By Tara Manderino
In an attempt to keep a revolutionary explosive from falling into the wrong hands, Luke, a U.S. Secret Service Agent in 1874, battles hypnosis wielding enemies in an effort to keep his fiancée, Maj, and the country safe.
Luke opened the small stack of mail on his desk. The few messages on his desk mostly related to headquarters and reports, so he dispatched them as quickly as possible. He absolutely loved his job as a Secret Service Agent, but if he could figure out a way to dispose of the paperwork, he would gladly do so. Finished with his task, he gathered his papers into a neat pile and slipped them into a portfolio. He would take them to headquarters later when he went out.
"Are you finally done?" his partner, Simon, asked from where he was laying on the sofa of their shared flat, reading the paper.
As far as Luke could tell Simon couldn’t see a thing with the paper over his face. "Just because you write five sentence reports doesn't mean the rest of us do."
Finished with his task, Luke stood, stretched his arms above his head and twisted first to the left then to the right. The pull of muscles reminded him it had been several days since he had done more than deal with papers. Glancing at the desk to be sure everything was in place, he realized he had overlooked one piece of mail. Reaching over, he picked it up and opened it glancing at the contents quickly, then once again, more slowly. This was worth savoring. “I can't believe it."
“What?" Simon's voice drifted lazily from behind the newspaper."
The men had been partners at work for several years and shared a flat for most of that time. When they ended up courting, then becoming engaged to sisters, it almost seemed inevitable.
Looking at the letter in his hand, he couldn’t wait to share this with Maj. For now, he would share with his partner.
“Look at this.” There was no disguising the delight in Luke’s voice as he waved the letter in front of Simon’s face. He was leaning over the sofa where Simon lay with a section of the newspaper covering his face.
Simon moved the edge of the paper down to his chin, and peered at his partner over the top of the newspaper. “You sound excited. What are you talking about?”
“The letter.” Luke shoved it at him.
Tossing the newspaper on the nearby table, Simon sat up, grasped the edge of thick stationary and turned it right side up to read.
“It’s a formal invitation to speak at the Washington College Commencement.” Luke told him before he could have read more than the salutation.
“Washington, Pennsylvania? Your alma mater?”
“Yes. Can you believe it?” He had a difficult time grasping the concept. He had planned to make a visit but something always seemed to get in the way.
“Very impressive.” Simon skimmed the letter and handed it back. “Are you accepting?”
Luke took the letter and grinned at him. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s good that someone else will get to hear your theory on – ,” he half turned in his seat to follow Luke’s movements as he put the letter back on the desk. “Just what do they want you to speak on?” He held up his hand before Luke could say a word. “Wait, never mind. The only thing that can bring such an animated look to your face is explosives.”
“Exactly. In fact, the letter is from Professor Daley. He was one of my first instructors in the field.” He moved around the sofa and sat on the arm of the chair, facing Simon. He shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t tell you how much this opportunity means to me. It’s fantastic, that’s what it is.”
“Have you run it past the Major yet?”
“You mean about attending?” Luke waved the thought away. Major Trent had been their superior for some time now and was used to their odd requests, besides, this could benefit the agency. “Nah. I plan on going over to headquarters this afternoon. As far as I know, we don’t have any planned assignments, so the timing is perfect.”
Simon crossed his arms over his chest. “Um, Luke, the professor -- does know you work for the government?”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.” Luke shrugged, “but yes, he does.” He rubbed the back of his neck and gave Simon a sheepish grin. “I suspect it’s one of the reasons he asked me.” There were times his government connection would open doors he wouldn’t normally even look in.
“And this professor… Daley … likes explosives?”
“He’s one of the best in the chemical sciences.”
“This should be interesting.” Simon folded the newspaper and tossed it on the table before getting to his feet and stretching. “What time did you say you were going to headquarters? I may as well go along before I meet Kirsten.”
“Right. Let me grab my jacket and we can stop to get something to eat on the way.” A few minutes later, both men had donned their suit coats and headed for the restaurant down the street from the Secret Service headquarters, a popular spot for most of the agents even though the food could only be called tolerable at best.
