My Darling Clementine: Part 3
Check out other parts of this story on my author’s page.
The last shards of porcelain from the shattered breakfast dishes were picked up, and everyone had gathered in the parlor. Clementine took a breath before she explained. She had always been a risk-taker, much to her parents’ horror, but this was a step farther than even she had gone before.
She glanced at Max from the corner of her eye. He looked quite dashing in his borrowed clothes, but she knew absolutely nothing else about him. The fact that he hadn’t murdered her in her sleep seemed to speak well for his character, but not a murderer was a fairly low bar.
And even if this stranger didn’t end up hacking her to pieces, her fake engagement plan could backfire in a hundred ways she hadn’t finished considering yet. But the fact remained, she needed money and fast. Her great aunt left her a sizable sum. Why shouldn’t she have it? Why couldn’t she do as she pleased with her life?
Max’s words rang through her head. You’re a grown woman. That one sentence had done a lot to improve her opinion of him, silly as it was. She was a grown woman, damn it. She took another deep breath.
“Mae, James, this is Maxwell Bishop, my fiancé.” Her face hurt from the fake smile plastered there.
She grabbed Mae’s hands in hers. She wanted to explain what was going on to her friend but thought it best if no one knew the truth. Besides, Mae would try to talk her out of it, especially if she knew Clem was doing it at least partly for her.
“We wanted to surprise you. I’m so sorry we startled you with the news.”
Mae gave a slight nod, but James ran an appraising eye over Max. “Where did you say you were from?”
“From out west. Ranchers. My family, that is.” Max hesitated only long enough that Clem knew he was lying again, but James seemed to buy it.
“You must be able to pick ‘em good at the track then, knowing so much about horses.” James smiled, warming to the man. Max flinched at the mention of the track, but he returned James’ smile.
“I’m not much of a betting man, myself.”
Clem pulled Mae aside as the men went on about horses odds and other manly pursuits.
“Oh Mae, I hope you’re not angry with me. I truly meant this to be a wonderful surprise.”
“Well, I’m certainly surprised,” her friend responded, her slight Irish lilt coming through. She coughed into her handkerchief. Clem’s stomach rolled with guilt. She shouldn’t upset her, especially in her condition.
“And your father approves? Does he know?” Mae tucked her handkerchief away until her next fit.
“Of course. Of course! Don’t worry, Mae. This is good news.” Not to mention the only way she could think of to take care of her sick friend and herself, but she didn’t add that part.
Mae gave her a weak smile. “As long as you’re happy.” She played with the cross at her neck. A sure sign she was worried and more than a little scandalized that Clem’s fiancé had spent the night. But Mae had gone from employee to friend so recently she wouldn’t argue further. And for once, Clem was glad for the boundaries between them.
Max spent the rest of the morning talking horses with James. Damn it if he didn’t feel the itch building under his skin to go to the track. Not that he had a single dime to bet, but that had never stopped him before.
His father took him to the track for the first time when he was a boy, and it quickly became their thing. Especially after his mother left. When his father died a few years ago, Max returned to Saratoga for the first time in years. Now he couldn’t seem to stay away—much to the detriment of his bank account.
He ran a tired hand over his face. The thought of his dad caused as much pain as it did on the day he found out about the heart attack. If he were going to go back in time, it would have been nice to return to a time his father was still around. Alive and telling dirty jokes and smoking his favorite cigars on their back porch after a big win. That would have been nice. But who was he to say how time travel worked.
He picked up a newspaper and scanned the headlines. The date in the corner of the front page confirmed what he had come to accept. August 17, 1895. He should have paid more attention in history class.
The room around him was empty of people but crowded with things. Thick patterned curtains hung from the windows, and ornate rugs covered the floors. There were paintings and oddities everywhere, including a stuffed peacock on the mantle. He half expected to find little plaques next to each item giving the artist’s name and preferred medium.
His ex-girlfriend used to go on and on about clean, modern lines and minimalism in her ideal home. This place did not have those.
