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The Langeford Legacy #3

Champagne Promises


by Doris Lemcke

Champagne Promises

1898 Havana, Cuba

As America steps onto the world stage by declaring war against Spain, concert pianist and aspiring journalist, Lily O’Grady-Champagne, is determined to report the truth about the thousands of Cubans still suffering in the island’s concentration camps. When her theatrical-promoter husband disappears, she must rely on her own wits, courage and talent, to survive a riot, an abductionand a US government agent who thinks she’s an accomplice to treason.

Still haunted by the death of his Sioux wife, former Army surgeon Dr. Colin Winfield is on a mission from Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, to find Victor Champagne, a bigamist, swindler and gun smuggler. But it’s not that simple. Is Champagne’s latest ‘wife’ his victim or his partner? One thing is certain, the beautiful crusading reporter doesn’t know when to walk away from a storyor a war.

As the countdown to war begins, their lives will change forever.


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Release Date: March 10, 2020
Genre: Historical Romance




Excerpt

Chapter One

 

Tampa, FL – December 31, 1897

 

“Where’s the net, Victor?”

Lily Champagne stopped pacing in tight circles on the portable stage to peer between the curtains. The Tampa Bay Hotel’s massive dining room was packed. Nearly six hundred people—including Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World—awaited her portrayal of Lady Liberty descending from the room’s starlit dome.

Without success, she’d been submitting stories to Pulitzer for three years in hopes of being hired as a reporter. Her idol, Nellie Bly, Pulitzer’s correspondent in Mexico, had gotten his attention by posing as an inmate in a women’s asylum for a story. At the very least, she hoped this performance dramatizing the cause for Cuban independence would gain her an introduction.

Gulping back nausea at the thought of dangling nearly seventy feet in the air, she touched her husband’s arm beneath a loose-fitting Cuban peasant costume. “What if the cable breaks? Or the harness? You said I’d have a net. Even Ringling uses nets.”

He looked down at her, his lips tight beneath a pencil-thin mustache. Long, elegant fingers cupped her chin as he leaned over her like a parent with a petulant child. “A net will spoil the effect. This hotel is only seven years old. Everything here is top-of-the-line. Pull yourself together. You’ll be as safe up there as in your mama’s arms. And your future is riding on this.”

The warning in Victor’s voice raised gooseflesh on her arms while the rest of her body broiled under a canvas harness covered by a silk leotard and diaphanous Grecian gown. His smile softened his classic, Roman features as he stroked her cheek. “Darling, it’s you they paid twice the ticket price to see. Lady Liberty’s flight for Cuba’s freedom will make you more famous than that cow, Nellie Bly’s, few days in a madhouse. Pulitzer will beg you to write stories of your adventures on our upcoming tour of the island.”

Lily stared into the smoldering amber eyes that always set her blood on fire. Victor’s lips and fingers had brought her body to life in ways she’d never thought possible—and he’d brought her to the right place at the right time. With Florida’s Key West only nine miles from Cuba, American outrage over Spanish General Valeriano Weyler’s atrocities against native Cubans imprisoned in his reconcentrado camps, was growing by the day. Despite his having been called back to Spain, thousands of prisoners still held behind his walled trenches were dying from torture, starvation, and disease. Stories about their plight would be priceless in helping free them—if she could find a publisher.

Businessmen heavily invested in Cuban tobacco and sugar plantations, filled the hotel’s dining room, along with politicians and journalists. She recognized the tall, lean publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, by his thick dark hair and pince-nez eyeglasses dangling from a drop-chain pinned to his lapel. She’d also glimpsed Richard Harding-Davis, the famous author and journalist for Pulitzer’s competitor, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

If it took descending from a seventy-foot dome to help free Cuba—and gain introductions to New York’s biggest publisher and its most famous war correspondent—she’d do it, but she needed to live to tell the tale.

She straightened her shoulders. “I want a net.”

Victor’s hand again cupped her chin and squeezed it this time. “You’re only going as far up as the gallery, at least a dozen feet below the dome. Don’t be a coward.”

“Coward?” She pulled away and jabbed a finger into his chest. “How dare you call me a coward. I broke horses when I was twelve years old. I lied about my age to attend the Conservatory of Music and moved to New York alone at sixteen. And have you forgotten that I left it all behind to marry you, using my savings to support us after you were robbed in St. Louis? Or that when you asked me to, I sang and danced for tips from riverboat gamblers on the way to down the Mississippi? I even slept on the deck of a cattle boat to get here—and never questioned you until now. But this time you’re asking too much. I’m not ready. I can’t control the swinging and could crash into the gallery railings. Without a net, a fall from fifty or twenty feet onto a marble floor will...”