A very short time after finishing lunch, the men crossed the street to enter the office building. Not particularly tall by modern standards, its three floors never the less boasted an elevator. After identifying themselves to the receptionist in the main lobby, they headed for the Major’s outer office, waiting for him to admit them.
“Do we have something scheduled?” The Major stood and greeted them as they entered the office.
“No, sir, but something has come up.”
Motioning to the sturdy oak chairs in front of the desk, the Major waited until they were seated before leaning against his desk.
In spite of the weight of the chairs, Luke still eased himself into it. He always managed to get the chair that creaked. With Simon’s slighter build it didn’t seem to make much difference. It had to be the ten pound difference between them. Or, as he suspected, Simon remembered which chair had the weaker joints.
“What brings you down here voluntarily?”
Luke raised his eyebrows at the comment. He and Simon were regular visitors to headquarters when they weren’t working on a case. Quickly, Luke outlined the invitation.
“It sounds like a magnificent opportunity. You definitely should attend.” Then he turned to Simon. “You have a problem with this, Barr? You must have some objection since you’re here.”
Simon spread his hands outward. “I’m not involved. I just came along because I had the time. I think it’s a great opportunity. I almost wish I were going – especially if Luke is giving any demonstrations.”
“You’ve seen them; used some of them, in fact,” the Major reminded him.
“True, but when someone sees them for the first time…”
Luke gave a fake cough and shot a glance at his partner. Although slighter in build, Simon was by far the more physically agile and stronger of the two men. Luke often came up with ideas and devices that would give him a sporting chance when compared to Simon. Too often, their pursuit of criminals ended up in a fight. Any edge he could find to ensure the clash ended in their favor, he gladly shared with his partner. He had tried to offer many of the same devices to other agents, but most of them were not nearly as appreciative. “They’re not all that bad.”
“Agreed. They saved me a time or two,” Simon said truthfully.
The Major clasped his hands together. “As it so happens, you wanting to visit the college couldn’t have come at a better time.”
“You mean things have slowed down here, there’s no threat to national security?” Simon asked, half in jest.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” the Major told them. “However, it just so happens that the department has also received a letter from Professor Daley.” He walked around to the business side of his desk and sat down before rifling through the papers covering the surface.
Luke raised his eyebrows. “About me speaking?” That would have been considerate, but deuced odd.
“Not exactly.” Finding what he was looking for, the Major pulled a folder in front of him, then leaning forward and bracing his elbows on the desk, he folded his hands. “He seems to be concerned about a new formula he created.”
Luke settled back in his chair. “Professor Daley always has a new formula or a new theory. I swear he creates them as often as other people change their clothes.”
The Major reached flipped open the folder and removed the first page. He passed it to Luke. “This sounds a little more serious.”
“What’s it say?” Simon asked, leaning to the side, trying to read over Luke’s shoulder.
After scanning the letter, Luke went back to the beginning and read it at a more leisurely pace. “He calls it Apocalypse,” he said. He passed the letter to Simon so he could read it on his own. “Why would he create such a thing, and then say that it needs to be protected?” he ruminated out loud.
“I don’t think he planned to create it,” Simon said, handing the letter back to the Major.
Luke waved his hand, and the thought away. “I saw that, but if he had created it, even by accident, why would he keep the formula? That doesn’t sound like him.”
“As to that, his secretary led me to believe he didn’t have much choice in the matter, figuring it would be safer in his hands than any others.” The Major tucked the letter back in the folder. He looked up at the men and chuckled. “No need to look so puzzled. That letter,” he used his chin to point to the letter in Simon’s hand, “was hand delivered by his secretary. She had a few other bits of information to relay. But since you’re here, I think you might be interested in talking to her.” Pushing himself away from the desk, he stood, walked to the door, opened it and stuck his head out, asking his secretary to find Miss Haight.
In spite of the Major’s words, Luke was puzzled. It would have made more sense to incinerate the formula. Then again, the professor wasn’t exactly known for his common sense.
“She’ll be here in a moment,” the Major said after closing the door, “she’s freshening up. She only arrived here with the letter moments before you did.”
“How did you know we would be coming by?”
The Major grinned. “Luke, I never know when you two will show up. This was pure happenstance, I assure you.”
