Corbin’s Fancy Chapter One
Wenatchee, Washington Territory
May 12, 1888
THE RABBIT WOULD NOT COME
out of the hat.
Fancy could feel the creature with her right hand—it was crouched deep inside its black velvet bag, shivering and stubborn and heavy. The crowd of children in front of the gazebo pressed closer, their freckled faces intent and smudged with strawberry ice cream, their eyes fixed on the battered top hat.
“She can’t make no rabbit come out of there!” one little boy complained. “That ain’t even a lady’s hat!”
“Maybe she ain’t no lady!” observed a barefooted demon.
Perspiration trickled between Fancy’s breasts and shoulder blades. She tugged harder at the rabbit, conscious of Mr. Ephraim Shibble’s cold glare of warning. Beyond his bulky frame, the glorious pink and white blossoms of the apple orchard seemed to shift and shimmer in a haze. Fancy noted distractedly that
colorful ribbons, dozens of bright balloons, and even presents hung from the boughs of one tree.
“Don’t do this to me, Hershel,” she pleaded. A breeze scented with blossoms and bruised grass and picnic food cooled her burning cheeks and loosened the damp tendrils of silvery saffron hair clinging to the back of her neck.
“I told you she couldn’t do it!” howled the small heckler who had spoken first, squinting up at Fancy in hostile challenge.
Stung anew, Fancy wrenched at Hershel, hard, and he came out of his hat at last—the black bag that had hidden him hanging from his hind legs like a grim flag of defeat.
The adults who had gathered to watch shook their heads and turned away, some grumbling, some chuckling, some pitying the proud young woman who stood stiffly in her ridiculous star-speckled dress, still holding the rabbit aloft.
As the children scattered, too, Fancy bent and thrust an unrepentant Hershel into the wire cage secreted beneath her folding table. When she straightened, she was met with the condemning gaze of Mr. Ephraim Shibble, her employer.
The heavy man, suffering in his tight-fitting suit, bent to take up the worn placard that had stood in front of the table and perused it with calm disdain. “‘Fancy Jordan,’” he read, in mocking tones. “‘She sings. She dances. She does magic.’”
Fancy winced and clasped her hands together behind her back. “Mr. Shibble, I—”
Shibble interrupted by shaking the signboard; a shower of time-dulled glitter fell from the large, carefully formed letters. “You are a fraud,” he accused, in a
scathing undertone. “You are an embarrassment! And you are out of a job!”
This was what Fancy had most feared, but she retained some semblance of composure and met Mr. Shibble’s small, watery eyes squarely. “You cannot leave me here,” she said, in even tones that betrayed none of the hysteria rising within her. “I have no position, no money—”
Shibble shoved the battered signboard into her hands. “Then I suggest that you sing and dance, since you are apparently incapable of magic. You will not travel another mile, Miss Jordan, with my company!”
“No! You have humiliated me for the last time!” With that, Mr. Shibble turned and stormed away to watch one of the other members of the small traveling show perform. For a moment, Fancy, too, watched the Great Splendini wobble upon his “high wire,” which loomed all of five feet off the soft ground.
When she was sure that she would not be observed, Fancy sank down to sit on the gazebo’s top step, resting her head against the white-washed railing. A long, despondent sigh escaped her.
“You weren’t all that bad,” remarked a gentle, masculine voice.
Fancy, on the verge of tears, looked up to see a tall man standing before her, his arms folded, his azure eyes revealing both amusement and sympathy. He wore dark trousers, a vest over a pristine white shirt, and a clerical collar.
“I was bad enough to be fired,” she argued.
He bent, took the signboard from the gazebo floor where Mr. Shibble had dropped it, and read it pensively,
as though it were some lofty treatise. “Can you really do magic?” he asked, after some moments.
Fancy blushed. Though one would never know it by the way her act had gone that afternoon, she was, as it happened, a fairly accomplished magician. She could draw coins from behind people’s ears, for example, and she could make fire flash from her fingertips. Once, on a particularly good night, she had even sawed a woman in half and put her back together again. Volunteers for that trick were hard to come by, though, and the props had been borrowed from another magician.
“Yes,” she said, with dignity, “I can do magic.”
“We could use some of that around here,” reflected the young minister.
Fancy looked about, really seeing her surroundings for the first time since her arrival earlier that day. Since then, she, like the rest of the troupe, had been too busy preparing for the noon performance to pay much attention.
