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Lydia McQuire was desperately hungry, and a night's piano playing had earned her enough for a bed at Miss Killgoran's boardinghouse or a meal, but not both. She squinted to read the bill affixed to the wall outside the supper club, her blue eyes still stinging from the dense cigar smoke within.
WANTED: ONE WIFE FOR A GOOD,
SOBER, AND PROSPEROUS MAN.
CONTACT DEVON QUADE,
ROOM 4, THE FEDERAL HOTEL
Lydia sighed. The Federal Hotel was just a few blocks from where she stood, yet it might as well have been in another world. There, people slept on crisp linen sheets, drank hot, strong tea with all the milk and sugar they could want, ate full meals without first examining the fare for mold and weevils. Perhaps if she went to see this Devon Quade, he would offer her some small refreshment during the interview -- coffee and rolls, perhaps. Even that sounded like a feast to Lydia, who hadn't eaten since the day before, when a kindly bartender had given her two hard-boiled eggs that had somehow been overlooked in the mad scramble of hungry, thirsty patrons.
She started automatically toward the hotel, picking up speed as she walked. It was dawn, and there were only a few carriages and wagons in the brick-laid streets; a Chinaman wearing a round, pointed hat, his trousers and shirt made of black silk, hurried along on the opposite sidewalk. A policeman strolled his beat, looking bored and weary, his nightstick making a clunk sound against each lamp post he passed.
It occurred to Lydia that she would probably rouse Mr. Quade from a sound sleep, arriving at his door so early, but she proceeded anyway. Perhaps he would be impressed by her industry and initiative and overlook her tattered dress, her mussed blond hair, the smell of smoke that had permeated her skin and grown stale there.
Her resolve was beginning to fade, so she walked faster. It was only when she reached the front door of the Federal Hotel that Lydia realized she was holding the advertisement for a wife in one hand. She didn't recollect pulling it from the wooden wall where she'd found it.
Standing on the sidewalk, drawing in deep breaths, Lydia folded the bill into neat quarters and then tucked it into her pocket with the two pitiful coins she'd received for entertaining that lot of sodden, pinching drunks. Briefly, she considered the idea of actually applying for the post of wife to this forthright stranger, but she soon discarded it again. In time she would find an honest position as a governess, or she would scrape together enough money to take a room in a boardinghouse where there was a piano. That way, she could give lessons and earn a dignified if modest living.
The hotel doorman, looking like an officer in an army of rich soldiers in his maroon suit, gold epaulets, and gleaming brass buttons, peered at her from under the brim of his cap. The expression in his eyes revealed both admiration and contempt as he took in Lydia's compact figure, her moderately pretty face and her one glory, her rich, honey-gold hair.
"There something you want, ma'am?" he inquired, with an acid politeness that stung Lydia. It was obvious even to a woman who'd never had an intimate experience with a man, that he thought she was a lady of the shadows, seeking lowly commerce.
Lydia wanted to run, but her hunger left her too weak and discouragement had robbed her of all aplomb. She took the handbill from her pocket and held it out. "I'm here to see Mr. Devon Quade," she said, with her last shred of pride.
The doorman looked her over again, then smiled. It was not a friendly expression, but he granted her entry with a gesture of one arm.
Lydia walked into the lobby, with its potted palms and brass fixtures and lovely Oriental carpet, and for a few moments she was filled with such aching weariness that her throat closed tight and her eyes filled with tears.
She blinked, and sniffled, looked at the handbill again made a mental note that Mr. Quade was housed in Room 4, and proceeded toward the stairs. The door she sought, prominently marked with a brass numeral, was all too easy to find.
She had only to knock.
Lydia bit her lower lip. She was tired, hungry, and dirty, and the last thing on the face of God's earth she would ever want was a husband, so what was she doing here? She didn't know; there was nothing in her knowledge or experience to explain the strange instinct that had propelled her through grimy streets to this place. It was far more than the hope of coffee and rolls, she concluded.
She raised her hand to knock, heart thundering against her rib cage, stomach grinding out a reminder that it was empty, held her breath and pounded at the door.
The instant she'd done that, Lydia was overcome by terror. She glanced in one direction, then the other, ready to flee down the hallway and escape, but her legs wouldn't take orders. She was frozen there on the threshold of a strange man's quarters, with little or nothing to say for herself.
