. "I should speak with Abbess Ines first, but it does look favorable. This is a very pleasant place."
Sister Claire exhaled. She had been fretting over the hole in the Chapterhouse roof.
Ash did not look at him.
This was very much not good.
She went to her afternoon chores and resolutely did not follow them back. She stayed on hill the rest of the afternoon. She found herself sitting under the willow trees unable to think of nothing much but Edouard.
In the weeks between when he left Angel Island with the ink fresh on his check to Abbess Ines and his return, Edouard did not think about Ash every moment.
Edouard thought about Ash as he pushed the buttons of his clothes through the button holes in the morning. He very much thought about her as he undressed in the evening for bed. He thought about her while he was sitting in his office where his window looked out upon the bay. He'd catch himself smiling, which was ridiculous since his office faced Oakland and it was a completely different stretch of water and yet there he was smiling because the waves were heading towards Ash. He thought of her when commissioned a special order from Ghirardelli's. He thought about her when he purchased stiff work clothing for the island. He also purchased several soft cotton scarves, just right for tying up wrists, but that was wishful thinking.
In those three weeks, Ash did not think about Edouard every moment.
Ash thought about Edouard as she made her resolutions of the morning. Ash thought about Edouard very much as she broke into fantasy in her bed at night. She was tired and irritable. When next she had visitors, she looked at them blankly and wished them quite away. She thought of him when Aunt Ines told her how pleased she was that Ash was settling down. Mostly she smiled at the irony that Edouard had done nothing yet. Ash was doing all the work of seducing herself.
Edouard most definitely thought about her when visited his doctor for the purchase of rubber goods. It was a sad fact that his own shipping company imported the damned things to California, at a good profit too since it was illegal to send them through the mail. It wasn't as if he'd known he should grab a crate of them the last time the Coastal Starlight made port. Then again, he'd never thought to need such a thing.
While Doctor Sanger measured his cock for fit and bent, and assured Edouard that provided that he was using his fitted rubber goods for hygiene purposes and not the prevention of pregnancy, there was nothing wrong in it.
Edouard gritted his teeth, endured a conversation how to clean the rubber goods he'd ordered, and not to use any of them more than five or six times.
All of that and he ended up having to wait the damned thing to be delivered. San Francisco was full of horny bastards, but with no local factory, and no one could lay hands on rubber goods for love or money. Fish entrails and sausage casings, he could have bought, but good vulcanized rubber took a factory that had the rights to Goodyear's process and the correct sort of molds. Edouard supposed that he could have purchased a rubber cap, but he had this vision of losing the damned thing inside Ash and decided to wait.
As soon as he had the damned thing, Edouard took the ferry to Tiburon and hired a boat to take him to the island. His rubber goods felt like they were burning a hole in his case. Not that he expected to use the damn thing on this trip, but he hoped. He hoped enough to set fire to the island.
Abbess Ines greeted him on his arrival with Ash at her sleeve.
Ash took one look at him and stopped. She'd smiled a secret sort of smile that he wanted to rip open slowly. "Baron Gurun, I would hardly know you in that attire."
Ash wouldn't have thought her smile particularly secretive. Though, she wouldn't have wanted her thoughts broadly cast about.
He shot her a devilishly smile with its shock of white teeth and curved lips that made her want something she didn't dare define. "I suit my clothes to my task. I was told I'd be set to work. So here I am ready for the yoke on my back."
Edoaurd wouldn't have thought his smile particularly devilish. He was thinking thoughts that he very much wished to share with Ash.
They spent the morning in a walled garden weeding. Edouard and Ash were not alone. There were several sisters there. The sisters did not realize that there was anything to see as they worked.
Ash didn't look at Edouard when she passed him a trowel. He could feel her not looking at him. He felt her not looking at him when he sat up and stretched his back.
As she pulled a dandelion up by its roots, she said very softly, "You can't buy me as easily as you can buy a place here."
He slowly watered plants in a line. "I'm a philanthropist. I've made a donation out of the goodness of my heart."
She did not roll her eyes at him or snort or anything like that. She pulled another weed. "Do you always go to this much effort?"
He moved around her to begin watering another row. "If you think I go to this much effort on a regular basis, or in fact ever, you are very much mistaken."
It was like his words were sinking right down into the center of her. She struggled at the feeling. She stood up and moved to throw her weeds in the wheelbarrow. She did not return to his row. She made herself stay away.
They didn't speak another word to each other. After lunch, the Abbey was visited by more suitors, but Ash elected to send them on their way. She felt itchy and sharply awkward the entire time. She did not want Edouard walking in on them. It felt like he was her secret, and she wanted the lot of them gone.
Edouard had seen the visitors clattering up the dock and walked the other way. As the Abbess explained the afternoon would be spent in prayer, Edouard stretched his legs in a meandering sort of walk. He passed the row of willow tree at the edge of the abbey grounds. He swallowed thinking of Ash bent against a wall taking blows against her soft thighs. He cut his own switch. He slashed the air with it as he walked.
He liked to imagine that Ash followed him, but he had to admit that it was unlikely.
Ash wasn't following him. She was simply walking on another path.
They did reach the same destination, the mountain at the center of the island. She stopped when she saw him. She down next to him feeling as if someone else were doing it.
He slapped the switch against the side of a rock bending long blades of yellow grass that were in the way.
She watched the switch whip through the grass.
They sat in this way for some time in silence.
In the distance, the city appeared quiet as a soft grey dream peeking out of the fog.
Edouard was not the one who broke the silence for all he dearly wanted to.
Ash said, "You can't buy me."
He dealt the grass another blow. "That's no way to open a negotiation."
"Why would I need to negotiate? You have nothing I want." As soon as she said it, Ash blushed.
He saw her blush. It would have been impossible not to given the way it spilled across her cheeks. "Lying is a sin sure as stealing."
"Put like that, I sound horrible." She smiled that secret smile that made him want to peel her open and he responded with his devil's curve. "Why would you want me?"
He slapped his switch against the heel of his shoe. He steeled himself because he was either correct in this or he should leave now. "Because every time you've seen me move the switch through the grass, you've been thinking about it laid on your backside, just like I am thinking of laying it down until you're good and pink, and forgiven for your sins."
The breath hitched in her throat. The sound of it caught like a hook in his heart.
She stretched her legs out in his direction. "Yes." She tapped a rock to see it tumble down the hill. She didn't dare look at him. "It must be the sin of my birth."
Edouard tapped her ankle with his switch. A sharp slap that stunk through her skirt. "Ash, don't you remember. We're all forgiven. All we have to do is ask." She looked up and looking into his Saint Paul eyes. Edouard felt her sway a little bit towards him.
They both knew she'd made her decision. If it could be called that.
He stood up and they walked back down the hill. Not together, they left the way they had come.
Before dinner, Ash's Aunt talked to her again about the choices that lay ahead of her. She didn't say what she was thinking.
After dinner, Abbess Ines talked to Edouard about the state of his soul. He talked about his empty house on the hill and every day spent at work. He planted ideas that the Abbess watered in her own head.
While he was doing that, Ash went to the box where the piece of silk that had been found with her was kept. She bit her lips when she looked at it. She didn't lie to herself. She took the folded fabric and went to the guest house. She carefully laid the fabric as a coverlet on the bed. It was so large that it pooled on the floor. She returned to the Chapter house and told her Aunt what she'd done.
Her Aunt told her, "That was kind of you." She didn't know what Ash meant by the act.
That night when he to bed down at the guest house, using a lantern to guide his way, Edouard found that his bed was covered by a rich red piece of silk that had not been there before.
It was the sort cloth that would cost more than most men made in a year. Not Edouard, of course. But come to think of it, his coverlet on his bed at home was a plain wool blanket. He touched the rich stuff with one finger.
He settled down with a book in the chair by the fire. Hours passed. It became pretty damned late, but he wasn't ready to rumple that pretty red piece of silk just yet.
Nothing happened. He slid under smooth soft silk and fell asleep gently brushing the brocade pattern with one hand in the dark.
All the while Ash lay in her narrow bed thinking of him lying beneath her silk.
He woke up to fuck all cold. The fire had gone out in the night and he cursed while he got up to get it going again.
Over breakfast, he thanked Abbess Ines for the silk coverlet, saying with a regular folk's smile, "I didn't expect anything quite this fancy."
Abbess Ines broke off a piece of hearty brown bread. "That was our dear Ash's idea. It was found with her in the Ash tree. That and a gold ring." She frowned at the empty space where Ash normally sat. "Is it a problem? There are wool blankets in the cabinet if you need them. However, Ash was concerned that you might be used to richer fare than you find here."
"It's fine." He stretched his regular folk's smile wider. "I'll be sure to thank her for her thoughtfulness."