He wandered back up the curved staircase to find his fake financée. She had disappeared with Mae after their big announcement, and he hadn’t seen her since.
He gave a small knock before entering their room, still unsure of the protocol for a turn of the century, the last century, romance. Did people sleep together before they got married? Was he allowed to kiss her? How would he actually get all those buttons undone in the heat of the moment? Maybe he could just lift her skirts and…
“Come in.” Clementine’s sweet voice interrupted his less than sweet thoughts once again. What was it about this woman that had him so intrigued? He opened the door and found her seated at a desk rifling through a pile of papers. She stuffed them in the drawer when he entered and smiled at him.
“Are you enjoying your stay so far?”
“Mae didn’t seem thrilled about our engagement,” he said, cutting to the chase.
Clementine batted her eyelashes at him, and he was growing tired of the act. “She was just surprised.”
Max perched on the edge of the bed, undoing his top two buttons. He needed some air. Clementine watched, her eyes intent on his hands as he opened his collar.
“How do you two know each other? It’s obvious you don’t run in the same circles.”
She looked as though she would dispute it but instead told the truth. “She worked at one of my father’s factories. James, too. I befriended them both.”
He considered her answer, laying back on the bed and stretching his arms up overhead. He sighed as his muscles relaxed. “And how does a pretty little heiress like you befriend factory workers exactly?”
He was facing the ceiling, so he couldn’t see her face, but he could hear the slight irritation in her voice. The first she had shown him since they hatched their little plan. He liked it. It was honest.
“If you must know, I helped them plan a strike. They were fired for it. It seemed only right to help them afterward.”
Max sat up and found Clementine standing over him, waiting for him to tell her she was wrong. Her hands were on her hips, and she glared at him, ready for a fight.
“Impressive?” Her eyebrows rose.
“Yeah. Organizing a strike. That’s amazing. Good for you.” He loved the half shocked, half suspicious look that crossed her face.
“You don’t think it’s improper for a woman like me to get involved in labor disputes?”
“I don’t think most things are improper. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I thought anything was improper.”
She raised an eyebrow and wrapped her arms around herself. She opened her mouth to speak but then closed it again. In the end, her curiosity won out.
“I’ve also marched for the right to vote.”
“As you should.”
Her perfect little mouth opened in surprise and then clamped shut again. Max grinned.
“How about riding a bicycle? I’ve done that too.”
He couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him. Bikes were improper? Where the hell had he landed? Clementine was studying him, so he tried to reign in his merriment.
“Women ride bikes all the time where I’m from.”
“Out west, that is?”
“Yeah. Out west,” He couldn’t say more because he had no idea what states were out west at this point. All of them? When was that damn Louisiana Purchase thing?
“Hmm…well, it must be as wild as they say.” She moved closer to him, and her floral scent filled his nose. He wanted to pull her to stand between his legs. He wanted to do a lot of things that were more scandalous than bike riding.
“You will have your own room tonight.” She told him as though she had read his thoughts. “We shouldn’t have to keep up this little charade for too long, but I do appreciate you protecting my reputation.”
“Well, you are already a known bike rider. We couldn’t very well add harlot to the list.” He meant it as a joke, but Clementine turned away from him.
“Mae and I are going to the baths today.” Her voice was cheerful, but he had seen the hurt look that crossed her face.
“Yes, the mineral baths. From the spring water?”
“Umm…” Max was familiar with the weird, sulfur-flavored water from the park’s fountains, but bathing in them? Was that a thing?
“You men come for the horses. We came to take the waters. I’m hoping it will help with Mae’s condition.”
“Very.” Clementine met his eyes, and for the first time, she wasn’t chipper and cheerful. She had dropped the act. Stripped of pretense, she was a woman concerned for her friend, a woman who apparently bucked all sorts of societal norms to help her. And he realized that lying to her and stealing her stuff was about to get more complicated.