There was grumbling inside the room. Lydia continued to struggle against her own inertia, but to no avail. She was rooted to the spot like a willow tree planted in good ground.
Then the door opened and he was standing there, tall and classically handsome, his tawny-gold hair sleep-rumpled. His indigo-blue eyes went narrow and he scowled. "Yes?"
Lydia offered the advertisement with a shaking hand. The man was clearly prosperous, as the poster claimed, and no doubt sober, given the hour, but whether or not he was good remained to be seen. Such fine-looking men were often rogues.
She realized she was staring and forced herself to speak. "Mr. Quade? My name is Lydia McQuire and I -- I've come about your...proposal." It was plain he wasn't going to offer refreshment, clad in his dressing gown and barely awake as he was, but Lydia felt she had to make some explanation for interrupting his sleep, so she pretended she wanted to be a stranger's bride.
Ink-colored eyes looked her over speculatively, but not with the same insulting presumption the doorman had employed. "Come in, Miss McQuire," he said, stepping back.
Lydia swallowed. Somehow, perhaps because of her desperation, she hadn't anticipated this awkward development. She intertwined her fingers and twisted them until they ached. "I don't think -- "
Suddenly, a blinding smile burst over his face, like early morning sunshine on the surface of a clear lake. "Of course," he said. "I've been living among lumberjacks so long, I've forgotten my manners. Give me fifteen minutes, and I'll meet you downstairs in the dining room. We'll talk while we're having breakfast."
Lydia's stomach rumbled loudly at the prospect; she could only hope Mr. Quade hadn't heard. She nodded and stood there in the hall, still as a marble monument, long after he'd closed the door. Then, driven by the thought of food, she broke free of her frenzied thoughts and dashed for the stairs.
The dining hall was just opening up for a day's business, and when Lydia told the waiter she was joining Mr. Devon Quade of Room 4, she was immediately escorted to a table. Coffee appeared, sending fragrant steam from the spout of a silver pot, and a crystal plate towering with fresh pastries was set before her.
Lydia's eyes went wide as she watched the rich brown liquid being poured into a delicate china cup.
"There you are, madame," the waiter said kindly. Then he went away.
Lydia's hand trembled as she reached for the pots of sugar and cream. She treated the coffee with generous portions of both and took a noisy slurp, too eager to honor convention by sipping. A gray-haired matron, the only other customer in attendance, gave her a look of censure.
Lydia took two more gulps of the coffee -- oh, Lord, it was delicious -- then reached for a pastry. Her mouth was stuffed full when Devon Quade materialized in the doorway of the restaurant, looking so startlingly handsome that she nearly choked. With frantic haste, Lydia began to chew and swallow; her face bright red when Mr. Quade reached the table, because she knew she hadn't deceived him for a moment. He'd clearly guessed that she'd put three-quarters of a sweet bun into her mouth in a single bite, and he was amused.
The same waiter reappeared, as if by magic, to draw back Mr. Quade's chair before he had even reached the table. Menus were presented, more coffee poured.
Although Lydia still had plenty of room for breakfast, she was no longer quite so ravenous. For the moment, her stomach was occupied with the roll she'd just consumed, and she could study Mr. Quade as he scanned the menu.
He startled her by looking up suddenly and catching her staring. "You are a very lovely woman," he said. "I confess to wondering why you haven't found a husband in a more traditional way."
Lydia blushed and was momentarily overwhelmed by an acute yearning for long-gone, innocent days. "The war didn't leave many eligible men," she said. "Those who did survive are wounded, either inside or out, or already married."
Mr. Quade seemed sincerely chagrined. "Of course. I'm sorry." He gestured for the waiter, who came instantly, and Lydia felt a sting of envy, wondering what it would be like to be so effortlessly important as her breakfast partner. He ordered a large meal for the both of them, and when they were alone again, studied Lydia with a pensive frown. "Tell me about yourself," he said.
Her natural tendency toward rebellion made her want to counter with a demand that Mr. Quade tell her about himself first, but she wanted to eat her breakfast before she took any such risk. That way, she could use her pitiful night's pay to hire a bed and bath.
"I'm twenty-five," she said, squaring her shoulders. "I was born in Fall River, Massachusetts. My father was a doctor, and my mother died when I was very young. I am educated, and I can cook and clean as well as the next woman, though I admit I'd rather read or go out walking. When the war began, my father felt compelled to join upon the Union side, naturally."
