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Romance Historical Fiction

1926

Pearl can’t help being a little awestruck as she stares up at the Hotel Finch. Forty floors of pure opulence. Anyone who was anyone came here for the parties and tonight for just a little while she would join them.

“You sure about this?” Pearl glances to her sides. Henry shifts from foot to foot, his nerves getting the best of him.

“Yes. I’m very sure.” Perhaps surer than she’s even been about anything in her life. “Thank you for walking me Henry, but you can go on home. I’ll be fine.”

The look Henry gives her says he very much doubts that. Considering the fancy cars and the even fancier people getting out of them he’s probably right.

Whether to assure him or herself, Pearl says, “Go on. Ned’s in there.” Her sweet, darling Ned.

“Ned should be out here.”

“Relax Henry.” Fifteen years old- five years younger than she was- and yet he was acting like he was the adult.

“Just…”

Pearl raises an eyebrow. Henry smiles at her. “Have fun tonight.”

She returns his smile. “I plan to.”

1997

Kay takes the steps to the basement two at a time. Her stomach bubbles with anticipation, just as it has every day for the last two months since she was hired as the Finch Hotel’s historian. Who wouldn’t be excited to spend their working days buried in the basement of one of the most famous hotels in the country- digging out, sorting and cataloging everything that had been stored down here since the hotel had been founded nearly a hundred years ago? It was a dream come true.

She unlocks the door to her office. Admittedly her office is a bit bland- cream colored walls, an acoustic tile ceiling installed during a remodel, and a rickety old desk with an even creakier chair. But those were easily ignored when she had a brand new computer on her desk and the basement rooms to explore.

And today, she knew exactly where she wanted to begin.

1926

Pearl slips off her coat and hands it to Garret. His eyes widen when he recognizes her. She smiles at him and takes her coat check number. Coat check number! She’s never been on this side of it before.

She enters the foyer. Waiters are carrying trays of the hotel’s second best glasses- the ones that Betsy spends so much time cleaning.

“Drink, Miss?” A waiter holds out the tray.

She takes a glass. “Thank you Liam.”

“You’re welcome…” Liam’s eyes flare wide as he realizes just who she is. “You…” He looks like a fish standing there.

“Later,” she promises. Liam blinks at her once…twice and then wanders off, and nearly crashes into another waiter.

Oh dear. Pearl tries to shake it off. Yes, her being here was unusual. But she and Ned…she and Ned were unusual.

1997

Kay sneezes. Way too much dust down here. Maybe one of the housekeeping staff will give her some rags and dust spray. She pushes one box to the side and climbs over a broken chair. Yesterday, she had spotted the edges of gold frames in the back corner of the room. Getting there was going to take a little gymnastics- jumping, crawling, and stepping very carefully. But it was going to be worth it.

At least she was hoping it would be.

She takes a deep breath and sneezes again. Maybe a mask would help. Kay grasps the corner of a heavy cloth and pulls it up. A vaguely familiar handsome man stares back at her. Not just a regular sort of handsome but swoon-worthy handsome. Like if she saw this guy walking towards her, she would be more than happy to find the nearest chair and sink into it with a heavy sigh of admiration.

His eyes catch her attention. It feels like he’s actually looking at someone. Not at the artist, but maybe someone standing behind the painter?

Kay kneels as best she can and shines her flashlight into the darkened corners of the painting as the single overhead light isn’t doing much. In the corner she finds an artist’s initials and two numbers- 26. The year, she thinks. Nineteen-twenty six. It couldn’t be any earlier judging by the man’s clothes and the telephone sitting on the desk behind him.

So who was he?

1926

Pearl’s glass is empty. She wanders the edge of the room looking for Ned. Where is he? There’s a group of guests crowded around a portrait. A portrait she knows. She had watched part of it being painted.

“Rather dull looking fellow isn’t he?”

She stills, a smile hovers on her lips. “Is he? I thought him handsome.” She turns and smiles at Ned. “But I suppose beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”

“Picture, sir?”

