Authors: Maggie Osborne
Tags: #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Contemporary, #Adult, #Irish Americans, #Polish Americans, #Immigrants, #New York (N.Y.)
Stunned, he stared down at her. What had he done? Suddenly everything had changed. He knew he had not imagined the pleasure Softening her eyes when he first saw her again.
She had been as elated to see him as he had been to see her. Even now, behind her distress, behind her loyalty to her brother, he thought he recognized a glimmer of regret.
"Miss Kolska," Jamie said, wetting his cracked lip. "There's an explanation for this. Please believe me, I did not choose to fight your brother."
Stefan Kolska was rapidly regaining his senses and he would awaken to the sight of his adversary earnestly entreating his sister's forgiveness, lost in the depths of her dark eyes.
"I think you should leave, Mr. Kelly," she said in a low voice, looking away from him.
Watching Kolska from the corner of his eye, he buttoned his waistcoat and pushed aching arms into his coat sleeves. "If you'll just allow me a moment to explain." The accusation in her gaze devastated him when she lifted her head. "I must see you again, Miss Kolska."
Her cheeks burned fiery red and he stared at her, memorizing her face, wanting to caress that gentle heat. Now that he had found her again, he couldn't bring himself to leave her.
"If I was you, Kelly," Gustoffer said from behind him. "I'd do a stamp. I wouldn't be standing here when Kolska gets up."
The look in Lucie Kolska's eyes agreed, urged him to depart. "Tell her this was your idea, Gustoffer." She had to understand he had not created the situation. "For heaven's sake, man, explain what happened," he implored Gustoffer, stepping backward, watching her bend over Kolska. Gustoffer regarded him as if he were a madman.
Before the Broadway crowds blotted her from sight, she glanced up, sorrow and anger drawing her expression.
Jamie cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted to Gustoffer. "Tell her!" If she was the woman he wanted her to be, she would forgive him once she learned: the truth of the matter. He halt to depend on that as it was all he had.
The man who sold him a shovel peered at him across the high sales counter. "Good Lord, man. What happened to you?"
Jamie smiled, feeling his lip crack open again. "I found a job and a girl." Gingerly, he touched his jaw. "There's a problem or two, but this is one of the best days of my life!"
The salesman inspected his slitted eyes and bleeding lip, then laughed. "That must be some girl, mister. If she did that to you on the best day of your life, I'd advise you never to make her mad."
It hurt to laugh. It hurt to move. Smiling, Jamie hefted the shovel in his hand, hoping to hell he could live up to his promise to Gustoffer. Then he counted out a nickel and a twopenny piece, lifted his cap to the salesman and strolled outside as if he were a regular brownstoner, as if he didn't have a care in the world.
What he wanted most was a bath, a bed and a plate of good Irish crubbeens. Since he had money for none of it, he washed at a horse trough, bought a penny cup of ginger pop and walked toward the bowery in search of a hammock in a doss house, swinging the shovel like a walking stick.
Come morning he knew he would feel as if he had been run over by a furniture van, but right now he felt as fit as a gold coach. He had found her again and she was as beautiful as he remembered. By all the saints, his fortunes were on the rise.
For two weeks Stefan had worried and fretted that Lucie might not like Greta or that Greta might not like Lucie. He need not have suffered a moment of concern. On the Sunday afternoon he brought Greta to the Elizabeth Street tenement, the two young women took one look at each other, then fell on each other with hugs and kisses and tears of happiness. What Stefan had overlooked was their need for the companionship of someone their own age and sex; Each woman was lonely for family and for someone with whom to share the small secrets of life.
He sat at the head of the table, almost forgotten, nodding, beaming and listening with pride and pleasure as the two young women established a bond that would be lifelong.
Lucie refilled their glasses with lemonade she had made for the occasion. "I can't thank you enough for the geranium," she said, looking at the much needed splash of color on the window sill. "I only hope it will grow. There's isn't much direct sun."
Greta's sweet smile lit the room. "I can't grow anything where I live, so I've claimed your windowsill for my garden. It's good to see the green."
"Between us, we'll coax it to grow. But if the geranium fails, perhaps you will make us a bouquet of artificial flowers. Stefan says you make beautiful silk flowers for hats and gowns."
