Notes: PG, Magnificent Seven, many thanks to strangevisitor7 for the beta and the puppy eyes.
Summary: All Ezra wants for Christmas is his mother.
A Quarter for Your Shoe ~ Part Two
Some hours later, Charlotte was curled up on the settee in the sitting room attempting to read. But concentration had failed, and the book dangled from her hand, forgotten, as she stared into the flames dancing in the hearth. She was unable to get her mind off what had happened with Ezra earlier, and felt as if she'd failed him utterly. She knew Maude would continue to leave the boy with her no matter Ezra's feelings on the matter, but that didn't make Charlotte feel any better. She had wanted her home to be a safe and happy place for him to come to, a haven where he would be loved and cared for. What a mess she'd made of it all.
Perhaps a male influence was what he needed. She could engage a tutor for him to provide that, and it would serve the dual purpose of requiring Ezra to spend less time in her company. Would that improve the situation? She resisted the urge to hurl her book across the room, instead closing it and carefully setting it on the side table. This agitated state of mind was getting her nowhere.
The creak of the door opening halted her jumbled thoughts; the small head peering around it threw them from her mind entirely. "Ezra?" she called softly.
Nodding, he sidled through the opening, closing the door behind him.
"Are you all right?" she asked in concern as he walked towards her, sliding his stocking clad feet across the smooth wood floor. "I thought you would have been asleep long ago."
He shook his head. He still hadn't said a word. She resisted the urge to reach out to him, his tear-stained face fully visible in the lamplight now that he was standing in front of her. She didn't want to drive him away again.
"Did you eat anything?"
Again the head-shake, then, "I wasn't very hungry." His voice was barely a whisper.
"Neither was I," she admitted.
He peered up at her from under his bangs, and she caught a flash of green before he dropped his eyes again. Holding his arms stiffly at his sides, shoulders hunched, it seemed as if he were trying to work up the courage to say something. He stepped closer, putting his hand on the arm of the settee, clutching at the carved wood with a white-knuckled grip. "I am sorry, Cousin Charlotte; sorry I made you cry."
Her heart clenched a little. "Oh, my dearest child, it's all right, truly it is." She put her hand over his on the settee arm, squeezing it gently. "Livy should not have told you. Sometimes adults get upset too, but it isn't something for little boys to worry about."
He tensed, a guilty expression on his face.
"Ah," she said, realizing. "Livy didn't tell you; you were eavesdropping again." It wasn't a question. Between the guilty look and the fact that it was a habit of his she'd been trying to break, it was patently obvious.
But his next words shocked her. "Are you going to beat me?" He had the same look of defiance and fear in his eyes that he'd had that afternoon.
This time she didn't resist the urge to pull him into her arms. "Dear Lord, Ezra...." She hugged him fiercely, at a loss for words. Mentally, she gave herself a shake. "I would never—" she leaned back a little to cup his face with her hands "—ever strike you, dearest. How could you even think that?"
She could feel him pulling away again, so she released her hold, giving him some space. She held out her hand, hoping that this time he would take it. When he did, tentatively at first, then his grip strengthening, her heart soared. "Uncle David said I was wicked and full of sin like my father."
Now the pieces were coming together and Charlotte fought to keep her voice steady. "Your Aunt Rose's husband, in New Orleans?"
Rose was the late Preston Standish's sister, and he had been Maude’s husband before she'd adopted Ezra. Preston had worshiped the ground Maude walked on, and the adoration was mutual. Their marriage had been the one time Charlotte believed Maude had ever been truly happy. But that happiness had been short lived; Preston had died of fever when Ezra was four. She'd often wondered how different Ezra's life would have been if his father had lived. The man had been a con artist and gambler, like his wife, but from what Maude had told her afterwards, he had loved Ezra as if he were his own son.
He nodded solemnly. "A con of mother's went wrong and she was scared, so she left me with Aunt Rose until it was safe again," the ten-year-old explained very matter-of-factly, such occurrences a fixture in his young life. "Uncle David beat Aunt Rose too."
Charlotte pushed back the rage, keeping her voice calm with an iron will. "And when your mother came back?"
"Mother was upset. She said I would never have to stay there again." He fidgeted with the cuff of his shirtsleeve. "We got on the train and she brought me here to you."
"And she told you not to tell me she had left you with someone else?" Charlotte guessed. She had made Maude promise to never leave Ezra with anyone but her, and while she knew one could never entirely trust the woman, she'd held out some hope that Maude would at least have tried to keep her word.
"Mother said you would be angry with her and that you might not let her leave me here anymore." He had relaxed a little as he spoke, but still seemed frightened.
She took both his hands in hers, holding them firmly. "Ezra, I give you my solemn word that no matter how angry I may be with Maude, that will never ever affect my love for you. You are always welcome here. Do you understand?"
"Always and forever." She kissed his forehead. "I love you, Ezra, so much. It would break my heart were I to never see you again."
Then for the first time since he'd arrived, he smiled, the dimples she loved so much standing out on his face like little beacons of joy. "I love you too, Cousin Charlotte."
