Arms full of rolled up plans, Casey dashed along the lower catwalk of the gantry, shivering in the November cold. She’d just left Tom and several foremen on the gantry, and now she hurried to get the plans back to Ham so Mr. Carlisle had them for a meeting. As she rounded a corner, though, Trouble appeared, in the overbearing person of Mike Sloan. He stepped in front of her, holding up a hand to stop her headlong rush. She skidded to a stop, struggling to keep hold of the plans as several rolls tried to make an escape from her arms. She managed to glare at Sloan at the same time.
“Can I help you with something?” she asked in annoyance. What a jerk!
His slow grin made him look like a satisfied fox, knowing the hen was cornered. “It’s almost lunch time,” he pointed out, nodding back toward the platers’ shed. “Wanted to ask you again to come to our meeting.”
“And again, no thank you,” Casey replied, tossing a recalcitrant plan toward her shoulder and taking a step to continue past him.
He moved to block her. “Thought you might reconsider,” he said, looking her over with sharp eyes. “Seems like if you don’t want trouble, you might consider meeting us halfway. Show a little concern for your soul.”
Casey stayed still, balancing on the balls of her feet. She answered with care. “I don’t want trouble. My soul is feeling fine. I still don’t want to go to your meeting.”
Again, he looked her over, tilting his head thoughtfully. “Boy like you has a lot of demons in his heart. Sooner you ask the Lord to heal you, the better off you’ll be. Or is it,” his voice softened dangerously, sending a chill down Casey’s back, “maybe you’re not a boy. If you’re not, I’d say there’s still a lot of demons in your heart, but they’d be different ones. Which is it, Casey?”
“This conversation is over,” she replied, her voice almost sounding calm. She turned back to the slips, where she knew there were a lot of people, but came up against a human bulk whose name escaped her. A glance to her left and right revealed similar bulks waiting patiently. She turned back to Sloan and tried to sound threatening and bored. “Not a good idea, Sloan.”
He ignored her comment and spread his arms in an attempt to look reasonable. “Prove it to us, Case. Prove you’re a boy and we’ll let it go, for now. Just drop ’em quick-like. Don’t need more than a glance, do we?”
Fear hammered at her chest. She could take on a couple of them, but never all four. Her only hope would be to make a lot of noise and hope there were people close enough to get here fast. Unfortunately, Sloan had picked his place well. They were in a fairly isolated part of the yard.
“I’d never give you the satisfaction, asshole,” she said in a low voice. All her muscles tensed as she prepared to drop the plans and start with a swift kick to the guy behind her, when a mild voice, moving toward them, broke into the tableau.
“What’s the problem, here?”
Fire burned through Casey as she closed her eyes in despair. Tom Andrews! Sure, she needed someone to come along, but why him?
The goons all looked at each other innocently, and Sloan shrugged, shaking his head. “No problem at all, Mr. Andrews, sir. Almost time for horn-blow, we was just discussing the meeting.”
Tom’s eyes narrowed, but his voice remained mild. “Wait for horn-blow, please. You are all still on the clock.” His chin jerked at Casey. “Ham is waiting for those plans, Case. Get a move on, please.”
“Yes sir.” She was past Sloan in a nanosecond, nearly running to the safety of the drawing office. Whatever happened behind her, she didn’t care to know.
She tried to slow herself as she dashed into the room, not wanting to bother the men working at the tables. She moved quickly to the back office, dropping the plans on Ham’s desk as he turned from the filing cabinet.
“Thanks Case! I was wondering where you were.” He peered at her. “You okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” she muttered, turning to her desk, her whole body shaking. She pulled out the inventory sheet and some pencils, trying to look busy. Her shaking hands dropped the pencils everywhere but into the cup on her desk, causing a breathless, and nearly silent, “fuck!” to escape her as she tried to pick them all up. If Ham heard that, she could be in real trouble, but he said nothing.
The lunch horn blew just as the shadow of doom fell across her desk. Tom said, “Case,” and gestured toward his inner office. She gave up on the pencils and, without looking at him, walked past him into the office.
“Have a seat,” he said, sitting himself.
With great effort, she moved to obey, clenching her hands to stop the shaking. Tom looked at her in concern.
“Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”
Her voice shook. “Just scared. I’ll be all right in a few minutes.”
He hesitated, then got up, turning to the sideboard along the wall, and poured some water into a glass, coming around his desk to hand it to her. “Take your time. Take some deep breaths.”
She did, feeling the first stirrings of anger begin to take the place of fear. Damn that Sloan! Now she was in trouble, and she wasn’t the one who caused the problem! No, she told herself without mercy, you’re just the one going around pretending to be someone you’re not. How much had Mr. Andrews overheard? And what had Sloan told him?
His concern still showing, he sat back down and watched her, giving her a minute before speaking. “Casey, Mike Sloan is a troublemaker. Always has been. Don’t think at all that I believe you were the cause of that problem, back there.”
A relieved laugh escaped her in a gasp and she nearly spilled the water, looking at him for the first time. “I appreciate that, sir. Whatever I’m guilty of, it has nothing to do with Sloan.”
