"Yes, Mother has always seemed to have an affinity for the city." Ezra drained his glass and set it on the table with a sigh. "Well, Mr. Tanner, I think I'll retire for the night."
"That's it?" Ezra raised an eyebrow, and Vin looked, obviously uncomfortable. "I mean . . . ."
Ezra noticed the look of dread Vin was giving him; it was almost amusing. Ezra could think of no reason for the man to be so concerned about things that had already happened. And truly, St. Louis was no call to worry.
"There is no need to look so concerned, Mr. Tanner. This was one trip that ended in my favor. For once, Maude had no plans for me. It was almost as if . . . ." It was almost as if Maude had just wanted him with her. It had been a nice change, something that, unfortunately, had been too rare during most of his childhood. "Well, Maude was sitting on a small fortune when I arrived. There was no need to find a mark at that time."
"It must have been nice, just gettin' to relax for a change."
Ezra smiled. "It was indeed. We spent the better part of a month in St. Louis. We had dinner together every night and spent many evenings at the theater. Yes, it was a very pleasant time."
The whole summer was surprisingly pleasant. From the time he arrived in town, his mother had acted, well, like a mother. There was no talk of schemes or cons or marks she had found. There was no one she wanted him to befriend and no one she seemed particularly interested in. He wasn't given instructions for how he was to behave and he wasn't hidden away. He had simply been allowed to be her son. It had been a long time since Ezra had felt that way, and it was a nice change. Especially given what he'd left behind in Arkansas.
After St. Louis, they headed east again. After a brief stay in Louisville, they continued on to Maryland. It was in Maryland he started to wonder if they were just going to spend the rest their lives roaming the country. Maude had introduced him to people as they'd traveled, but there seemed to be no reason for why they went the places they did or how long they stayed. It was the night she told him they were going to Philadelphia Ezra had finally questioned why. She hadn't given him much of a reason and finally asked him a question that Ezra had so often wished she would ask him. She asked him where he wanted to go. Ezra picked home, and she'd allowed it.
He smiled at the memories that summer brought to mind, especially the end when she'd allowed him to return to Edward's. "I know you have heard and seen things that would make you doubt, but even my mother has moments where she can show genuine affection. You may rest easy in the knowledge that there were happy times. Now, as I said before, I shall retire."
Vin nodded. "That's a good idea."
They both left money on the table for their supper and exited the dining room. When they were back in the lobby, Ezra turned to Vin. "Care for a smoke before bed, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin eyed the cigar Ezra held out for a minute before he shook his head. "No, thanks. Think I'll go on up to bed."
"Very well. I shall be up momentarily." Vin continued upstairs, and Ezra stepped outside for the cigar. He wouldn't have minded Vin joining him, but there had been a point in offering Vin the cigar, and it wasn't just a smoke. The tracker was painfully shy, and while Ezra had no issue undressing in front of someone, he was unsure if Vin would feel the same way. He figured the time it took him to get through the cigar would give Vin plenty of time to get in bed and not have to worry about disrobing in front of anyone. His reasoning was sound and by the time he made it up to their overpriced room, Vin was in bed, but the younger man had left a lamp lit.
Ezra wasn't sure if Vin had already succumbed to sleep or not but as quietly as he could he undressed and went through his nightly ablutions. By the time he was done, he was starting to once again feel the strain of the last couple of days. Wary both physically and emotionally, Ezra eased on to the bed and was pleasantly surprised to find the mattress filled with feathers; given the state of everything else in this town he'd half-expected their money to get them nothing but corn husks. An appreciative moan slipped out as he sank into the downy softness.
Ezra was surprised Vin was still awake given the high quality of the bed, but he smiled at the question. Whoever would have thought that Vin Tanner would be so concerned with his well being? "Mr. Tanner, six dollars was more than an equitable trade for these accommodations."
Vin scoffed lightly. "If you say so," he mumbled.
Ezra smiled. He didn't know if Vin's reply meant he didn't agree or simply didn't understand what he'd just said. Ezra didn't care either way. It wasn't the ground, and that was enough. "Sleep well, Mr. Tanner," he offered as he closed his eyes.
He thought he heard Vin mumble something in reply but Ezra was already drifting off, slipping into a world of dreams and memories.
