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Southern California, 1873
Stuart Taylor crouched on a flat boulder and pulled his trap up from the harbor floor. A small brown lobster slid to the corner of the crate. He grabbed it, turning it over to make sure of its size, and then tossed it back into the water. "Come back when you've grown," he murmured. Then, placing new bait in the trap, he stood and swung the trap out as far as possible, releasing the hemp rope at the last second. The crate splashed into the brine and sank quickly beyond sight.
He looked for his other lobster trap, but it was gonerope and all. Someone was still stealing from him. He'd warned off two boys a few days ago with a bullet into their boat. Their sudden departure had convinced him they wouldn't try again. Maybe he'd been wrong.
Great. Guess he and Hannah would be eating beans tonight. Not the best way to celebrate a birthday. He grabbed the bucket at his feet and made his way up the narrow dirt path.
Hannah stood at the stone doorstep, anxiety filling her heart-shaped face until she caught sight of him. She wore her one good dress, the dark-chocolate-brown one he'd laid out last night. A white pinafore covered it, wrinkled in one spot now where her hands had twisted and worried the fabric. Uncanny how that trait of her mother's manifested itself in Hannah, though she'd only been three when Linnea died.
"Did you eat?"
She nodded, and with the bob of her head, he spied her tangled mass of blond hair. "Forgot something, birthday girl," he said gruffly, turning her toward the kitchen. "You can't go into town looking like something washed in by the waves."
She crossed her arms over her chest and stood stiffly while he brushed her hair then tied it in a ponytail with an old blue ribbon. The face that stared back at him grew more like her mother's every day. The dove-gray eyes shone with anticipation for the promised trip. She was lonely here. So lonely the thought of a trip into town had her flushed with excitement and up before dawn. He felt it, toothe isolation, the quiet. But it was safe.
He followed Hannah outside and boosted her onto his horse, Blanco. She fidgeted, patting the dusty animal on its withers. He grabbed the lead rope. "See that you don't wiggle right off your perch."
They took the trail that led from the tip of the windy peninsula, four hundred feet above sea level, to the small town on the water's edge. He didn't get into town much, only when supplies ran low, but today was August 10, Hannah's birthday, and he wanted to make it special for her.
He drew closer to La Playa and his anxiety increased in measure. Surely the risk of discovery had diminished now. It had been more than three years since the accident. Hannah didn't even look the same. She had stretched up into a thin wisp of a girl who seldom stood still. Her naturally pale skin had taken on a golden glow over the long summer days.
He rubbed his smooth chin, remembering the dark beard and mustache that once covered his face. He didn't look the same either. Still, doubts niggled at his mind. Dorian wasn't stupid, and he wasn't a quitter. San Francisco might be five hundred miles away but sooner or later Dorian would find himand if Dorian found him, so would the law. Perhaps he should think about moving on.
Halfway to town, the trail sloped steeply through a brush-studded canyon. Two small lizards scurried from under the horse's shadow and dashed into the nearby chaparral as he led Blanco around one last sandstone curve. The harbor opened up before them, deep blue and sparkling in the sunlight. Barely visible through the scruffy bushes to the south lay the whaling port. He raised his face to the wind and sniffed. "Smell that, Hannah? Just salt and sage. No whale butchered today."
Turning toward La Playa, he led Blanco past a steamer moored at the new wharf before heading up San Antonio Street and past the Mexican Government Custom House. A few odd-shaped buildings, some built of wood and some of adobe, hugged each side of the square like ticks on the ears of a short-haired dog.
Stuart stopped at the community well and filled his canteens, all the while taking in the surrounding sounds the way a deaf man would who for one day is able to hear. Loud clanging rang out from the livery's half-opened doorway as the blacksmith forged a new tool or horseshoe. A thin, aproned woman swept the front boardwalk of the town's only mercantile.
Hannah tugged on his shirt.
"All right, all right. I'm going."
Looping the two canteens over the saddle horn, he walked back to Morley's Mercantile. Two young women stood at the opened doorway of the store, giggling and whispering behind gloved hands. He glanced up while tying the reins on the hitching rail. Both attractive, especially the blonde. He turned back to help Hannah.
"There on his forehead. Do you see it?"
