Willow rolled her eyes. "Buffy, I suggest we get back to our assignments. Will you hand me that notebook?"
"But Willow, you must admit that he is handsome. If all goes well tomorrow, I could be Mrs. Buffy Blythe. I, well… I don't like the sound of it, but I like the idea," the girl declared as she handed the item to her friend.
Willow sighed and laid the notebook on her desk. The mid-afternoon sun hit her red hair as she took a seat. Buffy resumed her position on Willow's bed among the books and pencils.
"Don't worry, Buffy. I'm sure everything will be fine, and your parents already approve of the match," the redhead replied. "Now, would you mind if we finished before the picnic tomorrow? My parents will certainly not allow me to go to Central Park if our assignments are not complete."
"Fine, I just hope the carriage is as splendid as William described. That'll show that biddy Cordelia Chase that the Summers have worth. If I secure William, Dawn will have much better prospects for a husband."
Forgetting the notebook in her hand, Willow became alarmed. She asked, "Are you saying that neither you nor Dawn will marry for love? Is it not more important to find a person of character?"
Buffy threw her hands in the air, "Certainly not, but would it not be preferable to elevate our status? I am as much of a romantic as the next girl, but I know we are worth more. My mother spent so much moneyas a patron of the arts, we were left with nothing when my father left for Spain. I swore I would not be as vulnerable, and I also swore that I would ensure the best for Dawn. And, now that you have ruined my spirits, let's complete this math set."
The girls set their attention to the numbers on the pages before them, and they worked into the evening.
"Tara? Come in here," the man boomed. Tara peeked her head out of their room before she made her way to the kitchen, where John Maclay sat. She wrapped her hands behind her back and replied, "Yes, sir?"
Her father threw a pile of papers to the table and said, "I've been looking at these figures, Tara, and I've made a decision. We need your brother back here, or we'll never be able to get out of this pit. A friend on the railroad just told me he's living in St. Louis, and I'm going to go get him. This means that you need to go to work at Harry Hill's."
Tara wilted under her father's stern gaze. "H-harry Hill's, sir? But, isn't that a place for... you know who? My singing won't really go over well in a place like that."
She saw the glint in her father's eye as he replied, "Well my dear, you don't seem to understand what I am getting at. The game is simple: you sing a song or two, impress some of the wealthier gentlemen, and sucker them into buying drinks while I, or a trusted barman, lift their wallet. Trust me, you won't have to drink anything stiffer than watered down whiskey or colored water, I'll make sure of it. I still want you to get married, Tara. We can't have you getting mixed up as a streetwalker."
The blonde paled at the thought of her father's demand. She had heard about the things that happened at Harry Hill's Concert Saloonbut did not want to consider the gruesome alternatives, so simply asked, "When?"
"Next Friday. I've already spoken to Harry, and it will only be until we get enough money to cover my trip. After I leave, you go back to the Haymarket. Speaking of which, don't you have somewhere to be?"
Tara nodded, slipped into her jacket, and walked through the dim hallway into the night air. 'The one consolation,' she thought, 'is that maybe this new occupation will ensure that I won't have to marry a man.'
Buffy's voice rang through the brisk air, "William! Slow down! You will be the death of us!"
William teased, "What's the matter, afraid of a little speed?"
Willow gasped, "I'm afraid I agree with Buffy. Daniel? What have you to say?"
"Better slow it down," he stated.
William pulled back on the reins and brought the horses to a slow trot. He sneered, "Better? Or shall I have a pair of fuzzy kittens take us through the park?"
Buffy snapped, "For goodness' sake, William! You know as well as I that such speeds are not permitted." She realized her tone would not soften William's temperament and cooed, "Now, why don't you pull over by the Lake, and we'll have our picnic?"
The man relented, "Fine, but let's get a nice spot in the shade, eh?"
The four gathered the baskets and blankets from the trunk of the carriage and wandered to the base of a tall pin oak tree. Their eyes glistened from the shimmering lake and the array of people strolling along the winding paths. Rowboats sprinkled the surface of the lake, as young men brandished the oars and ladies with lace umbrellas shielded themselves from the sun and the prying eyes of their chaperones. A pair of children dashed by, almost causing Willow to drop her basket.