"I'll race you to that oak by the creek," Ethan called just before kicking his horse into a ground-eating lope.
Ezra grinned at his cousin's back before urging Dutch to follow the fast retreating horse and rider. Dutch didn't need much encouragement and was soon neck in neck with Ethan's horse, Rosie. Rosie was a nice little mare, but she really wasn't any match for Dutch once the buckskin realized he was in a race, and today was no different. Ezra pulled Dutch to a stop near the water's edge a good two lengths ahead of Rosie.
Ezra grinned when Ethan finally caught up. "One day, my dear cousin, you'll learn there is no benefit in trying a cheat."
Fourteen-year-old Ethan sighed, and they started to walk the horses down. "There ain't no good reason that horse should be that fast, old as he is."
Ezra rubbed Dutch's neck fondly. "Mature, Ethan; Dutch is mature. Like wine, horses improve with age. Rosie is still far too young to match Dutch."
Ethan gave him a sideways look before scoffing lightly. "Rosie ain't that young."
Ezra grinned. His cousin was right of course, Rosie wasn't more than four or five years younger than Dutch, plenty old enough to have matured herself. She just wasn't as fast as Dutch, it was a simple as that.
It had been nearly a year since his mother had allowed him to come back to what Ezra had always thought of as home, and the time had been some of the most pleasant and peaceful he'd ever known. After his time with Martin, anything would be an improvement, but here he was treated like he was part of a family again, and there was nothing better than that. Mama had somewhat kept in contact with him, as she always did, but she'd said nothing about coming back or him joining her again and Ezra was finding he didn't care. He liked being here, with the people he thought of as his family, and he had no desire to be moved somewhere. Besides, his experiences with being in other places weren't that good. Better to stay here where he wasn't getting beat up on or being a disappointment to anyone.
He was enjoying finally being done with school too. Not long after he'd arrived here, his aunt and uncle asked about college, but Ezra had firmly stated he wasn't interested in college. Aunt Lola was in favor of him continuing his education and brought the topic up on a few occasions, but Uncle Edward was surprisingly supportive of Ezra's point of view and had finally managed to put an end to college. He was insisting that Ezra learn about the working of the plantation, but Ezra really didn't mind that. The day to day workings were far more interesting than he'd first guessed, and it was certainly better than joining Ethan with his tutor every day.
There was a lot more going on at the plantation than just work, however. Most days he and Ethan had at least a couple of hours of free time in the afternoons, and that time had been extended since the summer started and Ethan was done with studies for a while. More often than not, that free time was spent on horseback, just like this afternoon had been.
Ezra leaned forward and patted Dutch's neck. The horse was dark with sweat and Ezra knew it was time to cool the animals down. "Let's head back," he said checking his watch. "We need time to give them a good rubdown before supper."
The two young men turned their mounts to go back to the main house and made the ride at a nice leisurely pace, laughing and joking with one another the whole way. By the time the barn was in sight, the breathing of both horses had slowed, and Ezra guessed they would have just enough time to see to the horses and get cleaned up themselves before supper. He was about the comment about it to his cousin when Ethan spoke up.
"I wonder what that's about."
Ezra followed his cousin's line of sight and saw Balaam, a young stable boy, pacing in the barnyard. Ezra felt a sudden uneasiness wheal up inside of him. The boy was obviously waiting for them to return, and that wasn't normal. Ezra couldn't help but think that this was going to end negatively.
He nodded to Balaam as they entered the yard and no sooner had he swung off Dutch than the boy ran over to him. "I'll take him, Mister Ezra."
"It's all right," Ezra told him. "I'll take care of him." Ezra enjoyed caring for his animal and only turned his mounts, especially Dutch, over to one of the stable hands when he had to.
"Mister Ezra . . . ."
"I said I'll take care of him," Ezra repeated firmly.
The boy dropped his eyes and shuffled his feet, causing Ezra to feel guilty about how he'd snapped at the boy. Balaam wasn't but nine or ten and he was clearly uncomfortable with having to contradict a member of the household. "Yes, sir, Mister Ezra, I know you like to do it yourself, but Mister Edward told me to take him for you and he said if you refused I's to tells you he wants to see you in his study right away."