He slowed in the act of setting Hannah on the ground. So he was to supply their gossip for today. He clenched his hands. He'd hate to disappoint them. Straightening, he leveled his gaze at the two.
The blonde quieted. She must be the banker's wife or daughter. Her dress was quality through and through, right down to her matching green parasol. He hadn't seen anything so fancy since he'd left San Francisco. Her eyes judged him coolly before she whirled about with a toss of her head and entered the store.
Anger surged through him. Already he could feel people staring at him through the streaked window-panes. He couldn't care less that they talked about him. But HannahHannah, he worried about. She might not talk anymore, but she could hear just fine. He'd rather take her anywhere than into the store right now.
But it was her birthday. And he'd promised this trip for weeks.
He grasped her hand and helped her jump onto the boardwalk before stepping up himself.
The other woman, the one who'd gotten an earful, remained standing in the doorway, curiosity etched in her strong face. He wouldn't call her prettyyet the sum of her features pulled together in a pleasant way. She wore a plain yellow dress, simple and sturdy, and a straw hat that covered thick auburn hair.
He stepped closecloser than was conventional and dragged off his seaman's cap, giving her a good view of his scar. He met her unflinching gaze full-on challenging her to speak. She was older than he'd first thought. Fine lines splayed from the corners of her eyes and her nose was sunburned and peeling. He let his gaze wander the length of her until he arrived again at her face, and found himself slightly irritated for enjoying the trip. "By all means, believe everything you hear."
Her cheeks flamed scarlet. With an almost imperceptible nod of her heador was it actually a raising of her chin?she stepped aside for him to enter the building.
The scent of cloves and cinnamon intermingled with the barrel of pears in the doorway. He breathed deeply and tried to shake off the discontent he felt. This was Hannah's birthday trip, and by God he'd make it special.
The blonde stood at the counter speaking with the lanky owner of the mercantile and glancing over her shoulder at Stuart every few seconds. Terrance Morley drummed his fingers on the countertop. "Mornin', Taylor. Things quiet up your way?"
Stuart hesitated a fraction of a second and then nodded. Things were always quiet at the lighthouse. He handed Morley the list of needed supplies.
Suddenly, Hannah let go of his hand and dashed across the room. Stuart followed slowly, a sinking sensation in his stomach. He hated to put a damper on her fascination with the trinkets and products, but whatever the item might be, likely they couldn't afford it. He'd planned only to buy her six sarsaparilla candy sticks, one for each of her six years, and a new hair ribbon.
She spun around holding a new doll with shiny waves of painted black hair and red lips. She fingered the doll's pretty green dress and ruffled underthings. He knew what would come next and steeled himself against the disappointment that would transform her face. Before the accident he wouldn't have thought twice about the cost of the doll.Although not rich, he had been comfortable, and the future held such promise. But now, on a light keeper's salary, the toy cost more than he could afford.
The woman in yellow entered the store, the sun casting her shadow across the hardwood floor. Morley glanced up, started to greet her and spied Hannah holding the doll.
"Put that down!" he shouted.
Startled, Hannah jumped. The doll crashed to the floor, its china head shattering at her feet. She stared in frozen shock at the pieces.
"Now look what you've done!" Morley yelled and pointed a bony finger at the mess. He charged around the end of the counter and jabbed Hannah's shoulder.
"Children have no business being in here without proper supervision. You'll pay for that, missy."
Stuart leveled his gaze. "That's enough, Morley."
Tears brimmed in Hannah's eyes. She was scared and sorryeven though the words wouldn't come. Stuart put his hand on her shoulder. "It was an accident, Hannah."
Next to him, the blonde turned on Hannah. "You must apologize to Mr. Morley this instant, child."
"I said that's enough," Stuart said, making sure there was no mistaking the warning in his voice. "And I'll thank you to keep to your own business, ma'am."
She glared at him, obviously perceiving the double meaning of his words, then stuck her nose higher in the air and walked from the store.
Slowly Hannah stooped and picked up the fragments of china.
I should scold her, Stuart told himself, but Mr. Morley had done a strong job of that. "Hannah," he said, sharper than he intended.
She stopped her gathering and glanced up, the tears spilling onto her cheeks in earnest now. Tightness wrapped around his chest and squeezed at the sight of her misery. Linnea would have handled this differently. He gentled his tone. "Put those on the counter and wait outside."