“Are you blind as well as tiresome?” The anger in his voice felt like a blow.

He opened the end of the stage curtain. “Look around you. Those are electric lights in the chandeliers, and Thomas Edison’s incandescent footlights around the stage. Elevators go up to all five floors to rooms with electric lights and telephones. What makes you think the masters who built this monument to modern technology couldn’t devise a harness and pulley system to keep a hundred-pound girl aloft for three minutes?” 

She admitted to the extravagant amenities Henry Plant had built into what he called the jewel of his railroad and shipping empire. But even the florists who perfumed the air with magnolias, orange blossoms, and jasmine couldn’t cover the stench of decay from the swamps and marshes surrounding the tiny city of Tampa. And Victor, not the masters who built the hotel, had designed the harness and pulley system.

She lifted the thick velvet curtain a few inches from the floor, revealing two inches of mildew clinging to the hem. “No, you look around.” Dropping it, she pointed to the mold creeping up the walls of the painted backdrop. “Nothing escapes this hellish heat and humidity. Did you even check those seven-year-old pulleys and wire cables for rust?”

Fury ignited eyes as he yanked her against him, his breath hot against her ear. “My dear Princess Lily, if you want to make news instead of reporting it, you must take risks. We need this performance to pay for our passage to Cuba. I’ve booked you for a concert at the Captain-General’s palace. It will open doors to all the major Spanish cities. And if you don’t do this...”

The clash of cymbals and a drumroll overrode his voice to announce the final magic trick by the Wildstar Theatrical Group’s illusionist, Merlyn Drake. “And now, Ladies and Gentlemen,” the old magician shouted above catcalls from the impatient audience. “For my final exhibition, I will make hair appear on a barren skull.”

It was too late to walk away. Lily’s dream of reporting on the political powder keg Cuba had become, rested on this performance. In exactly four minutes, after Merlyn completed his famous “hat trick,” she’d risk her life to become Joseph Pulitzer’s first female foreign correspondent in Cuba.

     “Abracadabra,” came from the other side of the curtain.

She didn’t have to look to know he’d stopped at the table of one of America’s richest scions of business, planted his top hat on the man’s bald head, and waved a glittering wand. After a few more gibberish incantations, he’d lift the hat to reveal an old hare sitting on the man’s head—and use the distraction to steal the robber baron’s wallet.

Three minutes! She fought her revulsion to the odors of stage makeup, oiled ropes, and sweat that Victor referred to as the “perfume” of the theater. God, please don’t let me vomit above Joseph Pulitzer. Unable to look up at the rigging or out at the excited crowd, she stared at her husband of only four months. His skin was dry, his thick, black hair pressed smoothly against his perfectly shaped head while he breathed easily in the hot, moist air. Even in peasant clothes with a red kerchief around his neck, he looked as elegant—and arrogant—as he did in the tuxedo on his pasteboard cutouts.

     “Observe. Nothing up my sleeve.” Merlyn’s voice rose above an audience chanting, “Lily, Lily, Lily.”

Reasoning she could only die once; she wagged a finger at Victor’s nose. “No more risqué costumes and swinging from ceilings. I want first class travel to Havana. And a suite at the Inglaterra Hotel.”

     One side of his mouth raised in a sly smile. “My, aren’t you the feisty one. I suggest you harness your courage for the flight instead of haranguing me with outrageous demands.”

He nodded to the stagehands who approached to connect her to the rigging, raising his voice enough for them to hear, “You are the embodiment of the Angel of Liberty, my love. The audience will worship you.” Smoothing her waist-length silver-blonde hair, he traced the line of her cheek with the back of his hand, then leaned close and said with a voice as sweet as warm honey, “You’ll be in Cuba before you know it. Trust me.”

     She wanted to, but with Victor, it was often impossible to tell where the actor ended, and the man began. Every inch the besotted cavalier and successful theater promoter in New York, he’d called her his golden-haired princess, promising her the moon and all the stars. But after he was robbed in St. Louis, he had spells of dark moods and a short temper. She told herself it was shame for having to borrow money from her.

“No more flights,” she pressed again. “I’m a serious journalist.”

His head cocked. “Serious? Do you call those penny-dreadful Western novels you churn out, serious? And what will you do, Lily, if I ask you to fly again? Go back to the conservatory and teach vacant-headed debutantes to play “Fur Elise” at tea parties? Or will you crawl back to that backwoods plantation you couldn’t wait to escape? Perhaps you misled me into thinking you have what it takes to succeed as both an actress and a correspondent.” 

