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Jed Fraser swung his long legs over the side of the bed and propped his throbbing head in his hands. Cheap whiskey always gave him a headache. After a long moment, he stood up to open the window in the room. The scent of rotting fish in a barrel below punched him in the nose; he slammed the window shut.
The blond woman in the bed sleepily opened her eyes. "Where you goin', honey?" she asked when he began to dress.
"I have to walk off this headache. Go back to sleep, Millie."
She rolled onto her side. "You comin' back, Jeb?"
"It's Jed, not Jeb. And no, I won't be back."
He laid some bills on the dresser, picked up his seabag, then paused at the doorway and looked back at her.
"Thank you. You were great, Millie."
Surely no woman chose prostitution as a profession willingly. What had forced a sweet gal like Millie into it? And what would wanderers like him do if she hadn't?
The soft snores coming from the bed indicated she had already returned to sleep.
Outside he walked briskly to the dock, where he took a deep breath of sea air as his gaze swept the endless expanse of water. The sea had always lured him, and no matter what the port, the activity around the dock never failed to stimulate him.
And surely there was none more galvanizing than the thriving port of San Francisco, where East met West.
Heavy crates and barrels hoisted on pulleys swung through the air and were lowered onto a ship preparing to return to the Orient. The grunts and shouts of the American longshoremen loading the cargo clamored with the singsong chatter of the Chinese coolies who scurried up the gangplank carrying crates of cackling chickens or fresh vegetables and fruit.
Jed's eyes gleamed with pride as he gazed at the clipper ship nearby in dry dock. A maintenance crew was busy scraping the barnacles off the hull in preparation for a fresh coat of paint. Three-hundred-and-sixty-feet long from bow to stern, with a shiny black hull and bright-red mast and sails, the vessel was the best looking and fastest ship in the harbor.
The Redheaded Belle was Jed's true mistress. From the instant he had stepped on her deck twenty-four months earlier, he'd felt cushioned in the arms of a lover.
As first mate, his services wouldn't be needed for the thirty days the ship was in dry dock, so he intended to visit his brothers and sister and their families in the nearby Napa Valley. Each time he made port in San Francisco, one or the other had either a new addition to his family or would have one soon.
Clay's marriage had come as no surprise, since Jed's older brother had always talked about settling down as soon as the war ended. But he would never have guessed that those two lotharios, Colt and Garth, would follow so soon in Clay's footsteps.
Well, marriage certainly wasn't for Jed he had found the only mistress he could ever cherish.
"Good-bye, Belle," he murmured with a lingering glance at the ship. "See you in a month."
Since he had two hours before the departure of his train, Jed went to the public bath, where he shaved and then climbed into a tub of hot water. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and smoked a cigarillo until the water cooled. After donning clean clothing, he entered the dining room of the nearby hotel.
As the waiter led him to a table, a voice called out, "Mr. Fraser!"
Recognizing the authoritative voice of Nathan Collins, Jed turned with pleasure.
Though the years had aged the man, Nathan Collins was still as imposing as he had been to Jed when he was a young seaman a decade ago.
Collins had been the captain of the Virginia Lady, one of several ships that had risked running the Yankee blockade of southern ports to carry much-needed supplies to the Confederacy during the late war.
Jed respected Nathan Collins more than any man except his own father. The captain had been a mentor to him and had taught him seafaring skills that had proven to Jed that it took more than merely the love of the sea to survive on it.
The two men shook hands. "Have you eaten, Mr. Fraser?" Nathan asked.
"Then you must join us."
"I don't wish to intrude on your breakfast, sir."
"Nonsense, it's a pleasure to see you. Do you remember my daughter, Caroline?"
"Of course," Jed said with a polite nod to the lovely woman seated at the table. " It's a pleasure to see you again, Miss Caroline."
He'd forgotten the captain even had a daughter. Caroline Collins had been just a young girl when her father had sent his wife and daughter from Virginia to live with his brother in California just before the war broke out.
She dipped her head to acknowledge his greeting, but her expression was unwelcoming. Apparently she was displeased with her father's invitation to him.
