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San Francisco, 1854
Charity Beal stood on the board walkway outside the hotel, pulled a paisley shawl around her shoulders and raised her face to bask in the sun's warming rays. A mild breeze off the ocean ruffled wisps of pale blond curls that had escaped her neatly upswept hair and her blue eyes sparkled in the brightness of the day.
Smiling, she did her best to ignore the noise of the passing horses and wagons as she sighed and breathed deeply, enjoying the sweet, salt air. Thankfully, a recent shower had washed away most of the dust and dirt, yet hadn't left the streets too muddy for normal travel.
Spring days in the city by the bay were more often foggy than clear and Charity was loath to retreat back inside even though it was now her duty to assist Mrs. Montgomery in the kitchen. Perhaps stealing a few more precious moments of sunshine would be all right, she told herself, appreciating the balmy weather yet cognizant of her place as part of the hotel staff.
The Montgomery House Hotel had been rebuilt of brick after its damage in the earthquakes and fires of 1850 and 1851, as had many of the other commercial buildings, including the Jenny Lind Theater. Few of the thousands of immigrants who crowded the city could afford to board at Montgomery House but those folks who did were usually well satisfied, especially since the rooms now contained real beds with feather ticking instead of the narrow, hanging cots of the previous structure.
Charity and her father, Emory Beal, had begun as tenants and had quickly decided to stay on. At least Emory had. As far as Charity was concerned she knew she could be happy anywhere as long as she remained awidow.
Remembrances of her cruel husband made her shiver in spite of the warmth of the day, and she drew her shawl more tightly against the inner chill. She knew it must be a terrible sin to celebrate anyone's death but she couldn't help being grateful that the Lord had seen fit to liberate her from her degrading marriage to Ramsey Tucker. Just the thought of that vile man touching her again made gall rise in her throat.
Shaking off the unpleasant memories and turning to reenter the hotel, Charity noticed a small group of people trudging up the hill from the direction of the wharf. Travelers of that class weren't often seen, yet it was the imposing gentleman in the lead who immediately caught and held her attention.
He reminded her of someone going to the gallowsor perhaps the hangman, himselfsuch was his aura. A short, black cape furled from the shoulders of his coat as he walked and he carried a silver-tipped cane. His Eastern-style felt hat had a narrow enough brim that she could easily discern his scowl and square jaw.
Trailing him were a man and woman holding the hands of a small child who struggled to keep up while walking between them. Their clothing was elegant and obviously expensively tailored but their countenance was as downtrodden as that of the poorest immigrant.
Charity hurriedly ducked through the doorway and had almost reached the visiting parlor when a deep, male voice behind her commanded, "Wait."
She whirled to face the dark-haired traveler she'd been surreptitiously studying. "Yes?"
Instead of approaching the desk where a young clerk awaited, the stranger removed his hat, bowed slightly and addressed her. "We require rooms. Can you vouch for the character of this establishment?"
She nodded. "Yes, sir. I certainly can."
"Have you stayed here often?"
"My father and I live here," she said. "If you choose to join us in the dining room for supper, you'll meet him. The evening meal is served at seven. Dinner is at one but as you can see" she gestured toward the grandfather clock at the far end of the room "you've missed it." She peered past him to smile at the weary child. "I can probably find a few cookies and a glass of cold milk if the little one is hungry."
"Jacob always enjoys a cookie," the pale, light-haired woman replied. "We would be obliged." She bent down to the boy's level and added, "Wouldn't we, son?"
He merely nodded, his eyes as wide and expressive as a frightened doe's.
Charity approached and offered the woman her hand. "I'm Miss Beal, please call me Charity. And you are ?"
"Naomi. This is my husband, Mr. Ashton." She shyly glanced toward the taller man who had proceeded to the clerk's station and was signing the register. "And that gentleman is his half brother, Mr. Thorne Blackwell."
Charity lowered her voice to ask, "Does he always order strangers around?"
Naomi's cheeks reddened. "A bit, I'm afraid. But his heart is in the right place. We've just come from a long sea voyage around the horn and we desperately need our rest."
"Then don't let me keep you," Charity said. "As soon as you're settled in your rooms, I'll bring young Master Jacob his cookies and milk."
She was taken aback when Naomi's husband clamped a hand on his wife's shoulder, shook his head and gave her a wordless look of warning.
Startled, Naomi immediately took Charity's hand and held it as if clasping a lifeline. "I spoke foolishly just now. Please, if anyone asks, you must swear you've not seen us. Promise me?"
"Of course, but "
"I'll explain later."
"All right. I won't breathe a word."
The men hoisted their belongings and started up the stairs while Naomi balanced the child on her hip. Waiting until they were out of sight, Charity crossed to the desk clerk. "What names did that gentleman sign?"
The young man smirked as he spun the register book for her perusal. "Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones and family, if you choose to believe such tales."
She checked their respective room numbers, then headed for the kitchen. So what if their new boarders were traveling incognito? That was often the case west of the Rockies. Here, a person could begin again without having to explain past sins. She should know. That was exactly what she'd been doing ever since her fateful journey from Ohio by wagon train with her sister, Faith.