As it was Sunday, there was no labor and only prayer.
He didn't see Ash at all. She had the advantage of him. She knew the Abbey grounds.
He drank lemonchello with dinner. He went to his home away from home. He read by the fire.
He'd gotten to the place in his book when someone Dickensian was doing something unspeakable to virtue when Ash slipped in the door. She stared at him from the far side of the room. He turned a page. The fire crackled. It could use another log.
She said, "I've come to negotiate."
He put a book mark in his book. "I want everything and all of you." He tilted his head at her.
She said, "I'll not fornicate with you. I…"
"What do you mean by fornication?" Edouard did not put on a regular folk's smile. He did not pretend, not with her.
She clung to the door. "Placing your um… member inside me such that I could have a child."
He thought about the rubber good wrapped in a cloth in a box inside his luggage.
"Agreed, but I want to leave that open to renegotiation." He inclined his head. "If we fornicate, it'll be because you asked me to."
She nodded slightly. She prayed that she would manage to be some form of good. "Nothing during the day." She let go of the door enough to slice the air with her left hand. "We won't even speak. Aunt Ines can't know about this."
"Every night that I am here, you will come here immediately after dinner." He stood up and took a step towards the door.
"After midnight, when the sisters have gone to sleep." She took another a step into the room.
"I want at least three hours every night I'm here." He reached out and almost touched an amber curl of her hair.
"Yes. Every night." Ash didn't say that she wouldn't be able sleep anyway. She leaned her head into the touch of his hand.
He dragged a finger down her cheek, "Don't you want to negotiate for what I'll do."
She forced her eyes open, unsure of when she'd closed them. "I can say no to anything and you'll stop."
"I agree to your terms." He walked away from her. He waved at the silk brocade coverlet that gleamed and red in the firelight. "Thank you for the silk bedding."
Ash did not look away. "It's a reminder that I'm a bastard."
He brushed the back of his hand over a brocaded gold dragon. "It's beautiful."
"It was sitting in a box." Ash felt tears trembling at the edges of her eyes and couldn't have said why.
"It's beautiful. Tell me that it's beautiful."
"It's beautiful." For the first time, she saw it as beautiful and a tear rolled down her cheek.
He went to his case and pulled out a red Ghirardelli box. "I have a gift for you. Because I am a philanthropist." He sat on the edge of the bed one hand spread on the red silk. "Kneel on the rug in front of me and receive what I think you deserve to have."
She let out her breath. It was such a slight move he might have missed it if he hadn't been looking for it.
She knelt on her knees on the rug in front of him and it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
Edouard picked out a jalapeno pepper dipped in chocolate. Her lips brushed his fingers as he placed the chocolate in her mouth. She breathed in sharply as she bit down. She chewed slowly. He held a glass of water to her lips and she sipped what he gave her. He gave her another pepper. He gave her another sip of water. He fed her another pepper and gave her another sip. The sweat beading on her upper lip was simply beautiful. He bent for a taste from her lips. They tasted each other.
The fire crackled. He went to put on another log. He walked around Ash and placed his hand on her head. She didn't move. He said, "Thank you for the coverlet."
She said, "It was my pleasure, sir." She moved her head against his hand. Her hair felt like the silk on his bed. "Thank your for the peppers, sir." Her head was inches from his cock, which was already damned hard and they hadn't done a fraction of what he wanted to do.
The clock on the wall chimed the hour. Somehow it had already come on three in the morning.
She startled like a deer in the woods. She didn't look at him. "I should go. I sleep in a dormitory with the sisters. I can't be missing." In the time it would have taken him to snap his fingers, she had left the guest house. He was standing alone. A log on the fire crackled.
He stared at the closed door. He did not sleep in what remained of the night; neither did Ash. She blinked hollow eyed at the sisters as they woke for Matin's prayers and shifted uncomfortably at the swollen wet feeling between her legs.
Edouard sailed back to San Francisco after morning prayers.
He was back three weeks later.
He put his cases down in the guest house and went for a nice invigorating walk. He saw Ash watching him from the far side of the orchard. He did not raise a hand to wave at her. She didn't come any closer.
When he got back from his walk, the red silk had been spread on the bed. However, in a mixed sort of message, the chocolate peppers were scattered on the rug on the floor. There were cockleburs on his pillow and in his clothes. His bookmark had been taken out of his book. He mused to the book. "Now that's just cold. How I will I find out if Little Nell lives?"
He sat on the porch and picked burrs out one by one. He piled them up in his water glass.
When he was done. He went to the work that he had brought with him and found an almost new ledger for the cattle yard in Stockton. He ripped out the first few pages. He could have them copied over later.
He wrote thirty-eight in the debit column and cockleburs in the description column. He left it open on the dresser next to the water glass full of cockleburs.
At dinner that night, he spoke to Abbess Ines about the tally of sins. He asked, "Do you think God has a great ledger then with our sins listed in the debit column waiting for the penance of our contrition?"
Sister Marguerite had a dozen opinions on the subject, and soon the whole table was embroiled in the discussion.
Ash did not offer an opinion from half way down the table.
Edouard felt her not watching him while he was not watching her. He put on a regular folk's smile and accepted a stewed apple from last year's crop.
That night after Sister Claire finally fell into deep snores, Ash slipped from her bed and made her way through the orchard. She'd already cut a switch from the willow tree that afternoon.
It felt a wonderfully wicked thing to do. It had been years since she'd cut a branch as thick as her thumb. She felt wicked carrying it through the apple orchard. It felt heavy in her hand as she slipped inside the guest house.
She stopped inside the door. There on the dresser sat a water glass full of cockleburs. Next to the glass lay an open ledger.
She read the entry for the cockleburs. As if in a dream, she'd certainly not slept much these last few weeks, she opened the jar of ink next to the ledger and picked up the pen. She wrote in a small neat hand. She filled in several rows: one bookmark, nine chocolate peppers, twenty-eight nights touching self while thinking of fornication.
She put down the pen. She held out the switch to Edouard. "Please, sir."
He took the switch from her hand and laid it across the ledger. "Were you spanked as a child?"
Ash bit her lip and shook her head no. "No, sir. My Aunt always used a switch when I misbehaved."
He had the mostly wonderfully cruel smile. "I don't think that's personal enough. Not this time." He laid the switch down across the ledger.
She felt young and soft before his flaying eyes. "Yes, sir." His smile was so wicked, she felt like she must be one of a long line of seductions. She leaned forward into that thought.
He moved to sit further back on the bed. "Lift up your dress and lie across my lap." She did it. She was still wearing her pantalets. She clung to that thought as if the slit between her legs would prove a barrier. She lay down across him, feeling the heat of his thighs against her belly and the cool of the air against her thighs. She was damp between her legs. She squirmed a little and earned herself the first slap across her nether cheeks. "Stay still." She tried to stay very still. "Do you know how many burrs are in the glass?"
She licked her lips. "It's written in your ledger, sir."
"Yes, and that's the number that I'll be using." She inhaled and shifted as the dampness made her inner thighs slick. "Now, count."
She counted. She said, "Please, sir. I'm sorry." She tried to brace herself, but it was hard from this position. Even though no one blow hurt badly, by the time she reached twenty-four, she was crying and begging for his mercy. In the middle of a prayer for forgiveness, Edouard stopped abruptly. "Do you want me to stop?" He couldn't tell if she wanted him to stop. Their agreement was that he'd stop.
"No, please, don't stop." She was almost unable to say the words. She looked over her shoulder at him and he looked like a little boy all of a sudden for all it was her bottom stinging. She inhaled some snot and wasn't that a pretty thing to do. "No, sir. Please sir. I want to work off my sin. I want my numbers to balance in your ledger."
"Ha." He rubbed his face with the hand that he'd been striking her with and then let it fall. "Since it's damned hard to tell, if I do anything that you don't want, you call out Philanthropist and I'll stop. Deal."
She swallowed. "It's a deal, sir."
He gave her a sip of water. She drank it greedily. He rested his hand on her buttocks.
Then, because he was crafty and a fox, and she'd defined what she meant by fornication, he didn't start the blows again. Instead, he slid a finger up along her thigh and through the long slit in her her pantalets. He stroked the folds of her flesh where she was wet and she didn't say Philanthropist. She sobbed, "Thank you, sir." His long fingers stroked all around her entrance and the ache inside of her increased. "Please, sir. Forgive me."
He slid a finger inside her and it felt so much better than when she had done it, because he could reach a lot farther. He slid two fingers inside, and three, scissoring them as she sobbed and pled and something great built up inside her and washed away years of dust inside her soul leaving her feeling soft and sated.
He withdrew his fingers and she made a move to sit up. He stopped her with a hand between her shoulder blades. She looked up at him. He said, "Now Ash, your balance in my ledger is not anything like even." He undid the buttons on his trousers.