He unease grew when Ezra realized his uncle had sent Balaam out. He glanced over his shoulder at Ethan, but his cousin only offered a helpless shrug in response. Balaam hesitantly held out his hand again and Ezra begrudgingly passed Dutch off. "Of course, if that's what Mister Edward said."
"Thank you, sir," Balaam said.
Ezra smiled trying to put Balaam at ease. There was no need to take his anxiety out on the boy. "I know you'll care for him just as well as I would."
Balaam looked up with a grin. "Yes, sir, Mister Ezra."
Ezra nodded to his cousin before starting for the house. He didn't like this. Edward had told them after lunch he and Ethan could consider the rest of the day free. To have his uncle activity seek him out before supper didn't bode well. Thinking back he couldn't remember doing anything worthy of a reprimand over the last couple days and if he wasn't in trouble why would Edward insist on seeing him now? Whatever it was it had to be serious.
Ezra went around the back of the house and slipped through the kitchen entrance. Addy was already busy preparing supper, just as Ezra had guessed she would. "Addy?" he said easing the door shut.
The cook turned on him, hands on her hips. "Don't start with me," she said shaking a wooden spoon at him. "I don't care how you sweet talk me you ain't gettin' nothin' 'fore supper."
Ezra shook his head. "I don't want anythin'. I was wonderin' if you'd seen Edward."
"Well, he's the master here, course I's seen him. Why is you whispering, baby?"
Ezra hadn't realized he had been whispering. "I mean recently," he said making an effort to return his voice to normal.
"'Bout an hour ago. I took him coffee in his study."
Ezra blew out a breath. "Was he angry?"
The maid gave him a hard look. "You and Mister Ethan been gettin' into trouble again?"
"No," Ezra said, slightly insulted. "I don't think so. He told Balaam to send me in, I was curious if I needed to be concerned."
"I guess only you would know, but if Mister Edward said he wants to see you, I suggest you quit yappin' at me and go see him. Now go on and git." Without another word, she shooed him from the kitchen.
After being thrown out of what was affectionately known as Addy's domain, Ezra stood in the hall; a knot of dread growing in his stomach. Reluctantly he went over to Edward's study. Addy was right, bad or good he needed to get it over with. Cracking open the door, he knocked softly.
Edward was at his desk looking over a ledger but looked up at the sound of the knock and waved Ezra in. "Sit down," he said pointing to a chair when Ezra got to the desk.
"I can explain," Ezra offered as soon as he was seated.
Edward closed the ledger and slid it into a drawer before he leaned back in his chair. "You can explain what?"
"Whatever it is."
"Good, however, perhaps explanations are best left for when I actually discover what you've done."
So, he wasn't in trouble. That meant something had happened, and likely that would be worse than being in trouble. "Is it bad?"
"Somethin's happened. Is it bad?"
Edward gave him a wan smile. "No, it's nothing bad, it's merely . . . unexpected." Edward took a breath before continuing. "Maude came in today. She's in her room freshening up but she'd like to see you as soon as possible."
An avalanche of emotion crashed over Ezra at his uncle's pronouncement and he didn't even want to attempt to sort out his jumble of feelings. Mama was here? Now? She hadn't said anything in any of her letters about coming. "I don't want to see her." Mama showing back up always meant a change, and Ezra wasn't ready for a change. He was happy here and he intended to stay here.
"Ezra." There was disapproval in his uncle's voice. "She's your mother. I think as her son you owe her at least a brief meeting before supper." Ezra started to protest but Edward held up a hand to stave off any complaints. "I know the last few years have been difficult but as your mother and my sister it's going to be impossible for you to avoid her."
He wasn't going to get out of this, Ezra knew that, but it didn't mean he had to like it. "She's done nothing but push me from place to place for nearly ten years and . . . ."
"Ezra." Edward's tone was stern and Ezra fell silent, accepting the reprimand. Edward sighed and softened his voice. "I called you in because supper shouldn't be your first meeting. Get cleaned up and meet her in the small parlor."
"But . . . ."
"Ezra," Edward cut him off, softly but firmly. "Go on."
Ezra sighed. Since losing Daddy, Edward was about the closest thing to a father he could claim. For the most part, it was a position Ezra was only too happy for his uncle to fill, but there were times, like now, he wished the man wasn't quite so paternal. Paternal or not, however, Ezra knew he wouldn't win this argument. He might as well get it over with. "Yes, Sir," he muttered pushing up from his chair.
