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Surprised by Love: A Novel (The Heart of San Francisco)

By Julie Lessman

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San Francisco, June 1904

I hope you’re hungry, Mr. Caldwell, because I’m serving up crow. The very thought steamed eighteen-year-old Megan McClare’s cheeks as scarlet as her sister Alli’s dress while the two stood before the gilded vanity mirror of Meg’s bedroom. She chewed on the edge of her lip, mortified such a brazen thought had popped in her head. Even if Devin Caldwell—the most popular boy in school, who’d once called her “four eyes” and “fatso”—did deserve it, she thought with a sigh.

“Now, there’s a thought that’s up to no good,” her sister said with a mischievous grin. Alli’s green eyes twinkled while she looped an arm to Meg’s tiny waist. “Are you wondering what Bram’s going to say when he sees you,” she said with a chuckle, “or just afraid he’ll faint dead out?”

More color toasted Meg’s cheeks at the mention of the best friend who’d been there for her through thick and thin. She released a wispy sigh. Thick before Paris, thin after. Palms damp, she reflected on her senior year in Paris with the Rousseaus, never dreaming one year would change her so much. She smoothed the gold silk waist of her Paul Poiret evening gown—a goodbye gift from Mrs. Rousseau, who just happened to be dear friends with the up-and-coming Paris designer that took Meg under his wing.

She swallowed hard, pulse picking up at the thought of seeing Bram again—the one man who didn’t scare her silly and the only male she trusted outside her family. “Bram, yes,” she said with a timid look, peeking up at her sister with a shy smile, “but the one I’d really like to see faint dead out is Devin Caldwell.” She nibbled on her pinkie, almost ashamed to put voice to her feelings. “Flat on his handsome face, maybe with a crow feather in his teeth?” She slapped a hand to her mouth, green eyes expanding wide and no longer obscured by glasses. “Oh, Al—am I awful?” she whispered.

“Yes,” Alli said with a thrust of her chin, dispensing a tight hug. Her low laughter tickled Meg’s ear. “Awfully gorgeous! Can’t wait to hear about that little brat’s reaction after all the years he’s picked on you.” Her sister wiggled her brows in the mirror. “A little salt with that crow, Mr. Caldwell?”

Heart racing, Megan pressed a shaky hand to her stomach, wondering if it was even possible the boy who’d hated and humiliated her since the first grade would actually think she was pretty now. Boys in Paris certainly had, if the last six months were any indication—although she hadn’t put much stock in their compliments.

Devin Caldwell cured me of that.

Singlehandedly, the boy on whom she’d once had a crush taught her the danger of trusting in a handsome face and a teasing smile. Not unless it belonged to Abraham Joseph Hughes, the one man who’d made a shy and awkward little girl feel beautiful despite baby fat and glasses. She drew in a deep breath while her pulse slowed to a peaceful rhythm, relishing the calming effect Bram always had on her life. Without question, he was her champion, her defender, her very best friend.

And maybe the one beau I can trust with my heart?

Her cheeks flashed hot again, clashing with the color of her upswept hair—now the same deep russet as her mother’s rather than her own mousy carrot red, compliments of henna. Brooking no arguments, Mr. Poiret insisted on “setting her hair aflame” with the gentle hair dye that gave her rich color and shine. Leaning in, she studied white, perfectly straight teeth, void of the revolutionary braces applied over three years ago by Uncle Logan’s dentist friend. And thanks to Mr. Poiret, those unsightly freckles were nowhere to be seen, hidden beneath rice powder dusted with just a hint of rouge on her cheeks and lips.

“Goodness, you look absolutely breathtaking, Megs! How do your eyes feel?” Alli asked, as thrilled as Meg that the unsightly glasses were no longer part of her wardrobe except for reading in bed at night. Megan had been shocked when Mrs. Rousseau sent her to Germany to be fitted with a new invention called contacts. Apparently the inventor, ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Fick, was an old medical school chum of her husband’s. Although Meg couldn’t wear them longer than several hours at a time, she adapted quickly to the frequent “eye rest” periods, reveling in the freedom from eyeglasses most of the day.

“Oh, I love them,” she whispered, once again amazed at the striking hue of her aquamarine eyes, something she’d never really noticed before. With a nervous grate of her lip, she blinked several times, in awe of the sweep of dark lashes Mr. Poiret had deemed “ridiculously long.” No longer an invisible pale blond, they were now lush and dark with an application of the Rimmel mascara French women loved. But despite Alli’s claim that she was “breathtaking”—a statement that stole Meg’s breath more than anyone’s—sometimes she still felt like that same chubby little girl inside, playing dress-up. She offered her sister a tremulous smile, feeling a bit awkward that the girl in the mirror didn’t match the shy wallflower in her mind. “Mrs. Rousseau claims men will get lost in my eyes,” she said with a fresh dusting of rose that had nothing to do with her rouge, “but I don’t know . . .”

