“Yes, ma’am,” Frank replied, sounding somewhat formal.
“Stop with the ma’am stuff. You’ve called me Mabel since day one.”
He smirked, chuckling. “We found the watch, but we are all in agreement that it wasn’t what Ralph was after.”
“It’s a nice old watch,” Rachel added. “But hardly worth stealing.”
“That’s why it’s not in the safe,” Mabel agreed.
“But we found something else we wanted to talk about,” Frank said gently.
He held up his phone and showed her pictures he’d taken of her ring. Rachel had slipped it on her hand to display it before putting it in the velvet box.
Mabel gasped, holding the phone reverently. Tears welled in the faded blue eyes. “So, at last you know my secret.”
“So, Tom Cortland was your lover?” Rachel asked quietly.
“Oh, my yes. I loved Tom more than I can possibly express! He was a real dreamboat,” she told Rachel. “You saw his picture.”
“He was a hottie,” Rachel agreed. “Broad shoulders and dark brown eyes.”
“He had the body of a god,” Mabel said. “Before men were into all that weight lifting crap, he was built better than Charles Atlas.”
The tears fell. Rachel got a box of tissues, handing one to Mabel.
“Frankie, there’s something I need to tell you,” Mabel said finally. “You know one secret, it’s time you know the rest.”
Mabel motioned to Rachel to close the door. She didn’t speak again until that was accomplished. The elderly lady patted the bed, inviting Frank to perch on the edge.
“I fell in love with Tom Cortland when I was a mere girl. He was the best looking man I’d ever met. Every girl wanted him. He asked me to marry him, but his father forbid it. I wasn’t from a rich family, you know. His father was convinced I was a gold digger and put his foot down. He sent Tom away to Europe, but his tour was cut short by all that trouble with the Germans. When he got home, he and I decided to elope. We ran away together, married in secret, but his father found out. He had the married dissolved.”
“Not annulled?” Rachel asked.
“No. Mr. Cortland was able to make it disappear. In the eyes of the law, we were never married. He forced Tom into a loveless marriage to a troll of a woman. They never had any children. To the best of my knowledge, Tom never even slept in the same bed with her. She died a few years later and he never remarried.”
“What happened after your marriage ended?” Rachel prompted.
“Well, what old man Cortland couldn’t control was the fact I was already carrying Tommy’s child. Then Mr. Penwarren took a shine to me. He was looking for a mother for his uncontrollable son. He married me right away and agreed to raise the boy as his own. I named him after his father—his real father. Tom’s full name was Francis Thomas Cortland.”
“When did Tom give you the ring?”
“He had it made when he asked me to marry him. He gave it to me when we married, January 3, 1940. Frank was born in September that year. I married Mr. Chester Penwarren in March. We told everyone that the child was conceived on our honeymoon and premature. No one questioned. When you have as much money as Chester, no one ever questions. He was proud that his pretty, young bride gave him a son, even if the boy wasn’t his. Chester was a hard man, but he loved Frank in his own way.
“My affair with Tom lasted for years. Even after we were both married, our hearts belonged to one another. I loved him until the day he died, and he loved me. We never had anymore children, so that made Frankie even more special to us both. It destroyed Tom when Frank was killed.”
“It must have been horrible, Mabel,” Rachel said, taking the old woman’s hand.
Mabel dabbed at her eyes, then patted Frank on the cheek. “But you’re wondering what this has to do with you. Frankie never married. Oh, he came close. . . . There was a girl he loved more than his own life. Then he was drafted and sent to Korea. That debacle turned into the Vietnam fiasco, but Frank was a soldier by then. He wouldn’t give it up. Every leave he got, he made time with his girl. He wanted to marry her, but like Tom’s father, Chester wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Did Frank know that Chester wasn’t his father?”
“Yes, but Ralph didn’t. He might have suspected, but he never said anything. They were such good friends. Ralph was only ever nice when he was around Frank. He taught him how to ride a horse and sail a boat. He even taught him to drive. He loved that child beyond reason. It nearly killed him when Frank died.”
“Tell us about the girl,” Frank prompted. Something in the way Mabel alluded to her, but didn’t name her, made him curious.
“She was a beautiful girl. Strawberry blonde, big blue eyes, a real beauty. They wanted to elope, hell, I encouraged it, but Chester caught wind of it and locked Frankie in his room. With help, he got out.” Mabel’s lips twitched. “He spent the weekend in the arms of his love. He shipped out the following Monday.”
“She got pregnant,” Frank concluded.
© Dellani Oakes