Daniel and William spread the crimson blanket over the grass and secured the corners with their baskets. Willow and Buffy began to lay the sandwiches and cakes out for consumption. Before long, the four were idly chatting between bites. A gentle wind flowed through Willow's hair as she turned her attention to the lake.
Tara, Anya, and Xander exited the row house. Anya put her hands on her hips and sharply asked, "Why didn't you tell me you didn't know how to row a boat, Xander?"
Xander cast his eyes to the ground and shrugged his shoulders, "I, ah, well, ah… it's not like I get the chance to row a boat everyday, Anya. Did you expect me to row down South Street on my way to work? I barely set foot on the boats as it is."
"Well, it's a good thing Tara was there," the Russian answered. Turning to the blonde she inquired, "So, how did you know how to row, anyway?"
"There was a pond by our farm. The Sullivans would let my family use their boat," Tara replied. Hoping to change the subject, she proposed, "Shall we walk about the lake?"
Anya and Xander nodded, and the three set off on the path. Anya took Xander's arm as they wound around the lake, and the woman sighed with happiness. It was not long ago when wealth and poverty were forbidden to mingle in such a public space.
As they entered a thick patch of forest, the sun hid behind the canopy of leaves overhead. Tara barely made out a formation of birds fly overhead, and she was glad they could go to the park before the birds migrated south for the winter.
Anya's voice pierced the hum of nature. "I am so glad we could do this. Hey Tara, why don't we work a song about Central Park into the act? You and me, we could do it together. My gams, your voice, it'll be a smash!"
Tara released a slight frown, looked at her friend and responded, "Uh, yeah… Anya? I don't think that's going to work."
"Why not?! We'll talk to Mike. I'm sure he'll allow it, and if not, I'll have my manly boyfriend teach him a lesson."
"No, Anya, see… I am going to have to cut back my nights at the Haymarket. My father, he… needs me," Tara ended with a shiver. She hesitated and added, "He has sent me to work at Harry Hill's."
"What!" Her friends were in hysterics, and between Xander's exclamations and Anya's ranting, she barely managed to insert, "It's only temporary. My father needs money to go to St. Louis to retrieve Donnie."
Anya screeched, "No! You can't! You know the type of girls that work there, and you know that it could hurt your chances with Richard, not to mention the fact that it could get you arrested. Tara! You cannot do it. I forbid it. As your friend, I will not allow it."
"As comforting as that is, I don't really have a choice. If my father can get Donnie to come back, I can focus on singing and quit the factory. Isn't that worthwhile?"
"Listen to me, girl. You keep what happens in Harry Hill's out in the open. Do not allow anyone to take you somewhere alone. You hear me? Do not let it happen," Xander insisted.
Tara let a smile play across her lips, "I know. And I thank you. I know you two care. Please… I can't fight this, please trust that I will not let anything bad happen."
With her friends appeased, Tara continued on the path. The growth on the forest floor rolled like a plush green carpet. They enjoyed the seclusion and the quiet until they emerged near the park drive. They made their way south, hoping to find the zoo. The trio approached a group of picnickers, and Tara overheard a blonde speak to her friend, "Hey Willow, isn't that the singer from the Haymarket?"
"And so, my fellow parishioners, we must expunge this menace to society! We must cleanse our souls and remove temptation. Women expose themselves, and men gamble their fortunes! We cannot allow these vices to permeate our spirit, to corrupt our faith. You must look within yourselves and call upon what you know to be good and right. Do not succumb to their lure, do not forget your virtue!"
The mass ended, and the faithful began to file out of the pews. Reverend Giles retired to his office to disrobe and prepare for the afternoon meeting with Councilman McDonnell. He sat at his desk and opened his journal as a figure burst through the door.
"So, was that your idea of proselytizing, or was it a warning? Think you've got those people wrapped around your finger, don't you."
The preacher turned his head to the intruder. He jeered, "And what do you want, Mr. O'Shaughnessy?"
Liam grinned, "Simple. I want you to call off this battle against me and mine while we still have our dignity. Wouldn't that be for the best?"
"I hardly think you are in a position to say what is best, Mr. O'Shaughnessy. Why don't you take your leave and, um, take a bible while you're at it?"
The Irishman crossed his arms and sighed, "Funny how you think a bible is the only thing one needs for salvation. You can stand on any pedestal you want, we'll still be here. I, and everyone that takes my place, will be here. You can't just call us 'evil' and hope we'll go away."