Oblivious, the captain went on to say, "And this handsome young chap is my grandson, Garrett Collins. Garrett, I'd like to introduce you to Jedemiah Fraser. Mr. Fraser served on the Virginia Lady during the War Between the States."
The young boy stood up. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Fraser."
The lad couldn't have been much more than seven or eight but stood tall and held his head with a confidence that Jed found appealing in one so young. After his proper greeting, the boy broke into a wide grin as he plopped into his chair.
As soon as Jed sat down, a waiter hurried over to them with platters of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon.
His brown eyes gleaming with excitement, Garrett asked, "Did you really sail on Granddad's ship during that war, Mr. Fraser?"
"Yes, I did, Garrett."
"And what a time we had slipping past those Yankee ships," Nathan said. "Tell me, Jedemiah, what have you been doing these past four years?" Nathan asked as he spread strawberry jam on his toast.
"I went back to Fraser Keep for a short time, then I applied for my officer's papers and shipped out on a freighter. On a trip to China I transferred to a clipper ship, and for the past two years I've been first mate on the Redheaded Belle. We carry cargo and mail between here and the Orient."
"Who's the captain?"
"Benjamin Beningham, sir."
"Beningham! A good man," Nathan said.
"Wow, you've been to China!" Garrett exclaimed. "That sure sounds exciting. I wish I could go there."
"I'm sure you could convince your grandfather to take you someday."
Garrett propped his head in his hand and began to tap his fork against the side of his plate. "I know my mother wouldn't go. She doesn't like to sail."
The lad's sigh sounded pitifully despondent, so Jed said, "Well then, we'll have to try and convince her to the contrary, won't we, Garrett?"
"Don't bother, Mr. Fraser," Caroline said. "It won't do you any good."
"Are you that sure his mother would be so hard to convince, Miss Caroline?"
"I'm certain of it. I am his mother, Mr. Fraser."
His mother! Jed was thoroughly confused. He'd noticed she wasn't wearing a ring and had assumed she was unmarried.
She turned to her son. "Garrett, why are you squirming?"
"I have to pee," he said.
"Need I remind you we have a guest? Excuse yourself properly."
"Excuse me, Mr. Fraser, but I have to pee," the boy said.
Jed grinned and winked at him.
Caroline's mouth curved in an effort to suppress a grin, but her eyes failed to disguise her amusement.
"Garrett, I meant that is not the proper way to ask to be excused."
"Good Lord, Caroline!" Nathan declared. "If the boy has to pee, he has to pee."
Caroline sighed. "Father, you're not helping. Will you please accompany Garrett?"
The captain shoved back his chair. "Let's go, rascal we're both in trouble now."
But Garrett was already halfway out of the room, with his grandfather in pursuit.
Chuckling, Jed turned his attention to Caroline. "Kids. You never know what will come out of their mouths."
He found her grin enchanting. "So I've discovered. Garrett says the first thing that pops into his head. He's very like his grandfather."
"And is that so bad, Miss Caroline?"
"Not at all; it's one of the endearing qualities I love about him the most. However, some people are offended by his candidness, so my apologies if that was the case."
"None needed; the boy is the most refreshing person I've met in a long time. But I owe you an apology, Miss Caroline. I didn't realize you were Garrett's mother. Since your father introduced the boy as Garrett Collins, I presumed he was your nephew."
"Weren't you aware my father only has one child, Mr. Fraser?"
Jed tried to conceal his astonishment. If he interpreted her meaning correctly, she was implying she had never married. This whole conversation was not to his liking; he was beginning to feel like a dolt.
To his relief Garrett and the captain returned to the table, and within minutes the boy again began to restlessly tap his fork against his plate.
"It's difficult to imagine your dislike for sailing, Miss Caroline, considering your father is the finest seaman I've ever served under."
"No doubt he is, Mr. Fraser, but after what my mother and I endured, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope on the way to California, I vowed to never set foot on a ship again. It was the longest and most miserable ordeal I've ever experienced."
"That can be an arduous voyage. But that had to be at least nine years ago; now there are steam ships and clipper ships that practically soar over the waves. You'd find them considerably faster and more comfortable."
"I'm happy for you, Mr. Fraser, but I still never intend to step foot on a ship again."