His eyebrows rose and he sat back in his chair, as if inviting her to continue.
She stared at him a moment. This had to end. She couldn’t keep lying to him. “Mr. Andrews,” she started, then stopped, not sure what to say first. She heard her dad’s voice, If you’re really confused, start at the end. Or at least, the middle. Makes you figure out what’s important and what’s not.
“My contract is up in a couple of months, isn’t it?” she asked.
His eyebrows climbed higher, but he nodded. “Middle of January.”
It was painful to look at him and Casey glanced at the water glass, then placed it with deliberate slowness on the desk. “I wanted to finish out the contract and not leave you in a lurch, but,” she hesitated, “maybe I should resign now.”
He shook his head. “That’s unacceptable, Casey. I told you, Sloan’s a troublemaker. I can’t let him run off a good worker just because he objects to his religion.”
“Religion?” Casey blinked in surprise. “Is that what he told you?”
Tom pursed his lips, looking at her thoughtfully. “He said you told him you’d decided to convert to Catholicism. He was trying to talk you out of it.”
Casey surprised herself by laughing. “Converting?” she repeated, shaking her head. “I’ve sometimes been accused of looking for trouble, but I’d have to be suicidal to say something like that to Sloan.”
Tom laughed a little, too. “Well, that’s what I thought, too. So you’re not converting to Catholicism?”
“Not even close!”
Now Tom just looked bewildered. “So what’s it about?” He suddenly held up both hands, forestalling her answer. “I’ll tell you, normally I’d drop this. It doesn’t do any good, usually, to get too involved in the workers’ personal issues. As long as people are steady, they can have all the disagreements they want. But I get the impression you’re really frightened. I don’t like to see that. If you need help, you need to say so.”
She looked at her hands, silently asking her father what the next step was. He had no answer, beyond the obvious one. Tell him the truth.
She removed her cap and ran a hand through her short hair, roughly at first, then falling into her habit of fluffing the curls, in an unconscious attempt to encourage growth. She took a deep breath and looked up at Tom, who was watching her curiously. She felt a stab of pain. He was so handsome and so good! How could she have lied to him like this? And now she was going to have to confess the deception. What would he think? Would he hate her forever? She wanted him to love her. How had she screwed this up so badly?
He was waiting, and she had to say something. She put her hands in her lap and looked down at them. “This isn’t easy, but I know you’re busy, so I’ll try.” Her heart wouldn’t stop racing and she took another deep breath. “I don’t know if what I’ve done is illegal, but I never meant it to be. I never meant to cause any harm. Please believe that.”
Tom sounded bewildered. “Have you done something wrong and Sloan found out about it? Has he threatened you?”
She shrugged at her hands. “He’s only guessing. Thing is, he guessed the truth. I don’t know about threats, but,” she hesitated, “he might feel violence is called for. He might even think it’s his religious duty.”
When Tom spoke next, he sounded uncomfortable. “Casey, let’s talk plain.” He was silent, so she nodded, still afraid to look at him. “Has Sloan accused you of any…perversion? Does he have some proof of it?”
She shook her head, sure that Mr. Andrews was referring to homosexuality, which is what Sloan had suspected, at first. This was not a safe topic of conversation, so she kept her answer vague. “He seemed to suspect something, although he never had any proof of anything. Now he says he suspects I’m really… a girl. He wanted proof I’m not a girl, which is what you interrupted.”
She raised her head then, forcing herself to face him. “I don’t know what he’ll do if he finds out he’s right.”
He blinked. “What?”
Her voice was a whisper. “I’ve been pretending to be a boy, Mr. Andrews. But I’m really a girl.”
She saw his expression change from strained, to disbelief, to horror, as he stared at her. For a moment, she thought she would faint, she was so afraid of the way he looked. What would he do to her? Her body tensed, ready to run as she clenched her hands tightly against her stomach.
He didn’t speak for a minute. Gods, what was he thinking?
He seemed to recover a bit as he studied her, his eyes moving down her body. His face reddened, but he leaned over his desk, holding out a hand. “A girl? Why, Casey? Why would you do this? Why would you tell such a lie, for such a long time?”
She closed her eyes against the pain in his voice. He truly felt betrayed. “It wasn’t safe on the streets for a girl, and I was trying to find odd jobs to make money.” Her voice sounded high and whiny. She realized she was pleading with him. “I had more opportunities for that as a boy. My guardian was trying to find work too, but then he got sick. He needed medicine and a doctor. I took your offer so I could help him. That was all, really.”
“But,” he couldn’t seem to comprehend it. “Case, there are places you could have gone for help. The poorhouse, charities…” he stopped as she shook her head.
“We tried those. But they aren’t good places, Mr. Andrews. I think that’s where Sam got sick, ’cause they crowd so many people in, and lots of people are really ill.” A hint of defiance crossed her face. “We weren’t used to being poor. We wanted out of it and those places seemed designed to keep us in it.”
He rubbed his forehead, nodding. “Aye, I’ve heard that said of them, but I never really knew.” His hand moved through his hair in frustration. “Is your guardian still sick, Casey?”
