It was not my idea to
attend the charity dinner. True, it was a worthy
cause, but the past weeks at the law firm I'd
been so elated to join just months earlier, had
been mind numbing. In truth, I was becoming more
disillusioned with Shepard, Shepard, McNaughton
and Hall with each passing day. Frankly I was
in no mood to socialize.
My mother, Elizabeth
Woolson, however, is nothing if not persistent.
Eventually she wore down my resolve until I agreed
to accompany my parents, my brother Charles and
his wife Celia, to the dinner. Mama also prevailed
on the matter of my costume, insisting I wear
the violet gown she'd had made for my brother
Frederick's entrée into the world of politics
– a gown I still considered too décolleté
for my taste. Moreover, I couldn't look at the
frock without remembering the murder that had
occurred the night I'd worn it, a crime which
had catapulted me into the grisly Nob Hill killings.
Believe me, if I'd had any inkling that the occasion
of its second wearing would have an equally chilling
impact on my life, I would have burned the wretched
thing on the spot!
On the matter of an
escort I drew a firm line. Nothing could persuade
me to accept the company of the latest bachelor
to catch Mama's desperate eyes. Her current prospect
was a widowed dentist, the father of six children,
five of whom still lived at home. I considered
my life complicated enough without adding an elderly
husband and a horde of motherless offspring to
In the end I found myself
– blessedly unencumbered by the aforementioned
dentist – in one of the most unique houses
on Russian Hill. I had never met our hosts, Caroline
and Leonard Godfrey, but I knew them to be prominent
members of San Francisco Society. Mrs. Godfrey
was noted for her work on behalf of the city's
poor and disadvantaged. Her husband, Leonard,
was one of the city's most shrewd entrepreneurs.
It was an open secret that he was the guiding,
if often hidden, force behind many of the city's
The Godfrey's home was
the subject of much gossip. Three years earlier,
it had joined a small group of exclusive mansions
gracing the top of the summit. Russian Hill –
said to have been named after Russian sailors
who had been buried there before the California
gold rush – was slowly beginning to compete
with Nob Hill, its pompous neighbor to the south.
The Godfrey residence, with its sharp angles and
numerous windows, was considered by many to be
too avant-garde. Indeed, some people went so far
as to brand it "Godfrey's Folly." Personally,
I found the home a refreshing change from the
pretentious bastions constructed by other wealthy
San Franciscans. But then my own architectural
tastes are also viewed as unorthodox.
I had not circulated
long among the glittering guests, before I began
to regret giving in to Mama's pressure to attend
tonight's soiree. When I'd had all I could take
of Paris fashions, society romances and social
indiscretions, I sought refuge in an alcove featuring
a large bay window. Peering through a strategically
placed spyglass, I was able to make out much of
the city below – including Portsmouth Square,
the site of Joseph Shepard's law firm. As one
of the first female attorneys in California, I'd
been accepted as a junior associate in this establishment
with the greatest reluctance. Since then, the
entire cadre of senior partners had banded together
in an effort to drive me out of their firm, as
well as their lives!
Not only had I obtained
my job through what they termed ‘female
subterfuge', but I'd had the gall to ‘steal'
(their word, not mine), one of the firm's prized
clients. Adding insult to injury, I'd solved a
series of gruesome murders, resulting in a glut
of unwelcome publicity for my employers.
Ironically, it was this
very newspaper exposure which made it impossible
for the partners to come right out and fire me.
On the other hand, if I could be ‘persuaded'
to leave of my own accord, they'd be spared public
reproach. This misplaced strategy, of course,
merely caused me to dig in my heels and fight
to hold onto my position. Still, I'd begun to
wonder how long I'd be able to put up with their
"It's a beautiful
city, isn't it?"
I was startled out of
my thoughts to find a man in his mid-thirties
standing behind me. He stood an inch or two over
six feet, and despite my bleak mood, part of my
brain registered that this was possibly the most
handsome man I'd ever seen. He wore a perfectly
tailored black tuxedo, which couldn't conceal
impressively broad shoulders and a narrow waist.