Going up to his room, Ezra washed up, changed, and finally made some attempt to sort out how he was feeling about seeing his mother again. It wasn't that he didn't want to see her; he just knew it would be easier if he didn't have to. There was no doubt in his mind his mother was only here for a short time, and he'd stopped wishing for anything else a long time ago. Her stopping off for a short visit wouldn't be bad, but Ezra had a feeling there would be a request for him to join her again and he didn't want to do that. He didn't want to disappoint her again. True he wasn't exactly a child anymore, but he wasn't sure he had what Mama required in him. He didn't think he'd ever have it, and even at his age, he didn't have the desire to be the one who screwed up another one of his mother's plans.
Ezra gave himself a final once over in the mirror before sighing and heading downstairs to meet Maude. He made his way to the small parlor and took a deep breath before entering the room. His mother was reading a book, and Ezra felt his stomach flip at the sight of her. It was odd how things had changed over the last year. When he'd seen he'd seen her in St. Louis last year summer he'd barely been able to keep himself from running to her and throwing his arms around her. Now he wasn't sure what to do. He was pleasantly surprised to find that now that he'd seen her, he was glad she was here, but at almost sixteen he felt he was too old for such an open display. Instead, he cleared his throat and said: "Hello, Mother." Mother coming out was a surprise too, but for some reason that now seemed more appropriate than Mama.
Maude looked up from her book, and a smile immediately came to her face. "Ezra, darlin'."
Ezra had to admit he was pleased she seemed genuinely glad to see her son, and, yes, he enjoyed the hug she gave him after she hurried across the room. She kissed his cheek and then took his face in her hands. "Oh, look how you've grown." That was true. It was with a jolt that Ezra realized Mama now had to look up to meet his eyes. "You look more and more like your father every day."
She was still smiling but Ezra noticed an odd mixture of joy and pain in her eyes when she spoke of Daddy. He looked away although he wasn't sure if it was to keep himself for having to see the hurt in Mama's eyes or if it was because he didn't want Mama to see the pain in his. Mama saw Daddy when she looked at him, she'd told him that many times and Ezra had always thought that was a good thing, but maybe it wasn't. Did it hurt Mama to see him? That thought brought even more feelings Ezra didn't want to have to deal with. As quickly as the pain had come, however, it was gone and Mama was back to her jovial self.
She took hold of his lapels. "So handsome, and becoming such a fine gentleman." She led him over to the couch. "We have a great many things to discuss. Tea?"
Ezra nodded. It wasn't until she gave him a cup he spoke. "Mother, why are you here?"
"That's a silly question, dear. It's been far too long since I've seen my sweet boy."
Ezra almost smiled. He wished she was fond enough of seeing him to stay in one place, and allow him to stay too. "How long will you be staying?" He hated to think it but truly the quicker she left, the easier it would likely be. He may have been almost grown but it was never easy to watch his mother leave without a backward glance. It would be far better for her to depart before he got too used to her being here.
"I haven't given it much thought. Of course, we won't be able to stay too long."
"We?" Ezra interjected. He didn't care for that word. Edward hadn't mentioned anyone having come with mother, and he hoped she wasn't planning on marrying again.
"Yes. We have to get back soon."
"Who, exactly, do you mean by we?"
Maude gave him a peculiar look. "Why, you and me of course." She took his hand. "I think it's time for you to join me again."
Ezra sighed; his suspicions had been confirmed. True, a couple of years ago, even last year, hearing that his mother wanted him with her would have been a dream come true. Now, however, he'd figured out how it worked. It would be temporary. Even if he managed to do what she wanted him to, it wouldn't last. A few months of time together, and Maude would be ready to see him off to somewhere else. Well, he was just shy of sixteen, not exactly a child anymore, and he thought it was time he had some say in where he lived. Setting his cup down Ezra took a deep breath. "I'm not coming with you."
"I'm not coming with you, Mother. I'm staying here."
"Ezra, don't be ridiculous. Of course, you're coming with me. Why, this is what I've worked towards for years. The very thought of leaving you behind . . . ."
"You've never shown any difficulty with it before," Ezra cut in bitterly.
"Ezra, I will not tolerate that tone."