She smiled softly in return. "And wherever you are, if you ever need me, know I will always come for you."
He nodded. "I have a quarter in my shoe."
Baffled, she looked at him quizzically. "In your shoe?
"Mother gave it to me, and told me to keep it in my shoe," he explained. "To send you a telegram, should the need arise."
She stifled a smile at his very adult turn of phrase. "Well then, your mother seems to have thought of everything." Except bringing you up in a world that wouldn't require that quarter. The thought saddened her.
Holding out her arms, she said, "Come sit with me, dearest."
"Mother says I am too old to be sitting on laps," he informed her.
"Since your mother is not here, it can be our secret. And just so you know, you can sit on my lap till you're so heavy, you break my legs." She grinned.
Giggling, he scrambled up onto her lap, nestling in her arms. "Oh, my! Have you been sneaking Mrs. Holcombe's cookies? I swear you must weigh a ton! My poor bones!" she teased.
"I don't!" he protested, squirming and laughing as she tickled him.
"Well, maybe half a ton," she conceded, ruffling his hair. She settled him against her more comfortably, kissing the top of his head and holding him close. "Ezra, you can always confide in me. Anything you tell me will only ever be between us two."
He turned in her arms so he could look up at her. "Was my father wicked, Cousin Charlotte?"
"No, he was not! Your father loved you and your mother very much. He was a good man," she assured him. "I met him once; it was this time of year, a little after he married your mother. I had just returned from living in London, and they were on their way to St. Louis to start their life together there."
"Does my mother love me?" The words trembled in the winter night.
"Oh, sweetling, she does, so very much. I know it is hard when you are left behind, but she is only trying to make the best life for you that she can."
"I thought—“ he began, only to stop, biting at his lower lip.
"You thought that you would be with her for a time after she fetched you away from your aunt's," she said, finishing for him.
Brushing his bangs off his forehead, she smiled down at him. "Let me tell you about my father, Ezra. When I was a little girl, younger than you, my father would be at sea for months at a time. Sometimes, he could take me with him, but not always."
"What about your mother?"
"She died when I was only two; I have no memory of her."
"So you were left alone like me."
"I was. And sometimes, I would get so very angry, even though I knew my father had no choice but to leave. We lived in a large manor house outside of London, with servants, and grounds, and dozens of rooms, but all I wanted was my father."
"Did you cry?"
"All the time." Her answer seemed to console him. "After one long trip, my father came home, and I decided to ignore him. Since he had left me alone, I thought I could pay him back by acting as if I did not care he was home. I would not even hug him when he arrived."
"Was he angry?"
"No, dearest, he was sad." She sighed, remembering. "It was not till I was much older that I realized the pain he felt when leaving me behind and thinking that he had lost my love."
Ezra's eyes grew suspiciously bright, and she pretended not to notice as he surreptitiously wiped at them with a fist.
"After a few days, he came into my room one night, just before it was time for me to go to bed. He bundled me up in my coat and boots and took me outside. It was a dark, clear night, and it was so quiet. The only sound I could hear was our footsteps crackling in the snow that had fallen the day before. We walked up a small hill, and then he scooped me into his arms. He told me to look up into the sky and find the Big Dipper. I had no idea what he was about," she told Ezra, laughing softly. "I did not think I would ever understand grownups."
He looked at her curiously. "Did you find it?"
"I did indeed!" She tweaked his nose, making him laugh. "I was a very clever little girl."
"Then what happened?"
"He taught me how to find the North Star, and once I knew how to find it, he told me that the North Star was what always brought him home. And that whenever I was lonely and he was far away, to look up at it and remember he was following it back to me." Charlotte lost herself in the memory. For a moment, she could hear her father's voice and feel his arms around her, just as they had been on that winter's night so long ago. Ezra's fingers on her cheek brought her back to the present.
"Don't cry, Cousin Charlotte." He wiped the tears from her face with small, gentle fingers.
She hadn't even realized she'd been crying. "All is well, dearest," she told him, wiping at her eyes. "It is just that I still miss him sometimes."
"You have me." With that he threw his arms around her neck, hugging her tightly.
"I do." She returned his embrace. "And I am most grateful for that."
"I am too."
She gave him one last squeeze before lifting him off of her lap and placing him on his feet. "So what say you to going outside and finding the North Star?"
He clapped his hands. "Yes, please, Cousin Charlotte!"
"Then why don't we get you bundled up." Before he could run off, she added, "And, Ezra?"
He stopped, looking up at her with shining eyes.
"Thank you for letting me tell you about my father. It is something I don't get to do very often, and it made me very happy, even if I did cry."
"You can always talk to me, Cousin Charlotte." With a serene smile, he patted her hand. "Since your father is not with you anymore, I can take care of you. And when I'm a man grown, I'll be very rich, and I shall buy you a big house with lots of servants, just like when you were little," he declared solemnly.
"Then I am a very fortunate woman indeed," she told him, kissing him on the cheek. "Now let us go find the North Star!"