“How dare you!” It no longer mattered that she was drenched with sweat while her mouth felt like it was stuffed with sawdust. She would have slapped him except his hands imprisoned hers at her side. “Langesford is the premier plantation and horse-breeding stable in Georgia. It was you who misled me. I gave you everything I had and would have given you my trust fund if it was yet mine to give. I believed you through everything—until now. From now on you’ll have to earn my trust.”

Unaffected by her threat, he kissed her fingers. “You’re mistaken, my little Rebel princess. You invested your meager funds with me to make you famous, and I fully intend to do that.”

Thunderous applause announced the end of Merlyn’s act and hundreds of voices again raised to chant, “Lily, Lily, Lily.”

One minute! The musical introduction to her flight began. Victor was right about one thing. She couldn’t allow a Florida swamp to kill her dream. She stepped back for him to drape a floor-length satin flag over her shoulders.

He kissed her cheek. “I knew you’d see things my way.”

Victor threaded two cables, each as thin as a child’s finger, through the back of her gown, hooking them to her harness, ignoring her wince at the tug when he tested the tension. After securing the flag around her shoulders with a braided cord at her neck, his palm lingered over her hammering heart. He smiled and kissed the tip of her nose before stepping away and nodding for the stagehand to raise Lady Liberty to the heavens.

Another drumroll and Thomas Edison’s stage lights blinked out, one by one, followed by each of the six massive chandeliers, until only the moon and stars above the glass dome illuminated the room in a soft, silver glow. Lily gasped as her feet left the floor. Following the advice of their aging, acrobat/shape artist, Wilhelmina (Willie) Malloy, she chanted, “Don’t look down. Don’t look down.”

With every turn of the winch, she heard Willie’s voice in her head. “Jest stretch out like a bird in the wind and enjoy the ride. But hold yer body tight,” she added with a gap-toothed grin. “Or ye’ll end up danglin’ like a wishbone from yer belt.”

Liberty’s papier-mâché torch was attached to the second cable as a counterweight, and Lily stretched her legs out behind her like Willie’s bird, rising slowly through the maze of hemp and spun-steel cables above the stage. Pretending she was only a stepladder away from a down-filled mattress, she fixed her gaze on the stars until she was centered under the dome.

She swayed like a feather in the breeze until the orchestra struck up John Philip Sousa’s new march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever”. Approving cheers rushed up to her like a warm gust of wind scented with the intoxicating aromas of Cuban cigars and expensive perfume. Her anger with Victor, her doubts, and the fear that had choked her backstage disappeared. She’d never felt so alive.

The music accompanied her slow descent toward the lone spotlight in the center of the dining room floor. Feeling like the true Angel of Liberty, she forgot her fear of heights and raised her free hand to wave and throw kisses to her adoring subjects nearly three stories below. At the second balcony, still thirty feet from the floor, the wire holding the torch snapped, tearing it from her hand. Both arms grasped at thin air and her scream was lost in the screech of metal on metal as she dropped like a stone toward the polished marble floor.

A sudden, body-wrenching stop at chandelier-level saved her from falling into the hot glass and metal spotlight below her. She hung by one thin wire on the back of her harness, the room swirling below her like a whirlpool until she became the wishbone Willie had foretold.

The audience fell silent as Lily hung facedown from the waist of her harness, her thick hair shielding her eyes from the blinding light below. The belt on the harness felt like a knife slowly slicing her in half, but she managed a few shallow breaths and slowly raised her head.

The crowd cheered, then gasped as the heavy flag broke the fragile clasp at her neck and drifted to the floor. It took the sheer gown with it, leaving her exposed in only a skintight leotard and corset harness.

Bedlam erupted. Tables crashed, scattering glasses and dinnerware onto the floor while men shouted, “Let go, Sweetie...Jump...I’ll catch you.”

“Help me Victor!” she cried through tears of pain and fear as the faceless male chorus outside the circle of light chanted for her jump into its maw. But she couldn’t hear her husband’s voice or see his face in the darkness.

Her head pounding, vision blurred, and certain she was going to die, she remembered Willie’s advice—“If you get into trouble, look up, not down.”

She freed her arms from the harness shoulder straps and with strength she didn’t know she had, pulled her legs up, away from the grasping hands, then twisted to grasp the rough braided steel rope until her palms were slippery with blood. Feeling every muscle in her body tense, she hooked her arms around the cable, stretched out her legs, and lay back as far as she could onto Willie’s imaginary magic carpet of air.

Pretending the cacophony below was the sound of waves crashing against the shore, she looked up at the stars, waiting for either rescue or death. Then the pulleys screamed again. The harness jerked, and the world went dark.

 

 

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