Ned and Pearl turn. A photographer stands ready with his camera. She’s about to say no when Ned’s eyes light up. “Absolutely.” He wraps his arm around her. As the man readies his camera, Ned lowers his head to her ear.

The camera flashes.

1997

Kay flips through one of the photo albums she had come across two weeks ago. After successfully extracting the portrait from the back of the storage room and taking it to her office, Kay had gone after the photo albums. There were several dating back to the nineteen-twenties. “Come on,” she mutters.  If the hotel had a painting of the guy, he had to have been important.

She stops mid-flip and smiles. “Gotch’a.” Kay pulls on her gloves and carefully removes a picture of a man and a woman at a party from the album. Flipping it over, her eyes widen. Scrawled in large cursive loops are three words and a date.

Ned Finch. Unknown. 1926.

Kay eyes the portrait and then the photograph. She knew all the names of the hotel owners and Ned Finch was not among them. Who was he?

1926

The band is playing something real slow. Ned’s arms are wrapped around her. Her head nestles perfectly under his chin. It was heaven on earth.

Pearl has spent many an hour daydreaming as she helped wax this floor and set up decorations for whatever grand party the hotel was hosting. But never had she imagined that she would attend one of those parties; let alone with Ned Finch.

Sweet, kind, gentle Ned.

She, like the rest of the staff, was used to seeing the hotel’s heir dash about the place like a mad man. Reading about a new invention, heading to the courts to play tennis, or running off on some new adventure and coming back covered in mud.

Pearl had thought him handsome like anyone with a beating heart would; but what she had admired most was his zeal for life. A zeal which she wished she could mimic. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, her only means of escape had been reading. And it had been precisely that that had brought her and Ned together.

“What are you thinking?” Ned whispers.

“About the day we met.”

Ned hums. “That was a good day.”

It had been a very good day, though she hadn’t realized just how good in the beginning. She had wanted to enjoy one of the last days of summer, so she had taken her lunch and book outside on break and found a secluded spot.

She hadn’t been alone long. Ned had come bouncing along, and then stopped. Sat down next to her and began to pepper her with questions. Annoyance had been her initial reaction but as their conversation continued, excitement had filled her.

And without her quite realizing it, lunch with Ned became part of her every day.

“Do you know something?” His voice is quiet in her ear.

“Hmmm?”

“You are the most beautiful woman here tonight.”

Pearl pulls back and gives him a look. She knows that’s not true. Her dress is homemade, not store-bought and fancy. Her jewelry is minimal for the simple fact that she can’t afford anything else.

“You don’t believe me.”

“I have eyes, Ned.”

“I know.” He meets her gaze. “They’re beautiful too.”

She feels her cheeks warm. Only Ned has ever made her blush.

It’s time for a change in topic. “Have you spoken to your father?”

1997

“Afternoon Miss Kay,” Charlie, her favorite hotel employee says, coming in with her lunch. “How’s today going?”

Charlie has worked here for about forty years and his father worked here before him. Normally Charlie’s presence brings a smile to her face. Not today. She groans. “Failure. Complete and utter.”

“That bad huh?”

Kay groans again, slumping back in her chair. She hikes her thumb towards the portrait. “You would think it would be easy to find information on the son of the hotel owner, but noooo.”

Charlie sets her tray down on an empty spot on the desk. “Which son?”

“Ned Finch. The first-born son of Archibald Finch. But oddly enough, not the son who inherits. Samuel Finch, his younger half-brother is the one who inherits.”

“Why?” Charlie crosses his arm.

“I don’t know.” Kay throws her hands in the air. “This might sound crazy, but it’s like he doesn’t exist. Like he’s been erased or something.” She sighs. “I’ve got a call out to the library. They’re gonna’ check the newspaper microfilms for me to see what they can find since the internet has betrayed me.” She levels a glare at the computer screen.

