Want more of The Knickerbocker Club? Introducing THE KNICKERBOCKER BRIDE, a serial featuring Cora Hampton from MOGUL. Enjoy!
Fifth Avenue, New York City
The worst hell imaginable was not Dante’s ninth circle, where Satan and the most dedicated sinners dwelled, but in unrequited love.
The worst hell imaginable was being in love with a woman in love with someone else. Harry Belmont knew this for absolute certain.
Harry had loved Cora Hampton forever, since they were children. The Belmonts and Hamptons moved in the same elite social circle, and he well remembered chasing her on the lush lawns of Newport, the ribbons of her white dress blowing in the summer breeze behind her. Learning to skate in Central Park, eating roasted chestnuts together during the breaks. Christmas carols and Easter egg roll parties. She had been there, in the backdrop of his life, every step of the way. There had never been anyone else for him, no other girl to capture his attention so thoroughly.
But his affection had not been returned—had been rebuffed quite firmly, in fact—and she had decided on another man. The knowledge was a painful barb between Harry’s ribs, aching with every breath he took.
He could stop seeing her. Yes, they were neighbors on Millionaire’s Row, but the houses weren’t close together. It would be possible to avoid her, if necessary. However, the thought of not hearing her voice or experiencing the joy of her smile seemed a thousand times worse than his silly heartache. Therefore, Harry suffered. Silently.
“I must do something,” Cora said, gaining his attention as she walked the edge of the cement goldfish pond like a tightrope performer in Barnum’s circus. The unseasonably warm fall afternoon had lured them both outside to the gardens behind his family home. He had taken to lounging on an iron bench while Cora paced. “Something dramatic to gain John’s attention.”
Harry could not take his eyes off the graceful arms held out at her sides, or the long, womanly form as she stepped carefully around the stone. Why must she be so blasted perfect? He swallowed hard. “What had you in mind?”
“I haven’t a clue. That is why you must help me. You are the smartest person I know.”
The compliment warmed him, as all her kind words did, but there were other descriptives he’d rather hear from her once in a while. Irresistible was one. Even appealing would work. “Thank you, though I still don’t understand what you see in Drexel.”
John Drexel, the focus of Cora’s affections, was one of New York’s biggest cads. A bon vivant with more money than sense and a string of mistresses tied to his little finger. No ambition, no altruism. Drexel valued himself, parties, and money. So why would Cora want to shackle herself to such a thoughtless and feckless man? Could she not see Drexel for his true self? He would cause her nothing but misery and heartbreak were the unthinkable to happen and the two actually married.
“I cannot explain it. He is . . .” She sighed, a heavy noise weighted down by longing and frustration. “My heart leaps every time I see him. He is the most handsome man in New York. No doubt you think I am ridiculous…”
Harry’s chest tightened in an iron fist. No, not ridiculous. He thought Drexel was one lucky, undeserving sack of shit. “What is ridiculous is that he did not even correctly say your name at Lily’s wedding. The man cannot even be bothered to learn who you are.”
“Yes, but he caught me, Harry. He smiled at me and then caught me when I lost my footing.” She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, as if remembering the cad’s touch.
Harry did not bother to point out that catching a falling woman was one of the first rules in the gentlemen handbook. All things considered, it was the very least Drexel could have done.
“Well, I am not certain I have enough experience in this arena to advise you.” At twenty-one, Harry’s experience with the fairer sex bordered on pathetic. Pining after Cora for a majority of those years had not lent itself to gaining any practical knowledge. A dozen kisses here and there, but he’d never even seen a naked woman outside of paintings and drawings in books. He would need to do something about that soon.
Harry, it is past time that you married. You are forever in that workshop of yours…
Despite his mother’s urgings, Harry had no matrimonial plans. He had to admit, however, the idea of visiting one of the upscale brothels in the Tenderloin was sounding more and more appealing. Perhaps if he were more familiar with the female sex, more experienced, Cora would see him in a different light. Perhaps if you were more like John Drexel then she’d pay attention.
Hmm. A sound hypothesis, indeed. One requiring further testing, he thought.
“Nonsense,” Cora scoffed. “You are an inventor. A prodigy. You have studied with misters Edison, Tesla, and Bell, contributed to some of the most important advances in our time. Certainly you can think up a scheme for me to snare one bachelor.” She swung her arms over her head as if capturing a butterfly in a net.
“Drexel is no winged insect—and he is a bit more complex than alternating current. Perhaps you should set your sights on someone more . . . appropriate.” Like me.
“Someone within my reach, you mean.”
