Tuesday Teaser 6/6/17: Victoria’s Cat Part 22
I leave very early tomorrow morning for RAGT in Ohio. I’ll be back in 6 days. I had HOPED to have Victoria and Marty’s story done before I left, but I still have one more chapter and maybe an epilogue to write. sigh. There will not be a Tuesday Teaser next week so you are getting a double dose now. This is the rest of Chapter 11. It is wordy and meandering and I think I will need to tighten it up quite a bit during revisions. The point of this chapter is to show the reader what life with President Todd is like, so I think I’ll need to cut out a lot and/or condense it so it reads more quickly. As it is, I think it’s too much, and readers are likely to get bogged down. What do you think?
The harem was the largest tent. Victoria ground her teeth over that designation. The man had a harem? And took them along when he was ready to conquer a new city? If he expected to make her his newest wife, he was in a for a rude surprise. She was already married. And if he tried to move on her, she would twist that little shrimp into a pretzel.
There were two guards at the door flap of the harem tent. They wore uniforms instead of lionskin loincloths like the eunuchs that guarded the sultan’s harem in a book she had read. The interior of the harem tent was just as prosaic as the guards. No silken pillows over thick carpets or embroidered hangings separating the rooms. No divans with lounging sultanas. The ground was covered by a plain khaki tarp, and the hangings dividing the tent were of that same material. And the inmates weren’t wearing sheer flowing silks.
Victoria almost bumped into Renee when she stopped. The six women gathered around a table wore jeans and blouses, and the expressions on their faces ranged from mild interest to something that looked like hate. Hate? Before Victoria could follow up on that thought, Gina Summer leaped up from her chair and hurried toward them.
“I’m so sorry about Colby,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry about all of this.” She looked past them and her eyes went cool. “Major Ellis.”
Vitoria thought it was a curse word rather than a greeting.
The major was certainly handsome. Not as handsome as Marty, but his smile lit his already handsome features and turned him into a living work of art. His voice lowered to a seductive purr. Gina’s cool expression didn’t change but she put her hand behind her back, away from his reach. The young major continued to smile. It reminded Victoria of Lieutenant Mott and his persistent, slimy smile.
“Dear Miss Todd, I’m so pleased to see you safely returned to us.”
A woman at the table rose. She was a little prettier than Gina, but there was a definite family resemblance. Her mother? Victoria thought she didn’t look old enough to be Gina’s mother.
“Major Ellis, won’t you please join us? We were just planning a dinner to celebrate my daughter’s return.”
“I would be delighted, Mrs. Second Todd, but the president requires my attendance at other meetings this afternoon.” He nodded briefly to Renee, Victoria, and Anna. “These ladies will be joining you. The president and his staff will be joining you for supper.” He sketched a salute that was almost a bow. “Until then.”
Gina shot his back one poisonous look and turned back to Victoria. “I suppose I should introduce you around.”
Victoria exchanged a glance with Renee, and they walked to the table. Anna clung to Renee like a leech.
“This is my mom, Ellen Summer Todd.” Gina pointed to the woman who had invited Major Ellis to join them. The woman gave them a friendly smile and nod. “The woman on the far end is Suzanne Smith Todd, the president’s fifth wife.”
That woman had a beautiful face surrounded by a waterfall of golden hair and a voluptuous body. Her beauty was spoiled by the scowl on her face. She didn’t nod or smile, just glared at them.
“The woman next to her is Shelley Parker Todd, the president’s fourth wife.”
That woman was just as beautiful but somehow more human. Her brown hair was a riot of curls, her smile warm.
Gina indicated a woman of petite stature, a pretty pixie face, and hair so dark a brown it was almost black. “Mrs. Tamra Todd Mayo, the president’s recently widowed sister. And her companion, Janelle Cass.”
This lovely, slender woman was the president’s sister? She looked too nice to be the president’s sister. Victoria returned her friendly smile.
Suzanne sniffed. “Companion? She’s a servant.”
Janelle, blond and middle-aged, didn’t react but the president’s sister did. “Janel is not a servant.” She spoke quietly but firmly, her voice shaded by a Southern accent. “I’ve known her since I was a baby. She’s my friend.”
