Hoping to right her wrongs, Elizabeth dedicates herself to helping girls rescued from slavery in Chinatown brothels, even if it means putting her own life at risk to sneak through the gloomy alleys and rooftops where dangers lurk.
Putting her life on the line for a worthy cause is admirable. But opening her heart is even more terrifying. So when Elizabeth meets attorney, Charles McKinley—a man who dreams of reforming San Francisco's crooked politics—Elizabeth begins to doubt: Can she maintain her pretense and hide her past? Or will her secret jeopardize both their futures?
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Through the Shadows
The Golden Gate Chronicles
By Karen Barnett, First Edition
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Karen Barnett
All rights reserved.
Elizabeth King held her fingers against the ivory keys, refusing to stir as the final chord faded and silence descended on the parlor. Were God ever to speak to her, she imagined it would be in the precious instant after a last note died away and before an audience responded. The moment preserved a holy space, as if the breath of divinity hung in the air.
No voice arrived today, but there was no audience either.
She ran her fingertips along the cool surface, the black and white pattern softening as her eyes blurred with tears. God wouldn't converse with the likes of her, anyway.
After three years of intense instruction, every note conjured Tobias's memory — his touch. Elizabeth sprang from the stool and stalked to the window, staring out at the darkening clouds. She couldn't let her mind travel to those memories. Before she knew it, she'd be at his door.
"Turn your back on me, and you're finished. You'll never perform again."
She'd done the right thing. So why did the shame still cling, like a vine curling around her soul?
Her mother swept into the room, a cream-colored apron tied over her flowered dress. "Elizabeth — you aren't dressed yet?"
Elizabeth pulled her gaze from the window. "Dressed?"
"Have you forgotten? Mr. McKinley is joining us for supper. I've been trying to get the attorney to come here from San Francisco for months."
The man's name sent a shiver along Elizabeth's skin, like a discordant note in the middle of a Bach concerto. Of course, she'd forgotten — if she'd remembered, she'd have left earlier. "I promised Lillian I would attend the suffrage meeting with her this evening."
"You attend too many of those silly political gatherings. They've ruined you for polite society."
"Mother, you know I've never cared for 'polite society.' That's your arena."
"Your father spoiled all of you children. I thought you, being the youngest, might turn out all right." Her mother straightened one of the cushions.
A lump formed in Elizabeth's throat. Even though she'd been young when he passed away, her father's determination and generous nature shaped her heart. "Your talent is a gift from God, Elizabeth. It brings Him glory." Not anymore.
"Hurry, now. Mr. McKinley will be here soon."
No escape. Perhaps she could make excuses after supper. Elizabeth climbed the stairs to her room and dug through the wardrobe for a suitable dress. She couldn't choose anything too nice for the cantankerous old lawyer.
Her fingers lingered on her favorite silk gown. The navy blue had gleamed under the auditorium's electric lights as she'd curtsied to a large crowd. Elizabeth shoved it back and pulled out a russet skirt and matching vest instead. Her stage days were past. If all she had to look forward to were dull evenings in the company of stodgy attorneys, she might as well dress the part.
Her sister, Ruby, had once described Silas McKinley as being akin to a moray eel, and the image cemented itself in Elizabeth's mind. They hadn't seen him in over a year — not since he divulged that most of her late father's assets had been lost in the fires following the San Francisco earthquake.
With her musical dreams crumbling about her ears and the family in financial crisis, Elizabeth needed a new direction for her life — and fast. Perhaps this evening's suffrage meeting would give her some ideas.
* * *
The Sacramento streetcar glided to a stop as Charles studied the King family's files. The case appeared straightforward, probably the reason his uncle had chosen it for Charles's first consultation. He set his jaw and leafed through the documents for the hundredth time. He'd almost memorized them on the ferry, but good preparation prevented surprises.
A well-dressed young woman climbed up the steps, her eyes scanning the conveyance.
Only one seat remained open — next to him. Charles's throat tightened. Why couldn't she be an elderly spinster or even a middle-aged mother with children? His law school elocution classes had never touched on the art of conversation with young socialites. These lace-bedecked, sweet-smelling mysteries befuddled him.
Her eyes settled on the seat and she flounced his direction, gripping the rail as the streetcar shifted into motion.
He swallowed, scooting over a few inches to allow ample room for her layers of skirts.
"This rain is incorrigible." She unpinned her enormous hat, and set it on her lap, running slim fingers over the sodden peacock plumes. "They're ruined. I knew it."
Was she speaking to herself or to him? He probably should refrain from pointing out the fact that birds were quite accustomed to rainfall — until you removed their plumage and sewed it to women's hats.
She turned to face him. "I'd hoped the rains would hold off until this evening. I do hate conducting excursions in poor weather."
Charles tucked the documents into his valise and withdrew today's issue of The San Francisco Call. "I believe the shower's letting up."
He was rewarded with a dazzling smile. Apparently, he'd said the right thing — for once.
