Characters: Ezra Standish, Maude Standish, Original Characters
Notes: PG, Magnificent Seven, many thanks to strangevisitor7 for the beta. Other Charlotte stories may be found here.
Summary: All Ezra wants for Christmas is his mother.
A Quarter For Your Shoe ~ Part Four
"Don't you trust Mr. Elbert?" Ezra asked curiously as they walked towards the business offices of Black Shipping. He had taken the case with her papers from her, insisting it was the gentlemanly thing to do and now held it in his arms, tight against his chest.
"Of course I do, Ezra. I wouldn't employ him as my business manager if I did not. But it behooves a business owner to be cognizant of all aspects of their operation. This is for the benefit of both me and those under my employ."
Any further discussion was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Elbert himself. "Mrs. Sparrow! A pleasure, as always," he said, taking the hand she offered and bowing over it.
"Mr. Elbert," she returned his greeting. "I believe you have met my young cousin, Ezra Standish?"
"Yes, yes. Excellent to see you again, young man."
"Mr. Elbert," Ezra said politely.
"We are all ready for you, madam, if you will follow me?"
"In a moment, Mr. Elbert." She took her case from Ezra, handing it to the man. "If you would be so kind as to take this inside? I want to speak to Captain Gregg before we get started," she explained, inclining her head towards the man approaching them from the docks.
"Of course, madam." He bobbed his head. "We shall start when you are ready."
"Ezra," she said, holding out her hand. "I would like to introduce you to someone.
Taking her hand, he walked with her down to the docks, his eyes wide at all the activity on and around the ships that were in port.
"Captain Gregg," Charlotte greeted the tall, bearded man as he drew even with them.
"Madam." He took her gloved hand, raising it up to brush her knuckles with his lips. "You are as lovely as ever," he said with appreciative eyes.
“And you, Captain, are as incorrigible a flatterer as ever,” she said wryly. Gregg was one of her youngest captains, but also one of her best. A flirt and a scoundrel, he constantly pushed at the edges of propriety in his dealings with her. He was also very handsome; and well aware of that fact.
“Not flattery, Mrs. Sparrow, only the truth.” His eyes gleamed with humour.
Shaking her head slightly, she said, “Captain, I would like you to meet my ward, Ezra Standish. Ezra, this is Captain Gregg.”
“Well met, Master Standish,” he said genially, shaking the boy’s hand.
”Were the repairs to the crew quarters to your satisfaction?” Charlotte enquired.
“Indeed they were, madam. I thank you for taking my concerns so seriously and resolving them with such speed.”
“Not at all, Captain; a ship is only as good as the men who sail upon her. Anything that concerns you in regards to their welfare, concerns me.”
“And you are a rarity amongst owners, as well you know, madam,” Gregg reminded her.
“Believe me, Captain, that knowledge saddens me.”
“Thanks to you, my men will know they are appreciated this Christmas; it is a lonely life.” The captain’s eyes took on a faraway look, one that Charlotte recognized all too well: the call of the sea. In a way, she envied the captain. She missed the freedom of the ocean, sailing the Seven Seas, going where she wished.
“You sail with the morning tide then?”
“We do!” he answered enthusiastically. “And once we make port in England, I shall take a few months leave.”
“You, Captain?” she asked disbelievingly.
“Aye, madam, indeed I am. I’ve purchased meself a small cottage on the shore, and I have a monkey puzzle tree to plant. You’ll see me again come summer, but not before.”
“That sounds delightful, Captain. A fair journey to you then, and I will look forward to your return.” She looked down at Ezra, who had been standing patiently while the adults spoke. “We must be off as well; Ezra, let us take our leave of Captain Gregg.”
“Can’t I stay here on the docks?” the boy asked.
Charlotte sighed. “No, you may not. It is far too dangerous for you to be running loose out here.” At his pout, she reminded him, “I did warn you that you would be bored, and what did you tell me?” When he didn’t respond, she prompted him, “Ezra?”
“I said I wouldn’t be bored.” He scuffed his toe against the wooden dock.
“The boy can come with me,” Gregg offered. “If it’s all right with you, madam,” he added hastily at the look she flashed him.
Ezra, seeming to have come to the realization he was pushing his luck, kept quiet, only his eyes begging for her permission.
“It would be no bother,” Gregg assured her.
Charlotte hesitated, not sure if it would be wise to let the freewheeling captain take charge of her very headstrong ward. But once again, Ezra's big green eyes worked their influence over her and she found herself relenting. “Very well.” She looked at Ezra. “And you, young man, will be practicing your piano till you are forty,” she scolded, but without much heat.
“Thank you, Cousin Charlotte.” He stood on tiptoes to kiss her on the cheek. The smile he gave her was all dimples, so wide it was.
Returning Ezra’s kiss, she straightened, pulling the boy’s hat more firmly over his ears. “Mind the Captain, and behave yourself,” she instructed.
“Please have him back at the offices by five-thirty, if you would, Captain?”
“I shall, madam." He tipped his hat. "And now, Ezra, what say we go see what sort of trouble we can get into?”
“Captain…,” she said warningly. Ezra choked back a giggle and Captain Gregg gave her a wicked smile.
The two started down the dock towards Gregg’s ship. “Your cousin would make a fine sea captain; it’s a shame she’s not a man,” she heard Gregg say to Ezra. “Though I must admit, that would be a real loss were it true. She’s a fine looking woman, with a temper t’boot.” Gregg looked over his shoulder at her, his eyes dancing with mirth. Charlotte just shook he head and rolled her eyes. That man!
“Let me tell you something, lad, never take up with a woman who doesn’t have a temper…,” his voice drifted back to her. Whatever else he might have said was lost in the wind as the two moved out of earshot.