Alli pinched her waist. “Well, I do, and I say she’s right. And let’s hope Devin Caldwell is the very first one—to ‘get lost,’ that is—once and for all.”

Meg actually smiled, thoughts of Devin Caldwell no longer the primary focus of her daydreams anymore. Not after assisting Dr. Rousseau with his charitable work among prostitutes in the Pigalle district. Now the only daydreams Meg entertained were those about a future of service to the less fortunate. A future in which she, too, could better the plight of young women and girls ensnared in the brothels and cow-yards of the Barbary Coast. Like her mother’s dream to teach disadvantaged young girls through their Hand of Hope School, Meg had had a dream of her own before going to Paris—to become a lawyer who fought for the rights of those very women and girls. To stand up for those who’d been ostracized and beat down—like her family and Bram had done for her. To help free them from their prisons of demoralization, be they physical places such as the Barbary Coast . . . or in the dark recesses of their minds like her, paralyzed by ridicule.

But since working with Dr. Rousseau, her dreams had changed. She had changed. Drawing in a deep breath, she smoothed her beaded bodice with trembling fingers, well aware she had a decision to make regarding her future. Yes, she still longed to reach out to disadvantaged women, but how? Through medicine or law? God had given her a thirst for learning and a passion for the poor, and like her mother, sister, and cousin, she hoped to extend God’s grace to those in need. No longer that shy, mousy girl afraid of her own shadow, she was now a young woman whose confidence was slowly changing from being anchored by others’ approval to the approval of the only One who mattered. Under the tutelage of Mrs. Rousseau—Mother’s dearest friend from college—Meg had literally been transformed both inside and out, just as Mother had hoped. Giselle Rousseau had undergirded the lesson that Mother had begun—that true confidence blooms in the soil of relationship with God, following His path rather than one’s own, pursuing His truth rather than the world’s.

Tears of gratitude sparked Meg’s eyes as she studied the slim, lithe body she saw in the mirror, hidden for years by layers of baby fat and self-loathing. Following a bout with the flu that had stolen her appetite, Mrs. Rousseau’s eagle-eye diet and endless trekking about the city had accomplished the rest, melting pounds off Meg’s chubby body. Worrying the edge of her rose-colored lips, she tugged at the modest bodice of her dress—which seemed anything but modest on her—certain she’d lost weight everywhere but there.

“Oh, leave it be, Meggie,” Alli said with a wink, “you have a beautiful figure now, so just take a deep breath and enjoy being a woman.” Her sister pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Ready to head down?”

Ready? To face Bram Hughes once again? Megan froze, stomach swooping over the very thought of her brother’s friend who was ten years her senior. As far back as she could remember, Bram had always been part of their family, a second older brother who’d made her feel pretty and special while other boys called her names. But what if he didn’t feel close to her anymore? What if he thought she’d changed too much? She tried to swallow past the runaway emotions that formed a knot in her throat. “Al?”

Alli glanced in the mirror, her smile dimming when she saw the furrows in Meg’s face. “Yes, sweetheart?”

“What if . . .” Meg stared at the girl in the glass, the daughter who now looked like her beautiful mother and sister for the first time in her life. “What if . . . Bram doesn’t like the new me?” she whispered. “What if . . .” Her voice trailed off. “. . . he doesn’t feel comfortable with me anymore?”

“Aw, Megs . . .” Al turned to face her, cupping her jaw. “Bram loves you, honey, always has, and whether you’re a little kid with braces or a grown woman who turns a man’s head—he is your friend for life. Although . . .” She tucked a stray curl behind Megan’s ear. “I’m not sure he’ll recognize you right off. Mother, Cass, and I sure didn’t when you stepped off that train.”

Megan’s lips edged into a sheepish smile. “I know—Mrs. Rousseau wanted to surprise you.”

“Ha! ‘Surprise’ is an understatement.” Alli squeezed Meg’s waist as she grinned in the mirror. “So brace yourself for several dropped jaws tonight, sis, including Uncle Logan’s.”

Megan whirled to face her sister. “Oh, that reminds me! What did you mean in your last letter that things have gotten edgy between Uncle Logan and Mother? They seemed fine at Christmas.”