"Naturally," Mr. Quade said benignly, one side of his mouth tilted upward in a semblance of a grin.
Lydia resettled herself in her chair and smoothed her disgracefully rumpled skirts. "Papa hadn't been gone a week when he wired me from Washington City that he was in urgent need of my assistance. I immediately answered his summons. I worked side by side with my father and the other surgeons, as a nurse." She paused a moment, remembering the horrors that had eventually become commonplace. "We followed the battles, and it was in Virginia that Papa suffered a fatal heart seizure and collapsed. He died within a few hours and I -- I -- " She stopped again, took a few deep breaths, marveling that she'd reached such depths that she would willingly endure such wretched recollections for a few scraps of food. "I stayed on with the hospital corps, having no reason to return home."
Mr. Quade was silent for a long time. He looked deep into her eyes. The meal was delivered, and Lydia used the last of her self-control to keep from scooping eggs and sausage and toasted bread up into her hands and devouring them like an animal.
"Your father must have owned a house in Fall River," Mr. Quade finally said.
Lydia shook her head, her mouth full of fried potatoes, which she gulped down before she answered, "Papa was never a practical man. We had rooms above a butcher shop, and we were two months behind in the rent when he enlisted."
Mr. Quade began spreading jelly on his toast, averting his eyes. "How did you end up in San Francisco?"
It was agony to hold her fork suspended, with all that delicious food sitting before her, fragrant and hot, but Lydia succeeded long enough to say, "I came around the Horn with an elderly lady, acting as her companion. I'd planned to start a music conservatory once I'd settled in California and saved the necessary funds, but Mrs. Hallingsworth died and her son and daughter-in-law had no need for my services. I was, in a word, stranded."
"When did this happen?"
"Last month." Lydia got in a few hasty bites, then went on. "I've been surviving by playing piano in supper bars."
Mr. Quade sipped his coffee. "I see," he said finally. "Is there anything you'd like to ask me?"
Lydia swallowed more eggs. "You must not live in San Francisco, or you wouldn't be staying in this hotel," she observed. "Where are you from?"
He sat back in his chair, hooking his thumbs in the pockets of a brocade vest. "My brother and I operate a timber concern up near Seattle, in the Washington Territory."
She gave a small, involuntary shudder. The territories were filled with bloodthirsty Indians and highwaymen, she'd heard, and in the mountainous places there were said to be wildcats in every tree, waiting to pounce on the unwary sojourner.
"You couldn't have grown up in Washington Territory," she said. "It hasn't been settled even twenty years, and you are an educated man."
He smiled. "Brigham -- that's my brother -- and I were raised in Maine. We came out here by wagon train as soon as we were old enough to claim our small inheritances."
"Aren't there any women in Seattle?" Lydia asked. She immediately regretted the indelicacy and bluntness of the question, but it was too late to call back her words.
"None to speak of," Mr. Quade replied. He really was handsome, with his leonine head of golden hair and strong jawline, which might have been carved, like his nose, by a master sculptor. He was cultivated, too. He would probably be very kind to the candidate he selected for his wife. "Women are at a premium in the Northwest. Why, I'll bet you couldn't walk from the harbor to Yesler's Mill without getting at least six marriage proposals."
Lydia swallowed. She had only bargained for coffee and rolls, not a barrage of amorous lumberjacks and mill workers. "Did you have a large response to your...advertisement?" she asked, unable to look at him. She was staring down at the few remaining crumbs of her breakfast.
"The majority of them were unsuitable," he admitted. "The Puget Sound area is still largely untamed and very primitive. It's no place for timidity or a hysterical temperament. On the other hand, it's beautiful country, and a woman bearing the Quade name would lack for nothing of any true significance."
The whole insane idea was beginning to sound good to Lydia. Appealing as this man was, she felt no particular attraction to him, but she imagined she could adjust to being his wife. That would certainly be preferable to some of her other options, like starving to death or taking up the lewd profession.
Mr. Quade reached for the silver pot, refilled Lydia's coffee cup with as much elegant deference as if she were a duchess instead of a homeless wretch with two tarnished coins in her pocket. "Would you like to come to Quade's Harbor with me, Lydia?" he asked. "We'd be sailing in three days, and I would, of course, put you up here at the hotel in the interim. I would give you an advance on your allowance, as well, since you'll probably need a few things."
