Authors: Maggie Osborne
Tags: #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Contemporary, #Adult, #Irish Americans, #Polish Americans, #Immigrants, #New York (N.Y.)
And he could watch for the lovely lass he had met at Ellis Island, though he had almost abandoned hope of finding her again. A sigh lifted his shoulders and he thrust his hands deep into his pockets. Why hadn't he inquired where she was staying? Hell, he didn't even know her name. Her beautiful dark eyes had gazed into his and turned his brain to straw. Instead of asking the important questions, he had babbled like an idiot. Swearing softly, he turned a brooding expression toward the shop windows.
A week ago Jamie had begun ignoring the Irish need not apply warning added to the Help Wanted signs, hoping he could pass for an Englishman, though the thought galled him. In the end it hadn't mattered as prospective employers recognized his accent and showed him the door. He was beginning to wonder how Irishmen, Chinamen and Africans survived in New York City.
Fingering his coins, feeling the sweat that soiled his collar, he walked along Broadway, entering every door displaying a Help Wanted sign. And leaving again. It was just as well, he told himself, rejecting any thought of discouragement. A job in the establishments he had tried would only have offered a stopgap measure, something to provide the necessities until he could secure a position in construction or design.
Pausing to mop his neck and brow, Jamie looked past the edge of the pavement into a construction pit and watched a crew of laborers excavating a basement for what he guessed would eventually be another Broadway shopping emporium. The men working the shovels were bare chested, sweating profusely in the boiling noon day sun. The work was brutal and the heat in the pit would be savage, but at least the men had a job and the satisfaction of knowing they were building something wonderful.
After a moment the conversation around him focused and Jamie realized the foreman for the job site stood not three feet from him. Surely this was a sign. After dusting the tops of his shoes on the back of his trousers, he straightened his shoulders, removed his cap, and stepped forward.
"Pardon the intrusion, sir, but are you the foreman for this site?"
"The same. The name's Henry Gustoffer. Who wants to know?" Gustoffer looked him up and down, then squirted a stream of tobacco through a gap in his teeth.
"Jamie Kelly, and I'm looking for work." Before Henry Gustoffer could reject him out of hand he quickly added, "I've had two years of university and trained two years in architecture with Goblin and Greene in Dublin."
Gustoffer smiled and ran a finger between his mustache and his upper lip. "Come off your perch, son. All I got is shovel work."
"I'll take shovel work. I'll take whatever you have and gladly."
Another stream of tobacco juice splattered near Jamie's shoes, then Gustoffer lifted his head and narrowed his eyes. "I know times are hard, especially for you bastard micks. But you ain't built for shovel work. You're built lean, like a Thoroughbred, if you know what I mean, and what I want are plow horses. Hell, you wouldn't last two hours in the pit."
No one else had given him this much time and Jamie seized the opportunity, as slim as it was. Refusing to accept his dismissal, he followed Henry Gustoffer inside the shed near the rim of the pit.
"I'm wiry but I'm strong," he said to Gustoffer's broad back. "I have staying power. All I ask is a chance to prove myself."
Gustoffer turned from the table strewn with blueprints. "I'm losing patience, son. Ain't no way a tall thin drink of water like yourself has the strength for excavation."
"I have sixty-two cents in my pocket, Mr. Gustoffer," he said stiffly. Desperation trampled his pride. "I haven't eaten since yesterday. I don't know where I'll sleep tonight. If you're turning me away because I'm Irish, I'll go without apology. But if you're refusing me because you think I can't heave a shovel, I beg you to reconsider. Tell me what I can do to convince you I'm worth hiring on."
The noon whistle blew as Gustoffer eyed him up and down. He bit the corner of a plug of tobacco he took from his waistcoat pocket. "It ain't mat I'm unsympathetic to your troubles"
"I'm stronger than you think. I can work as hard as any man. All I ask is a chance."
Gustoffer walked outside to the edge of the excavation pit and watched the men drop their shovels as the sound of the noon whistle died away. "You want to prove yourself?" Turning, he grinned at Jamie. "You beat my strongest man in a one-on-one, and you got yourself a shovel job."
Jamie studied the men in the pit. Heavy sweat-slicked muscles gleamed in the sun. Every one of them looked as if they were made of cast-iron and double bolted, like evil-tempered giants.