His hair was thick and nearly shoulder length,
an ebony mane that waved back from a tanned face.
As if amused by my frank
appraisal, he smiled and I was startled to feel
my pulse leap. Good lord, I thought, amazed he'd
been able to elicit such an absurd reaction from
me, an avowed spinster. With effort, I composed
my face into what I hoped was a disapproving frown,
only to be rewarded with an even broader smile.
"I apologize for my poor
manners, Miss Woolson," he said in a voice which
was deep and – forgive me for the romantic
if fitting analogy – smooth as aged brandy.
"I'm Pierce Godfrey. Leonard Godfrey is my brother."
I accepted his proffered
hand and was surprised to find the skin rougher
than I'd expected. His careful appearance suggested
he might be something of a dandy.
"You have me at a disadvantage,
Mr. Godfrey," I said more sharply than was civil.
"How is it that you know my name."
His eyes gleamed, but
I couldn't decide if it was amusement or mockery.
My temper flared; I had no patience for flirting
or playing silly games, even with a man as attractive
as Pierce Godfrey.
"You haven't answered
my question," I said pointedly.
To my annoyance, he
laughed out loud. "You are a woman who speaks
her mind, Miss Woolson. I'll be equally candid.
I quizzed my sister-in-law when you arrived."
He regarded me speculatively. "She tells me you're
"Yes, I am." I studied
him closely, on the lookout for sarcasm or veiled
disdain for my vocation, a not uncommon reaction
from men. I was surprised and, yes, I admit it,
disconcerted, when I could detect none. The man
struck me as too smooth, too in control. I suppose
I was searching for some imperfection to mar that
"I remember now," he
said. "I saw your name in the newspapers a few
months back. Something to do with a murder? Actually,
several murders, as I recall."
"The press is prone to
exaggeration, Mr. Godfrey. You mustn't believe
everything you read."
"No." He drew out the word in a velvet voice,
a tone at odds with the dark eyes searching my
face with rude curiosity. "Now that I've met you,
though, I rather think there was more truth than
fiction to the newspaper articles."
I started to chastise
him for this unwarranted assumption, when our
hostess walked toward us. An attractive woman
in her early forties, Caroline Godfrey had a full,
sensuous mouth and smoky gray eyes which looked
out upon the world with an unmistakable air of
superiority. The low-cut bodice and tightly-cinched
waist of her scarlet gown, set off her striking
figure to excellent advantage.
Perhaps it was because
of her stunning beauty that I was taken aback
by the look of raw hostility she directed at my
companion. Focused solely on him, she hadn't yet
seen me, so I quickly stepped out from behind
his tall figure.
"Miss Woolson," she said,
looking surprised and not altogether pleased by
my sudden appearance. "I'm delighted you could
come." After a perfunctory smile, she turned to
her brother-in-law. "Leonard requires your assistance
in the parlor, Pierce. Everyone is gathering there
He gave her a measured
look, then offered me his arm. "Will you permit
me to escort you, Miss Woolson?"
Mrs. Godfrey's smile
turned sour as she watched me accept her brother-in-law's
arm. I felt her eyes following us as he silently
led me from the alcove.
When we reached the
parlor, Pierce excused himself and went to stand
with his brother. A moment later, Caroline Godfrey
joined them, her smile cordial and welcoming now,
as she looked out over her distinguished guests.
She spoke for several minutes, describing the
new Women and Children's Hospital we were here
to support. When she announced with perfect calm
that tonight's goal was to raise one hundred thousand
dollars for the project, I felt certain she was
joking. To my surprise, the rest of the company
took this startling pronouncement in stride. It
was as if Mrs. Godfrey had laid down a challenge
to their largesse, or perhaps, I thought a bit
cynically, to their egos.
Pledging began. One
after the other, huge amounts of money were called
out, each pledge more munificent than the one
which preceded it. Everyone seemed swept up in
the excitement, including Mama and Papa. I even
found myself calling out a sum larger than I could
comfortably afford. Still, when it was finally
over and Mrs. Godfrey announced we were very near
our goal, I was proud to have played my own small
part in the effort.