Those had been the worst months of Charity's life, and although her loved ones had survived the ordeal, they all bore scars of some sort. Connell McClain, Faith's new husband, was scarred from encounters with the Cheyenne, and poor Faith had nursed broken ribs during the latter part of the arduous trek.
Charity's scars didn't manifest themselves physically. They were deeper, in her heart and soul, and the ache of her personal tribulation and loss remained so vivid the remembrances still gave her nightmares.
Nevertheless, she didn't want those memories to fade. She wanted to remember precisely how foolish she'd once been so that she would never, ever, be tempted to make the same mistakes again.
Thorne closed the door to his brother's room and stood with his back to it as he faced Naomi. "What did you say to that woman downstairs?" he demanded.
Tears softened her already pale blue eyes. "I'm so sorry. I know you cautioned us to use fictitious names but I haven't spoken to another lady in months and the truth just slipped out. Charity won't betray us. She promised she wouldn't."
He muttered under his breath. "What good is all the trouble we've gone to if you don't remember to hide your real identities?"
Placing a sheltering arm around his wife's slim shoulders Aaron stood firm. "She said she was sorry, Thorne. What's done is done. I'm sure a simple hotel maid isn't smart enough to engage in subterfuge."
"Hah! Any fool could see that that woman is no simpleton. Nor is she a maid. She said she and her father are hotel guests, not staff, so don't discount her capabilities or count on her loyalty."
Weeping, Naomi knelt to draw the boy into her embrace while Aaron began to pace the floor of the small, sparsely furnished bedroom.
"Don't worry," Thorne said firmly. "I'll take care of it. If the woman can't be reasoned with, she can probably be bribed or threatened."
"You sound just like Father!" Aaron blurted.
Thorne's eyes narrowed and his countenance darkened with barely repressed anger. "Never say that again, do you hear? I won't be compared with that man. He's your father, not mine."
"But you've obviously learned from him," the younger man countered.
"No. I've learned from years on my own and from the writings of my real father." Noting the shock on Aaron's face, he went on. "Are you surprised? I was. Shortly before I left home, Mother told me all about her brief marriage to my late father and where I might locate the rest of the Blackwell family."
"Yes, eventually. I didn't seek out my grandfather until I'd spent a few years at sea and felt I'd proved myself." And had faced death more than once. "Grandfather and I didn't have much time together before he died but we got along very well. He gave me my father's journal, as well as willing me enough money to buy into a partnership on my first freighter."
"So that's how you became successful."
"No," Thorne countered, "I could have squandered my inheritance in any number of ways. The investments I made, instead, were based on my experience at sea, not on mere wishful thinking. I knew exactly what I was doing and lived frugally. That's what I was trying to explain when I returned to New York three years ago. But no one would listen to me, not even you."
Thorne noted Aaron's pained expression. It was during that short visit that Thorne had met and fallen in love with Naomi but she had chosen to wed the younger brother, presumably because Aaron was in line to inherit the Ashton fortune.
Squaring his shoulders, Thorne faced him. "Forget the past. It's your future that counts. Leave the details to me. We've come this far together and I'll see to it that your foolish mistakes don't sink our ship, so to speak."
Naomi raised her reddened face to him, tears glistening on her cheeks, and whispered, "Thank you."
It was all Thorne could do to keep from tempering his harsh expression as he gazed at her. She was suffering for her poor choices and for that he was sorry, but, as he had finally realized when he'd encountered her again, any tender feelings he had once harbored were long gone and he was therefore loath to display any tenderness that might mislead her.
If anything good came out of this fiasco, perhaps it was that it had finally freed his heart from the fetters of unrequited love and had given him a chance to make amends with his brother over almost stealing his betrothed.
* * *
Charity was climbing the stairs, one hand raising the hem of her calico frock and apron as she stepped, the other balancing a glass of milk on a plate with two freshly baked cookies. As she neared the landing, a shadow fell over her.
Her head snapped up. The mysteriously intriguing stranger blocked her path. "Oh! You startled me."
Thorne didn't give way.
"Excuse me, please," Charity said politely. "I have some treats to deliver."
"I'll take that for you."
As he reached for the small plate she held it away. "No need. I can manage nicely."
"But you're a guest here. You shouldn't be doing chores."
That brought a smile. "Actually, I started out as a guest about a year ago when my father decided to move to San Francisco. Since then, I've taken a part-time position helping the proprietress, Mrs. Montgomery, to pay for Papa's and my room and board."
One dark eyebrow arched as he said, "Really? I would have thought, considering the dearth of eligible women in these parts, you'd have found yourself a suitably rich husband by now."
She could feel the warmth rising to redden her cheeks. "You assume a lot, sir."
"My apologies if I've offended you," Thorne said as he stepped aside and gestured. "After you."
Spine stiff, steps measured, Charity led the way to the room the family occupied. Behind her she could sense the imposing presence of the man Naomi had called Thorne. He was well named, Charity decided, since he was definitely a thorn in her sideprobably to everyone he met. Clearly he was used to getting his own way. Equally clearly, he was not used to being challenged by anyone, let alone a woman.