Suzanne sneered. “You would think a woman in your position would choose her friends more carefully.”
Tamra laid her hands flat on the table and leaned forward to meet Suzanne’s sneer. “A woman in my position can choose the friends she wants. Be careful, Suzanne. My brother’s wives can come and go depending on his whim. You are his wife at the moment, but that can change in a second. I was born his sister. That won’t change. Think about that.”
An uncomfortable silence was broken by Gina’s mom. “Ladies, what kind of an impression are we giving our guests?”
“Guests?” Suzanne surged to her feet. She jabbed a finger in Victoria’s direction. “Look at her. You know he’ll want her to be Mrs. Sixth Todd.”
Victoria stilled. The pretty major had called Gina’s mom Mrs. Second Todd. Suzanne must be Mrs. Fifth Todd. Victoria slammed her arms crossed over her chest. “Over my dead body.”
“If she becomes his wife, he’ll never sleep with me again and then how can I have a baby?” Suzanne jumped up and ran down the narrow corridor formed by canvas dividers, ducking under one. Muffled sobs sounded. Victoria looked at Renee. Her aunt looked surprised, confused, and slightly disgusted.
Gina’s mom sighed. “Please, pay no attention to Suzanne. She’s having a difficult time right now. You know who we all are. Come sit down and introduce yourselves.”
Renee pulled Anna over to the table. Gina came with them and sat beside her mother. Tamra and Janelle carried over two more folding chairs. Renee and Victoria sat down and stared at the ladies. After a long silence, the president’s sister bounced in her chair. “Well? Who are you and where did you come from?”
Renee answered. “I am Renee Wolfe. This is my niece, Anna Wolfe, and another niece, Victoria Wolfe Madison.”
Another pause. Mrs. Mayo did not give up easily. “And where did you come from? How did you come here?”
Victoria kept her mouth shut, not sure how much to say. Renee answered for them again. “We were on a tree going home when the Presidents men stopped the train, boarded it, shot the men, and brought us here. I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t know what will happen to us. We are innocent noncombatants in this conflict and we want to go home.”
“Yeah,” agreed Victoria. “Why are we even here?”
Mrs. Mayo tapped her fingertips together. “I don’t know. My brother doesn’t discuss political things with me.”
Gina made a rude noise. “You’re here because my mother’s husband — who is not my father, by the way – is a control freak. I ran away from him. I thought I’d be safe in a place where he didn’t rule, but I was wrong. The reason he took over the train was because I was on it.” Her voice broke and she covered her face with her hands. “I’m the reason those men are dead. It’s my fault.”
A wave of anger tried to claw its way up Victoria’s throat but she pushed it back down. Renee shook her head. “It’s not your fault. It’s the fault of that lieutenant, and the men who pulled the triggers, and the president.”
She dropped her hands and her face twisted. “I hate him. He’s not my father. He’s the man who murdered my father so he could marry my mother. Now he wants me to marry one of his flunkies. That’s why I ran away. I won’t do it.” She turned to her mother. “I won’t.”
“Georgina, hush.” Her mother’s voice was stern. “You don’t know how good we have it now. I don’t have to worry about seeing you go hungry or wondering how I can protect you. Gerald takes good care of us. You have beautiful clothes, a wonderful home, and everyone knows who you are and respects you. There are a hundred girls who wish they were you. No,” she said when Gina opened her mouth with obvious protest. “He’ll see to it that you have fine a husband. Major Ellis is young and handsome, and has a position of power and wealth. You are a lucky girl.”
“I am an unlucky girl,” Gina countered. “Gerald Todd is a monster.”
The slap of her mother’s palm across Gina’s cheek was loud. Victoria was so shocked she simply stared. “That is enough,” Mrs. second Todd said coldly. “Go and make the guest room ready for our visitors. Janelle, would you please help her?”
With the murder of agreement, the blond woman got up and ushered Gina out. The second Mrs. Todd turned to Renée and Victoria. “I’m very sorry you had to hear my daughter’s hysterics. She’s at that age where everything is life-and-death. I promise you my husband is not a monster. He’s a powerful man, a decisive man, who knows what he wants and gets what he wants. He’s also generous and loving and respectful of women. I have never regretted becoming his wife.”