She looked down and she'd seen enough farm animals to know what swelled there. They'd already gone far past flirting with fornication. But he had asked what she'd meant and she'd told him her boundaries, and she felt boneless and good and wicked at the same time. She moved to crouch on the bed and undid the rest of the buttons. His member was erect and red at the tip. She breathed on it until a swat to her bottom brought her back to herself. She took the tip in her mouth. It wasn't at all like swallowing a sausage. She licked at it and hummed something she'd heard Sister Marguerite singing that morning. That earned her a return of the fingers moving slowly inside her.
She lightly brought her teeth down to graze him and earned herself a blow.
This went on for a while as she explored and was explored.
His fingers within her were pleasurable, but she was wicked. She was doing something wicked. She didn't want pleasure. She whispered, "Please sir, I need you to finish my spanking. I've been very wicked." He gave her what she needed, a steady series of slaps across her buttocks. She moved her head up and down to that rhythm. She stopped counting.
She lost track of time, until he made a sort of strangled shout and his member pulsed with a sort of bitter paste in her mouth. With every desire to get this foul substance out of her mouth as quickly as possible, she swallowed convulsively around him.
When he was done, she looked up at him. "Please sir, if we're going to keep balanced, next time you should give me some warning." Then stilled as she realized what she'd said.
He didn't smile at her in any sort of triumph. He simply nodded gravely, cleared his throat, and said, "I agree to your terms." He reached across her and held a glass of water to her lips. She drank gratefully, until it was empty. His hand smoothed over and over her back as she crouched over him.
She rolled over to sit upon the bed and gasped, for her buttocks felt like they were on fire. He moved to tuck himself away and went to his case. He pulled out a piece of cloth and a small jar. "Lie face down on the bed."
She shouldn't have. She shouldn't actually be here. She should run away and do a great many things other than what she did. She lay face down on the bed with her dress bunched up around her waist. The silk coverlet was at once soft and rough against her face. A trick of the silk. She felt the bed dip as he sat down beside her. She should push herself up to see what he was doing, but she didn't. He pulled her pantalets down carefully and she should have protested, but she felt tired and comfortable. He carefully brushed a soft cloth dipped in fragrant ointment across where her flesh was on fire. It felt amazing, as the pain receded. It felt like forgiveness. She could have drowsed there forever, being cared for in that bed.
But she blinked and made herself look at the clock. It was past two thirty. She needed to be in her bed before morning prayers less than four hours away. She looked at Edouard.
The firelight cast his face in shadow. He said, "Stay."
"I'm sorry, sir, but I must be in my own bed in the dormitory. I must attend morning prayers." She waited for his response. He nodded slightly. She pushed herself up and her dress fell around her ankles. She put her shoes back on as he watched silently.
She slipped out the door and found her way down the hill to the abbey main buildings. She settled herself face down in bed under heavy wool blankets. She could still smell the ointment that he'd used on her flesh. It smelled of mint and rosemary. She drifted to sleep on that scent and didn't wake until the morning light shone brightly on the dormitory walls. All the other beds were empty. It was well past Matins' prayers and advancing on midday None's prayers.
She went to prayers gingerly, but she was smiling. Edouard wasn't there. It wasn't long before she heard Sisters Marie and Bridget gossiping about Edouard's early departure without even breakfast.
She should have felt disappointed, but somehow her own words came back to her, "Next time."
"You're better," said her Aunt. "I told them not to wake you this morning. You've been looking peaky for weeks now."
Ash thanked her Aunt and reflected that this had all gone as well as could be expected.
When she went to get her coverlet, she found an open Bible on the bed. In it was written a note. "Ask and ye shall receive. Ledgers are made for balance."
She put the note in her shirtfront pocket and didn't pray for strength to resist.
Three months in and Edouard had planned to stay away a month this time. He couldn't be always sailing over to Angel island. He lasted ten days.
He arrived at the abbey's guest house to find a strong metal ring had been affixed to a ceiling beam. A lantern hung from a chain hooked to that ring. A small step ladder sat innocently by the chest.
Ash felt like she'd been waiting forever for him to arrive.
He spent all damned day thinking about that ring.
That night, Ash slipped in the door like always.
Ash said, "Hello, sir. It's terribly dark in here. So I had one of carpenters working on the Chapter House roof put up the ring. Do you like it, sir?"
She never called him anything but sir, which ought to bother him, he knew. He hadn't trusted his voice all that much. He'd scowled to control the bubble of light that wanted to burst out of his chest. "Yes."
She smiled and followed the ritual they'd developed on his second visit. She went to the ledger that sat open. She wrote down a sin. He read it. She'd begun making things up on his third visit.
She hadn't looked at where the lantern had been replaced with a length of silk cloth run through the ring. She hadn't didn't look at where the step ladder waited under it.
He told her to take off her clothes. She took each piece off and placed it on the chest. She waited patiently while staring at him. She looked like she'd fly apart like a steam engine on a ship.
He cleared his throat. "Stand on the step ladder." He carefully tied her hands together with the silk. He bound her ankles together.
She sighed and relaxed into the bonds.
He pushed aside the step ladder until she dangled like the most beautiful piece of fruit.
She looked at him and said, "Please, sir," in that way that always got him going.
Just to be contrary, he left the guest house. He didn't tell her where he was going. She didn't stop him at the door.
She didn't yell Philanthropist. She could have. She ought to have. She didn't. He could have been leaving her for anyone to find. She shivered as she thought that, twisting naked and bound from the ceiling.
He went up the hill a ways and smoked a cigarillo at the moon. The moon was a silent companion. It sailed across the sky. He cut a switch as thick as his thumb from a willow tree by moonlight.
He went back. Ash was still there, hanging from his ceiling.
Neither of them looked at the clocking ticking their time away.
It had hurt then that they couldn't be together for more than a few hours. He had been a little extra rough with the switch, but she hadn't yelled out Philanthropist. Instead she'd said, "Please, sir. Thank you, sir." Finally, he dropped the switch, loosed his robe and was thrusting away in the space between her thighs. He came from just that.
She could have yelled Philanthropist.
He'd told her as much when he let her down and tended to her wounds.
Truth was he enjoyed that part just as much as the other. Truth was she sometimes stayed an hour or so longer than she should so she could drift on his bed well cared for.
She loved the way she could lay boneless and soft on his borrowed bed. He loved the way she sighed and whispered, "Thank you, sir," as he rubbed ointment into her welts. She bled slightly from one red welt. He frowned at it. He'd just been thinking that he'd needed to be more careful when she'd shifted under his hand and said again. "Thank you, sir."
Which was about when he knew that he was well and truly fucked and didn't much care.
He stayed another night. This time pampering her on the bed. He'd build the fire up high so she wouldn't be cold. He'd had her read to him from his book while he'd washed her hair and bathed her with a piece of raw silk. When she'd spread her legs a little, he'd used the ship's peg he's brought until she was exhausted with pleasure.
Which was about when she knew that she had to renegotiate fornication.
Still both nights, when he'd asked her to stay the night, she'd said what she did every time, "No, sir, I need to be back in my bed." She'd left him alone.
She'd gone to sleep in her narrow bed in the dormitory and thought about what she needed to do.
They'd been doing what they were doing for months. Ash knew she couldn't keep going on this way. She would be discovered. It was a miracle that they had not been. It was more of a miracle that in the moment she hadn't gone that final step.
Each time he sailed away, she'd think one more visit. She wanted one more visit. She wanted this to last as long as it could.
The sisters talked about him sometimes. Sister Marguerite called him a Robber Baron and no better than he should be. Sister Bridget said, "He's certainly willing enough work for a house of God." Her Aunt said, "He's a very lonely man."
She was always glad when the talk turned to other things.
She made her plans.
The next time the sisters went to the Saint Nicholas mission, Ash told Sister Bridget, "I need some air. I'll be right back."
Sister Bridget was in the middle of an argument with Sister Jorje from the mission, barely shot her a glance.
Ash walked around the drunks sitting in the street and kept going until she found just the ladies of the night that she was looking for standing out front of the Golden Lily saloon.
They'd come into the mission a time or two to take a load off, and once when Miss Sweet Puss was poorly, she'd spent a week or so in their infirmary.
Ash said to Miss Ruby Knees and Miss Sweet Puss, "Pardon me, I don't want to take away from your valuable business time, but this won't take but a moment."
"Oh, if it isn't the Angel of Angel Island," said Miss Ruby Knees.
"Not so Angelic." Ash said, "I figure successful women of business such as yourselves must have ways of making sure that you don't get a bun in the oven that would prevent you from pursuing that business. I need to know what you know."