She turned to her son and snapped, "Garrett, if you're finished eating, kindly sit up straight and put aside your fork. The implement is not a musical instrument."
Jed frowned at the unnecessarily sharp reprimand. Something else seemed to be annoying her; had he said something to anger her?
He picked up his coffee cup and gazed at her thoughtfully as he sipped from it. Was she embarrassed at bearing a child out of wedlock? After so many years that seemed unlikely, but perhaps that's why she appeared uncomfortable and silent throughout the meal. Ordinarily he'd be willing to cut her some slack, but now her skin had deepened in a blush and she looked ready to explode.
"Captain Collins, what are you doing in San Francisco? Don't tell me you're in port, too?" he asked to ease the conversation.
"You might say I'm in dry dock, Jedemiah. I sold the Virginia Lady years ago, and I'm a forester now. We have a sawmill and produce lumber for building ships."
"It's hard to imagine you as a landlubber, Captain Collins, but you didn't abandon the sea completely."
"I've abandoned it enough for you to stop addressing me as 'Captain,' Jed."
"That will be difficult to do, sir. But since we no longer share a deck together, I'd be honored to do so, Captain. Ah, sir."
Nathan broke into laughter. "So how long will you be in port, Jed?"
"The ship's in dry dock for a month. I intend to visit my brothers and their families. They live nearby."
Caroline's head snapped up. "Your family lives in California?"
"Yes, not too far from here."
"Your whole family?" She sounded more alarmed than curious.
"No. Will and his family remained in Virginia. The rest of my brothers came here. Actually, Colt married and lives in New Mexico, but now with the railroad completed, he and his family will be able to come to California more often."
"Did you lose Fraser Keep to carpetbaggers when the war ended?" Nathan asked.
"No, sir. Thanks to Will and Emmaline's efforts, they managed to hold on to it during the war, and now the plantation's begun to thrive again."
"What of your sister Melissa?" Caroline asked. "Does she live here, too?"
"Oh, yes. And deliriously happy, I'm pleased to say. Immediately after the war ended, Lissy eloped to California with a Yankee soldier named Stephen Berg. She and Steve have three children now."
"I'm happy for her," Caroline said. "She was always so friendly and sweet; I'm glad she got the happiness she deserved."
He looked at her, surprised by her unexpected warmth. "That's very kind of you, Miss Caroline. I'll be sure to tell her the next time I see her."
Caroline picked up her gloves and handbag. "Father, if you'll excuse us, Garrett and I will leave. I still have a few items to purchase, and I'm sure you and Mr. Fraser have a great deal more to talk over. We'll meet you at the station in thirty minutes. Don't lose track of the time."
"I won't, my dear. Garrett can remain with us, if you prefer."
"No, I rather he come with me," she said quickly.
Jed got up and pulled out her chair. "It was a pleasure seeing you again, Miss Caroline."
"The same to you, Mr. Fraser," she said coolly.
He offered Garrett his hand. "I enjoyed your company, young man."
"Thank you, sir," Garrett said and grinned when Jed winked at him.
Jed's gaze followed Caroline as she departed. Despite how hard you're trying to appear conventional, Miss Caroline Collins, I suspect the jaunty set of that bright-red hat perched on those blond curls means there's another side to you.
A strange woman, he reflected. Lovely face, trim figure, intelligent...Why did she seem so ill at ease?
"We have time for one more cup of coffee and a cigar, then I must be on my way," Nathan said.
"Are you taking the northbound train, sir?"
"That's a coincidence; I'm taking it, too."
"Delightful! We'll be able to visit together for almost another forty miles. I'm sure Caroline will be just as pleased when I tell her."
Jed arched a brow. "Yes, sir, I'm sure she will be."
The train whistle was blowing its final departure warning by the time Jed and Nathan arrived at the station. Jed could see that Caroline's displeasure increased when she saw that he accompanied her father.
"It's about time you got here, Father."
"I'm not a doddering old man, so mind your tongue, daughter."
"I apologize for delaying him, Miss Caroline," Jed interjected.