When she had done as he asked, he stepped up to the counter. He would settle the cost of the toy, but he'd have to omit an item or two from his list. How could he salvage her birthday after this?
The woman in yellow stooped to pick up one last fragment of china and the body of the doll. She placed them next to his parcels.
"Miss Houston, you don't need to clean up," the clerk said. "You'll cut yourself."
"You frightened the girl."
Her reproachful voice held a hint of soft Midwestern twang.
"She should sweep the entire floor for her punishment," Morley said.
Stuart pressed his lips together, checking his urge to hit the man. "I'll take care of my girl. You just mind your store." He looked over his stack of supplies and removed the canned beef and fresh bread. He could hunt rabbits and quail as usual. And there was always fish. They'd make do with the tin of crackers. It would last longer than the bread, anyway. Stubbornly, he kept the six candy sticks. "Now what is my total with the doll?"
While Morley tallied the order, Stuart found himself watching the woman, surprised she had spoken in Hannah's defenseand a little suspicious, too. She strolled to the yard goods, smoothing her hand across one piece of fabric and then another.
She must have felt him staring. After a glance in his direction she looked away, but her cheeks flushed pink. She selected two bundles of yarn and set them on the far end of the counter. The scent of honeysuckle wafted over him, feminine, inviting. How long had it been since he smelled anything other than the brine of the ocean?
"You aren't charging full price for the doll, are you Terrance?" she asked.
Mr. Morley stopped his tallying and frowned over his glasses at her.
"Part of the fault lies with you," she continued.
"That doesn't excuse the cost."
"But you startled the girl. If you'd asked her to put the doll down rather than speaking so sharply, she wouldn't have dropped it."
Morley caught Stuart's gaze. "Three dollars, Taylor." The clerk's attitude disgusted him. The sooner Stuart got out of here, the better. He counted out the money and dropped it on the counter then picked up the box of supplies. The doll he left behind purposely. To have what was left of it would only distress Hannah.
He packed his saddlebags, and then helped Hannah onto Blanco. Despair knifed through him at the silent shaking of her shoulders. She had dressed so carefully this morning, had been so excited about this trip into town, and it had ended in a nightmare. Stuart's stomach knotted. He couldn't do anything about other people. They were cruel. Hell, life was cruel, but somehow he'd make it up to her.
A flash of yellow in the doorway caught his eye. He glanced up to see the woman watching him. He didn't quite know what to make of her. In the end she'd been kind, and so he tipped his cap to her.
She acknowledged him with a nod, her gaze steady. Anxious to put the town and its people behind him, he led Blanco home. The bustling sounds of the harbor grated on his ears. The silence that shrouded them daily at the lighthouse would be safesafe for him and safe for Hannah. No one and nothing would bother them nothing but the never-ending quiet.
"Your yarn, Miss Houston." Terrance Morley leaned on the wooden counter and smileda smile Rachel could easily mistake for a leer if she gave room to the thought.
"Thank you, Mr. Morley."
"It was Terrance a moment ago."
"Yes, well. It was a bit presumptuous of me."
"But you've been coming in here for over two months now. I'd like you to use my given name."
"Oh," she said, not particularly thrilled with what others might read into the familiarity. "I'm a little uncomfortable with that." Her position as the new school-teacher in this small town hinged on the degree of respectability she could maintain. At her interview with the school board she had downplayed the last few years she'd spent at the mining camp where coarseness and crudeness frequently overpowered a gentler nature. Instead, she had reframed the questions to answer them from her earlier life when she'd helped at the one-room schoolhouse in Wisconsin.
She picked up the yarn and turned to go, but stopped when she saw the broken doll. The head was shattered.
No amount of gluing could repair it. Fingering the mint-green satin dress and miniature crinoline, she thought of the girl's sad face. The wrinkled, too-small dress, the small hole in one stocking below the knee, all spoke of a girl with no mother to do for her. Rachel knew what it was like to live without a mother. At least she'd been lucky to have known hers for the first fourteen years of her life. How lonely the girl must be on the peninsula with no one but her father.
Since she'd moved to town two months ago, she'd heard stories of him. How he kept to himself and was unfriendly toward the townspeople. She didn't know what to believe and most likely shouldn't listen to half of it.