Miss Ruby Knees laughed. "So, the Angel's deciding to come to Earth. Sure you don't want to fill that belly with a baby. Might make one of them rich fellas buzzing like yellow jackets pop the question like they want to pop their buttons."
"Can you imagine me as a mama? I can't." Ash wrinkled her lips as her brow creased a frown. "I look at a baby and I think of nothing so much as a squealing piglet." She looked at Miss Ruby Knees. "Not very angelic, I suppose."
"Oh, I don't know about that," said Miss Sweet Puss. "When the preacher was yelling at me as a child, I always did wonder about how many babies and little kiddies there were in Sodom and Gomorrah when the angels set fire to the place." She elbowed Miss Ruby Knees. "Couldn't all been a bunch of God damned sodomites. Must have been a few whores."
Ash fidgeted. She had so very little time. She said, "I'd be beholding to you if you'd point me in the right direction.
"Well," Miss Ruby Knees drawled, "best way to avoid a bun in the oven is to soak a wad of cotton in lemon juice or vinegar and shove it up in your pussy. Then after the fella fills you full of cream, you curdle the lot by giving yourself a good squirt of lemon juice after."
Miss Sweet Puss said, "Only if you like a fiery burning sensation in your pussy that ain't got nothing to do with French Pox. Nah, I got this Chinaman, who sets me up good with these herbs I brew up in tea. Makes me bleed regular like and quick too." She waved a hand down the street where a man in an Army of Christ's Salvation uniform was standing on a box proclaiming about sin. "Course you got to be careful about them American Social Hygiene types. They don't stand for this kind of talk." She rolled her eyes.
Miss Ruby Knees said, "That's why I say they should sit down." She scratched her cheek. "I think the Amazing Delilah chews carrot seeds."
"Those don't work for shit," said Miss Sweet Pussy. "Isn't she knocked up right now? I thought she was swearing that it was all fishgut for her going forward. As if I'd trust that I could get it on a man when he gets going. Better to take care of things myself."
"Could you direct me to this Chinaman?"
Miss Sweet Pussy looked around at the relatively quiet street. "Sure, there ain't much going on today."
Miss Sweet Pussy walked with Ash three streets over to Chinatown. They ducked into a small dingy shop where Miss Sweet Pussy said to the man behind the counter, "Mr. Lee, my friend here needs about six months worth of that tea you give me to keep my monthlies regular." She tapped her nose while she did it.
Mr. Lee bobbed his head. "Course, Miss Sweet. Course. Six months of Dong quai tea for health." He poured dried herbs into a small cloth sack and instructed Ash on how much to use for the tea.
Ash had paid for the package and on reflection, because Miss Sweet Pussy's time was money, she'd given her the rest of the money that she had, which wasn't much. A few coins she earned selling a little extra lemonchello on the side.
Ash went back to the mission. She felt the package as if it weighed as much as an anvil in her coat pocket.
She brewed it up a week later, and her monthlies came like a steam engine, and left as quick. She picked a pile of lemons and practiced putting the lemon soaked cotton inside herself. She felt wicked as she did it.
She prayed to God that if he didn't want her doing what she was about to do, he should send a trembler right now, but the earth stood still.
That was a sort of sign too.
She spend a damnably uncomfortable week waiting for Edouard. She tortured herself with Edouard torturing her with a dozen scenarios as she lay in her bed in the dormitory room. She got up well before Matins' prayers and even though it was dark and cold, she headed up the mountain for she knew the trail well. She thought, "Edouard is thinking about me, as I am thinking about him."
She walked down the mountain and sat next to her Aunt at prayers. Her Aunt said, "You were up early."
Ash shrugged. "I couldn't sleep. So I went to pray on the mountain."
Her Aunt smiled at her in understanding. "Have you come to decision about whether you'll join our order?"
Ash did not laugh. "Not yet."
When Edouard did arrive, it was hard to hold herself still and not look at him. It was hard to wait until the right moment.
She slid out of bed after the sisters were asleep and every creak of the floor board gave her away. She went to the kitchen first. She'd left wad of cotton soaking in lemon juice after dinner. Crouching in the kitchen, every sound of the building making her want to jump out of her skin.
She walked through orchard wearing only her nightgown and cloak. Her thighs still felt damp from the lemon juice. She could smell it on her hands. For all the night was cold, the air felt soft with a light fog. She carried the Mason jar with her.
She slipped through the guest house door.
Edouard was wearing his velvet robe and nothing else. She put down the jar. She waited. He pushed back the cloak. He pulled off her nightgown and she stood before him naked except for a fading patchwork of bruises he'd left behind on her flesh.
Ash went to the ledger and wrote out a litany of sin.
She spent a half hour writing in the ledger he left open. She wrote that it was common knowledge that of the priests that came to the island to give mass and communion, Father Riley would drink the communion wine all in a single gulp. Her pen slid black lines over white pages and described how easy it would be to pour some of the vodka for the lemonchello into the watered Communion wine. How she would only want to do it if Edouard were there watching. The black lines on the page described to Edouard the possibility of her sin. How Father Riley would drink from the fortified wine in a single gulp. She described in great detail the way he'd sway and how the nuns would have to bob and weave to get the communion wafer into their mouths from his hand.
Edouard read as she wrote and stopped. He'd tapped the pen against his lips and said, "It will take some thinking on my part to balance all that. For now, on your knees." She knelt resting her forehead on the floor while Edouard paced around fussing with things in his case.
It felt like a slender thread was stretching inside of her.
Edouard walked around her thinking. He'd negotiated enough deals to know that something had shifted for Ash. His heart was beating fast at a rain drops in a storm.
"Ash, roll onto your back." She did it. She looked up at him lying loose on the floor.
He had her place the soles of her feet together to make a sort of circle of her legs. He first tied her ankles together and then her wrists to her ankles. His knelt behind her supporting her in this odd position and looped the rope through the purse he'd made of her body. She whimpered as he hoisted her up on the rope. "Sir, please."
"That was a lot of ink in my ledger." He tied the rope off. She heard the fabric of his robe fall to the floor and the clink of something metal. Suspended as she was, she could not twist to see what he was doing. Only gasp as he affixed something that pinched horribly at her nipples. It was painful, so she hung back her head and she cried. His answer was to place another of these horrible items much further down on the tender flesh between her legs. It was a good thing that there were thick walls with the way she wailed.
However, she did not say the word that they had agreed upon to indicate that he should stop. For all that she sobbed, "Please, sir, I'm so sorry."
He kept going. He was as hard as he'd ever been to the point it was hard to keep walking.
He removed all three clamps. Ash sobbed in relief.
He reapplied them elsewhere and the pain began again. She spun. She sobbed, "Please, sir. Forgive me. Please, sir," and cried.
He set to marking her all over. The tender flesh of her thighs and the slight bump of flesh on her belly. He grazed a clamp along her neck and she cried out because there would be no way to conceal such an injury, but she didn't tell him not to do it. He held it there a long moment teasing them both, but she'd said that her Aunt couldn't know. That was their agreement.
He drifted it down to the side of her breast.
He worked at her for what seemed like hours. He was breathing heavily. She felt his member brush against her buttocks and thigh and neck. Suspended as she was, she couldn't twist around and take it in her mouth. Each clamp released filled her with a ratcheting of euphoric relief. She wanted him. She wanted. Finally, she said what she had been building towards for months, "Please, sir, I can't bear it any longer. I want to renegotiate. Please, sir. May I have you inside me?"
He spun her around and she craned her head to look at him. He said, "Ash," or possibly, "Agh."
He'd left her dangling and pulled a black thing out of a box in his case. He was forever pulling things out of his case to use on her. She was surprised he could lift it at times.
She didn't want a thing. She wanted him. He started cursing at it. As she spun, she could see him struggling to drag the thing over his member, but the black sheath wouldn't fit.
Edouard cursed a steady stream, "Fuck, fuck, fuck." He was thinking frantically that he should have practiced. "Fuck."
Because she was a horrible person, she whimpered and because she knew what he did not about the cotton, she said, "Please sir, may I have you inside me."
In answer, he cursed the black thing and threw it at the wall. He ran his fingers through his hair and was a breath from pulling it out in clumps.
She said, "Please, I'm renegotiating. No restrictions. Just you inside me. Please, sir. Help me."
She got as far as help, before he stopped her spinning by thrusting into her. She could do nothing, but cry out in relief and pleasure, because this was nothing like fingers or even the smoothed stick. In this position, she was completely open to him. She was completely vulnerable. He filled her completely as he pulled her powerfully forward impaling deep inside her, such that she could feel his balls slapping against her buttocks and his length brushing up against the cotton.