As guests broke off
into small groups, and footmen circulated offering
champagne, I went in search of my parents. I found
them talking with Papa's closest friend and fellow
jurist, Judge Tobias Barlow, a slightly overweight,
pleasant man ten years my father's junior. With
Judge Barlow was his wife Margaret – an
attractive woman who worked with my mother on
charitable projects – and Margaret's mother,
Adelina French. I was startled by the remarkable
resemblance between mother and daughter: both
tall and slender with gold-brown hair and sparkling
green eyes. Indeed, the two women might well have
been sisters. I knew Adelina made her home with
her daughter and son-in-law since the death of
her husband, Nigel French, and was a keen worker
for the new hospital.
Also with the group
were two men I'd never met. Mrs. Barlow introduced
the more striking of the two, as the Reverend
Nicholas Prescott, a friend visiting from Back
East. Prescott, who appeared to be in his early
fifties, was tall and muscularly slender beneath
his dark suit and starched clerical collar. His
full head of dark brown hair was sprinkled with
just the right amount of gray to appear distinguished.
He possessed an easy, unassuming manner, and I
noted a gleam of intelligence and good humor in
his clear brown eyes. With a wide smile, Reverend
Prescott shook my hand, his attention so riveted
on me that I might have been the only person in
Mrs. Barlow introduced
the second stranger as Lucius Arlen, the accountant
who had been hired by the board to handle the
new hospital's finances. Arlen was a heavy-set,
stolid man in his late fifties, with a fidgety
manner and a disconcerting habit of not quite
looking you in the eye when he spoke.
The accountant acknowledged
me with a stiff bow. "How do you do, Miss Woolson?"
Before I could reply,
Mrs. French said, "Mrs. Godfrey thinks tonight's
pledges will be enough to make a final offer on
the Battery Street warehouse."
"Do you really think
that's possible, Mr. Arlen?" Margaret Barlow asked
Lucius Arlen looked
pleased to be consulted. He cleared his throat
a bit self-importantly and said, "I agree it looks
promising. We've already met our goal tonight,
and additional pledges are coming in. That will
provide us with enough money to complete our negotiations
with the owners of the property, and—"
He was interrupted by
a loud commotion in the foyer. Conversation abruptly
ceased as everyone strained to hear the cause
of the disturbance.
"But, sir, you cannot
go in," the Godfrey's butler called out. "Sir,
A thin man in his forties
strode defiantly into the parlor. He was dressed
entirely in black from his wrinkled flannel trousers
and morning coat to his slightly dented stovepipe
hat. His fierce eyes were also black, as was the
hair and beard which flew riotously about his
grim face. People instinctively pressed away from
him as he marched to the center of the room. My
father started forward as if to intercept the
man, but Mama took Papa's arm and pulled him back.
"Brothers and sisters,"
the intruder boomed. "Ministering to the Jezebels
of this city is an abomination!" He raised a worn
leather Bible above his head. "Those who have
sold their immortal souls to the devil do not
deserve to be succored."
"Mr. Halsey!" An authoritative
voice interrupted. "I will thank you to leave
this house at once."
All eyes went to Caroline
Godfrey who stood framed in the doorway. Her gray
eyes flashed with icy fury as she glared at the
"Reverend Halsey, if
you please, madam," the man corrected, tipping
his hat and making an ironic bow.
"Nothing about your presence
here pleases me," Mrs. Godfrey snapped. "We intend
to offer medical care to the impoverished women
and children of this city. Respectable women,
Mr. Halsey. If you are insinuating that we plan
to care for women who have no one but themselves
to blame for their unfortunate circumstances,
you are mistaken."