She shook her head again. “He’s fine, now. The doctor put him in touch with someone at the telephone company, and Sam got a job there. He’s a physicist, and they have him doing research and development.”
“I wish you’d told me the truth sooner,” Tom told her. “I understand your reasons… I just don’t know what to do, now.” He absent-mindedly rolled a pencil around, thinking hard. “You’re right, though. I was hoping we could keep you on. I was going to speak to you about that in a few days. But now, you won’t be able to continue working. I certainly can’t let you finish out your time as a boy, and there’s no possible way you can come in here as a girl. And we have to do something about Sloan.”
She thought about it, relieved that he seemed willing to work something out. At least, he wasn’t yelling at her. “He doesn’t know where I live. If I’m not around here and not a threat to him, maybe he’ll just forget about me.”
Tom nodded, but he looked doubtful. “You’ll have to keep an eye out. I will talk to him, though. I’ll make it very clear to him that nothing is to happen to you, or I’ll see that the blame goes to him. I’d like to talk to your guardian, too, and make sure he’s aware of the problem.”
Casey nodded and then looked up at him through tears. “I’m sorry for this, Mr. Andrews. I know it’s inadequate, but I really am sorry. I’ve put you in a terrible position and I had no right to do that.”
A small smile crossed his face and he looked grateful. “I forgive you,” he told her in all seriousness. “But I hope you stop this nonsense, Casey. I know you meant no harm, but you must be who you are. This constant deception has to be bad for your health, and your soul.”
Despondent, she looked at her hands, nodding. “I miss being a girl.”
It was a few moments before he spoke, and when he did, his voice sounded thick, as if something blocked his throat. “You’ve done everything we needed you to do. You have a right to survive, and you have a right to try and better your life. I want to help you. There are jobs you can do as a girl, if it’s work you want. With your education, you should be able to find something that you would enjoy. I can certainly recommend you–your work here has been excellent, once I get past the necessary explanations. Let me ask around. I’m sure I know someone who could use you, or maybe you could go back to school. You mentioned that you were doing that before.”
She nodded. “It would be nice to finish. To study plants again.”
He tilted his head and asked suddenly, “Have you considered marriage?”
This startled her. “Marriage? No, I hadn’t considered marriage.” She added sardonically, “There’s been a real dearth of opportunities.”
His smile was rueful. “I imagine there’d be more if you wore a dress.”
She laughed a little at that. “I’m not opposed to the idea in general, Mr. Andrews. But I’m only twenty-one. I don’t think I’m ready for marriage, yet.”
He nodded again. “I understand. But it’s something to keep in mind. With your guardian’s occupation, and your education, I think you could make a good match. You could marry just about anyone you want.”
You? She thought. No, of course, you’re not even thinking of yourself. She decided to change the subject.
“I’ll keep it in mind. Sam has not said anything about marriage, so I don’t have any idea what his thoughts are. I think he’s just been trying to take care of me and he knows I’m happier if I’m doing something, so he’s always encouraged me to find work.”
“Well, I truly hope he puts a stop to this boy nonsense, Casey. I know things were desperate, but he should never have allowed you to do this.” Tom sounded indignant.
But Casey shook her head. “Sam has never been able to stop me from doing anything. He wasn’t happy about it, truly.” She sighed. “I’m concerned that this will reflect badly on you, since you hired me.”
Tom harrumphed and tilted his head as he looked at her. “Perhaps, but everyone else was fooled, as well. I’ve had a few comments here and there about you, but no one ever suggested they thought you were a girl. Until Sloan, anyway, and he’s always looking for trouble.” A quick smile touched his lips. “You did a good job, pretending to be a boy.”
He tapped the table and Casey jumped a bit. “Go on home, Casey. I’ll have Ham handle the paperwork, and we’ll send you any pay you’re owed. I’ll have to figure out what to tell Lord Pirrie and talk to Sloan. Looks like I’m in for an interesting day.”
She stood. “I really am sorry, Mr. Andrews.”
He waved her away. “You did your job and you did it well. Take some pride in that. Just please, don’t make a habit of this kind of thing. You could make yourself a miserable life, I fear.”
She nodded and turned to go, but abruptly turned back. “Can I say one more thing, Mr. Andrews? This has nothing to do with any of this, and it’s not going to make any sense to you, but I have to give you some warning or I won’t be able to live with myself.”
His eyes narrowed as he gazed at her. “Go ahead.”
She licked her lips and plunged on. “I’ve heard you say that when you build a ship, you think about how it can sink, and that helps you build it so it floats.” His eyes widened. Whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t this. She continued, somewhat frantically, “Well, just think about a large ship, bigger even than the Adriatic, going too fast, about to hit an iceberg. They try to turn the ship and it misses mostly, but the iceberg scrapes along the side, punching holes for several hundred feet, all under the waterline.” She took a step toward him, pointing at his desk, at the drawings. “You’ll be a Managing Director someday. Build that ship so it doesn’t sink, Mr. Andrews. Especially, if it’s a ship called Titanic. That’s all I know to tell you.” And she turned and left.