"Worst that can happen," Gustoffer said, considering, "is my men get some entertainment with their midday chuck." He cocked an eyebrow. "You game, Mr. Kelly?"
He'd had some instruction in pugilism; he hoped to hell it would be enough. "Call out your best man," he said cheerfully. Finally he had a chance; he wasn't going to walk away.
He was going to win. To do that he had to believe he could. He could not allow a single grain of fear or defeatism to enter his mind.
"I'll say this, young fella, you got sand." Gustoffer leaned over the edge of the pit. "Hey, Kolska," he shouted. "This here mick says you got a face like a cow's hole." He grinned. "Says he knows baby girls tougher'n you."
Jamie looked down at the sturdy bull Gustoffer had chosen. A furious plum color rose in the man's face, and Jamie felt his heart drop to his toes. The man outweighed Jamie by a good thirty pounds, and the muscles swelling his upper arms were work hardened and tight as rock.
"You can win," he muttered as he removed his coat and waistcoat and slowly rolled up his sleeves while Gustoffer continued to shout insults into the pit.
The man Gustoffer had chosen jabbed his shovel into the dirt and roared. The other men cheered as he ran to the side of the pit and began to pull himself up to the street.
Jamie swallowed. The bull was coming to pulverize him. This was not going to be easy. At the very moment when he most needed a sign of encouragement, the angels granted his wish. To his joy and astonishment, he spotted the young lass from Ellis Island hurrying toward him. Finding her again was a piece of luck so staggering that it had to mean he could conquer the bull.
"Wait," he called to Gustoffer, then he sprinted forward and caught her arm, hastily apologizing for startling her.
"Mr. Kelly!" Her wonderful dark eyes widened in surprise anddare he hope?pleasure at seeing him again.
"Please don't leave," he said, speaking rapidly. "I must speak to you. What is your name? I don't even know your name."
"Lucie," she said shyly, observing his suspenders and his state of undress.
The name was as beautiful as the woman. From the corner of his eyes he mm the bare-chested giant hand himself out of the pit and start toward him. Lucie saw the man, too, and she gasped, her hand flying to her throat.
Feeling an instinctive urge to protect her, he caught her arm as she stepped forward. "There's going to be a fight," he explained rapidly. "You'd best stay here, out of harm's way."
Wide-eyed she stared at the man rushing toward them, then darted a look of distress to Jamie. A shudder swept her small body and horror darkened her eyes. "Oh, no!"
"Don't go away. Please. I must speak to you."
There was no time to converse further. After thrusting his cap, coat and waistcoat into her hands, he turned to engage the man jumping out of the pit to beat him into pulp. Praying he wouldn't be humiliated in front of her, Jamie spit on his palms, then raised his fists and stepped forward.
Seen from a closer vantage, Jamie realized his adversary was not a giant after all, but the realization offered scant consolation. The man was an inch or two shorter but powerfully built and mad as hell.
He circled warily, measuring his opponent and formulating his strategy. Before he could decide the best approach, the man from the pit charged him. There was nothing disciplined or civilized in the bull's style of fighting, just brute strength. He rushed in low and close, fists hammering.
One of the blows split Jamie's lip. He tasted blood and heard a roar of cheers rise from the pit. Finally he saw an opening and punched the man in the gut, saw it didn't slow him down. The man was going to beat him into sausage and all he would have to show for his trouble was a broken body and no job.
Rage flooded his face with feverish heat. He hadn't come to America to die of starvation or to be humiliated in front of a very special lassie. Lucie, her name was Lucie. Thrusting forward he landed a sharp blow beside the man's eye, opening a small cut. Lucie, he chanted in his mind as he landed another blow, then another. He hadn't found her again to be mortified in front of her. Dancing and dodging he planted a blow in the man's stomach, putting his full weight behind it. He needed this job and, by God, no one was going to stop him from having it. Lucie, Lucie, Lucie.
From the corner of his eye he noticed her standing frozen in the midst of the crowd that had gathered. Her expression of mounting distress dispatched a burst of energy through his body. Her face had become as white as a chalk cliff; tears—yes, he was certain they were tearsglistened in her lovely eyes. She was trembling and her gloves fluttered anxiously about her throat and mouth. His spirit soared on wings of hope. Surely her anxiety on his behalf indicated she felt some tenderness toward him.