The underlying hurt in her tone had him sitting up straighter. “That is not what I meant and you know it.”
She stopped moving and her arms flopped to her sides. “It is what you are thinking. It is what any reasonable person would think. I know I am not the most beautiful debutante. And he could clearly have his pick of any woman in the city.” She scuffed a rock with the toe of her boot. “So why would he want plain and boring me?”
It took everything Harry had not to leap up and declare undying love for her right then. That she doubted herself for one minute, one second made Harry hate Drexel all the more. Cora was beautiful. Witty, charming. Intelligent and caring. That Drexel had not noticed and caused her to feel unworthy tore at Harry’s insides.
But he could not embarrass himself, not again. Four years ago, when she turned sixteen, she’d shown up at his house with a bottle of champagne. She had wanted to get drunk but hadn’t trusted herself to do it alone. You shall keep me safe, won’t you, Harry? After his seventeen-year-old self promised to watch over her, the night had worn on and he had imbibed more than usual. That was when he’d confessed his true feelings and Cora had informed him—firmly—that he was like a brother to her. To further her point, she had promptly vomited into the fireplace. Clearly the idea of being involved romantically with him made her physically ill.
He forced a shrug. “I think he’d be lucky to have you, but debutantes are not high on Drexel’s list of companions from what I understand.”
“Which is why I need your help to gain his undivided attention.” She raised her eyebrows as if this was completely sound logic.
“I thought you had his undivided attention this spring, when you shared the carriage ride from Tiffany’s.”
“That was only because Lily left me in John’s keeping when she had to race off to visit Calvin. John hardly uttered two words the entire journey home. It was mortifying.”
“Speaking of Lily, she might prove more helpful in this endeavor than I.” He stood and brushed the front of his trousers. “But I promise to think on it. For now, I should get back to my workshop. The culture I am studying is likely ready.”
“I cannot ask Lily. She and Calvin are traveling.”
“You are able to write or send a cable to her. Are they not in Chicago?”
“Yes.” Cora wrinkled her nose, which she only did when attempting to hide something.
“Ah.” He slid his hands in his trouser pockets and smiled. “You haven’t told her about Drexel yet, have you?”
“No,” she admitted sheepishly, and Harry chuckled. “Oh, fine. Go ahead and laugh, Harry. Lily would not approve any more than you do.”
“And that should tell you something. When the two people closest to you do not believe he’s the right man for you . . .”
“You are both wrong. Neither of you know him as I do, and I shall prove it. I’ll have John Drexel eating out of the palm of my hand this winter. Mark my words.”
Arguing would not deter her; it never did. Cora was the most stubborn woman he had ever met. The last thing he wanted was to push her further toward Drexel, if only to prove her point.
Harry put his palms up. “So marked. Now, I need to return to my experiment. I shall see you—”
“Wait, I’ll come with you.” She stepped closer and threaded her arm through his, the faint hint of lilac teasing his nose. Christ, he loved that fragrance. “I want to see what you are working on.”
Cora trailed Harry into his workshop. While she knew he was busy, perhaps she could steal a few more minutes of his time today to discuss John Drexel.
Even the name caused Cora’s chest to flutter. John. Drexel. It was a strong and beautiful name for a strong and beautiful man.
If only he realized she existed.
Soon, Cora. Soon.
Harry would help her. One did not befriend a genius and fail to reap the benefits of said friendship. In this case, the benefit was access to Harry’s quick mind. He had an astounding ability to study a problem, break it down, and offer solutions.
Cora had witnessed this skill of his more than once. In fact, Harry had been helping her near her whole life. Cora’s three older brothers had teased her mercilessly growing up. Harry, however, had been kind, never ignoring her or sending her away, and exhibited limitless patience with her. For as long as she could remember she had considered him her fourth brother. The perfect partner to help her get revenge on her biological brothers.
Like the time she and Harry put soap in their whiskey.
Or when they scattered “gold” coins in a muddy field…only for her brothers to discover they were painted wood.
And when they wrote fake passionate love letters to all three of her brothers anonymously and requested they show up at Bethesda Fountain at the same time wearing a white carnation in their buttonhole. Cora and Harry had watched through binocular glass as all three brothers arrived, saw one another, and realized it all had been a hoax. They had been furious but Cora had laughed for days.
“Are you giggling?” Harry switched on his desk lamp.
She settled in the plush velvet chair he kept in here just for her. “I was just remembering when we sent Charlie, Tommy, and William the love letters.”
“They deserved it. Was that not in retaliation for when they took you riding but purposely lost you? Then it started to rain and you nearly froze to death.”