Giles stood from his desk and walked to face the man. "It's not what I think, Mr. O'Shaughnessy. It's what God thinks. And right now, I would say that you should leave."
Liam smirked, shifted to the door, and said, "We'll see each other again."
The redhead lifted her head, "Where?"
Tara's ears perked at the mention of the Haymarket, and her blue eyes connected with a girl sitting on a blanket near the lake. She could barely make out her red hair under the shade of the tree.
Buffy exclaimed, "It's that singer, and isn't that one of the dancers?"
All eyes turned to Tara as Daniel, William, and Willow realized they were faced with the entertainers from the previous weekend. Anya gave a weak smile and curtsied. Xander stood by, ignorant of the thoughts of those around him.
Daniel gently waved as Willow shot to her feet. She extended her hand to Tara and offered, "Hi! I'm Willow. Don't you sing at the Haymarket? Or, maybe it wasn't you. Was that some other woman with a beautiful voice?"
Tara's ducked her flushed face and accepted the hand offered to her. The blonde fixed her eyes on the girl before her. She had fierce red hair and a smile that made her green eyes sparkle. Tara turned her head up to connect her blue eyes with the girl before her, and she felt her lips tug into a smile.
Anya rolled her eyes, "Of course, Tara gets noticed, and we chorus girls practically break our necks for nothing."
Tara shook her head and remembered her companions. "Oh… uh, right. These are my friends, Anya and Xander. And I'm Tara."
"I know," the redhead replied, before she hastened to add, "Er, that is, I remember. These are my friends, Buffy, Daniel, and William."
The group exchanged pleasantries while Willow cast her eyes up and down the blonde. She felt an unfamiliar stir in her chest as she caught the soft features and kind expression that Tara wore. She felt drawn to the other girl, even more than when she had glimpsed the blonde on the stage of the Haymarket.
William cleared his throat and declared, "I do believe that it is time for our carriage ride. Shall we?"
Daniel announced, "I actually have to get downtown to meet with the boss. He told me to get there when church services finished, and it's about that time."
Willow made her disappointment obvious when she replied, "What!? Is this for your gang? I thought you were going to try to get out of that and come back to school, Daniel."
Tara, Xander and Anya tried to ignore the awkward conversation as Daniel replied, "Yeah, well, things change. I'm going to catch the elevated train back downtown. William, Buffy, Willow, it was fun. Tara, Anya, Xander, nice to meet you. If you'll excuse me."
The boy took a slight bow and departed. Willow glanced at Buffy, who seemed to encourage her to follow suit. Tara caught the exchange and offered, "Uh Willow, would you like to come with us? We were going to walk down toward the zoo, and you could rejoin your friends later in the afternoon? When they've finished their carriage ride?"
Willow's eyes lit up at the prospect of spending time with the blonde beauty. Her frustration at Daniel's departure was suddenly replaced by anticipation and joy. She could not guess why a wonderful singer like Tara would want to spend time with her, but she was excited to do so. She caught the pleased look on Buffy's face and guessed that her friend would prefer her privacy with William.
She nodded, and she made arrangements to meet Buffy and William along Fifth Avenue, near the entrance to the park. The couple made their way to the carriage, and the remaining group set forth toward Bethesda Fountain. The open plaza served as a reminder that the park was a design of man, yet its simple magnificence flowed with the natural order of the space.
Tara glanced up at the angel atop the fountain. She marveled at the serene expression, and as she began to feel a touch of that calm, she heard Willow speak. "It's the Angel of the Waters. My parents brought me here when I was a little girl, fresh off the boat from Germany."
Tara examined her companion. She was gorgeous;that much was plain. There was something more, as if the girl brimmed with vitality, waiting to burst. To the blonde's satisfaction, she also seemed very much interested in spending time together. She hoped to limit the conversation to light topics and wanted to avoid discussion of her family and her profession. Realizing she had yet to respond, she stated, "It's beautiful. So, are those your friends from school?"
"Yeah, Buffy and William go to my school. Daniel, he, well he used to go to school. Seems the world of politics is more appealing."
Tara again noticed the girl's disappointment. She pressed, "You're close to Daniel, aren't you?"
Willow nodded and said, "Yeah, we are. At least, we used to be."
"So you're going together?"
The blonde laughed, "I mean, you're romantically involved?"