Now she saw a massive, gracious stone house, the acres of lushly blossomed apple trees that flanked it, the green-gray river tumbling past the sloping front lawn, the gardens with their budding rosebushes and marble benches. “Do you live here?” she ventured, thinking it a marvel that a man of the cloth could be so prosperous.
“Yes,” replied the reverend, with a slight bow of his head and an amused twist of his fine lips. “My family owns the land, actually, and I manage it.”
Fancy was impressed. Once again her gaze caught on the particular apple tree with the balloons, ribbons, and presents dangling from its boughs. She was certain that she had never seen such a festive sight. “Is it someone’s birthday?” she asked.
The reverend laughed softly. “No. My family has a tradition of celebrating the blossoming of the orchard. The entire community is invited and each of the children gets to take a gift from the tree.” He paused and frowned thoughtfully. “Sounds a little pagan, doesn’t it? Like a rite of spring or something.”
Despite her circumstances, Fancy smiled. “It’s a lovely idea,” she answered.
“I’m hungry, Miss Jordan,” the man announced suddenly. “How about you?”
Fancy was ravenous. There had been no time to eat that morning after leaving the train in nearby Wenatchee, a small but thriving settlement along the same green river that flowed past the house. “I have a rabbit we could roast,” she suggested, only half in jest.
The pastor grinned and offered his hand to help Fancy up from her perch on the gazebo steps. “That would take far too long, wouldn’t it?” he reasoned.
Before taking his hand, Fancy looked down at the worn skirts of her performing dress. One of the silver stars she had stitched onto it was coming loose, and she attempted, in vain, to smooth it with her slender finger. “I don’t know your name,” she said.
“Keith,” he replied informally. “Keith Corbin.”
Corbin. The name stabbed the pit of Fancy’s empty stomach and spun there before whirling through the rest of her system like a stormwind. Dear God in heaven, surely the family this man spoke of could not be the Port Hastings Corbins!
Reverend Corbin crouched to peer into Fancy’s bloodless face, her hand still warmly cushioned in his. “What is it?”
“N–Nothing,” lied Fancy. In her mind, however, vivid, flashing images collided with each other—the
explosion aboard the ship anchored in Port Hastings’ busy harbor; Temple Royce, then her employer and avid suitor, laughing as he lifted a glass to toast the demise of the vessel’s captain.
“Something to eat might help,” speculated the pastor, rising to his feet and pulling Fancy with him in one fluid motion.
After filling their plates at the long refreshment table, Fancy and the minister returned to the gazebo steps, where they sat together, eating in silence. Fancy was grateful for the feast of ham, candied sweet potatoes, green beans, and hard-crusted bread—heaven only knew when she would eat again, now that she’d been dismissed from her job.
“You’ll be needing a new position,” remarked Reverend Corbin presently, as though reading Fancy’s distraught mind.
Glumly, Fancy nodded. From what she had seen of Wenatchee, it was a small place and opportunities would be limited indeed. Probably few of the residents, if any, employed servants, and she had not seen a restaurant where she might wash dishes or wait tables until she’d earned enough for train fare. “I know,” she said.
“I could give you money,” ventured the minister.
Fancy shook her head in immediate refusal. Debt was a burden she carefully avoided, remembering the anguish it had caused her parents. “I must earn my own way,” she insisted, her chin high now, her plate balanced on her knees.
“Then work for me, here. I’m afraid there isn’t much call for magic in Wenatchee.”
Coming from another man, an offer of this nature would have immediately put Fancy on her guard. After
all, she’d been on her own three years already, though she was just nineteen, and she’d learned readily enough to beware the double-edged kindness of “gentlemen.” But this man was different from most, she knew, and it wasn’t only because of the collar he wore. “What would I do, Reverend Corbin?”
He smiled. “Please—call me Keith so that I can call you Fancy.”
Again, this was not a point Fancy would normally have conceded, being wary of familiarity with the opposite sex. “All right, Keith,” she answered. Then, feeling oddly hopeful, despite a lingering disturbance over his surname, she asked again, “What work could I do here? The apples aren’t ready to be picked—”
Keith took her empty plate, stacked it atop his own, and set them both aside. “No, the apples won’t be ready until fall. But there is a job for you here, Fancy—one that will, I’m afraid, call for no small amount of magic.”
Fancy waited, oblivious to the milling crowds, the frolicking children, the preparations for departure being made by Mr. Shibble’s ragtag “theatre” company.
“Last Christmas Eve, my brother’s ship, the Sea Mistress, was at anchor in Port Hastings harbor—”
Fancy’s heart seemed to plummet to her knees, then shoot up to hammer against the inside of her skull. Oh, God, she thought. God, no. This is the same family!