An awkward silence filled the room, finally broken by a sigh from Maude. "Things have changed greatly, Ezra. You're no longer a child."
"You're correct. I'm not. And I believe I'm now of an age that I should have some say as to where I live."
Maude set her tea down and studied her hands. "And you would rather live with Edward than me?"
Ezra couldn't help but feel a stab of guilt at his mother's question. It wasn't that he wanted to be here more than with her, but this was home. How could she have forgotten this was where they had been happy at? It had been over ten years since Daddy had died and as much as they'd gone through and as many places as they'd gone, they hadn't really been happy anywhere else. Couldn't she just try and live here again?
"Why can you not simply remain here?" he asked quietly, feeling more like a child than a man. "I've been learning a great deal about Edward's businesses. There's no reason we couldn't stay and live a good life."
Maude was quiet for a long minute, and Ezra was surprised to find she looked like she was actually thinking about what he'd said. "Ezra, many things have changed since your father passed. Things simply aren't what they used to be."
"They could be."
"No, they can't." She took his hand again. "I know things have been tryin' at times, and I wish I could explain it all to you, but that's far too complicated a story to get into now. What I can tell you, however, is things are finally in place like I always dreamed they would be."
"Does that make a difference?"
"Of course, it does, sweetheart. That's why I want you to come with me again." She was smiling brightly and Ezra did his best to return the gesture knowing he failed miserably. "Really, Ezra, there's no reason for you to look so sour about it. One would think you weren't happy to see me at all."
Ezra grimaced. He wasn't sure how to feel about all this but he didn't want his mother thinking he didn't want her here, even if he did think it might have been better for both of them if she hadn't arrived today. "Of course not, mother," he said trying for another smile and having more success with this one. "I just wasn't expecting you today. It's merely a surprise I'm sitting here with you."
Maude's smile returned and she placed a hand on his cheek. "It's almost my sweet baby boy's birthday, and it's been far too long since we've spent that day together."
So she was staying at least until his birthday. Ezra couldn't help but feel some satisfaction over that. "Indeed it has."
"So we'll have plenty of time to discuss you're coming with me when I leave." Ezra almost protested that idea yet again but before he had the chance Maude continued speaking. "That's a talk for later, however. Why don't you tell me what you've been up to since you've been here?"
Ezra nodded and decided that was a safe enough topic. As for that other talk, Mama wanted to have, she didn't need to bother. Ezra wasn't leaving.
Ezra stood on the platform as he waited for the train and wondered how, exactly, he'd gotten here. He swore to himself he wasn't going to end up here again, yet here he was, following Maude to whatever destination she'd picked. True to her word, Maude had stayed until his birthday. In fact, she hadn't even mentioned leaving until the end of September, but now that the chill of autumn was coming, she'd decided it was time to leave before the cold of winter had a chance to set in. They were heading to Richmond she had said.
Despite his best attempts to resist his mother's reasoning, Ezra had eventually found himself agreeing to leave with her. That was the part he hated the most. He'd agreed. Edward had said nothing about the matter telling Ezra he was free to do whatever he wanted to do. Even his mother had made that claim but in the end, he'd ended up here, which wasn't what he wanted at all. Was it? He didn't want to believe that this had been of his choosing, but he knew it had. Maybe it was what Mama had wanted all along, but he had agreed, and he was more than a little put out with himself over that fact.
This wouldn't be so bad if he were going to something permanent, but he knew that wasn't the case. Eventually, his mother would come up with some reason she needed to leave him again. He tried telling himself that when it happened again, and it would, it wouldn't matter. For all practical purposes, he was grown. If his mother decided they needed to go their separate ways once more, he'd simply return to Alabama no matter what his mother said. He was quite capable of making the trip on his own now, and it didn't matter if it turned out his mother had little use for him. And that was a lie, it did matter; it mattered a great deal.
Sighing he looked at his mother who was currently lecturing a porter on the proper way to stack and move her luggage. Ezra chuckled humorlessly at the bemused look on the man's face; he pitied any man who found himself on the wrong side of Maude. Actually, he pitied the man who found himself on any side of Maude. Yes, she was his mother and he wouldn't even try to deny his love for her, but dang if the woman couldn't be a viper.