There was no need for
Mrs. Godfrey to explain what she meant by a woman
of "unfortunate circumstances". Everyone knew
the term referred to an unwed mother, a prejudice
I found galling. It was so unjust to think that
the child's father would get off scot-free, while
the poor mother was left to suffer the shame and
I looked across the
room where my brother Charles and his wife Celia
stood staring at the interloper. Charles, a physician
of unquestionable talent and limited income, was
slated to lead the roster of physicians who had
agreed to volunteer at the new hospital. From
his sheepish expression, I realized this was exactly
what he planned to do. Charles was far too kind-hearted
to turn even a penniless patient away, much less
a woman who would otherwise be forced to deliver
her child on the street. Apparently, he had failed
to mention this to Mrs. Godfrey. I met my father's
eyes, and we both suppressed a smile.
"Lies! All lies!" Halsey
ranted, his malevolent black eyes fixed on our
hostess. "I warn you, until the Jezebels acknowledge
their sins and prostrate themselves before their
lord and savior, food and shelter will but support
Mrs. Godfrey's patrician
face had turned red, and her voice shook with
rage. "How dare you! Leave this house at once
or I will notify the police."
"You do so at your soul's
peril." Again Halsey held up his Bible. "You may
close your ears to the voice of truth, but be
sure that in the end your sins will find you out!"
Mrs. Godfrey opened
her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Clutching
a hand to her breast, she gasped as if struggling
for air. "Leonard," she choked. "Leonard—"
She swayed and would
have fallen if my brother Charles and Reverend
Prescott hadn't rushed forward and supported her
to the nearest settee. Hurriedly, I reached for
several cushions and placed them beneath the woman's
"Someone get her husband,"
I directed, and a frightened footman ran to do
my bidding. At the same time, Mama handed me a
damp cloth appropriated from one of the servants.
I placed it across Mrs. Godfrey's forehead.
"Give her air," Charles
ordered, as people pressed around the stricken
woman. He pointed at the intruder. "And for god's
sake, get that man out of here!"
There was a murmur of
assent, and several men grabbed the black-clad
Halsey. Despite his sputtered threats, they managed
to physically eject him from the room.
My brother was taking
Mrs. Godfrey's pulse when Leonard Godfrey, closely
followed by his brother Pierce, entered the room.
"What happened?" Leonard
demanded, kneeling down by Caroline, who lay with
her eyes closed, her face ghastly white.
"She's had an attack,"
Charles told him quietly. "Tell me, does she have
a heart condition?"
"She suffers from angina.
Her physician has prescribed medicine—"
Godfrey stopped as his head seemed to clear.
"Pierce," he told his
brother. "Get Caroline's pills. They're on the
night table in her room. And hurry, man!"
Without a word, Pierce
Godfrey sped from the parlor, leaving behind him
a room so quiet you could have heard a feather
drop. Mrs. Godfrey stirred and a low murmur swept
through the assembled guests. She looked around
with glazed eyes, then, becoming aware of her
husband's face, made an effort to sit up.
"Caroline, don't move,"
Godfrey said, easing her back onto the cushions.
"Pierce has gone for your pills."
For the first time,
Mrs. Godfrey seemed to notice the sea of worried
faces surrounding the settee. "Don't be ridiculous,
Leonard." Her voice was still weak, but she forced
a smile. "Dinner will be—"
"Don't try to talk,"
her husband admonished.
"But I don't—"
She could go no further. Squeezing her husband's
hand, she closed her eyes and gulped for air.
To my horror, I noticed her skin was turning blue.
"You're a doctor, Woolson,"
Godfrey begged Charles. "For god's sake, do something!"
"I'm doing all I can,
Mr. Godfrey." My brother's kind eyes were reassuring.
"The medicine should relieve the pain and ease
After what seemed an
eternity, but was probably no more than a few
moments, Pierce returned with a small apothecary
box. Leonard extracted a tiny white pill and placed
it beneath his wife's tongue. We all watched in
anxious silence as color gradually returned to
her face and her breathing became less arduous.
As the pain slowly receded, she again tried to
"Lie back, Caroline,"
Leonard told her. "You must give the medicine
time to work."
"But dinner," she protested.
