Excerpt from Circled Heart

Among the grand, tall houses of Prairie Avenue, the Gallagher house was distinct and immediately noticeable. Constructed of blush rose brick, the single-story dwelling sprawled on the corner, and even in the dark afternoon now clouded over with ponderous clouds and imminent rain, the entire structure seemed made of light. The large windows that dotted the face of the house seemed to gather and hold the fading light, glowing in a way that had nothing to do with any illumination from within. Combined with the white trim around the windows and the large white door with gold knob and knocker, the house appeared to gleam.

I stopped too long to admire the building’s clean, contemporary lines and was suddenly drenched by a looming cloudburst. As I stood on the front porch trying to shake water from my hat and coat, I grumbled to myself that dripping from a downpour was not quite the way I planned to commemorate the occasion. During the train trip and then on the walk from the station, I desperately—but unsuccessfully—sought the right words to use. Nothing I considered sounded appropriate, and now my unkempt appearance would add even more indignity to a meeting that deserved better. Despite my complete lack of any true knowledge of Douglas Gallagher, I felt he merited more from me, but it was too late. I stood on the front step, wet and growing cold from the unexpected afternoon May shower, the envelope of small treasures folded carefully in my cloth purse, suddenly inarticulate and reluctant to continue.

I took a deep breath and raised my hand to lift the knocker but at my touch and without any effort on my part, the apparently unlatched door swung open. At first I stepped back, embarrassed as if I had committed some huge social blunder. When I realized no one stood on the other side of the threshold, I leaned forward enough to call, “Hello,” down the hallway. At the continuing silence, I stepped just inside the door and called once more. Although hall lights were lit against the gloom of the rainy afternoon, the house seemed vacant and still. Outside, the downpour continued, a rumble of rain on the roof and against the windows, and I thought that with the competing noise of the storm my greeting may not have been heard. I knew how improper it was to stroll uninvited and unushered through a stranger’s house but couldn’t stop myself, compelled by the need to deliver my precious cargo. As much as I had resisted the errand, I now yearned to be done with it. Certainly I would find at least a servant at home! I cautiously continued down the hallway, periodically calling hello. All the rooms I passed were dark and empty, but toward the end of the hall I saw an open door to a room clearly lit. I headed in that direction and stopped in the doorway to say hello once more, this time addressing the figure that stood on the other side of the room. The man didn’t hear my greeting. His back was to me but I recognized the fair hair and tall figure of the man I had seen the previous night at the Tribune office. He stood immobile, staring out the windows of the graceful French doors that must have looked out on a terrace or a back lawn, although just then the view was obliterated by pouring rain. His motionless posture, hands in his pants pockets and not a muscle moving, indicated he was deep in thought. I hoped I was not interrupting a personal, emotional moment that would embarrass us both.

“Mr. Gallagher?” I queried with emphasis, and he turned quickly to face me.

Andrew Gallagher was handsome and surprisingly athletic in his stance for a city man, with thick, fair hair and light hazel eyes in a lean face. He could have been as old as thirty, although if the stories hinted to Hilda Cartwright were true, the rough edges of his face might have been caused by late nights and profligate habits. For a long moment he just stared at me, I think absolutely flabbergasted to see someone in the doorway.

“Mr. Gallagher?” I repeated. He gave his head a tiny shake, trying to clear it and bring himself back to reality, I thought with some sympathy. I knew I didn’t belong there.

“Who are you and what on earth are you doing here?” His tone held such incredulity that I couldn’t help but laugh.

“The look on your face tells me you think I am some kind of vision, but please don’t elaborate. I got caught in the storm and am unfortunately and unbecomingly soaked. I can only imagine the kind of vision I must appear to be.”

“Arthur’s Lady of the Lake?” he responded promptly. “A mermaid perhaps?” He gave me a quick look from toe to head and added, “No, I don’t think there’s a flipper or a tail under that skirt. One of the Naiads then? That would make sense, anyway, this close to the lake.”

He had recovered nicely from the surprise of seeing me in the doorway and was being determinedly charming. His manner was as stylish as his fawn flannel trousers and the crisp white shirt he wore, sleeves folded back from his wrists and collar casually open at the neck. I thought him a man who knew how to use his innate attraction and good looks to advantage, a man who had learned it at such an early age that by now charm came as naturally to him as breathing.

“None of those, I’m afraid. My name is Johanna Swan and I am woefully mortal. May I come in?”

He raised an eyebrow as answer, reminding me with a wry glance that I was already in with neither invitation nor announcement.

“Could I stop you even if I wanted to? I fear the deed is done, Miss Swan, but I appreciate your courtesy even if it is after the fact. Do you always wander aimlessly through the homes of strangers?”

“I tried to knock but the front door was open, and I called several times from the front of the house.”

“Was it and did you? I didn’t hear a sound.”

“No, you were somewhere else. I’m sorry if I startled or interrupted you.”

“You did neither of those things. I had a momentary lapse and was dwelling on the past in an unhealthy way. I blame the gray weather.” His tone struck me as somewhat wistful, but he went on briskly. “You told me who you were, but you haven’t answered my second question.” I paused to remember what that question was and without warning gave a quick sneeze, which made him frown. “Are you going to catch pneumonia and die in my library?”

“Not purposefully,” I retorted, “but if I do, you have my permission to drag my lifeless body out to the street corner and pretend you’ve never seen me before.” Then I sneezed again and he came forward.

“Take off your hat and coat and sit down. I’ll be right back.”

I did as directed and sat on a comfortable love seat, wondering how my noble errand had degenerated into this unusual exchange. Andrew Gallagher returned with a woolen shawl and placed it carefully over my shoulders, then shook out my coat and draped it just as carefully over the back of a chair.

Copyright © 2008 Karen J. Hasley.

All rights reserved.

Comments are closed.