A modest blush of pleasure warmed Greta's rounded cheeks. "I learned at the factory." She started to reach for the glass of lemonade, then changed her mind and dropped her hand to her lap beneath the table. "I asked Mr. Church if he would consider you as a replacement for Mrs. DeVriesMrs. DeVries has taken illbut the position had already been filled."
It didn't surprise Lucie that Greta had tried to help her before they even met. One had only to spend five minutes in Greta Laskowski's company to know the young woman possessed a kind and generous heart. When Lucie apologized that saving her passage money had delayed Greta's marriage, Greta placed her hand on Lucie's cheek and gently hushed her. "I long to marry our Stefan, but Stefan and I have the rest of our lives to be together," she said. "It was important that you come to America."
As the afternoon progressed they happily discovered a dozen points of compatibility. More than anything else, each yearned for a husband and hearth and fat healthy children under foot. Both enjoyed sewing, wished there were more time for it, and each missed working with the soil.
"In good years the turnips were this big," Lucie said, making a circle with her hands and winking.
Greta laughed, the sound reminding Lucie of tiny chiming bells. "No, no, this big." Forgetting herself she raised her hands to make a circle and Lucie saw the angry red rash she had tried to conceal. When Greta noticed the direction of Lucie's gaze, a flush of embarrassment tinted her cheeks. "It's so ugly, isn't it?" she murmured, dropping her hands to her lap.
"What causes it?" Lucie asked, moving around the table to take Greta's hand in her own.
"Several women at the factory have similar rashes. Mrs. Klepke believes something in the paper and silk causes it. Miss Iverson believes it's not the materials but the dyes. Mrs. Ryan blames the dust that comes off the dyes." She raised her gaze to Lucie. "Mr. Church complains that too many of us are ill too often, but he says it has nothing to do with the factory."
"I'm not sure I believe that." The worried frown above Stefan's blackened eyes made him look as fierce as a cossack. He rubbed a hand over the bruise on his jaw. "You weren't sick before you started working at the factory."
"I don't understand it," Greta admitted, rubbing the rash on her hand and wrist. "But I can't think that paper or silk or dust could hurt anyone. That's bunkum." She laughed at Lucie's raised eyebrows. "Bunkum is American for nonsense."
"I make a cream that might soothe the roughness," Lucie said, rising. "It's my own recipe." She fetched a twist of newspaper from her shelf in the sleeping room, opened it, and gently rubbed the emollient over Greta's rash.
"It feels better already," Greta assured her. "And the scent is lovely." The two women smiled at each other.
Later they worked together to singe and pluck the two hens Lucie had purchased for the occasion. While they worked Lucie told Greta about her lessons at the nearby settlement house and Greta told her about the people she lived with. They discussed hairstyles and fashions and which markets were cheapest and how best to travel from here to there.
"You shouldn't have gone to this expense," Greta said when the hens were prepared for roasting.
"It isn't everyday that I meet Stefan's betrothed and discover a new sister."
"Dearest Lucie, I'm so glad I found you." Greta's eyes filled with tears. "With no family and" She lowered her eyes. "Sometimes it's been so lonely." Distress filled her eyes. "I don't mean that Stefan has not been wonderful, I assure you he has. Stefan is the most wonderful man in the world! It's just that"
"Sometimes we need a sister."
"Yes! That is it exactly." She took Lucie's hands. "Now I have you and everything is perfect!"
Lucie decided if she had chosen Stefan's bride herself, she could not have chosen better than Greta Laskowski. Greta's gentle temperament would soften Stefan's impatience. Her utter belief in him would sustain her brother when dreams seemed far away. Instinctively Lucie knew Greta would keep a good house and be a fine mother to Stefan's children.
Plus, she was lovely. Greta had hair as golden as sunshine and eyes of a deeper, purer blue than any Lucie had observed. Her mouth was small but full and constantly smiling. She was the same height as Lucie but fuller figured, which Lucie admired. If it hadn't been for the slight puffiness left from her recent illness, Greta Laskowski would have been breathtakingly beautiful. It was no wonder Stefan gazed at her with such pride and adoration.
Because roasting the hens transformed the kitchen into an oven, Stefan carried their chairs to the rooftop and they took their plates upstairs into the air to eat. The rooftop was crowded and noisy, but they had the pleasure of watching a brilliant sunset as the dying sun slipped behind the taller buildings to the west.