Then the pit man threw a punch that lifted him off his feet and sent him reeling backward. He quit talking to himself and thinking about Lucie and focused solely on living through this fight and maybe winning it.
Fifteen minutes later his eyes were swollen so badly he could hardly see, his ribs felt as if they were on fire. But, miracle of miracles, the man from the pit looked almost as bad as he did. They were both staggering, sucking for air, reeling with pain and exhaustion. Sweat rolled in waves from the bull's body, plastered Jamie's shirt to his skin. He had to finish it now, while he was still on his feet.
They stumbled toward each other in the center of the crowd, dripping sweat and drops of blood. Then, blinking at the black dots dancing in front of his vision, Jamie summoned the last of his strength. When he saw his opportunity, he drew back and struck the pit man square on the jaw below his left ear. The man's eyes rolled upward. His hands dropped to his sides and he swayed, staggered backward a step, then crashed to the ground like a fallen oak.
Unable to believe it was over and he was still standing, Jamie tottered forward and blinked down at the unconscious man at his feet. If he ever encountered Mr. Haversham again, his pugilist instructor, he would buy the man a bottle of the best champagne available.
Henry Gustoffer appeared beside him, raised his hand in the air and declared him the winner fair and square. "Pay all bets on the mick," Gustoffer shouted. He shook his head and grinned at Jamie. "Wouldn't have believed it if I ain't seen it myself. Be here at first light tomorrow. Bring your own shovel."
A minute ago he hadn't thought he could remain on his feet another second. Now elation flooded his aching body and he felt as if he could do anything, could overcome any obstacle. Blinking through his swollen and blackened eyes, he pushed into the dissipating crowd, searching for the young lass from Ellis Island. Not for a moment did he doubt she was waiting, not the way his luck was running today, but it surprised him to find her standing over the pit man, her face stricken and horrified.
"Thank you," he said through his cracked lips, taking his coat and cap from her shaking hands. She was carrying a small reticule and a tin lunch pail. And somehow she managed to look crisp and tidy though the sun blazed with brutal force. "You've dressed your hair differently," he said, blurting the observation and following it immediately with an apology for uttering an improper remark.
When he had met her on the island, she had worn her glorious chestnut hair in a knot on her neck. Today she had wrapped it fashionably higher and wore her little straw boater stylishly straight. He thought he had never seen a more beautiful woman, or one with finer skin or longer lashes.
She didn't look up from the battered pit man. The way she wrung her hands and bit her lips displayed a tender nature that he found endearingthough he wished she would direct a bit more of her anxiety in his direction rather than toward his adversary. She kept murmuring, "Oh, dear, oh, dear," and tears hung on her dark lashes.
"I've thought about you constantly," he confessed in a rush. "You don't know how many times I've berated myself for not asking your name." She dashed at the tears in her eyes, then twisted her gloves together and continued to murmur over the man beginning to stir at their feet.
"It's Lucie Kolska," she said quickly. Her blush reminded him of an Irish rose. But he didn't understand the anguish constricting her expression.
"Miss Kolska, if you feel" He had never been good at this sort of thing. And it had never been as important before. "That is, with your permission I would very much like to call on you. May I?"
The blush intensified in her cheeks and so did her agitation. She peeked at him through that incredible sweep of lashes. Leaning toward her he tried to read her expression, hoping for a hint of encouragement. Instead, moisture welled in her eyes and she looked on the edge of weeping. Her hands laced together and rose to her breast.
"You will have to obtain my brother's permission," she murmured, biting an adorable lip. To his astonishment she knelt beside the pit man and reached a trembling finger to the bruise blossoming on his jaw.
"Of course." A terrible suspicion formed in his mind. He blinked down at the man at his feet. No. Fate would not be that cruel. "Where may I find your brother, Miss Kolska?" he asked slowly, dreading the answer.
She glanced up at his bloodied knuckles, then gently placed her hand on the pit man's cheek. "Here," she whispered. "Oh, Mr. Kelly. How could you do this?"
Jamie stared at the battered man struggling to sit up. A string of swear words sped through his mind.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said stiffly. Moisture glistened in her eyes. "But I doubt Stefan will allow you to call. And and I could not agree to it, either."