Charlotte watched them for a moment, thinking that in another time and another place, she might find herself with more than a professional interest in Daniel Gregg. But, this was her life now, she told herself firmly. There was no place for entanglements of a romantic nature. Sighing, she turned away. Enough of such foolishness; it was time to get back to reality.
The meeting had moved swiftly, and Charlotte was pleased to discover that it wasn’t yet five. Taking her leave of Mr. Elbert, she decided to fetch Ezra so they could head for the warmth of home.
Boarding the ship, she spied a seaman making his way towards her. “Where might I find the Captain?” she asked.
“Cap’n’s in the mess, ma’am,” he informed her with a bob of the head and a tip of his cap.
“Thank you. No, that’s not necessary, I know the way,” she told him as he moved to accompany her.
“Very well, ma’am.”
As she made her way to the mess, she murmured greetings to the officers and seamen that she passed. Finally reaching her destination, the sound of many exuberant voices could be heard coming from the room beyond. One in particular stood out.
“I believe that my hand is the winning one, gentlemen,” Ezra’s southern drawl declared amiably. Hoots and the sounds of cards being slapped down followed.
She was going to kill Captain Gregg! Entering the room, she found Ezra playing cards with an assortment of the ship’s crew, with an audience twice that size. From the pile of coins and bills in front of him, it was obvious he was winning. Charlotte stood there, her arms crossed. They were so involved in the game that none of them had noticed her arrival. Finally, one of the sailors caught sight of her and muttered something to his captain.
Gregg looked up, seeing her standing there, her face like a thundercloud. He quickly stood, walking over to her, which alerted the rest of the table. Ezra’s hands froze briefly over the cards he was dealing before continuing. But his eyes never left hers.
“A word, if you please, Captain,” she said in a low angry voice.
“Aye, madam.” There was no levity this time. He knew his employer was not happy with him at this particular moment. An uncomfortable silence fell over the room.
“Ezra, I shall return shortly. Please be ready to leave when I do.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded, looking uncertain.
“Captain.” She motioned him to precede her out the door.
Once outside, they made their way to the far side if the deck, away from curious ears.
“There was no harm done—” Gregg began.
“No harm? He’s ten,” she bit out, her voice pitched low but losing none of its fury for all that. “You endangered him, Captain! A little boy playing with, and beating soundly, grown men! How on earth is a child supposed to defend himself against a disgruntled loser?”
Gregg looked shocked. “I was with him, and none of my men—“ he started to protest.
“Not this day, no. But it sets a precedent. Ezra doesn’t see the danger, only the thrill! What happens when you or I aren’t with him and he seeks out a game like today? What then, Captain?” she demanded.
Ezra’s life was dangerous enough when he was with his mother. The one small comfort she had was that, just maybe, her influence might help keep him safe, and today, she’d failed him.
Gregg sighed heavily. “I’ll talk to the lad, explain why he can’t make a habit of today. It will go better coming from a man,” he added when she began to protest. “If you try to warn him, he’ll only take it as mollycoddling.”
She swallowed hard, fighting back tears. Her recurring nightmare was Ezra being murdered in the course of some con or scheme of Maude’s and today’s events had brought that nightmare to the forefront.
Taking a shaky breath, she clenched her fingers into her palms. “Very well, Captain. You shall speak to Ezra.”
Charlotte pulled the lap furs tighter around Ezra. It was now well after dark and the air had taken on the chill of threatening snow. Soon they would be home, and Charlotte wanted nothing more than her fireplace and a stiff drink. Wrapping her arm around his shoulder, she pulled him close, resting her check on the top of his head. “I love you, Ezra.”
“You aren’t cross with me?” He took her hand under the furs, holding it in a fast grip.
“No, dearest; I was just scared. I think Captain Gregg explained that to you, did he not?”
Good to his word, Gregg had taken Ezra aside and had had a serious man to man talk with him. It seemed to her afterwards that it had made an impression on Ezra, and for that she was grateful. Maybe the incident had been a blessing in disguise; she had often thought Ezra needed a male influence in his life. In the end, she could hold no animosity towards the captain and had told him as much. He had been relieved, kissing her hand and taking his leave, all forgiven.
“Uh huh.” He leaned against her. “Are you still scared, Cousin Charlotte?”
“Maybe just a wee bit,” she admitted. “I just worry about you so. I can’t help it.”
“I promise I’ll be careful.”
“I know you will.” She squeezed his hand. “Always remember to think every situation through, Ezra. Know where you are, who is around you, and never assume anything. Oh, and always know where the exits are,” she added with a smile. “You will find that is advice that will serve you well even as an adult.”
He giggled. “You sound like mother.”
Charlotte sniffed. “Yes, well your mother and I are in complete agreement when it comes to looking out for oneself."
"Sometimes, I think I'll never be a grownup," he lamented.
"Believe me; adulthood shall come all too quickly, dearest. Enjoy being a child while you can because it is time you will cherish when you are my age."
"But if I were a man, mother wouldn't leave me behind and I could be with her always." There was a plaintive note to his voice that made Charlotte's throat catch. But she had no comfort to offer him, not really.
Oh, how she wished that fate had dealt a different hand, that she could have been Ezra's mother. But that love would always be reserved for Maude. As it should be, she reminded herself sternly. All Charlotte could ever be was an inadequate surrogate. Pushing back the melancholy and self-pity that threatened to overwhelm her, she finally said, "I miss her too, child." And she did. Maude was like a sister to her; a vexing, vain and frequently self-absorbed one to be sure, but family for all that.
The two sat in silence, the sound of the horses, hooves clip clopping against the road, and the wind blowing past them, the only sounds. Charlotte wondered where in the world Maude was and when she would return to the family that loved her, and to the son who needed her.