Alli sighed. “Yes, they were—at Christmas. But ever since the new year, it seems Mr. Turner has taken a shine to Mother, pushing her to go out with him every chance he gets, and you know how Uncle Logan feels about Andrew Turner.”
A silent groan wedged in Meg’s throat. Yes, she knew. The district attorney with whom she’d hoped to acquire a position after law school was, unfortunately, the one man her uncle despised more than any other. Her uncle’s former best friend from law-school days, Andrew Turner butted heads with Uncle Logan in the courtroom and out. Especially now, apparently, with Mr. Turner indicating interest in Mother—the very woman with whom Uncle Logan was in love. A reedy sigh drifted from Meg’s lips, brows tented as she studied her sister. “Mother and Uncle Logan haven’t reverted to that awful stiffness like that time in Napa, have they?”

Alli expelled a heavy breath and plopped on the edge of Meg’s bed, her shoulders slumping as much as Meg’s from the discord over Andrew Turner. “No, nothing that stilted or cool, but Uncle Logan is definitely more on edge, like a caged animal whenever Mr. Turner happens to show up.” She bit on a thumbnail, the edge of her lip curling in a half smile. “Rather like Nick on a good day.”

Meg’s smile was tender. “Come on, Al, Nick seemed perfectly wonderful when I met him at Christmas, and Mother wrote she’s never seen you happier.”

Alli caressed her engagement ring, eyes trailing into a dreamy stare before she glanced back up. “He is, Meg—I’m crazy about him, but as happy as I am, it doesn’t stop me from worrying about Mother and Uncle Logan.” She spit out a sliver of nail. “Everybody can see they’re a perfect match, and they clearly care about each other deeply, but Mother refuses to allow anything more than friendship. And now with Andrew Turner in the mix, I worry he may cause a bigger rift between the two people we love most. Or worse yet—steal Mother away from Uncle Logan altogether.”

Meg gasped, fingers fluttering to her throat. “No, Al, it’s not that serious between Mr. Turner and Mother, is it?”

“Not yet, I don’t think. Mother claims she and Andrew are only friends, but he’s got that smitten twinkle in his eye, Meg, whenever he looks at her, just like Uncle Logan does, and frankly, I’m worried. We all know Mr. Turner is nothing if not tenacious, and his exemplary record as district attorney is certainly proof of that. He and Uncle Logan are clearly the two best lawyers in the city, but as a district attorney who seldom loses?” Alli’s shoulders shimmied in a shudder. “Andrew Turner usually gets his man . . . or in this case, maybe his woman.”

Stunned by Alli’s revelation, Meg slowly sank down beside her sister, eyes lapsing into a vacant stare. “I don’t understand it,” she whispered. “Uncle Logan’s the most eligible bachelor in the city, but Mother refuses to see it and I have no idea why.”

“Me either, but I’ve been praying for God to open her eyes, and for a while last summer, after you left for Paris? The two of them seemed to be getting closer all the time, almost flirtatious, I’d say. And then, poof! Right before Jamie and Cassie’s wedding, that romantic mood I’d sensed was suddenly gone, and now they’re back to being friends again—as comfortable as a pair of old slippers.”

A sad smile tipped Meg’s mouth. Yes . . . like Bram and me.

Alli jumped up, giving her sister’s hand a quick squeeze. “Enough with the gloomy talk—it’s time to put our smiles on, Megs, and turn a few heads.”

“Or ‘roll heads,’ as Lily would say,” Meg said with a giggle, suddenly missing the Rousseaus’ daughter, a dear friend who had a knack for butchering English idioms.“Especially if it belongs to a certain—and I quote—‘Devin Cad-well.’”

“Oui,” Alli said with a chuckle as they made their way down the hall. “And ‘heads will roll,’ indeed. I believe Mother received a call just last week from one of your classmates, issuing an invitation to a graduation party.”

Megan’s body turned to stone on the top step of the rose-carpeted staircase, her limbs as wooden as the mahogany balustrade beneath her bloodless hold. “Wh-what?” Her breathing accelerated as she stared at Alli with wide eyes.

Alli smoothed a stray wisp of hair from Megan’s Gibson Girl pompadour before ushering her down to the three-story marble foyer where paintings graced satin-papered walls. “You don’t have to face your old group of friends until you’re ready, Megs, really, so just send your regrets.”

Sucking in a deep breath, Megan nodded, barely aware she’d halted on the last step until Alli coaxed with a gentle hand from behind. “Ready, sweetheart?” she whispered in her ear.

Was she? Ready to face the family who loved her, the new life that awaited her, and the best friend who held her heart in the palm of his hand? A warmth unlike any she’d ever known emanated through her chest along with the keen thrill of adventure. Oh, yes!

Suddenly Devin Caldwell’s handsome face popped in her mind, and she swallowed a lump in her throat. But ready to face her academic nemesis who’d belittled and beleaguered her until her confidence was nil? A shiver rattled her shoulders as Alli led her into the parlour.

“Never” might well be too soon.

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