Charlie laughs but then sobers. He stares at the painting. “When was it painted?”

“Nineteen twenty-six.”

“You know, I bet my Dad probably remembers him.”

Kay perks up. “You think?” From meeting Mr. Benton before, she knew that he had a mind like a steel trap.

“Yeah. How about we meet in the breakfast room tomorrow? Say nine? I’ll bring Dad around. You know he loves sharing old stories.”

Kay grins. “Charlie. You’re the best.”

1926

The breakfast room is dark and quiet. She and Ned are next to the back windows. He’s staring out, looking up as if he could see the stars. But this is the city and stars were hard to come by. At least of the celestial kind.

Pearl straightens the yellow curtains framing the window. She needs something to do. Why had she brought up Ned’s father? Why couldn’t she have waited? She already knew it wasn’t going to be good news.

“Hey,” Ned says. He takes her hands in his. “It’s okay.”

“Is it?”

“We’re together. That’s all that matters.”

“How bad?” She asks.

He snorts a laugh. “I knew our news wouldn’t go over well…I just didn’t expect it to go that badly. I thought he would come around in the end, you know? Stupid of me, huh?” He tries to smile, but she can see the pain in his eyes.

Pearl steps closer and tucks a piece of hair behind his ear. “It wasn’t stupid. It was hopeful.” He catches her hand in his and presses her hand to his face. “So what did he say?”

“I refuse to repeat it in the company of anyone I care about.” Ned says firmly.

“A summary then.” She has to know. She doesn’t want to know, but she has to.

“Oh, the usual. Just another one of my adventures. Youthful fancy. Sowing my wild oats. So give it a few months, these feelings will fade.” The look he gives her tells her exactly what he thinks of that. He deepens his voice. “Or I’ll discover your true motivations. That you’re only after me for my money.” Ned scowls. His voice returns to normal. “And once I realize that, I’ll want to marry the right sort of girl.”

It’s her turn to scowl. She hates this. Hates this whole situation. Hates that she will never be enough for people like Ned’s father. Hates that people will always doubt. Doubt their love, doubt their ability to make it when they are both used to very different lives.

And she worries. Worries that maybe they’re right. That she isn’t enough for someone like Ned who lives life to the fullest. And that if Ned gives up the money, and this life that he would end up regretting it and…

“Stop.” Pearl looks up at Ned. His eyes are steely. Determined. “You are everything to me.”

“Ned…”

“It’s you and me, Pearl. You hear me?” Ned cups her face in his warm hands. “You are my forever.” His smile goes a little crooked. “May I be yours?”

She smiles. “Always.”

1997

The breakfast room is Kay’s favorite spot in the hotel; discounting the basements of course. Blue curtains frame the windows and cut down on the morning sun’s glare.

Silverware clinks against china plates- only the best at the Finch- and guests speak softly to each other. Kay takes a sip of orange juice as she waits for Charlie to arrive with his father. A folder with a picture of the portrait and the photograph from the album sits beside her. She hopes Mr. Benton has answers because she’s made no progress in her research.

“Morning Miss Kay,” Charlie says, pushing his dad’s wheelchair up to the table.

“Morning Charlie, Mr. Benton. It’s good to see you again.” Kay smiles as Charlie takes a seat. A waiter appears and takes their drink orders.

“It’s my pleasure Miss Kay but I’ve told you to call me Henry.” Mr. Benton says; his voice is soft and raspy but his eyes are bright and alert.

“And you know my parents raised me to respect my elders.”

“And now you’re calling me old.” Mr. Benton shakes his head in mock disappointment.

Charlie chuckles. “Dad, you are old.”

“And now my children are insulting me.” He sighs dramatically. “Well, Miss Kay, we best get on with this meeting before I lose my old marbles.”

Charlie laughs as Kay smiles. She adores Mr. Benton. She pulls the portrait picture out of the folder and hands it to him. “What do you know about Ned Finch?”