Ah, she’d forgotten. Harry had such a superb memory. “Yes. I caught a nasty cold and mother was cross with all three of them.”
“As she should have been. You could have caught pneumonia and died.”
Harry tended to think the worst about any given situation. “It was not as bad as all that.”
“Indeed, it was,” he said, picking up his pencil and pad. “You are too forgiving of those three rascals.”
She smothered the urge to roll her eyes. This was an old battle. Harry held no fondness for Cora’s brothers. “What are you working on today? More light bulb designs?”
“Those are finished and sent off to Mr. Edison’s laboratory in West Orange. As my cultures are not yet ready, I will attempt some calculations. I am theorizing how energy may be transmitted through the air.”
Through the air? Cora could not imagine such a thing. “That seems impossible.”
“Mr. Tesla believes it can be done. I heard him speak on it several weeks ago.”
“Harry, how do you plan to meet a nice girl when the only places you go are science lectures and demonstrations?”
“I do not need a nice girl,” he grumbled, put on his eyeglasses, and bent over his paper. He had already removed his coat and the crisp white shirt he wore pulled tight across his broad shoulders. She knew he swam almost every day in the indoor pool in his home, and the modest exercise was reflected in his tall, lean physique.
The back of her neck burned and she forced her gaze off his body. Stop ogling Harry. It was wrong to think of him in physical terms, not when he’d been her closest friend forever.
She returned her concentration to his face, where it belonged. “Of course you need someone. You merely must find someone as bright as you. Perhaps there is someone I know, a friend I am able to introduce you—”
“No,” he snapped, taking off his eyeglasses to fix hard blue eyes on her. “Absolutely not. I do not want a witless society girl forever jabbering in my ear.”
Well, that stung. “I am one of those witless society girls.”
“Nonsense. You are nothing of the sort. Those girls would be fortunate to claim an eighth of your intelligence.”
“I cannot tell if that was a compliment or not, considering your low opinion of everyone else.”
He sighed, put down his pencil, and crossed his arms. “Cora, what is this about? Ever since this Drexel business you have started to disparage yourself. He has caused you to question your worth.”
There was truth to that statement, so Cora did not argue. However, there were other thoughts rattling around in her head, too. She picked at a stitch on her dress, hesitating. Why was this so hard? She had always been able to confess her fears to Harry. “It is more than that,” she forced out. “You, Lily, and I grew up together. Now she is off, married to Calvin and helping to run an empire. I feel a bit left behind. As always.”
His expression softened. “You have forever followed in her shadow, wanting to be Lily. You are not Lily, Cora. She is a lovely woman but she is headstrong and stubborn, and she acts without thinking. You are far more thoughtful and considerate. Frankly, you are smarter as well.”
Her chest expanded with a familiar warmth, gratitude for this man who was her friend. “Thank you, though it is not just Lily. My brothers, my friends. All the girls with whom I debuted are married, many with families. I am jealous, I suppose.”
“There is nothing wrong with waiting. For God’s sake, most everyone in society is unhappily married. The men spend more time with their mistresses than their wives, and the women shop from sheer boredom. Is that the life you want for yourself?”
“No, of course not.”
“Exactly. It is better to wait and marry the right man then rush into a marriage with the wrong one.”
He made sense. She merely needed to be logical about the situation rather than emotional. Furthermore, if she had rushed into marriage, John Drexel would have married someone else—which was dashed unacceptable. She would marry him or die trying.
That cheered her up considerably. Cocking her head, she grinned at Harry. “What would I do without you? You always know just what to say to make me feel better.”
He swallowed hard, looking for a moment like he might speak. Instead, he merely took up his pencil and went back to sketching or calculating or whatever he was doing over there. She bit her lip and wondered, what had he been about to say?
Harry’s behavior had grown quite strange the last few months. His patience seemed thinner, his responses terse. Not that he had ever been particularly loquacious but she sensed he was annoyed with her, though he denied it any time she voiced concerns.
He needed more than this workshop, she decided. Someone who would make him smile. Harry used to laugh and smile when they were younger, before her debut. She wanted that version of her friend back.
“Harry, I have an idea.”
“Oh, bully for me,” he muttered.
“Now, now. You shall like this one, I swear. I have decided we should help each other. A pact, if you will.”
He finally glanced up from his papers, his brows drawn low. “Help each other for what?”
“You help me land John Drexel and I help you in finding a wife.”
A loud snap echoed through the room. The pencil in Harry’s hands had cracked directly in half.