“Uh-huh.” Victoria folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. The movement hurt. “I’m not about to become his wife. I already have a husband.”
Gina’s mom just smiled. “I’m sure you’ll change your mind in time.”
“Don’t hold your breath.” Victoria waved at the quiet wife, Mrs. Fourth Todd. “You don’t mind sharing a husband? I’ve heard of women with more than one husband but never a man with more than one wife. It’s wrong.”
Shelley Todd shook her head. “I don’t mind at all. I have a wonderful, comfortable life and I don’t have to bear the burden of all the housework and entertaining myself. I get to share the work with other women that I like being with. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
A voice called from outside the tent, and the door flap opened showing a dapper man of middle years carrying a medical bag. “Ladies, forgive my intrusion. The president sent me to take a look at one of his guests who was shot.”
All the women looked shocked. Victoria raised her hand. “It’s nothing, just a little scratch.”
The man moved forward. “I am Dr. Penrose. Is there a private room?”
In only a minute, Victoria, Renee, and Anna were in a part of the tent that was sectioned off by canvas hangings. Janelle and Gina plumped pillows on the three cots and left. The doctor was very deft and gentle and confirmed that the wound was clean and there was no reason that it wouldn’t heal completely. He put a fresh dressing on it and left. In a few minutes Gina’s mom poked her head and told them they should rest for a few hours. She would call them when it was time for the dinner.
Victoria didn’t think she would be able to sleep, but she must have, because when Renée jiggled her shoulder she found that three hours had passed.
“They brought our luggage,” Renee reported, pointing to two bags.
“They robbed the train,” Victoria muttered.
The clothes she had packed only this morning were wrinkled but clean. She dressed and sat on her cot, staring numbly at her hands. It was this morning that she had kissed Marty good morning. Their first morning as man and wife. Her hands clenched into fists. But not their last. She pounded her fists into her thighs. Not their last. Marty was alive. He and Colby had met up and were organizing a rescue right this minute. She refused to believe anything else.
Anna was staring at her with wide eyes. Victoria made herself relax and smile. The canvas wall twitched and Gina slipped in. She was wearing a dress. Victoria looked down at her jeans and sweater.
“I hope we’re not expected to dress for dinner.”
Gina sat on the cot and waved that off. “You can wear what you like.” She motioned Renee over and spoke in a very quiet voice. “He won’t want to marry you. You’re too old. So be sure to make him know how valuable you are. Give him a reason to keep you safe and healthy. Colby said you were a good cook. Convince Todd that you can cook the best food he’s ever tasted.”
“I can cook the best food he’s ever tasted,” said Renee flatly. “By what I can smell, his cook is terrible.”
“I heard he treats women well. Why wouldn’t he keep us safe and healthy?” Victoria asked.
“He has five thousand men here. Todd often gives women to them. They can’t slap or punch or kick a woman, and those women are given extra rations and other comforts, but is that what you want to do?”
“Hawk would kill them.” But unease glimmered on Renee’s face.
“The entire clan will go to war.” Victoria shuddered at the thought. “They will anyway, after what’s happened to us.”
“Then be sure to make that plain.” Gina’s heard lifted just as the wall twitched again.
“Georgina? It’s time for supper.”
“Coming, mom.” She lowered her voice. “Good luck.”
As she got up, Victoria reached out and snagged her sleeve. “Colby isn’t dead,” she whispered rapidly. “He escaped.”
Disbelief flared in Gina’s eyes, chased by hope.
Victoria and Renee walked out to the main room with Gina and her mom. The table there had expanded to seat twenty. President Todd was at one end, and Victoria recognized Major Ellis, the man called Bob, and Lieutenant Mott sitting at the table. When the men saw the ladies enter, they all rose to their feet. There were three stragglers who stood up a second later than the others. Victoria’s heart stopped.
Brother Saul and his two sons. She stared, wondering what were they doing there. Hadn’t they been killed with the rest of the men on the train? Her eyes narrowed as her back teeth clamped together. Why are they smirking at me?
The president gave them a warm, welcoming smile. “You lovely ladies are the only thing we lacked to make this table beautiful. Please, sit down.”