Mr. Benton smiles at the photograph. “Ned was a good one. Best really. I was a shoe shiner here at the Finch. Just fifteen years old. Ned always paid me a little extra.”

“So you actually knew Ned?” This is better than she hoped for.

Mr. Benton nods but doesn’t look away from the photo. “I did. Knew him even better after he and Miss Pearl started goin’ together.” His smile saddens.

Pearl? Kay pulled the photograph from her purse and handed it over. “Is this her?”

Mr. Benton smiles. “That’s her. Miss Pearl was a classy lady. Hardworking too. Never heard her complain once.”

The waiter appeared and sat their drinks down along with a tray of pastries.

“Where’d you find these? I’d though Ned’s daddy had destroyed any evidence of Ned.”

“Basement.” Kay says.

“Huh. Guess Mr. Finch had a heart after all.” Mr. Benton shakes his head. “Couldn’t tell it at the time. It’s why Ned left.”

“Ned left? Why?”

“For Miss Pearl. She was a maid here.”

“A maid?”

Mr. Benton nods. “Mr. Finch didn’t approve of his son courting a poor girl. Course Miss Pearl’s family didn’t approve at first either. Peal’s mama was worried when Ned started walking the two of us home- my family’s apartment was across from hers- she was worried he was after only one thing.” Mr. Benton eyes her. She nods. Rich young man, pretty young woman. She knew exactly what Pearl’s mother was worried about. “But Ned proved just what type of man he was. Good to the bone.”

“So Ned left.”

“What he and Miss Pearl had was the real deal. He left and they go married. Took her last name too. Said he didn’t want anything to do with the Finch name.”

Kay laughs, shocked. Mr. Benton nods. “Those two were one of a kind.”

“I’ll say.” Kay stares at the photo. “They sound amazing.”

“They were.” Mr. Benton’s voice thickens.

“What happened to them?” She pictures them growing old, getting grayer, but still deeply in love.

Mr. Benton sighs. “Ned was drafted in World War II.” His face fell. “Didn’t make it home.”

A rock lands in her stomach. “Oh. Poor Pearl.”

“She was heartbroken all right, but she was strong. Lived another thirty years without him.”

What is there to say to that? Kay thinks of the portrait. Had Ned been looking at Pearl when the artist had painted him? He must have been. It was the same look in his eyes in the photograph. Kay picks up her glass. “To Ned and Pearl.”

Charlie and Mr. Benton clink their glasses with hers. “To Ned and Pearl.”

1926

They’re standing on the steps of the hotel. Pearl had resigned. Ned had packed his suitcase and told his father exactly what he thought. Love is what matters. Not money.

Ned tips his head back, looking up at the forty stories. Pearl squeezes his hand. “You can change your mind you know.”

She’s only half-serious.

Ned’s look makes her giggle. “I love you.” He says.

Pearl smiles. “I am quite glad to hear that.”

They walk down the steps. “Do you love me?” Ned asks when she says nothing else.

“Every day for the rest of forever.”

Ned smiles. He lets go of her hand and wraps his arm around her. “Good. I’d hate to have told my father off for nothing.”

Pearl laughs and gives him a little shove. Ned pulls her close and kisses the top of her hat. She leans into him.

This is how it was going to be for the rest of their lives.

Them, together, forever.

1997

Back in her office, Kay pulls out a document pen. She turns over the photograph and adds Pearl’s name.

She smiles.

Now they would both be remembered. Forever.

March 20, 2021 00:06

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2 comments

J.C. Martin
16:11 Mar 25, 2021

Such a clever way to respond to the prompt! This was a very sweet story and I loved the back and forth between timelines. My only critique is that I would love to have read more imagery from the 20's; the clothes, the music, the atmosphere of the time. But I understand there is a word limit and you managed to tell a beautiful story within that limitation. The last few lines were the perfect way to end it!

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Lyn Carstone
21:07 Mar 25, 2021

Thank you so much! I appreciate the feedback. :)

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