Lydia just sat there, gaping. This proposal had been unlike any she'd read about or heard of, but it wasn't without appeal. She could eat, sleep in a safe, warm, clean place, even buy herself "a few things." She didn't think beyond that; she was too dazed by the sudden turn her fortunes had taken.
"Yes," she said, bold in her desperation. "Yes, Mr. Quade, I would like that very much."
"Very well," he replied, with another of his boyish, endearing smiles, taking a wallet from the inside pocket of his coat. He removed a few bills and passed them to Lydia. "You'll need clothes for a rainy climate," he said. "I'll make arrangements at the desk for a room to be prepared, and you can spend the day as you like. Just have your meals and anything else you want billed to me." With that, Mr. Quade pushed back his chair, stood, and after a polite nod, walked away.
Lydia briefly considered ordering another breakfast, remembered the money lying on the table, and gathered it up.
Surely it was improper to accept funds from a man, not to mention a hotel room and food, but Mr. Quade had not made any unseemly demands. He clearly did not expect her to take up residence in his chambers, and he had been the soul of good manners from the very inception of their acquaintance.
Lydia folded the bills carefully and tucked them into her skirt pocket. Then, barely able to contain the sudden surge of energy that possessed her, she finished her coffee, rose, and left the dining room with sweeping dignity.
At the desk the clerk was deferential. Yes, quarters had been reserved for a Miss Lydia McQuire. He handed her a key and told her that Room 10 would be ready in half an hour.
"Thank you," Lydia said. It wasn't until she reached the sidewalk out front that she gave a cry of glee and did a little jig. The doorman looked at her suspiciously but offered no comment.
For a long moment she couldn't decide which way to go. She could simply disappear, after all -- Mr. Quade had given her enough money to last for weeks, if she lived frugally -- or she could have an adventure. It was an enormous risk, of course, traveling to Washington Territory with a stranger, becoming his bride, no less, but Lydia believed in bold undertakings. That was why she'd assisted her father in those dreadful field hospitals during the war, and it was the reason she had come to San Francisco with Mrs. Hallingsworth, seeking a new start in life.
Lydia headed toward the two-story mercantile on the next comer, and there was a little spring in her step now because she'd eaten and she had money and she had a future, uncertain and dangerous though it might be. Furthermore, for the first time in a month, she didn't have to worry about finding a place to sleep or having enough food to sustain her.
There would undoubtedly be challenges, but she would handle those one at a time, as they presented themselves. There was no sense, as her father had often told her, in letting one's mind get ahead into next week, next month, or next year. Better to plant oneself firmly in the moment and make the best of whatever might be offered.
Lydia bought several sensible dresses at the mercantile, along with a hooded cloak for the rainy climate Mr. Quade had mentioned and several sturdy pairs of shoes. She yearned for the pretty satin dancing slippers on display, but practicality wouldn't allow the purchase, even though she could have afforded it. She bought warm underwear, and stockings, and two modest flannel nightgowns. Her own things, stashed in a trunk in the storeroom of the supper club where she played piano, were hardly worth going back for. Because of the stringencies of the war, she had not had a new garment in five years, and everything she possessed was worn thin and painfully out of fashion.
That last thought made Lydia chuckle. When had she, daughter of the well-intentioned but chronically impoverished Dr. Wilkes McQuire, ever concerned herself with fashion? Her one luxurious purchase was a book she'd read the volumes tucked away in her trunk until the pages of most of them were coming loose from their bindings. Still flush with money, Lydia returned to the hotel and marched herself bravely up to Room 10.
The chamber proved to be very spacious, with a large mahogany-framed bed, a settee and chairs upholstered in spotless blue taffeta, and a white marble fireplace. On the mantel stood a crystal vase filled with spring flowers.
Charmed, Lydia closed the door with her foot, set her packages carefully on the settee, and stood in front of the fireplace, touching a blossom thoughtfully. There were red and yellow zinnias, pert daisies, irises and tulips and crocuses, creating an explosion of color made double by the reflection in the mirror above the mantel.
Lydia was not accustomed to such luxuries, and their sudden appearance in her life was overwhelming. It seemed incredible that, only a few hours before, she had been faced with a choice between two such basic needs as food and shelter.
Now she was ensconced in a fancy hotel room, with money to spend, new clothes to wear, a book to read, and a kitchen staff virtually at her beck and call.