Victoria almost protested when he indicated that she should sit on his right. Renee was on the other side of the table, two seats down. Suppressing anger, Victoria allowed the president to seat her. Gina was opposite her, obviously ignoring the pretty major beside her. On Victoria’s other side was the older man called Bob. His uniform was loaded with awards and badges. Mrs. Mayo was on his other side. Gina’s mom took the chair at the foot of the table. Brother Saul sat between Suzanne and Shelley, his two sons on the other side of the table. Victoria stared down at her plate to give herself a minute to control her anger.
Good grief. There wasn’t a plate. There were three, stacked on top of each other. And three forks, three knives, multiple spoons, three stemmed glasses, a little plate off to the side. Victoria didn’t even know what to do with all those plates. Or the glasses. Who needed so many anyway? She slid a glance over at Renee. Her aunt was glaring a hole into Brother Saul’s forehead.
“Allow me to introduce General Robert Atwater,” the president said politely, indicating the man called Bob.
“Charmed,” the general said in a bored voice.
“Likewise,” Victoria said.
“Let us begin,” the president announced.
A line of young men in military uniforms entered the tent, carrying large trays with shallow bowls filled with salad. One of them held a plate of leafy greens over her stack of plates, waiting for her to remove the intricately pleated napkin sitting there. She did and he set her salad down. Victoria inwardly shook her head. The Saturday suppers at the Plane Women’s Eatery were fancy compared to the other meals they served, but nothing like this. Even if the Eatery had a zillion plates per meal, they couldn’t serve fresh greens in March because there weren’t any available at this time of the year. Unlike other vegetables, greens didn’t freeze or can well. How in the world did he get fresh greens in March?
But that wasn’t nearly as important as her other questions. She plastered a polite smile on her face and turned to the president. “Excuse me,” she began. “Why are the Allersens here?”
He cut her off with an imperiously lifted finger. “My dear, my dear,” he chided her. “Ladies do not speak unless they are first spoken to.”
The polite smile disappeared. “Seriously?”
“Absolutely. The mark of a true lady is that she speak only to praise and uplift the men in her life.”
The president’s hand closed tightly over hers where it gripped her fork. “And she never uses strong language.”
Victoria forced herself to loosen her grip on the fork. “Oh? And what do you think you can do about it? Shoot me?”
His smile was somehow chillingly sweet. “I won’t do anything to you. That is so crass, don’t you think? But consider your cousin.”
Her mind went immediately to Colby. “What about him?”
“Her,” he correctly gently. “The young innocent you left in your quarters at the back of the tent. Anna.”
Victoria’s lips felt stiff. “What?” was all she could manage.
“So young. So nubile.” He smiled as he poured wine into one of the goblets at her place setting. “The men in my army work hard for me. They deserve a reward. They won’t do her any lasting damage. She may even enjoy it.”
“Anna?” she croaked.
“But you don’t hurt women!” she burst out.
“Certainly not. I wouldn’t be causing her any harm. You would be, with your wayward and disobedient mouth.”
Horrified rage shook her hands. She clenched them into fists in her lap and said nothing.
The president laughed lightly. “Well, perhaps she really is your cousin. General Atwater is convinced she is the daughter of Ryan McGrath.”
Under the heat of her glare the greens on her plate should be wilted. They weren’t. Even though she no longer had an appetite, Victoria forced herself to eat her salad. She would need all her strength to kill this megalomaniac. She was aware of his stare resting on her, but she ignored him. He didn’t seem to like that.
“As to your original question,” he said smoothly, “Saul Allersen is an ally.”
Traitor, Victoria fumed silently.
“He has provided key intelligence to me in the past several months.”
Victoria lifted her head enough to shoot a glance at Renee. Her aunt was listening, tight lipped.
The president leaned back so the uniformed server could remove his salad plate and replace it with fish. He waited until Victoria had also been served.
“He has given me valuable information on Omaha and the goings on there. For instance, news of the train departing this morning with so many delegates on board was delivered by the younger Allersens.”
That was why Jon and Tanner were nearly too late to get on the train. Victoria cut her fish with grim control. In her mind, she was cutting into the Allersens.