I was close enough to
hear her husband's soft curse as he reluctantly
turned to his guests. "Will you all please go
into the dining room? I'll join you in a moment."
There was an awkward
pause, as if, despite Godfrey's admonition, no
one was quite sure what to do. Clearing his throat,
Reverend Prescott said,
"We can best help Mrs.
Godfrey by honoring her wishes." Taking Mrs. Adelina
French's arm, he left the parlor. With anxious
glances at their hostess, guests began following
the minister into the dining room. Charles and
the two Godfrey brothers remained hovering by
the stricken woman's side.
"Who was that man waving
his Bible at us?" I asked my father as our party
joined the general exodus.
"He's some sort of religious
fanatic," Papa said grimly. "Evidently this isn't
the first time he's badgered Mrs. Godfrey about
the new hospital. He belongs to a Los Angeles
sect that believes poverty and destitution are
the result of God's punishment, especially when
it comes to unwed mothers."
I was speechless. I
trust I'm a faithful Christian, but I have no
patience for those who use the Bible to promote
their own bigoted ideology. My indignation must
have been obvious, because Reverend Prescott quickly
"Let us pray that Mrs.
Godfrey soon recovers, Miss Woolson. At the moment,
that is our primary concern."
"Amen," Mama and Celia
Papa and I seconded
the prayer, although privately I felt nothing
but contempt toward the hypocrite who had triggered
the poor woman's attack.
Most of the other guests
had taken their seats by the time we entered the
dining room, and I was shown to my place by one
of the footmen. The long refectory table was easily
large enough to accommodate the thirty or so diners,
and was laid with ornate china, wine glasses,
and heavily-carved silver. Floral arrangements
and dozens of flickering candles completed the
elaborate setting. The soup course had already
been served, and I sensed the butler's growing
distress as he watched it grow cold.
Those of us seated at
the table were hardly less edgy than the servants.
A sober-looking Lucius Arlen sat to my right.
Next to him, my mother was talking to Judge Barlow.
Catty-corner across the table, Margaret Barlow
and her mother chatted with Reverend Prescott,
who sat between them. There were two unoccupied
seats at the table, presumably for my brother
Charles and Pierce Godfrey, as well as our hosts'
places at either end of the table.
I'm sure I wasn't the
only one who felt like an unwilling witness to
what surely should have been a family matter.
I couldn't understand why we hadn't simply been
sent home. Sitting here with our hostess lying
ill only a few rooms away, seemed tasteless in
The footmen had begun
pouring wine when conversation abruptly ceased
and I glanced up to see an unhappy Leonard Godfrey
lead his wife into the dining room. Mrs. Godfrey
looked drawn and pale, but overall she seemed
much improved. She smiled gamely as her husband
escorted her to the head of the table. But when
he continued to hover behind her chair, she waved
an impatient hand, indicating that he should take
his own place.
"I want to apologize,"
she said in a surprisingly steady voice. "Not
only for that appalling man who forced his way
into our home, but for my brief indisposition.
As you can see, I am quite recovered." As if to
demonstrate this, she picked up her spoon and
began eating her soup.
I watched my fellow diners react to her words
with a mixture of relief and lingering concern.
I doubt anyone was foolish enough to believe her
attack hadn't been a good deal more serious than
she claimed. Yet we could do little else but follow
her example and try to behave as if nothing distressful
I had just taken a sip
of wine when Charles and Pierce Godfrey slipped
into their seats, the latter opposite me.
"How is she?" I asked him as quietly as I could
over the hum of dinner conversation.
"Probably not as well
as she'd have us believe. My brother urged her
to rest in bed until she could be seen by her
own doctor." His expression grew grim. "But Caroline
is a stubborn woman. She rarely allows anyone
to tell her what to do."
His tone made me wonder
if this statement had something to do with the
tension I'd sensed between Pierce and his sister-in-law
in the alcove.