Keith stopped, fixing Fancy with haunted, sky-blue eyes. “Do you know where Port Hastings is?” he asked. “It’s near Puget Sound, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca—”
Fancy nodded, unable to speak. Again, Temple Royce’s ugly, triumphant laughter echoed in her ears.
“Anyway, Jeff—that’s my brother—was badly burned. He still has scars on his back and along one of his arms, but the worst marks, of course, are inside him.”
Fancy closed her eyes, bile scalding the back of her throat. Damn you, Temple, she thought frantically. “But he didn’t die,” she said, thankful for that much, at least.
“No, not quite. Like a lot of the other men, though, he was forced to jump overboard. The water was colder than usual and it was awhile before he was brought ashore. He caught pneumonia and almost didn’t survive that.” Keith sighed, gazing pensively at the decorated apple tree, where laughing children were jumping and scrambling for the gifts and balloons that graced it. The joy of the scene was at terrible variance with the story—the all too familiar story—that he was relating. “Jeff is here—once he recovered he didn’t want to stay in Port Hastings. There is some kind of rift between him and our oldest brother, but neither of them will talk about it and it’s really beside the point in any case. The fact is that Jeff is dying, Fancy, though he should be over the physical effects of what happened.”
Fancy shivered. “I don’t understand how you think I could help,” she managed to say. “I’m not a nurse—”
“Jeff doesn’t need a nurse so much as he needs a companion—someone who can spend time with him and bring him out of that inner world where he’s hiding. Between the orchards and my parish, I can’t work with him the way I should, but I love my brother, Fancy, and I don’t want to lose him.”
“I w–would spend time with him? What would that accomplish?”
“I’m hoping that you’ll be able to stir some emotion
in him—anything. Make him laugh, make him cry, make him mad—I don’t really care.”
Fancy swallowed and looked down at her skirts. In every fiber of her being, she ached with the shame of what Temple Royce had done to Jeff Corbin and to his family, not to mention the crewmen who had not survived the blast aboard the Sea Mistress. She was not responsible for the attack, of course, but just knowing who was weighted her with guilt. She had not told the authorities what she knew; instead, she had just fled the town to try to forget.
Now she studied Keith Corbin’s earnest face and wondered what would happen if she told him that it had been Temple Royce who had ordered the charges of dynamite to be laid on and beneath the decks of the ship. In the end, she decided that she did not dare.
But further worries waited to be dealt with. She had worked as a performer in Port Hastings aboard the Silver Shadow, a clippership converted into a saloon. Suppose Captain Jeff Corbin had seen her there and recognized her now? Worse still, suppose he recalled that she had, at that time, planned to marry Temple Royce—a man he no doubt regarded as his worst enemy?
Fancy’s predominant instinct demanded that she flee, that she put this town and this family behind her, before one of its members remembered her as she was now remembering them. But she did not have the means to escape, having lost her job, and besides that, a small part of her longed to atone somehow for what Temple had done. “I’m not sure I can help you,” she muttered, plucking at a star on her skirt with nervous fingers, “but I’ll try.”
“Thank you,” said the pastor, and his large, calloused hand closed over both of Fancy’s, encouraging and warm.
* * *
Jeff watched from an upstairs window as the guests began clamoring away in their assorted wagons, carriages, and buggies. The seedy little circus, hired for the special amusement of the children, had long since gone, but one of the performers had stayed—that disturbing, elfin creature wearing stars on her dress. Something about her made Jeff feel uneasy, though even from a distance there was no denying that she was an appealing little piece.
He sighed, not quite able to turn away from the window. She was talking earnestly with Keith, he could see that—in fact, the two had never been very far apart all day. Who was the woman, anyway, and why hadn’t she left with the others?
Jeff’s features formed a scowl. Come to that, why was Keith squiring a good-looking woman about, when he was engaged to marry Amelie Rogers in less than a month’s time? He was still pondering this question when the imp suddenly stopped her conversation with Keith and stared up at the window where Jeff stood. She couldn’t see him—that was impossible—and yet she seemed to be bidding him.
Because something inside Jeff urged him to obey her, he turned quickly away from the window. Shirtless, he went to stand before the mirror above his bureau. He turned to one side, just far enough so that the crimson, puckered scar on his back was clearly visible. It made a broad swath between his right hip and the top of his left shoulder. That scar, like the similar one on his arm, was
rooted deep inside him, reaching beyond muscle and bone to his very core. He closed his eyes and tried to summon Banner O’Brien, now his brother’s wife, to his mind. Instead, he saw a small, fair-haired vixen with a galaxy strewn upon her dress.