Garrett's wide grin at his beloved grandfather eased some of the tension. "Mama was worried that you'd miss the train, Granddad. You coming with us, Mr. Fraser?"
"Yes, then I'm continuing a bit further than you."
"Get on the train, Garrett," Caroline said.
Nathan patted the boy on the head and took his hand. "Come on, son."
They climbed on and just as Caroline followed up the steps, the train lurched forward and started to roll. She lost her balance and fell backward, but Jed caught her from the step below, preventing her from falling off as the train gained momentum. Their gazes locked for several seconds.
Thank you, Mr. Fraser," she said breathlessly.
He'd always been powerless to resist a pair of beautiful eyes. "The pleasure was all mine. Do you know that your eyes deepen to purple when you're alarmed, Miss Caroline?"
She smiled slightly. "And what color would you say they are now, Mr. Fraser?"
"I'd say an exquisite azure, like the sky in summer."
Caroline Collins arched a curved brow. "Then if your theory holds true, Mr. Fraser, I guess that would indicate I'm no longer alarmed." She turned around and walked away.
His appreciative gaze followed the sway of hernhips as she moved down the rocking train car. Caroline Collins intrigued him. She was as complicated as they come, and a hell of a beautiful female.
Garrett had sat by the window of one of the double seats facing each other. Nathan had taken the opposite seat, and Caroline sat next to her son.
"If you prefer not to ride backward I'll be glad to sit there, Miss Caroline," Jed said.
"Thank you, but that won't be necessary, Mr. Fraser."
"I think it's fun to ride backward," Garrett declared. "Don't you, Mr. Fraser?"
"Well, Garrett, I guess that if I had my druthers, I prefer seeing where I'm going, rather than where I've been."
"Hmmm." Garrett reflected for a long moment. "Mama, is that why you always tell me I never know if I'm coming or going?"
They all broke into laughter, and Caroline slipped her arm around his shoulders. "I wasn't just referring to train rides, sweetheart."
She leaned back and opened the book on her lap as Garrett returned to gazing out the window.
"What are you reading, Miss Caroline?" Jed asked.
"A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens," she said.
"Are you enjoying it?"
"Very much so, Mr. Fraser. Have you read it?"
"Yes, several years ago. Do you enjoy reading, Miss Caroline?"
"I always have. Unfortunately, I have less opportunity to do so than I'd like." She shifted her gaze back to the page.
"Is your family expecting you, Jed?" Nathan asked.
"No. I thought I would surprise them."
"In a state this size, it's quite a coincidence we've settled so near to one another. Our home's in the Napa Valley, too."
"My brother Clay had hopes of becoming a vintner and was told the Napa Valley is a good region for growing grapes," Jed said.
"And has he succeeded?"
"Yes, very much so."
"I'm glad to hear it."
Soon the motion and the rhythmic clickety-clack of the rails had an effect on all of them. Caroline continued to read, Nathan slipped into deep thought, and Garrett slumped drowsily in his seat.
Jed was now free to ponder the riddle of Caroline. Everything about her was intriguing. It seemed incredible that a woman with her beauty wasn't married by now, especially with the shortage of women in the West. Even more, why hadn't she married the man who fathered her child?
As if sensing his gaze, she raised her eyes and for a moment they stared openly at each other. The expression in her gorgeous blue eyes remained enigmatic before she lowered them back to the page.
She made no attempt to disguise her dislike of him, but the reason for it was a mystery to him. Back in Virginia he had barely noticed the girl; he couldn't even remember ever speaking to her. He vaguely recalled that she was shy and rather bookish. He couldn't recollect seeing her at any cotillions or other social events.
"You said your family is not expecting you, Jed?"
Nathan's question jolted him out of his reverie. "Yes, sir."
"I understand that you're eager to see your family, but I wonder if you would consider joining us for dinner and spending the night at our home?"
"That's very thoughtful of you, sir, but I'd hate to inconvenience you."
"Not at all. In fact, there is a matter of deep concern that I wish to discuss with you, but I can't do it on this train."
"I understand. If it's that important to you, I would be delighted, sir."
He glanced at Caroline. Her book had fallen into her lap and she looked horrified.
Copyright © 2008 by Anna Baier