"You see, Stefan," Greta said softly, touching his hand, "we don't have to spend money to have beauty in our lives. A geranium on the windowsill and a lovely sunset"
"You deserve more," Stefan said gruffly. "I promise, someday you will have a home of your own, and you won't make flowers for other people, you'll wear them yourself!"
"On silk gowns?" Greta teased.
"And satin, too! We'll dine out once a week and attend the theater. We'll look back on these days of waiting and doing without and we'll laugh."
"My dear Stefan, I don't care about silks or satins or dining out. If I can have you and Lucie and a beautiful sunset—and my geraniumsI'll be content." Concealing the action beneath the folds of her dark skirt, she reached for Stefan's hand and they sat in silence, enjoying the cooler air and the nearness of each other, watching the glow from the factories tint the night sky like a second sunset.
Smiling, Lucie sat quietly, watching her brother and her new sister, observing the small touches, the loving exchange of glances and murmured words. She sensed their joy in each other and thanked heaven for the miracle that had allowed them to find each other in this city teeming with strangers.
Although she dreaded returning to the heat inside the rooms below, she understood Stefan and Greta wished to be alone. After rising to her feet, she bent to kiss Greta's cheek. "You hardly ate a thing," she murmured near Greta's ear. "Are you certain you're feeling well?"
"The supper was wonderful, it's only that my appetite seems to rise and fall." A hint of apology rose in her large blue eyes. "Dearest Lucie, I can't bear the thought of offending you. I would have eaten every bite if"
"No, no, don't apologize. I was merely concerned for your health." She winked at Stefan. "Our Stefan will be pleased by the leftovers in his lunch pail tomorrow." And she could hardly wait for the opportunity to see Jamie Kelly again even though she knew Stefan would explode in anger if he knew.
Greta started to rise, offering to help with the dishes. "I won't hear of it," Lucie insisted, pressing her back into her chair. "I enjoy straightening the kitchen, really I do." When both Stefan and Greta laughed, she smiled. "You'll come again next Sunday, won't you?"
"Thank you." Understanding and gratitude lay in Greta's smile for the small degree of privacy Lucie offered them, such privacy as could be found on the crowded rooftop.
Once below Lucie stripped off her cotton skirt and high-necked shirtwaist and hung them on the pegs between her work clothes and the ensemble she saved for best. With a sigh she unhooked her corset and folded it on the shelf, then tied a light wrapper around her waist.
Even half-naked she found the heat intolerable. Wetting the sash of the wrapper in the basin of wash water, she ran the wet strip over her neck and breasts. Everyone suffered. Yesterday the city had dispatched trucks to spray the tenement streets with carbolic acid, hoping to settle the dust and the spread of disease.
After washing the supper dishes and tidying the stove, she placed the leftover chicken in the salt box, extinguished the light and sat beside the window Stefan had forced open for her, hoping for an elusive breath of cool air. Already the leaves of Greta's geranium had begun to droop in the heat. How Stefan and Jamie Kelly and others at the excavation site endured heavy labor beneath the scorching sun mystified her. But they did. According to Stefan only one man at the site had fallen from heat prostration. To Stefan's regret and her relief, the man had not been Jamie Kelly.
She saw him every day when she delivered Stefan's lunch pail but she didn't dare speak to him, of course, knowing her brother despised him. By now Stefan had learned the true cause behind the fight last week; Henry Gustoffer had attempted to make peace between the two men by relating the entire story as soon as Stefan regained consciousness.
Lucie believed she detected a hint of admiration beneath Stefan's grudging admission that Jamie Kelly had displayed ingenuity and courage in accepting Gustoffer's challenge. But he had not relaxed his hatred toward the Irishman. Stefan's pride had suffered for being bested before his companions.
Lucie waved listlessly at a fly, then tucked a heavy strand of damp hair off her neck. It would be so nice to have someone of her own to sit with in the hot summer darkness. Unfortunately she had settled her heart on a man whom destiny did not seem inclined to grant her.
Lucie's heartbeat accelerated as she approached the construction site to deliver Stefan's lunch pail. As it did every day, her mouth went dry when she sensed Jamie Kelly's intent gaze, and she experienced an agonizing conflict of loyalty. Stefan would rightly consider it betrayal if she uttered a single word to Jamie Kelly. But, oh, how she longed to.