Through the open door of his room, Jeff heard footsteps on the stairs. He cursed and dived for the closest shirt, which was hanging over one of the posts of his bed. He was fastening the first button when Keith rapped at the doorjamb.
“There’s someone I want you to meet,” the pastor announced with that peculiar combination of tenderness and determination that only he could manage.
Jeff glared at his brother and muttered a round curse. Perhaps out of deference to the man he had been before he’d lost his father, Banner, and his ship practically in one fell swoop, he ran the fingers of his left hand through his hair.
“Hello,” said the imp, stepping out of the shadows and into the doorway. “My name is Fancy.”
Diplomatically, Keith turned and walked away. His boot heels made a forlorn, echoing sound on the stairs.
“What the hell kind of name is ‘Fancy’?” Jeff snapped, all the while taking note of the wayward, sun-colored hair curling around a saucy face. Her eyes were a deep violet.
“It’s a nickname for Frances,” the sprite retorted, ignoring his rudeness.
There was a dimple in her chin—just the tiniest dimple. “Where did you get that silly dress?”
The dimpled chin lifted, the violet eyes flashed, but Fancy stood her ground. “I made it myself. I wear it when I perform.”
Even though he was standing in the middle of the room, Jeff felt oddly cornered. He ignored the fact that the sensation wasn’t all that unpleasant. Setting his feet wide apart and lifting his hands to his hips, he made a deliberate effort to look ominous. “Unless you’re going to tap-dance or something, why don’t you get the hell out of my bedroom? A man could get the wrong idea, you know.”
“You’re full of wrong ideas, I think,” imparted the minx, completely undaunted. Her pert little nose crinkled disapprovingly. “Goodness, it’s musty in here,” she said, and then she had the unmitigated gall to march over to the wall and wrench open one window and then another. This done, she proceeded to fetch discarded shirts and trousers up from the floor, bunching them under one arm.
Jeff stared at her in furious amazement. “What the devil do you think you’re doing?”
The violet eyes met his squarely. “I’m helping you, of course. That’s what your brother hired me to do.”
“Damn his hide. I don’t want any help!”
“That’s your major problem, I would imagine. That and the fact that you’re acting more like a spoiled little boy than a grown man.” Incredibly, she strode to the doorway and flung the laundry she’d gathered into the hallway. After that, she advanced to the bed, pulling off the blankets and sheets, denuding the pillows of their cases. “It’s time you stopped sulking and started acting your age, Jeff Corbin.”
Jeff was appalled for a moment, but then the singular humor of the situation came home to him and he began to laugh. What a ridiculous, delicious sight this Fancy was, her wild hair tumbling from its pins and silver stars
coming loose from her dress. As she bent to gather up the sheets in both arms, Jeff felt a familiar stirring inside him.
She paused, looked at him uncertainly for the first time. “What’s so funny?”
“That dress. Your name. Everything.”
Fancy’s lush little body stiffened and that perfect chin jutted out in fierce pride. “I’m glad you’re amused,” she said. “Perhaps that’s a step forward.”
Again, Jeff ran a hand through one side of his hair and, with one fleeting glance at the mirror, saw that his fingers had left ridges above his right ear. “Just what did my brother tell you? That I’m some kind of recluse? That I need to be saved from myself?”
“Something on that order, yes.”
Jeff was furious. “I love a woman I can’t have,” he said. “In fact, she’s my brother’s wife.”
“Life is tough,” said Fancy, with a shrug.
“I lost my ship!”
“People lose things every day.” She paused, looking around the spacious, well-furnished room. “From what I’ve seen, you have more—much more—than the average man, anyway.”
“You don’t understand!”
Fancy dropped the sheets and came to stand in front of him, looking up into his face. “I’m afraid I do. You’ve been hurt. You’re angry. And now you’re throwing a tantrum!”
“A tantrum?!” Rage sang through Jeff’s veins; for the first time in months he felt fully alive. “How dare you say that?”
“I dare,” she assured him evenly.
Jeff had absolutely no answer for that. He watched Fancy in silent fury as she turned away, retrieved the
sheets, and started toward the door. What was she going to do next, pull down the curtains? Roll up the rug?
“Damnation!” he muttered.
“I’ll be back with fresh linens in a few minutes,” she sang out, without even bothering to look back.