Simon gave a disbelieving grunt. Silently, Luke echoed the sentiment. He didn’t believe in coincidence.
As the door opened and the young woman entered the room, all three men stood. The Major introduced Miss Elizabeth Haight.
Given the age of the professor, and the fact that Miss Haight had traveled alone from Washington, at least that’s what the Major had indicated, Luke expected a battle-axe or a matronly type woman at the very least. Miss Haight was far from it. He noticed that Simon too was staring at her. Dressed in a stylish travel dress, the deep green gabardine set off her dark hair and brown eyes to perfection.
“Haight? There’s a professor by that name from Jefferson College.”
That probably explained her position. She wasn’t some independent woman seeking work, she probably had grown up on the campus. The Washington College and the Jefferson Colleges had worked together closely.
The Major cleared his throat. “Since you are going to Pennsylvania, Luke, I thought Miss Haight could travel along with you.”
Luke’s gaze practically flew to the Major’s.
“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” Simon interjected.
“But of course,” Luke said to Miss Haight. “I would be delighted to escort you, but if you’ll excuse us for now?” Then turning to the Major, he assured the man he would be in touch later to confirm his travel plans.
“Having Miss Haight along could work out quite well,” Luke said as they took the cab to their apartment. He couldn’t have arranged it better. “I had been thinking of asking Maj to come with me. She has indicated at other times that she would be interested in hearing one of my lectures. Aside from that,” he continued before Simon could say anything, “there is a gala the night before the lectures. A chance for all of the guests to meet and get acquainted, or reacquainted.”
“I definitely think Miss Haight is an asset. Maj has to feel comfortable.”
Luke was pretty sure Maj would have been just fine with only him, but Simon had a point. One he had considered earlier. It was becoming increasingly common for women to travel alone, especially through the west, but Luke wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea.
Simon’s teasing voice finally registered. “Surely even you weren’t thinking of asking an unmarried woman to travel with you?”
“Er... Not exactly,” Luke said. “I thought this would be the perfect time to get married.”
Simon shook his head. “You know Kirsten and I are going to my family home for our wedding? My sisters would skin me alive if I had a wedding without them there, or had them involved, and since Kirsten doesn’t have any family except for Maj –”
“What are you getting at, Sime? I don’t have any sisters to worry about.”
Simon gave an exasperated sigh. “What I’m getting at is that unless I’m mistaken, Kirsten and Maj are contemplating a double wedding.”
Luke rubbed his hand across his forehead. He couldn’t remember the last time Simon was mistaken, not that he liked to remind the man. “And your mother, of course, has no objections.” He couldn’t keep the dry note out of his voice.
“None at all. In fact, I think she suggested it.”
Luke had no trouble believing it. He had only met Simon’s mother once, but mother and son were very alike. “You know, I could still have Maj come along if Kirsten came too.” He watched his partner’s jaw clench and hid a grin. “But I don’t have to now, since as you pointed out, Miss Haight has come to the rescue. Maj will have to come along now. It would be unseemly to travel with Miss Haight.” Not really, he reminded himself, but he would never give Maj cause for concern.
When the cab pulled up in front of the apartment, they disembarked. Luke headed inside while Simon paid the driver, and then followed.
As the two couples sat down to dinner in the hotel restaurant, Luke looked at the women. At first glance, it was hard to tell they were sisters. Maj’s hair was auburn, almost brown, and her eyes were clear amber. Whisky colored. Kirsten was shorter, blonde and had green eyes. But the stubborn tilt of their chins and the shape of their eyes proclaimed they were related. Only after the waiter had served the main course, did Luke bring up the fact he would be traveling to Washington, Pennsylvania and would be listed as a guest lecturer during the commencement exercises.
Maj arched one eyebrow and shot him a quick look that he interpreted as ‘why didn’t I know about this?’ He placed his hand over hers and squeezed as he continued speaking. “I just found out a short while ago and I needed to get clearance from the department.” It was such short notice, he had telegraphed his response to make sure it arrived as quickly as possible. Instead of releasing her hand, he slipped it in his and intertwined their fingers before pulling away.
“It sounds like a marvelous opportunity, Luke.”
There was no mistaking the forced lightness in her tone.