"With Daniel? Oh no, he's just an old friend. Met him when I first arrived in America, and he's been like a brother to me. He escorts me places around town, since my parents are a bit protective, especially since we moved to New York City," Willow replied.
"Uh, how long have you lived in America? I can hardly tell you're an immigrant."
"Ten years, and my parents had insisted on teaching me English from a young age. When my father took a post with the university, it was not very difficult to adapt. I lost my accent by the time I started secondary school," the redhead answered. She cast a look at the blonde and decided to be bold, "What about you? Are you really from Ireland? What do you do when you're not singing? Do you go to school? What is your family like?"
Tara felt the blush creep down her neck. 'So much for that plan,' she thought. She decided to answer in vague terms, "Yes, I am from Ireland. I work in a factory. My family is spread out."
Willow scolded herself. She was always inquisitive, and it was clear that the other girl did not want to discuss her past. The redhead hoped to learn more about Tara and tried to put her at ease. She curbed her curiosity and replied, "So you are from Ireland. That, uh, must be nice."
The blonde chuckled, "Yeah, if you call being forced to live in a hole 'nice.'" She immediately regretted the words as they passed through her lips, and she added, "Ireland is beautiful, and I miss it. America is… different. There are more opportunities, but I am hardly in a position to avail myself of them. I work in the garment district, and I sing."
Anya took the occasion to enter into their dialogue, "Yeah, for now. If I could give your father a piece of my mind… boy, he wouldn't even think of sending you into a place like Harry-"
Xander closed his hand over his fiancée's mouth. The grateful look from Tara confirmed his guess that she did not want Willow to know her personal history. Willow stood by, oblivious to the heightened tension.
"Harry's? I don't think I've heard of a place called Harry's. Of course, last weekend was the first time my parents let me go out on the town, so my knowledge of the nightlife is small. It was a great first time; you were great. You were both, uh, great," the redhead ended with a mutter. She suddenly regretted joining Tara and her friends. Crippled by her clumsy social skills, she realized she was not making a good impression on the beautiful blonde.
She could not determine why she hoped to earn Tara's good opinion, but she knew that she hoped to see her some time after their afternoon stroll. In a new wave of energy, she suggested, "Shall we go through there and go past the Mall? I've heard there might actually still be sheep out on the Sheep Meadow. Might be fun."
Tara felt the girl's enthusiasm permeate her cloudy mood. "Yes, let's. Shall we?" She gently smiled and offered her arm to the redhead. Willow wove their arms together as Anya and Xander led the way through a tiled underpass. The image of carriages and figures coursing overhead was the last thing Tara glimpsed as they walked south.
The cavalcade streamed along the park drive. Attractive teams of horses pulled grand carriages past the colorful foliage. The feathered hats of distinguished women were more prominent than the birds that flew through the air.
William cracked the whip, hoping the horses would increase their pace and bring the afternoon to a speedy close. He liked Buffy, but the girl struck him as markedly eager. Her friends left much to desire, and her family was barely respectable. She was tantalizing, yet her conduct that afternoon had cemented his opinion. He could never take her home to mother.
Buffy gripped his arm and shrieked, "This is great fun, William. Thank you for taking us to the park. Why don't we slow down and enjoy the scenery?"
The boy grimaced and fulfilled the girl's request. It was almost time to rendezvous with Willow, and he lamented the decision to allow the girl to run off with those entertainers. That was one more reason to distance himself from Buffy and her friends.
His exaggerated whip movements shook Buffy's hand from his arm. He sensed her frown and stated, "Sorry, just a little frustrated with the horses. I'll have my man re-shoe them when I return to the stable."
The girl shrugged. She sensed that the boy was unhappy about something, so she asked, "Is something else wrong, William?"
He scowled, acknowledging that he would have to tell her the truth eventually. He pulled the reins and brought the horses to a slow gallop. "Well, honestly, Buffy," he began, "things have been different. I've been thinking that we won't be able to have any more of these afternoon adventures, for one."
Buffy crinkled her brow, slowly grasping what William intimated. She whispered, "What are you trying to say?"
William sighed, "It's just… Buffy, I, that is to say, you and I - we - are not going to work. I'll be starting university soon, and you'll be hoping to marry. And mother, well, mother would not approve."
"So, you do what mother wants? What mother would like?" Buffy held her tears at bay.
"I'm sorry, Buffy, but it's just the way I feel. I wanted to be honest with you," the boy murmured.