Ezra watched as the porter re-stacked all of Maude's many bags and hastily looked to the woman for approval. Oddly, the man didn't seem to mind that he'd just had to redo all his work, and Ezra wasn't sure if he should be proud, amused, or horrified at the power his mother seemed to have gained over men. He didn't remember his mother having that power before, but that was likely because as a child he simply hadn't recognized it. Surely she hadn't gotten that way in the short year they'd been apart. He finally settled for a combination of the three when he saw Mother nod her satisfaction and the porter grin broadly.
Personally, Ezra couldn't see a difference in the way the bags had been and the way they were now, but he couldn't help but smile just a bit as Maude walked back to him. He doubted there was a man alive who could stand up to Maude's power of persuasion or her charm, himself included; hence his presence here. However, the knowledge that he was in good company in his inability to withstand his mother's desires didn't help his mood any. Maybe he was just as helpless as any other man, but that didn't change the fact that he'd spent weeks telling himself he wouldn't let Maude talk him into leaving Athens only to find himself agreeing to leave two days ago. As a result, he'd been somewhat sullen these past two days and that mood was still in place as he escorted Maude to the train.
They didn't speak for several minutes after they got on board and the silence gave Ezra enough time to brood so that by the time they were moving his foul mood had gained a firm hold. Thankfully, his mother began talking as soon as they were underway and her steady stream of talk kept her from noticing how disgruntled he was. The truth was Ezra was now thoroughly disgusted with his inability to resist Maude. After all, he was her son. That should give him a slight advantage, right? Or maybe that just made him more vulnerable. Either way, he was in no mood for small talk. Mother either didn't notice or choose to ignore that fact and finally pulled him into the conversation.
"There's someone I want you to meet when we arrive in Richmond, dear."
Maude had said a lot over the last several minutes but that sentence caught Ezra's attention. "Who would that be?" he asked, his interest piqued despite his bad mood.
Maude smiled at him. "William Hubert Harrison-Briggs."
Ezra didn't like her smile or the fondness he heard when she said that name. He straightened from his slouched position. "And who is this gentleman?"
"A man of varied and remarkable talents."
Ezra's stomach dropped. His mother sounded far too giddy. "You're not marrying again, are you?" The question came out louder than he'd intended.
"Ezra," Maude said sharply.
Once again, his mother managed to convey a lecture in that one word. Ezra quickly looked around, checking to see how much attention he'd drawn to them. Not seeing anyone watching them he eased down in the seat some, not even having to fake his chagrin. There was no reason the entire car needed to hear their talk, and Ezra genuinely hoped they weren't any more interesting than anyone else on the train.
Maude sighed. "In answer to your question, no, I have no intention of marrying again. Certainly not Mr. Briggs. He is merely a very adept businessman."
"Con man," Ezra supplied.
Mother's sharp intake of breath grabbed Ezra's attention and the slight tightening of her jaw told him a second too late he'd crossed the line. "He is a businessman, Ezra. His intent is to turn a profit. He is really no different than any other businessman. It's important you remember that."
"Yes, ma'am," Ezra said simply not wanting to go into the ethics of his mother's business dealings or associates right now. Given the mood they were both in he knew that would end in disaster.
After a moment of silence, his mother sighed. "Ezra."
Ezra looked at his mother again. "Ma'am?"
"There are a great many aspects to the kind of work Mr. Briggs does that you don't understand. He really is a remarkable man, and someone I count as a friend. I expect you to be respectful and courteous during any meeting you might have with him."
She took his hand again and smiled. "Ezra, a great deal has happened since we lost your father, and there are times I wish things had been much different for us, but we didn't have that luxury. Things are different now, however. You're no longer a child and I hope you'll be willing to listen to what Mr. Briggs has to say to you."
"Of course, Mother," Ezra replied, but it was little more than an automatic response. It was what his mother wanted to hear however and she smiled brightly before continuing her talk. This time it was about nothing of any importance, and Ezra found his mind drifting, thinking about what his mother had said. Just who was this Mr. Briggs? What had he done that had made his mother admire him so? What exactly did Mr. Briggs have to say to him? And most importantly, what did it mean for him and his life? Mother seemed almost giddy about it, but Ezra couldn't help but feel something was looming on the horizon. Whether it was good or bad he didn't know, but he felt it was something that would change the rest of his life.