"Mr. Godfrey's advice
is sound," I said, "but I can sympathize with
his wife. She's worked so hard for the new hospital,
I'm sure she feels a responsibility to see the
"It's a poor reason to
risk another, perhaps more serious attack." He
glanced at Caroline, his handsome face set in
lines I couldn't read. Was it anger, frustration,
incredulity? Or again part of that strange drama
I'd witnessed before dinner? When he turned back
to me, his face had softened into a smile. "I'm
certain everything will be fine. Caroline has
a way of coming out on top. Or perhaps she's just
blessed with incredibly good luck."
Having no idea how to
respond to this curious statement, I bent my head
to my dinner. I'm sure the food was superb, but
I tasted little of it.
"—I would be pleased
if you would accept."
"I'm sorry, what did
you say?" I looked up to find Pierce regarding
me with an odd expression. Perhaps it was the
way the candlelight cast his face into sharp contrasts
of light and shadow, but I had the bizarre impression
of a buccaneer standing at the helm of his frigate.
"I asked if you would
do me the honor of dining with me tomorrow evening,"
I didn't immediately
reply to this unexpected invitation. Over the
past few months I'd had to deal with far too many
assertive men at the law firm, to add yet another
example of the species to my social life.
"I fear I'm busy tomorrow
night," I said, buttering a roll. "But thank you
Godfrey's dark blue eyes studied my face, leaving
me with the irrational feeling that he easily
read my lie. "Perhaps some other night, then?"
"I'm sorry," I said.
"I'll be busy all week."
"Ah, I'd forgotten. Your
work must be demanding. Perhaps you're involved
in another intriguing case?"
touched on a sensitive nerve and I stiffened.
What I wouldn't have given to be involved in any
case right now, much less an intriguing one. Unfortunately,
Joseph Shepard, the senior partner, considered
women attorneys incapable of performing any task
more mentally stimulating than washing the dishes!
"I find all legal work
interesting, Mr. Godfrey." That part, at least,
was true. This was hardly the time, and Pierce
Godfrey was certainly not the person, to confide
the anger and frustration I felt toward my employer
and his male cronies. "It takes up a great deal
I broke off as a chair
suddenly crashed to the floor. All eyes flew to
Mrs. Godfrey, who half-stood at the end of the
table. Her face was flushed, and her fingers were
pressed to her temples as if she were in terrible
"My head!" she cried
Her husband and Charles
rushed to her side, easing her back into the chair
which someone had righted. Leonard pulled the
apothecary box from his pocket and spilled out
pills. The poor woman was trembling so violently,
it was several moments before he could place one
beneath her tongue. Obviously in mortal distress,
she clutched helplessly at her bodice as she struggled
"Do something!" Godfrey
shouted at Charles.
My brother was already
doing everything he could, aided by Reverend Prescott,
who had rushed forward to help. In an effort to
ease her breathing, they'd begun to loosen the
tiny pearl buttons at the back of her gown. Before
they'd managed more than one or two, she bent
double and began to vomit. Someone grabbed a serviette
to dab at her face, but the gesture only spread
the mess down her gown.
"Caroline," Leonard cried
helplessly. "For God's sake help her!"
Caroline's lips were
moving, but no sound issued from her throat. The
flush drained from her face as her body was struck
by another spasm, and her skin once again turned
a ghastly blue. Then, as she drew in a rattling
breath, her irises rolled up into her head until
they showed only white, and she sank limply onto
Charles knelt and cradled
her head, at the same time attempting to place
another pill beneath her tongue. It was no use;
Caroline Godfrey was beyond mortal help. Nicholas
Prescott dropped down beside Charles, bowing his
head in silent prayer.
Someone cried out behind
me and several women begin to weep hysterically.
Leonard stared at his wife, his face white with
shock and incredulity. Charles raised the woman's
limp arm and felt her wrist for what seemed like
an eternity. Then, with a sigh, he gently closed
"Is she" Leonard
stammered. "That is, she can't be—"
Charles gave the distraught husband a regretful
nod. "I'm truly sorry, Mr. Godfrey, but I'm afraid
your wife is dead."