The pair concluded the carriage ride in silence.
"So, uh, you like singing?" Willow decided to broach an easy topic as they resurfaced into the sun's glare.
Tara smiled, "I love it. It's an escape, and as long as my father and I can pay rent, I thank my lucky stars that I can earn money doing something I love."
Willow smiled, "That's good for you. I wish I knew what I wanted to do."
"You will," Tara replied, certain that the redhead was intelligent. "You are in school, after all."
"Yes, my parents insist on it. I go to one of the better high schools in the city, and they even want me to go to college. I don't think they really care how; they just want me to follow in their footsteps."
The blonde took in the information and instantly felt mediocre. "That's, uh, that's nice. Do you like school?"
"Oh, I love school!" the redhead exclaimed. She sensed Tara's discomfort and continued, "I just wish I knew what to do. You seem to have things figured out."
"Not exactly, my life is sort of a… work in progress. I work in a lousy factory, I sing silly songs, and I'm about to start hustling at Harry Hill's. The sad part is that it is entirely possible that I may sink lower," the blonde stated.
"Harry Hill's? So that's where you're going to sing? I'll have to come see you!"
Tara envied the girl's naiveté. She answered, "It wouldn't be such a good idea. It's mostly a gentlemen's establishment, and the women that do work there have one purpose. They want to squeeze every last penny out of the clientele." She paused, realized her mistake, and said, "And, I can't believe I just told you that."
Willow detected Tara's trepidation and supplied, "Well, I just hope I can see you sing somewhere. Will you return to the Haymarket? And, have I mentioned how beautiful you are, I mean, how beautiful your voice is?"
The blonde recognized the familiar blush spread across her cheeks. Her experience in various concert halls taught her that there were women who associated with other women, and she was fairly certain she never fancied any of the men that sought her attention. Willow sparked strange feelings. She was excited, yet scared out of her wits. She smiled and asked, "Shall we take a turn about the meadow?"
Willow nodded, grinned, and clutched Tara's arm. They agreed to meet Anya and Xander back at the band shell and turned west. The plush grass spread out like a sea of green, and Tara noticed it brought out the color of Willow's eyes. Hoping to be discreet about her feelings, she moved to a new topic, "Do you come to the park often?"
"My parents used to take me here as a girl, but they have become somewhat preoccupied in recent years," Willow responded. "What about you, do you come often?"
"Only when the weather is fit, and I have good company. I should like to come more, but I am frequently detained. It would be lovely to be able to come to the park or to have more time to read," the blonde said.
Willow skipped ahead, turned on her heel and grabbed Tara's hands, "You read? I love to read! At least, when I don't have school assignments… what do you like to read? What is your favorite book?"
Tara smirked, "I've been quite taken by various volumes of poetry. Especially Whitman. M-my mother told me he used to live in Brooklyn, just across the river."
"He did! And wow, I would love to talk about literature with you. But, I think your friends might expect us soon," the redhead answered.
Circling back toward the band shell, Willow and Tara heard the sound of distant minstrels and the laughter of children as they ran between the trees. They glimpsed Anya and Xander seated at the base of a tree. The group reunited, and they took a quick walk through the zoo.
The four emerged along Fifth Avenue; each astonished at the sight of real monkeys and tigers. She turned to offer her thanks to Tara, offering, "Well, I hope to see you some other time, Tara. Nice to meet you all."
Anya and Xander smiled in response. Tara bowed and replied, "Next time you're at the Haymarket, don't be a stranger. Nice to meet you, Willow."
William's carriage rolled up to the curb, and Willow immediately noticed Buffy's crestfallen face. The redhead climbed into the carriage and waved to Tara as William cracked the whip.
"Sorry I'm late, boss. I had a thing," Daniel announced as he rushed into the office on 14th Street.
"I needed you hours ago, kid. My encounter with the good Reverend didn't exactly go as planned," Liam hissed. "Now, what can you tell me about Mr. Finn?"
"Looks like the Lieutenant is hoping to make some waves, boss. He's been meeting with councilmen, priests, anyone who will listen. Here's the list I made," the boy set the paper down on the Irishman's desk. Liam took up the sheet and cast his eyes to the names on the page.
"Good work, Danny Boy. Remember, you and your gang need to watch your backs. The stakes are high, and I don't aim to lose."