Jeff was not used to people—especially women—reacting to him in quite that way. The chit was downright obnoxious, that’s what she was! “Wait a minute!” he roared.
She stopped, looked back over one trim, bestarred shoulder. “Yes?”
“I don’t want you to help me, do you understand? I don’t want you gathering my laundry and changing my sheets—”
“Someone has to do it,” came the flippant reply, before the minx disappeared entirely.
Jeff lunged to the doorway, gripping the framework in white-knuckled hands. “Not you, God damn it!” he bellowed.
Fancy spread one of the sheets on the floor of the hallway and then bundled all the other laundry into it. “Why not me?” she asked, without particular emotion.
“Yes?” urged the imp, swinging the enormous bundle up onto her back like a female Saint Nicholas.
Again, Jeff Corbin, always glib, was stuck for an answer. Hellfire and spit, he’d never met a more annoying woman in his life!
By the time she’d returned, this time carrying a stack of neatly folded sheets, he had had a chance to come up with some ammunition. Sprawled comfortably in a chair near the window, he watched as she began remaking the bed.
“I never would have expected this of my pious brother,” he said. “But he may have hit upon just the therapy I need.”
She was flipping the bottom sheet expertly; the crisp scent of starch filled the now-freshened room. “What therapy is that?” she asked, again without any great interest.
“Don’t tell me that, with a name like ‘Fancy,’ you don’t know?”
The sheet wafted slowly to the mattress and she turned to face him. “I beg your pardon?”
Triumph surged through Jeff; he bit back a grin. “I mean, you’ll be sharing that bed with me, won’t you? That would heal me faster than anything.”
An explosion was brewing in the wide, violet eyes but, to Jeff’s disappointment, it faded away, along with the pink bloom that had shone in her cheeks. “You know perfectly well that I will not share your bed, Captain Corbin,” she said.
Another long-dormant emotion moved within Jeff—sweet challenge. This was one game that he’d mastered. “You underestimate my charms, Fancy,” he said calmly.
“On the contrary, I find them quite unspectacular,” she replied.
“Have you ever been intimate with a man?”
“That is certainly none of your business but, as it happens, no. I haven’t.” She turned back to making the bed and Jeff was afforded a view of a firm, softly curved derrière. His determination was renewed.
“Good,” he said. “I always like to be the first.”
She finished her task without another word and strode stiffly out of the room, her proud head held high. Jeff laughed to himself then, though he couldn’t have
said why. He rose from his chair and went to the bureau to brush his wheat-colored hair into order.
* * *
Fancy stood at the top of the stairs, at last out of sight, and trembled with rage. Never, never, in all her life, had she ever encountered a more impossible man! Nor a more attractive one, she admitted to herself. Wishing that she’d passed up this questionable job, no matter what the consequences, she drew a deep breath and descended into the kitchen.
There, the housekeeper and several helpers were bustling about, heating water, and scraping dirty plates that arrived in stacks.
Keith came in as Fancy was preparing a tray for his nasty-minded brother, carrying a huge platter of ham slices. “How did it go?” he asked, with such hope that Fancy’s angry mood softened a little.
“It isn’t going to be easy,” she said, spearing one of the ham slices for Jeff’s plate. “I’m going to take him some supper and then I’ll come down and help clear away.”
The housekeeper, a slender woman introduced earlier as Alva Thompkins, flashed Fancy a grateful smile. The prospect of having a friend lifted Fancy’s spirits.
“He won’t eat, you know,” Keith said worriedly, setting the ham platter down and starting back toward the door again.
“Yes, he will,” said Fancy, with confidence.
Keith gave her a lopsided, sympathetic grin and left to carry in more of the litter left from the picnic. It was a job that would probably take half the night, even with all of them working.
Exasperation filled Fancy as she put cold sweet potatoes and wilted salad on the plate she meant to
take up to Jeff. His help would mean a lot right now, but he probably wouldn’t deign to give it, intent as he was on wallowing in self-pity!
Balancing the heavy tray, Fancy started back up the stairs. And the things he’d said to her! Her name was funny, her clothes were funny, and would she share his bed?
By the time Fancy reached Jeff’s room again, fury was singing through her veins. Damn it all, even if she ended up sleeping in a field and roasting poor, plump Hershel over a campfire to keep from starving, she wasn’t going to put up with this kind of treatment!
Jeff smiled pleasantly as she approached him, as though he hadn’t said all those inexcusable things.
With savage delight, Fancy stood in front of Jeff’s chair, returned his smile, and dumped the entire contents of the dinner tray into his lap.