She leaned closer, her gaze drawn to the paper. "Now that's intriguing."
Charles lifted the periodical, the headlines dominated by the San Francisco graft trials. A young woman interested in politics? Could he be so lucky? "Cleaning up the city seems to be one of the district attorney's main goals. It's shameful how much city money has been diverted to lining politicians' pockets, especially considering how many still suffer from the 1906 quake," he offered.
The young woman wrinkled her nose. "No ..." She jabbed a finger at a small column on the right-hand side. "Governor Gillett's wife is hosting a dinner party for visiting Navy Admirals. I wonder what she'll be serving?"
Charles's stomach sank as he lowered the paper to his lap. "I couldn't hazard a guess."
"I bought this hat because she wears one just like it." She tugged at the plumes. "My father took me to a state dinner last month. Dreadfully boring, but it gave me an opportunity to view the season's new styles." Her lips tipped upward, eyes shining as she pinned the ridiculous item atop her coiled hair.
"Well that's ... something." He turned to the window, gauging how many more blocks until he reached Mrs. King's home.
"Oh, there's my stop. Nice visiting with you." She bounced up the aisle, leaving a cloud of rose petal fragrance in her wake.
Charles shook his head. She'd taken the streetcar rather than walk four blocks? Understanding the female species might prove beyond his grasp.
Charles stepped off at the next stop, lifting the umbrella over his head to protect his new tailored suit from the drizzle. Uncle Silas had demanded Charles discard the typical Sears, Roebuck & Company sack suits he'd worn through law school. "An attorney is only as respectable as his appearance suggests."
He squinted at the house on the corner and checked its address against the scrap of paper he clutched in his damp glove. Eager to get in from the storm, he hurried up the steps and rang the bell.
The door creaked open; a petite young woman stared out at him. "Yes?"
Not again. Charles sucked in a quick breath as her large blue eyes sent his carefully rehearsed greeting into disarray. She appeared far too young to be Dr. King's widow. He glanced at her simple attire, which did little to obscure her trim figure. A housekeeper, perhaps? He forced his attention back to her face. "Is this the King residence?"
She didn't release the knob, using the other hand to touch her hair, golden as the hills near his hometown. "Yes. May I help you?"
He cleared his throat, jamming the paper into his pocket. "If you could let your employer know Mr. Charles McKinley from McKinley and McClintock Associates is here to speak with her, I'd be most grateful." He pushed back his black derby hat and offered a hesitant smile.
"My employer?" She narrowed her eyes. "Where is Mr. McKinley? I mean — the other Mr. McKinley?"
Charles tugged at his stiff collar. She seemed rather impertinent for a maid. Perhaps her beauty only went so deep. "Silas McKinley is my uncle. He sent me in his stead. Now, if you could —"
"I'll inform my mother you are here." The woman stepped back and swung the door wide. "Please, come in out of the rain."
His stomach dropped. "Your mother?" He lowered the umbrella and shook it before stepping over the threshold. "I thought — I thought you were a member of ..."
"The staff?" She curled her fingers into a fist. "I'm Elizabeth King." She gestured toward a sitting room. "You may wait in here. My mother will be right with you."
He placed the umbrella in the corner stand and followed her to the small room. His uncle would be mortified to hear of Charles's gaffe. What a way to start a meeting. "I beg your pardon, Miss King."
"I'm afraid it's just Mother and me this evening." Miss King's pointed gaze reminded him of a prosecutor during cross-examination. "And every evening. I'm sure your uncle has briefed you on our financial status."
Charles scrambled to recover from his misstep. "Yes. Well. I apologize for my uncle's absence, but he's given me responsibility over your father's estate."
The lady's eyes widened. "You must be joking."
An older woman stepped into the hall. "Is Mr. McKinley here already, Elizabeth?"
"Mother, this is Mr. Charles McKinley. Mr. McKinley's nephew."
Charles dried his hand on his jacket before grasping the widow's outstretched fingers. "It's an honor to meet you, Mrs. King. My uncle speaks highly of your late husband. He told me they were friends."
Mrs. King's eyes lit up. "He has spoken of you with high regard, as well, Mr. McKinley. Top of your class at Oregon Law, I hear."
Charles swallowed, his mouth as dry as blotting paper. Second. A moment of integrity had cost him top honors, a fact his uncle ignored at will. "Well —"
"I thought your uncle would be joining us. I hope he's not ill."
"No ma'am. He's quite busy, as you know, and he thought I could take care of any questions regarding Mr. King's trust."
"Dr. King." The daughter corrected him.
"Of course — Dr. King." Charles averted his gaze from her flashing eyes and focused on the young lady's mother. He patted his satchel. "I've been reviewing the papers, and I have some ideas that might be of assistance."
Mrs. King waved a dismissive hand. "First we dine, then we will talk business." Her lips curled as if she found the final word distasteful. "How wonderful to have a young man at the table. It's been some time. I only have the one son, Robert — Dr. Robert King — but he's off and married now, living in San Francisco. Most of my daughters are married, as well. Only Elizabeth remains."