Edouard cried out. Ash was nothing like his hand or coming between her legs. He pulled out and in. There was no rhythm to it. He hardly knew what he was doing, but that he had to go faster. Once he pulled out too far and was out of her entirely. He cursed as he shifted her around so he could get back inside. Seemed like there was a bone in the way and it took an eternity to line things up right again.
She did not care.
Through all of this, she sobbed, "Yes," and he yelled, "Ash," until his cry dissolved as he released inside her. She laughed. She hung from the ceiling laughing like a madwoman in a penny dreadful.
He lowered her to the ground and untied her. She simply lay on the rug and wondered if this was it. If now they were done.
It appeared that it wasn't so. Edouard had a sort of dazed expression on his face. He tenderly washed her and she smiled at the scent of the lemons. She whispered, "Please sir, squirt a little of the lemon juice inside me." He did it while she lay loose and sprawled on the rug.
He carried her to the bed as he always did. He said, "Stay," as he always did.
"Hmmmm." She would leave in a moment. She had to go. But not just then. She could rest awhile longer. Her eyes fluttered closed and she exhaled consciousness.
Edouard knelt next to Ash on the bed. His heart was still beating rapidly from what had just happened. He swallowed, and arranged a curl of her hair on his pillow. It almost glowed in the lamp light. Everything about Ash seemed to glow. He knew that the best choice would be to let her sleep the night through and in the morning, when she was still lay naked in his bed, convince her to leave with him. She had to go with him now. She'd let him inside of her.
He swallowed a brief not quite bitter laugh, for after all his troubles with the rubber good, he'd not been able to get the cursed thing on. He trailed a finger down her cheek and she blinked her eyes open and smiled at him.
He thought to himself, if she did not say yes that something would break inside of him. She shifted and said, "How did I compare with your other women?"
This question was so completely out of expectation that he could do nothing but stare at her for a moment. Her wrists looked red and tender. He poured out the lavender and rosemary ointment into a cloth and slowly rubbed the salve into first one wrist and then the other. "We're both novices here."
She blinked at him sleepily.
He tended to the angry marks on her collar bones. He put more ointment onto his fingers and slowly tended to each of her breasts where the skin was a range of mottled reds and yellows on the soft swell of her skin.
Ash's breath caught and she arched her back into his touch. He bent down to taste the ointment on her nipple, sucking gently until there was no oil left, only Ash. Ash's left hand came to rest on his head, tangling in his hair. She whimpered, "Oh," and moved on the thick cloth he'd laid over the coverlet before Ash arrived. He didn't neglect her other breast. He sat across her tending to one and the other until she cried out in a way that he knew well by now.
She brushed her right hand across his member, but he pushed it away. She blinked at him and slurred sleepily, "I thought you didn't give anything away."
He put a finger to her lips. "Shh. Just stay."
She sighed. "Little longer." He continued his way down her, rubbing the oil into her belly and circling round into the curves of her thighs and hips. She sighed and moved. He didn't ignore her legs. They bore their fair share of marks and her ankles, like her wrists, were somewhat raw. He rubbed the ointment into one and then the other. Stopping to kiss the bone of her ankle. As he rubbed into the sole of her foot, she flexed.
He worked his way back up. He slowly stroked ointment onto the folds of the flesh between her legs that had parted for him. He spent some time simply stroking there as her breathing sped up. She spread her legs and groaned. "Edouard?" His heart jumped just that little bit, for in all their play, she'd always called him, sir, which he generally liked, but just then, stroking her until she cried out, he liked the sound of his own name hitching from her throat.
He rolled her over and she moved at his touch. He began again on her back. He rubbed in the ointment into the fading mark of a lash from weeks ago. He tended to the memory of every mark, while she sighed into the pillow. He worked his way down.
Something hard and wrong within him twisted its way out into a smile at the sight of her rounded buttocks with their array of angry red marks and fading ones. He tended each injury with carful hands and a kiss.
When he was done, he rolled her back over and began all over again. Hours seemed to stretch like taffy in the firelight. His member stirred again, which he wouldn't have thought possible given the force of his release before. He slicked his member with the ointment his eyes intent on her gaze. She didn't say stop. She didn't say the word they had agreed upon. She sighed as her flesh parted around him letting him inside the warm wet place inside of her. Everything about her gripped around him. He was over her, but she was all around him. Her legs were wrapped around his hips and her hands were cradled around his head. He never wanted to leave this space.
The first time had been almost over before it had begun. This time, he rocked slowly inside her. She moved against him and tilted her hips to take him in. It could not have taken hours, but tired as he was, it felt as if time stretched infinitely until it snapped to a sudden halt as he sped up. Rushing to finish. He had a thought to withdraw, but she was squeezing so beautifully around him, he did not. He came deep inside her and she smiled at him. Her hair was a tangled mess and if she'd glowed before, now she was incandescent. He kissed her. They lay there some time doing that, until he pulled out of her.
He washed her again with the juice at her request, and amazingly, she fell asleep again. He pulled the coverlet around them. He whispered, "Stay."
She mumbled something and moved against him in sleep. He fitted himself behind her, wrapping his arm around her waist and finally let himself fall into sleep.
When Ash woke, the light that filtered through the window was not the dark of night. It was not the gray of early morning. It was the full bright light of day. She blinked at the clock and sat up. It was past eleven. There was no way in earth or heaven her absence had not been noticed. She looked around, but the only garments she had was a robe and nightgown.
Beside her Edouard stirred and opened his eyes. He blinked once. He blinked twice and then he shifted into total awareness and began a barrage of words. She'd never heard him speak so quickly. "Ash, you slept here all last night and it will not be possible for you to conceal what we are doing from your Aunt any longer. You could be pregnant from what we did. Do you want to make her ashamed that you've been fornicating on sacred ground? She can't appreciate your wickedness like I do. You should leave with me. Right now. Pack up your things and come back to the City. I'll set you up in an apartment with a view. You'll have a cook and a maid. Say that you will right now."
She kissed his cheek, which stopped the flow of words for a second, before he rolled on top of her. "Is that a yes? Say yes. Say yes, right now."
She lifted her hips up against him and hummed. She was in a cage of his arms and legs. She kissed his lips softly.
He pulled away. "Is that a yes?" He glared at her. "You can't stay at the Abbey. When your Aunt finds out what you've done, she'll throw you out on the streets, and you'll have no choice to come to me anyway. Better you leave with me now."
She shifted against him again. "Now sir, every single time we've gotten together, you've been after me to stay. You get me some apartment in the city, then you're going to be spending all your time sleeping there and you won't even know what you're own house looks like." Ash shrugged. "It would be wrong for me to betray my Aunt by moving off to be some sort of kept woman. Working on my back." She kissed his cheek. "Now I know it's late for it, but philanthropist. What else can you suggest?"
He rolled off of her. He rested his head next to hers on the pillow.
He breathed in and held it. "I've been telling your aunt months now how empty my house is without even a housekeeper to be sure the dust is clear." He smiled that cruel smile. "You could be my servant."
"I could be hour housekeeper," said Ash propping herself up on one elbow, "I want a salary that's twice what you pay your cleaning service, and two days off a week."
"Three times the salary, and you get Sunday, but not the night," his smile spread up into his eyes, "and you'll sign a contract that you will not be able to quit without a financial penalty more than ten times what you earn in a year."
Ash licked her lips. "I'll sign a contract, which we'll renegotiate every three months."
"Six months." They breathed in each other's air and kissed. Within a minute, he had her legs spread and as fast as he was pounding inside her, words were tumbling out of his mouth about how it would be when he kept her in his house. If there was a single problem with how she kept it, there would be consequences.
In consequence of that, she screamed, "Yes, sir. Please, sir."
After, he dragged himself out of bed and washed her. She was feeling soft and sore and floating a little bit. She pulled up her legs so her heels rested flat on the bed. "I took the precaution of putting a ball of cotton soaked in lemon juice into my womanly parts so we won't be having any unfortunate additions, sir. Would you be so kind as to pull it out? We've been so vigorous at what it's meant to prevent, I'm not sure I can reach it."
Edouard stared at her for a very long time in that intense way that said she was the only thing in the world in that moment. He stared and he didn't do anything. She was certain he was about to say no, but he went to his case and pulled out a set of tongs, which he used to pull out the well used cotton. He dropped it in the fire to land with a wet hiss in the embers.
She sat up and got off the bed. "Don't be concerned, sir. I will do all I can to see to it that I do not get pregnant. I even got some special tea in Chinatown."
He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight for a long minute. He felt such enormous relief to think that she'd planned this. He told her so.
"Of course, sir." She pulled away from him so she could put on her nightgown and robe, "I'm going to tell my Aunt that I've prayed all night on the mountain for guidance."
She slipped outside. She dressed much as she had the day before, but for different reasons.