“I also know that you are the daughter of the chief of the Indian werewolves.” He delicately blotted his mouth with his napkin and laid it down to put a caressing hand over hers. “As my wife, you could be instrumental in forging a powerful alliance between your tribe and Kansas-Missouri. Do you see that?”
Did he see how easy it would be for her to impale his hand with one of the many knives lined up beside her plate? Someday he would die with shock rubbing that smarmy smile off his face, because he would never see her coming. She gritted her teeth behind a smile that probably looked more like a grimace.
After a pause, he said, “You may answer. In fact, since I asked you a question, you are required to answer.”
She unclenched her teeth. “Naturally, I’m flattered, but I’m already married.”
From down the table, Brother Saul cackled. “He’s dead, woman. You’re free to marry again. So sad. Married only one day and already a widow.”
Victoria had to look down at her plate to hide the hate blazing in her. Brother Saul would die too. But Marty wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be.
“Mr. Allersen, can’t you see the lady is grieving? Show some respect.”
Under the president’s cutting censure, Allersen dropped his eyes.
Todd turned back to Victoria. “Of course, you will need some time to mourn. You will be my honored guest until you accept my proposal.”
Until I accept, Victoria mused, hiding her disgust. Not if. Huh. You’ll be waiting quite a while, moron. Pretending meekness, Victoria raised her gaze to him. “May I ask a question?”
“What happened when you met with Ryan McGrath this morning? You did meet with him, didn’t you?”
“Yes, we did meet with the mayor.”
Victoria put the last morsel of fish in her mouth to keep from prodding him. Her empty plate was whisked away and a plate of steak replaced it. The president poured a different wine in another of her glasses. She eyed it warily. She drank very little. Was he trying to get her drunk? She picked up the goblet of water and drank.
“You asked what happened when we met.” The president smiled at her over his wine glass. “Not very much, actually. I believe he is stalling. Trying to buy time.”
“Waiting for some of the delegates to send him reinforcements.” Brother Saul chuckled smugly. “He will be waiting a long time for help.”
Victoria noticed that no one else at the table was talking. Everyone was listening to them. “Because the delegates on the train were murdered.” She tried so hard to sound calm that her voice was flat. “Won’t it be hard to form alliances with cities whose leaders you ki— er, died?”
“That might be a problem if I wanted alliances with those cities.” The president waved that away. “But I don’t. They don’t offer anything of value in an alliance. They simply belong to me now.”
Victoria visualized punching the president in the mouth. Casting a glance down the table to Mott, whose mouth was still swollen gave her a sliver of satisfaction. “But the tribe has something valuable enough to you to make an alliance worthwhile?” She purposely used the word tribe, although they called themselves the Clan. She wouldn’t give him anything, not even their correct name.
“Certainly. They will be fierce fighters in my army.”
Victoria swallowed a bite of meat. “I wouldn’t count on it, if I were you.”
He smiled that gentle, sweet, evil smile, the one so like Lieutenant Mott’s. Does he teach it to all his men? she wondered. Is it part of their training?
“Oh, I am counting on it,” he said mildly. “If they ever want to see you or Mrs. Wolfe again, they will join me. I understand that a few of your werewolf relatives are still in Omaha.”
It was hard, but Victoria didn’t shoot a scowl down the table at the Allersens. She paid very close attention to slicing into her steak.
Todd looked at the man beside her. “General Atwater, arrange for an additional honor guard for the ladies. They’ll make an appearance at the parley tomorrow afternoon. A brief one, so the gentlemen from Omaha can see that the ladies are safe in our care. Miss Anna will be included, of course. I think seeing her will help Mayor McGrath come to the right decision.” He stroked her arm with his fingertips. “Be sure to go to bed early. You’ll want to look your best tomorrow.”
While Victoria tried to force her emotions into some kind of control, dessert was served. She took pleasure in the fact that the sponge cake was leaden and the canned strawberries were soggy. Anna’s brownies last night had been much better.
Last night? It was only last night that she had held hands with Marty under the table at the McGraths’ house and eaten a home cooked meal less fancy than this one but so much better. Just twenty-four hours ago she had repeated the words that made them legally man and wife in the world of the townspeople.
Where was he now? Was he in Omaha, organizing a rescue? Or had he returned to Kearney to bring help? Hurry, Marty, she thought. I need you.