He again caught her hand and clasped it under the table; refusing to release it even though she discreetly tugged against him. “I was pleased to be asked.”
“How long will you stay?” Kirsten asked.
“It’s a short trip,” he told them. “There will be a full day of lectures, then the ball. The next day will be a shorter one with the speeches, then commencement. I’m not sure where I’ll be on the roster yet.” He squeezed Maj’s hand and turned to address his comment only to her. “I would love for you to come with me. All of the professors and lecturers are invited to the ball.”
Her gaze flew to his and there was no mistaking the excitement in her hazel eyes, and then they clouded. “I don’t think that will be possible.” She tried to slip her hand from Luke’s clasp, but he held tighter.
He gave a rueful smile. “I don’t think I went about this the right way. Miss Haight, the professor’s secretary, will be along too.” When she still seemed hesitant, he pushed home the fact that she would be helping him out.
“Do go, Maj,” Kirsten insisted. “I know how much you like going to lectures and this would suit you quite well.”
Maj looked at her sister, then back to Luke. “I think I would enjoy it very much.”
“I’m certain of it, or I wouldn’t have suggested it.” Luke patted her hand, then released it and leaned back in his chair. “I plan to telegraph the professor and see if he could make inquiries into visiting the Ladies’ Seminary in Washington.”
While she had seemed excited at the prospect of going with him, she positively glowed now. “I’ve read so much about the place,” Maj said. “They truly are a leader in the field of education for women.”
Simon leaned back in his chair. “Here we go,” he said with a smile in Kirsten’s direction.
“I won’t say another word.” Maj pretended to be affronted, then leaned forward to steady her gaze on Simon’s. “Ha! Like you don’t support education for women.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t have to,” Maj assured him.”You’ve told us enough times about your sisters attending academies.”
“I really need to keep my mouth shut.” He covered his grumbling with a napkin to the lips.
Kirsten gave him a playful slap on the arm before turning her attention back to Luke. “Isn’t there a War Orphan’s School in the area too?”
Simon leaned forward, bracing his forearms on the table. “That is one thing the government did right.”
“Truly,” Kirsten agreed. “It’s sad to see some of the families broken up, but at least the parents know their children are cared for.”
“The War Between the States was hard on many people. I don’t believe anyone was left unscathed,” Luke said. Each of them paid in a different way, but the country most of all. He knew feelings were still close to the surface in the south.
Maj’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. “The school is in Uniontown, right on the Mason-Dixon line, but I have no idea how far that is from Washington.”
Seeing the excitement in her eyes, Luke decided it wasn’t too far at all, no matter how many miles. “I’m sure we can squeeze in a trip in there, too, if you’re interested.” An extra day or so wouldn’t matter if they needed it.
“Well, now that everything is settled, I think it’s time for me to get home.” Simon pushed the chair from the table, and pulled back the chair for Kirsten. “Your turn,” he said to Luke over his shoulder, as he escorted Kirsten out of the restaurant.
Luke grinned as he stood, and then held Maj’s chair for her. Simon knew darn well it had been his turn to take care of the bill.
After they pulled up in front of the boarding house where Maj lived, Luke insisted on walking her to the door, telling the cab to wait. Mrs. Whitcomb didn’t approve of men stopping in after dark, but he didn’t particularly care about her opinion. She should be used to him by now. “I’m looking forward to traveling with you, Luke,” Maj told him once they were in the foyer.
“Because you want to see the schools. I won’t kid myself.” He smiled as he said it taking the sting from his words, although he did know the schools were a huge attraction to her. He regretted her inability to attend college almost as much as she did. She was more intelligent than many of the men he worked with and he had met very few people with a thirst for knowledge to equal hers. At one time, he had considered encouraging her to go to school, but he was selfish. He wasn’t ready for her to do so without him. If he could figure out something where they could be together, even if it meant him changing careers, as much as he detested the thought, he would be open to it. But that kind of commitment could only come after marriage.
“Is that what you really think?” She canted her head to one side, studying him.
“Not by a long shot. If I thought it for one moment we wouldn’t be engaged.” He leaned close to inhale the lemon scent he associated with her and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.”I’ll send a message around as to when you need to be ready.”