She went to see her Aunt. "Aunt Ines, I've been praying and I've come to a decision."
Her Aunt took her hands in her own. "What is it dear child?"
Ash said, "As much as I love the life we live here, it's just not the path that I think God wants me on. Would you pray with me over what path I should take?"
Her Aunt was only too happy to agree.
Now what happened next was simple. Ash spent many hours with her Aunt trying to decide what she would do with her life. She would need employment if she wasn't to seek a life of prayer, but knowing so few in the city, she told her Aunt that she didn't know where to begin.
In the end, it was her Aunt who suggested that the Baron should hire Ash for his empty house, for she had all the skills needed to keep a house.
Ash did not leave that day. She did not even leave that week. But within two weeks, with a fresh contract in hand, her Aunt helped her pack her belongings, which weren't many.
Aunt Ines asked Edouard to take special care of her niece.
Edouard took Aunt Ines hands in his own and very solemnly promised that he'd do just that.
For the first time, Ash took the ferry from Tiburon into San Francisco. It was crowded with every day folks making their way across the water. It was a choppy grey day with pea green waves that slapped at the ferry, which tooted its steam in answer. She said, "Sir, why don't you have a sail boat?" It had never occurred to her before.
Edouard said, "I sold my father's boat when he died."
Ash looked at Edouard's profile looking out at the choppy waves, and thought, "I've given my life into the hands of a stranger." She smiled then at her own fancy. If he was a stranger, she had it in her power to change that. She said, "I love sailing on the bay."
He said, "Hmmm…" which knew well enough how to interpret and felt better.
The ferry landed at the port with its clock tower ticking the time away.
Before she knew it, Ash was standing in front of the most monstrously ugly building she had ever seen. She had to stop a moment to catch her breath at the pure arrogant gold painted brick of the thing. She said, "No wonder they call you the Baron." She considered it and gave him a dimple. "Sir."
Next to her Edouard sighed. "Welcome to the castle."
The entryway was not much better. It felt simultaneously opulent and empty. There was dust on top of the marble statues arms. The wood on the wide curving staircase had not been oiled and cleaned in at least an age of the world. She said with all the innocence she could imbue into the words. "Where is my room to be, sir?"
He smiled with expression soaked in pure evil and her heart pounded in her chest. He took her to the back of the back of the castle where a panel in a wall revealed a hidden servant's staircase that wound up and up three stories into an attic room. There was a narrow bare mattress huddled under the beams of the roof. "I haven't kept servants since Mother died."
Ash put down her bag. "Of course, sir. This will be convenient if my Aunt visits." She opened her bag and pulled out her red silk. She smiled a smile that was so angelically sweet that it could make a body sick. "Now this is just too fine for such a mean bed. Do you have a thought of a spot more deserving?"
He pretended to think on it and practically dragged her down the stairs again and out another hidden door into a wide hall. From there she went into a room that could only be described as Baronial. It was centered by a wide bed of heavy dark wood with four sturdy posts. She looked up at the canopy rails and found it circled with evenly spaced metal hooks and rings that had clearly been recently added. "Hmm…" she said.
"Hmm…" he agreed. They tried out the hooks. They were quite sturdy. They were at this for some hours. But eventually growling bellies meant it was time for supper.
This was where Edouard lost his smiles. "I want to take you to the Grand Hotel. That's where I eat my meals. If I were keeping you in an apartment, we could eat together every day." He looked at his hands as if discovering that he had fingers.
Ash leaned back against the ropes and she could see the realization of how things would be rising up in his eyes. "Sir, perhaps we can eat here."
He pursed his lips. "I don't have a cook. There's no food in the larder."
She raised her brows. "Perhaps sir, you could grant me the authority to hire one. If the Grand is where you like to eat, let me see if I can hire someone out of their kitchen." She shifted against the ropes, "Please, sir. You need to eat. I can hear your belly grumbling from here. Philanthropist."
He sighed and untied her and they went to the Grand, where he ordered steak and champagne for himself, and chicken broth for her. Ash visited the kitchen, which since it was a slow night on the line, she got to chatting with one of the under cooks, Mrs. Lopez, about how she'd just been employed to work for Baron Gurun as his housekeeper.
Mrs. Lopez was no fool and said, "Miss Ash, you are far too skinny. Here, have a bite of this." She saw to it that Ash had little tastes of everything and a glass of beer.
Now since Edouard was determined to take a really long dinner to show that everything was the same as it had always been, and Ash could only eat so many of the things that Mrs. Lopez was pressing on her, she peeked into the dining room. There was Edouard sitting in the center of the room looking annoyed pushing around fancy looking things on his plate. Farther back in the room, in a sort of dark corner, Ash spotted a beautiful woman. This lady had purple ostrich plums in her hair and diamond necklaces around her neck. It was amazing she could lift her hands with all the rings she had on them. She looked very proud and very alone.
Ash asked Mrs. Lopez, "Who's that lady over there?"
Mrs. Lopez tisked. "Oh, that's no Lady. She's no better than she should be. That's the Amazing Deilah, the song bird of the West. All those gems she's got weighing her down are gifts from her gentlemen friends. She keeps rooms here at the Grand, but I hear she keeps a house in San Jose for her bastard boy." Mrs. Lopez went back to where she was constructing molded gelatin treats. "Shame she can't visit her child more often, but that's the life of sin she's chosen."
"As my Aunt says, all women are my sisters." Ash considered the face of what her life. She wondered if her mother had been a woman like the Amazing Delilah. After a moment's thought, she offered Mrs. Lopez a job as a cook, because it was the reason she'd come that evening.
Mrs. Lopez said, "Miss Ash, I was hoping you'd say that." After some wrangling over pay, they agreed that Mrs. Lopez would start work in a week.
Since it was late, Ash had Mrs. Lopez put several sponges and a jar of vinegar on Edouard's bill and waited for him in the lobby.
She wrote that he now had a cook six days a week in the ledger that he'd left open on the dresser in the balancing column.
They slept with him wrapped around her in the bed as if he was made of arms and legs and intended to use them to prevent her escape. She snuggled back into the trap of him and sighed. "Sir, if you were keeping me in some apartment, I wouldn't be here in your bed right now."
He bit her shoulder lightly for sassing him.
Ash settled into life in the castle.
She let the agency that Edouard hired to clean his house know that their services, such as they were, would not be needed anymore. She went to Saint Nicholas' about hiring some help at the castle. They might not be as smooth or as fancy as at other houses, but the women she hired could learn what they needed. Under the circumstances, she preferred it everyone working there was beholding to her for the position. She also made sure that none of them lived in the castle.
Constance O'Malley went so far as to say, "You're an angel, Miss Ash."
Ash wondered not for the first time just what kind of angel people meant when they said that.
Four weeks after she'd stepped into her new life, Ash did not have any sort of revelation as she arranged a dinner party for Edouard. She stood back and watched, and made the evening run smoothly.
More than one person looked twice when they saw that Edouard had the Angel of Angel Island working as his housekeeper. As she saw to their coats being collected and the serving of dinner, she saw the fine folks let her slip from their minds.
But she kept careful watch. She noticed when young Mrs. Whitely, who as she was a newlywed just this last year was still wearing her wedding dress, was looking peaky. She helped her loosen the stays on her corset, which were far too tight. She noticed when Mr. Jennings had one too many glasses of wine, such that his wife and daughter were giving him the stink eye. She saw to it that Constance served him watered wine after that. She saw to it that Edouard could focus on the job of entertaining with the Baron look pulled over his face.
After the guests had left and the servants were sent home to clean up in the morning, she and Edouard went into the parlor. She knelt on the floor wearing only a chocker of pearls that he'd given her. He fed her treats from the meal. They discussed the evening and the guests.
She was not invited to call on the ladies, who had attended the dinner. For most part, her former suitors only slid her laughing looks. Although, she did get a bouquet of yellow roses from his employees thanking her for making the Baron easier to work for. She showed Edouard the flowers, and he grumbled something about throwing the lot of them out a window, but he was smiling.
Sad to say, she had to stop being a Catholic. She became first Anglican, because she could not afford confession, then a Methodist, then a Baptist, and settled on being a Universalist. She liked the idea of universal forgiveness.
She still volunteered at Saint Nicholas on her days off. It was something familiar. She had Miss Sweet Puss and Miss Ruby Knees over for tea and whiskey from time to time. It was good to talk to other women. Especially ones who didn't work for her.
She knew that there whispers about her, but she was careful to always wear high necked black or grey dresses. In the world outside the castle, she was always careful. She knew that one day her time with Edouard would have to end, and she was resolved to survive as well she could.
In the meantime, she wrote imagined deeds in Edouard's ledger and took comfort in the solid feeling of black ink filling white pages. When each ledger was done, she put it in a trunk under the bed.