The young woman seemed to deflate at her mother's words, a frown darting across her lovely face. "Not everyone marries these days. It's a new century. It's no longer the disgrace it once was."
Her mother sniffed. "So you say. Those suffrage meetings put outlandish ideas in your head. I never should have allowed them." She turned to Charles. "Are you married, Mr. McKinley?"
"Um, no. I haven't had the pleasure."
Mrs. King clicked her tongue. "A bachelor attorney? You'll need to remedy the problem posthaste if you expect to be respected in the legal profession."
Uncle Silas had said something similar just yesterday. Unfortu-nately, as today proved, every woman Charles met seemed concerned with little more than dinner parties and peacock feathers. Could he really survive a lifetime with such a companion?
The young lady gestured toward the dining room. "Perhaps we should go in to supper?"
Mrs. King's brows drew together as she scrutinized her daughter. "I'll entertain Mr. McKinley while you dress, my dear."
Elizabeth King's rigid posture seemed lost on her mother. With a huff, she turned on a heel and disappeared up the main staircase.
The tension left the room as if attached to Miss King's backside. Charles exhaled, shaking such thoughts from his mind. How would he survive as a court attorney if one young woman could rattle him so? Lord, grant me focus.
Hetty King leaned close, her voice low. "Don't mind my Elizabeth. She's the youngest, and I'm afraid we indulged her whims far too much."
Charles stifled a chuckle. Only a family member could burrow under one's skin with such ease. He should know. His uncle had the same talent.
* * *
Elizabeth took another bite of the dry chicken, following it with a quick sip of water to wash down the stringy morsel. Her mother's cooking always left much to be desired.
Mr. McKinley sawed at the meat with his knife. She almost felt sorry for the man. Growing up in one of San Francisco's privileged families, he'd probably never imagined life without a housekeeper and a cook. The fine fabric of his suit suggested he was cut from the same cloth as his uncle.
Even so, the odd contrast between the softness in his brown eyes and the firmness of his jaw drew her gaze. At least he didn't look like Silas McKinley, one mark in his favor.
She'd chosen the blue gown after all — not to impress the pretentious attorney, but rather to deflect any more of Mother's pointed remarks. Elizabeth pushed the cooked carrots around the dish with her fork. Now that she didn't have daily rehearsals to take up her time, she'd be at the mercy of her mother's meddling. If she weren't careful, Mother would see her married off to the first eligible bachelor she could sink her claws into. Elizabeth's gaze returned to the young man sitting across the table. Unfortunately, she wasn't marriage-worthy. Tobias had assured as much.
Mother smiled as she passed Mr. McKinley a basket of rolls. "How long have you lived in San Francisco?"
He accepted the container and added a piece of bread to his plate. "Only a few days, actually. I grew up near Redding, but I attended law school in Oregon. My uncle recently brought me into the firm. This is my first assignment."
"Your first?" Tiny lines formed around her mother's mouth.
Elizabeth twisted the napkin in her lap. "I'd have thought your uncle would show more respect for us than to bring in an inexperienced attorney."
The young man glanced up, one brow cocked. "I believe he meant it as a compliment. Uncle Silas would only commit your situation to a trusted family member."
Mother took a sip from her water glass, recovering her composure in less than a heartbeat. "Silas worked diligently for this family for years, Elizabeth. We shouldn't be questioning his intentions. I'm sure young Mr. McKinley will be a breath of fresh air." She patted his arm. "Youth doesn't always mean ignorance. And it comes with certain benefits." Mother smiled, her pale eyes gleaming as if she'd already convinced herself. "Energy. Drive. Ambition. All of which I expect Charles, here, has in abundance. May I call you Charles?"
Leave it to Mother to side with the enemy.
An eager smile brightened his face. "I've been looking over your files. I have some ideas to help with your new situation."
Situation. The word squeezed around Elizabeth's heart. "Our destitution, you mean?" As soon as the accusation escaped her lips, a prickle crept up her cheeks. She'd never learned her mother's gift for subtle conversation.
"Elizabeth!" Mother's face pinched.
The young man frowned. "I wouldn't go so far as to say that. It's a highly complex matter. I'm afraid you might not understand, Miss King."
Elizabeth's mouth fell open, his condescending tone snapping her control like an overtightened piano string. "I understand more than you realize, Mr. McKinley. For one thing, I know your uncle assured my father the buildings in which he invested were well-insured — he insisted there was little risk."
"My uncle couldn't have foreseen an earthquake of this —"
"Mr. McKinley also claimed to invest in the same properties, and yet he's still living in one of San Francisco's nicest homes. He doesn't appear to have endured the same level of economic ruin." The words tumbled from her mouth faster than she could collect them.
Excerpted from Through the Shadows by Karen Barnett, First Edition. Copyright © 2016 Karen Barnett. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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