Marta had visited a few of the mansions along Van Ness Blvd. with her father when she was young, but none as palatial as Byron Wagner’s. Three balconies framed green-shuttered windows on the upper floors. Below, shaded verandas with white wicker chairs were sequestered behind palm trees and great oaks. One look told Marta the imposing residence held no less than thirty rooms. As she walked up the tree-lined walkway and rang the bell, she wondered how many people could be housed and fed by just this one house. Hundreds, she guessed. It was just the kind of blatant display of wealth that raised her temper and made her head ache.
The butler who answered the door pursed his lips in a subtle expression of disapproval as he appraised her plain, cotton clothing. Marta knew from his haughty attitude that he thought she was someone’s maidservant and should be calling at the back door. When she identified herself, however, his expression flattened into a mask of indifference. He stood back and held the door open, indicating that she should come in. The interior was no less enchanting than the house’s exterior. A two-story, marble entryway larger than her own living room surrounded a winding staircase that seemed to float in the radiant light pouring into the vast room from a series of the high-arching windows on either side of the doorway. Green plants in over-sized, clay pots and large paintings on the far walls softened the room’s brilliant glare.
The butler led Marta to a drawing room with two couches and cushioned chairs grouped around a glass coffee table. The stitched, satin fabrics covering the furniture were as elegant as the clothing worn by society’ women. A grand piano stood at the far end of the room. China teacups and a silver teapot sat on a side board. She lowered herself delicately on the edge of one couch, her back rigid with tension, and gazed at the paintings hanging on the walls.
The butler left to advise Byron of Marta’s arrival. She had called him from home, and he had urged her to come at once. The concern in his voice had warmed and calmed her, but now that she sat in his grand mansion, her indignation at the spoils of the rich boiled to the surface. She had to remind herself that this man had offered to help her. Still, it galled her to think how much good this wealth could do for the poor families she saw every day. She sighed. It wasn’t Byron’s fault, she supposed. She knew he had inherited a great deal of money and business interests from his father, so in a way, he was no different from her and her brother. He had just inherited a great deal more!
A voice coughed politely, and she turned to find Byron standing behind her in the doorway. How wonderful he looked in his smoking jacket and trousers! It was his warm smile, however, that enchanted her. All her feelings of indignation at his grand home were shunted aside and replaced by the joy of seeing him again. She smiled and stood up, suddenly uncertain what to do. When she first met him at his club, she had found herself flustered and afraid if she spoke, she would become tongue tied. It was no different now. Her chest thrummed as though a humming bird had become trapped inside, and her mouth was as dry as desert sand.
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