Sometimes, her Aunt visited and she slept in the bed in the attic. Sometimes, she wondered at her life.
Edouard settled into life with Ash.
Men of his acquaintance smirked at meetings and asked him how life with the Angel was going. He always replied that Miss Ash was an excellent housekeeper. He told himself it was none of the world's business what they did.
He was invited to dinner by fathers with daughters of marriageable age.
Alexander Jennings had begun to confide in Edouard that his little girl, Hazel, was still unmarried, and was set to inherit his shipping company. Edouard could have told Jennings that Hazel wasn't married because that young woman was completely uninterested in marriage.
As he passed the age of five and twenty, and sailed on to thirty, He could no longer call himself too young for a marriage merger. Edouard said on one memorable occasion to a pink frocked miss, "Marriage is a business arrangement and our properties wouldn't suit for a merger," and she burst into tears.
He wished Ash were there to smooth things over, but she had not been invited. When he was interviewed for an article in the Chronicle, and the reporter coyly asked if there were any future Baronesses on the horizon, words stuck in his throat, because he didn't intend to marry.
He knew that Ash was making plans for when it would be time to leave. Every morning, he woke up with his arms wrapped around her and he was determined that that day would not be the day such a thing happened.
Every day he was very careful to keep the ledgers where misdeeds were tracked slightly out of balance in his favor.
Since her room and board were covered, and tea for her monthlies was not that expensive, at first Ash's salary piled up under the mattress that she didn't sleep in. Edouard saw her doing this one day and said, "For fuck's sake, didn't Jesus teach it was better to invest your money than to dig a hole and bury it."
She'd eyed him. "I would not wish to correct you, sir, but I do not think Jesus said, for fuck's sake in any Bible verse that I am aware of."
He'd tilted his head and grinned, which led that evening to a fairly creative reading of the book of John.
He did not offer to take over her finances. He talked to her about finance and business and work as far of their everyday lives. She took her money out from under the mattress and invested based on those conversations. She developed interests based on those investments. She donated funds to various charities and after a while ended up on a board or two of her own.
By the time they'd been together for seven years, she had a fairly tidy sum put aside. Enough that if she'd wanted to, she could have moved down to San Jose and purchased a little orchard.
Knowing Edouard as she did, she flat out told him over dinner. He said, "You're leaving me."
She dipped an artichoke leaf in butter and said, "Sir, I don't recall saying any such thing."
He got that intense look and said, "This is good news. I've been thinking of taking a trip to New York to see to my business interests there. Been on my mind for a while now. If you've got the funds to come with me, I think you might enjoy a trip."
She watched him warily and put down her knife.
"In fact, if that were the case, while we were away, you wouldn't be my housekeeper, and as my friend, I would invite you out to dinner and the opera. I've been told that the theater here in San Francisco has nothing on the one in New York."
Ash swallowed. For some reason, she suddenly felt like crying. "Sir, I have always wanted to see New York."
Which was how Ash turned twenty six on a coast far from the west. Edouard made her pack every single gift he'd ever given her and she wore them when they went out to dinner every night. They went to the ballet and plays. They dined in beautiful places with beautiful people who didn't know them at all. Edouard introduced her as his dear friend, Miss Ash. Her arms were weighed down with gems and she wondered if this was how Delilah felt.
On the train back, Edouard stroked her arm and said, "There's no reason I couldn't occasionally take you out. It could be for your birthday."
Ash felt something inside of herself tear loose. "Edouard, I'm your housekeeper. We can't do that."
He didn't have anything to say to that.
When they got back, life resumed as it had been.
Eduard was completely aware, because Ash had indulged him in enacting a version of it many times, that he had a fantasy where Ash became ill and based on doctor's advice was forced to take absolute bed rest for her health. He even knew which doctor he would coerce into giving the diagnosis. In this fantasy, he'd imagined washing her hair and sponging her clean, and that every item of food that she ate came from his own hand. They'd done these things in fact. They'd enjoyed doing these things.
The reality was they had been together for eleven years when Ash looked at him with a stony face and informed him that the stomach flu he'd been delighting in caring for her through was no such thing. That the slight rounding of her belly had entirely other reason than treats he'd coaxed past her lips. She told him that they were going to have a child.
Ash thought about the "it" in her body. She thought about her life. She tried to imagine herself wanting a child, but she couldn't. Children wailing still made her think of piglets. But the "it" was a reality of her life. She wouldn't be able to maintain the polite fiction with a child clutching her hand. She'd have to leave. She have to invent a husband. She didn't want to have to leave.
Edouard thought about the child. The slowly growing thing that was pushing Ash away from him. They were out of sync for the first time and he didn't like it. They had been in sync for the better part of his life. No, they had been in sync for the best part of his life.
When she said, "Will that be all, sir," with her hand on the small of her back, she was thinking about something other than them.
She stopped writing in the ledgers. She'd pick up the pen and put it down again. She went to bed faced away from him. She didn't say philanthropist. She hardly said anything.
They both wasted several months scheming as the reality of what was happening grew larger and rounder. He didn't contact the quack doctor to insist on complete bed rest. Although, he did try to force any number of treats on Ash. Instead he tried to subtly reverse everything he had said prior to that day regarding marriage in Ash's mind, because she could not leave him. They had a contract.
Ash knew that Edouard was planning on marrying her. She knew that. He'd begun dropping hints like so many breadcrumbs. There was a place in the middle of her heart that would crack open and begin bleeding if after all they'd been to each other, they married over this.
She'd say, "Sir, would you like some tea," and he'd curl his arm around her waist and rest his head on her belly, and he'd never answer her.
He'd say, "Here have another bite of steak," and he'd hold out the fork. She'd always liked it when he fed her in the past, and she wanted to hit him just then because he wasn't attempting to feed her because of her. She ate the steak. She didn't hit him and she didn't scream. She was quiet like she'd been taught to be as a little girl.
By her fifth month, she stood in the front windows of the castle with her arms wrapped quite around herself trying to decide if she could let out her dresses a little more, or if it was time to go.
It was in that moment that she understood that the pain that she and Eduard had played at was just that, play. She felt as if a great hand reached inside of her and forcibly ripped her right from her left half. She felt as if that stuffed grizzly bear in the lobby of the Grand hotel raked across the soft interior of her. She felt shredded. It hurt like nothing she ever wanted to ever experience. She screamed as blood pooled on the carpet.
Edouard was trying to control the future, when his secretary said, "Mr. Gurun, I've just received a message. Your housekeeper has taken ill."
He felt every second as he made his way home. The cable car would not come and would not come and it would not come and there were no cabs to be had and he set off running. He felt every step up the steep hills. Air was sandpaper in his lungs and sweat poured down his face. A sharp knife cramp stabbed up under his rib cage. He kept running. He went past pain and he thought, this must be how Ash feels. He kept running.
He came to himself when he arrived home and Ash was lying in the middle of their bed, everything soaked with blood screaming, "Please, stop it." He had no way to stop it. Their cook was standing there uselessly. He had her send for a doctor. He had her send for several doctors. None of them the quack he'd fantasized about, while he sat next to Ash holding her hand and willed her not to die.
It went on and on and on and when finally it did come to an end, all she could do was lie there breathing.
The Doctors told him that his housekeeper had lost the child. Their tones said that this might be a relief. They told him that as a result of the miscarriage it was likely that his housekeeper would be unable to have children.
Eduard told everyone to, "Leave Now!" and proceeded to ignore Ash hating everything in the world.
She'd never wanted a child, and the only emotion she could feel was relief. She sobbed because she must be the most horrible person in creation to be so very relieved.
Edouard curled up in bed next to her, not touching her. Simply looking at her and she couldn't stand it because he'd wanted the child. More than he wanted her.
She screamed, "Get out." He did not get out. It seemed giving control to Eduard over a decade ago meant that he would not leave when she wanted him to. She narrowed her eyes and said, "Philanthropist."
He sighed and sat up. He ran his hands through his wild hair. "That's only fair. I am the one who caused this."
"You! I did this. I wanted it gone and now…" She reached for him and cried into his shoulder until she was empty. She felt light headed, like after a sound whipping. She fell asleep like that.
Matters changed between them after that.
He cared for her in the bed for the weeks of her recovery and it was nothing like they'd fantasized. She was so small with grey folds under her eyes.
As he care for her, Ash knew that Edouard had wanted that child enough to marry her over it. It was a litany that repeated itself endlessly in her head. She felt dull and limp. He didn't order to strip and they did none of the things they'd used to do.
When Edouard looked at Ash, he kept hearing her screaming. She was so very lost. He did his best to take care of her.
She sent the red silk coverlet for mending. She said, "We've used it for many years now, sir. It needs care." He didn't know what to say to that. It wasn't that she moved out of their bed, she was a ghost in their bed and their home. He looked in her eyes and she didn't want a switch or a spanking or to be tied up or tied down. Her eyes didn't make him think of fire. They made him feel like her hair was full of ash and her black wool dresses were sack cloth.
The world around them kept spinning. Edouard went to work and took the risks that he always had. He behaved as he always did and if there were rumors, there had been rumors for years. But something was off kilter in the world. Edouard could feel it, but then everything felt like it had gone a deep grey.
He was so very glad that Ash was alive. He'd give anything to have her back. He'd give double that to bring her back to herself.
He suggested that she visit her Aunt. She said, "Are you firing me, sir?"
He said something in response. He could hardly know what it was.
The world was still spinning. It didn't even occur to him that there could be anything else off in the world, until after the annual Board meeting, which to put it mildly, did not go well.
Afterwards, one his chief directors, Harold Perkins, said, "The thing is, sir, you're not a young man anymore building an empire. You have one. But you aren't living like someone who wants to leave behind a legacy. You live like a bachelor. It makes everyone nervous. You need to settle down and start a family. "
Edouard put on his regular folk's smile through the gray of the world. "I suppose you already have someone picked out."
Perkins flushed and looked at Jonathan Foster, who sighed and said, "Alexander Jennings is just waiting to hand over the reins of his shipping company to a son-in-law. Now, Hazel's not all that young any more, but…" Foster trailed off at Edouard's look.
Perkins said in an overly bluff voice, "Miss Ash made you a hell of a lot better to work for, but a Hazel tree will give you a lot more children than an Ash tree over could. Hazel is set to inherit everything Jennings has. You've always said that marriage was business. This would be good business."
Edouard kept his face very calm. He wore a regular folk's smile. He ignored the small scrabbling animal that appeared to be living in his chest. He was calm when he went home. He was calm when he told Ash about it over dinner. She was very calm back at him. She was like a grey outline of herself.
After dinner, she went into the parlor. She poured them both a glass of whiskey and sat next to him on the couch, rather than the floor as she would have in years past.
She said, "I turned thirty-two this year." He didn't tell her that he knew that. He didn't say that he had turned thirty-six an uncelebrated week ago. He didn't say anything. The small animal living in his chest was scrabbling about painfully, but he put on a regular folk's face and didn't let on. Ash put her hand over his. "Edouard, when you get married, it'll be time for me to go."
He said nothing. He knew that every day that they had been together, she had been preparing herself for this very moment. He hadn't the gift of giving permanent happiness after all. He didn't say that he hoped that she'd find herself again if she left. He didn't say anything other than, "Yes, you're right."
They didn't say anything more. Ash went to get a stack ledgers out of the box where they'd been keeping them. They sat together as they burned each one down to ashes in the fire place.
In contradiction of that, they put aside their clothes coupled in front by the fire and if both of them were a bit teary eyed by the end, it was entirely on account of the paper smoke.
Since there was no way out, but through, Edouard went to call on Miss Hazel the next day. They sat in her parlor lined with potted plants. Before he had a chance to say a word, she said, "I've driven off all the other suitors sniffing after daddy's company, but I suppose you'll be harder to send on your way." She wrinkled her face into a sort of smile. "Daddy's been singing your praises for years. I don't see it myself."
He spread his hands wide. "You don't want to marry at all, but can't move into your own home until you do marry. I would consider this a business merger. Your own room and no interference from myself in your own interests."
He held out his hand. Hazel looked at him for a long moment. They shook on it.
It wasn't particularly what Edouard wanted, but business was like that sometimes.
Since Hazel was a not particularly young thirty-two, her Father decided that the wedding should happen before she got any older.
At first Ash felt nothing but a dull ache. But as she readied the house for a new mistress, something inside of her screamed that she didn't want to go.
The day of the wedding, Ash looked over Edouard's room for the last time. She looked at the bedspread that the servants had put on the bed. She thought, "This was my bed for over ten years. If another woman gets in it, then she's getting in it with my coverlet." She pulled her silk brocade out of its box and put it on the bed where it belonged.
She was still looking at it, when Mrs. Jennings came up from the wedding supper going on below, to be sure that the hussy who'd been filling Edouard's bed didn't mess anything up for her baby girl. She steamrolled into the room like a freight train and stopped dead in the door when she saw that silk brocade. She said, "Where did you get that?"
Ash said, "I've always had it. It was left with me when I was abandoned. This silk and a gold ring."
Mrs. Jennings said, "Show me the ring." Ash was wearing it on a gold chain around her neck, so it was easy enough to show it to Mrs. Jennings, who sank down on the bed looking poleaxed.
"Years ago, before I had my Hazel, I went to a baby shower for our neighbor, who'd had twin boys. I'd been trying for a baby for years and out of spite, I said, that I couldn't understand why we were celebrating because clearly a woman who had twins had slept with two men." She shook her head. "Her husband heard and he got terribly angry. He divorced his wife and kicked her babies out with her. I hadn't meant to make that happen. I was just so jealous of those baby boys. Then when I finally became pregnant myself, it was my curse that I had twins." Tears were rolling down Mrs. Jennings' face. "You have to understand, I would have been ruined. I had my maid put you somewhere where you would be cared for. But I made sure that you were left with a piece of silk from China and my papa's signet ring. He was a ship captain. That way whoever found you would know that you were from a good family."
Ash stared at her mama and all she could think was, "I am the child of an idiot." What she said was, "Well, you've gotten us into a bit of a pickle."
Her Mother was openly sobbing now. "I don't know what to do."
Ash sighed. "Here's what you're going to do. You're going to go to your husband and you are going to get down on your knees in front of him and you are going to cry just like you are right now. You'll tell him that you've done something silly that you're afraid that he can't forgive you for and you're going to refuse to get up until you've made it up to him."
"But I can't possibly make it up to him."
Ash couldn't believe she was having to have this conversation with any woman, much less one who turned out to be her mama about how to handle her papa. "After you've made it up to him by pulling what he's got under his flies, then you tell him what you've done."
Her Mother's hand fluttered to her face. "Oh, I couldn't."
"Well, since you could apparently abandon a baby in a tree because you were embarrassed, you can do this." Ash couldn't believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. But looking at her Mama, she was just so very angry.
Her mother squeaked. "I'll do it."
About an hour later, Mr. Jennings came out of the library looking ruffled and relaxed and astonished to find out he had another daughter grown.
Ash looked Edouard who was staring at her from the far side of the room with his Saint Paul's eyes. She said, "Edouard, I think it best if you get down on your knees and propose to me."
Edouard got down on his knees, and took her hand in his. He looked at her with all the intensity of long ago. "Ash, I married your twin sister."
Ash considered her Father and her Mother and her new sister. "I'll be moving in with my family until the annulment and the wedding. Until then my brocade will stay where it's supposed to be." She raised her eyebrows at him and put the gold ring she'd been wearing around her neck on his ring finger.
He turned his hands so that she could lift her hands away at any moment. "What will my board think? The stockholders."
Her papa, and what an odd though, boomed, "They'll think he's damned lucky to be marrying a daughter of mine. If I met you once, I met you a thousand times. Can't imagine how I didn't see the resemblance to my Hazel."
Edouard's expression said he doubted it. She brushed back a lock of his hair. "We'll spin this in the papers first. About how I was tragically stolen as an infant by a servant. No, a business rival. Someone out of a penny dreadful, who abandoned me in a tree, where I was raised the Abbey on Angel Island."
"We slowly fell in love, but never acted on our feelings or said anything, because of all the things that stood in our way," said Edouard leaning his head into the palm of her hand.
"It was only when it was almost too late that the truth came out," said Ash. "Well, Edouard."
He smiled. "Miss Ash, will you do the honor of renegotiating our agreement."
"Yes, Mr. Gurun, I will." They kissed chastely enough given the audience.
After that, Ash met Hazel, who was nice enough, if completely a little distressed to find she wouldn't be moving out of her parent's house after all. Ash sat next to her for about five minutes listening to her talk before saying, "You need something that is just yours. Let me see if I can help you with that."
Aunt Ines came to the next wedding. Ash wore a blue dress and a matching gold ring that Edouard had made, and was walked down the aisle by her papa, who seemed nice enough. Aunt Ines cried.
That night, she tied Edouard to the four posts of their bed. He looked beautiful to her spread out on their silk coverlet. He shuddered when she dragged a metal clamp across the skin of his chest.
She said, "You married another woman."
He said in that low growl voice of his, "I'm glad you are such a kind hearted woman that you were going to leave me this damned coverlet on my wedding bed."
She tightened a screw on a clamp to a hitch of his breath and smiled. "So am I, Edouard. So am I."