She made her way to a chair and sat down, frowning. If there was one thing life had taught her, it was that everything had a price. Sooner or later an accounting would have to be made.
Lydia closed her eyes and held fast to the arms of the chair. It was even possible that Mr. Quade wasn't the gentleman he seemed; he could be a procurer. Perhaps she was bound for some backwoods harem, or even an opium den in the Orient!
She sighed, opened her eyes.
It was also possible, she concluded, with some relief, that she would simply end up in a sturdy log cabin somewhere in the timberlands to the north, keeping house for Devon Quade. She would live out her life in peace, raising three or four children along the way, and then it would be over and the world would go right on as if she'd never existed at all.
Hardly comforted, and no less confused for all her deliberations, Lydia rose with resolution and explored her surroundings. There was a small room reserved for bathing and other hygienic necessities, and after careful thought, she turned up the gas jet beneath the huge tank over the bathtub. While the water heated, Lydia unwrapped her parcels and laid out all her new things on the bed, as much to admire as to choose what to wear. She had bought nothing frivolous, just plain, practical, woolly things, but she felt rich and dissolute all the same. This must be what it was like to be a kept woman, she decided.
Finally, after an hour, Lydia turned a spigot on the tank in the bathroom and warm water began to flow into the tub. She hastily undressed, enjoyed a luxurious soak, something she had not had since before the war, then scrubbed her body and shampooed her hair.
When she climbed out of her bath, she felt like a woman resurrected and restored to glory. She dried her hair, combed out the tangles, and put on fresh new underthings and a prim gray-and-white-striped dress with a high collar. With this, she wore new stockings, ribbed and scratchy, and a pair of plain black shoes. She stuffed her old things into the trash basket in the bathing room.
By that time, Lydia was getting hungry again. She dined in the same restaurant where she and Mr. Quade had taken breakfast -- there wasn't a sign of him anywhere about -- then set out for the supper club where her trunk was stored.
Jim, the bartender, was in the rear storeroom, unpacking a crate of Irish whiskey, when Lydia came in through the door leading into the alley. He grinned and gave a low whistle of appreciation when he saw her new clothes.
"Well, then, Miss McQuire," he said. "What's happened to you? Have the Little People taken a liking to you?"
Lydia smiled. "It would seem that they have. I'm going north, to Seattle, where I'm to be the bride of a lumberman."
Jim's wise eyes seemed troubled. He was a solidly built man, middle-aged, with brown hair parted in the center and a thick mustache. "I see. Well, you want to be careful about these bride-buyers, miss. We've had some scandals where such matters are concerned."
Lydia had no doubt that Jim's words were true as the peal of a silver bell, but she couldn't stay in San Francisco, living from hand to mouth, never knowing where she would sleep when night descended or when she would have her next meal. Fate had offered her an opportunity, and she had to take it, even if there was some risk.
"I'll be careful," she promised softly, making the vow to herself as well as to Jim. It hurt to realize that even if she should travel to Seattle and then disappear into the dregs of immorality, no one would miss her. Probably there wouldn't even be anyone to ask, "Whatever happened to Doc McQuire's girl?"
"You've come for your trunk, then," Jim said, with resignation.
"There are only a few books and personal items I want," Lydia said. "Maybe you could give out the rest where you see a need."
The bartender nodded. "Need is one thing I see plenty of," he replied.
Without further conversation, Lydia climbed the plank steps to the loft of the storeroom and opened her trunk, which stood in one corner. She was not sorry to leave behind the calico and wool dresses -- the memories attached to them were not pleasant ones, since she'd worn them in army hospitals and wrung the blood from their frayed hems like wash water from a rag. She wanted the keepsake photographs of her father and mother, though, as well as the tarnished bronze medal given her by a dying soldier, her journals, her grandmother's mourning ring, and the letters. Lydia tied all her treasures inside a scarf, closed the trunk lid, and descended the stairs with her bundle.
There was no sign of Jim, and she was not really surprised. He had been a good friend, but saying goodbye would be too awkward for them both.
Lydia turned to the slate on the wall, where Jim wrote lists of goods he needed to order for the saloon, took up the nubbin of chalk, and wrote, THANK YOU.
Then she returned to the hotel, taking the long route, so she could get a last look at San Francisco. Only a few short weeks ago, she reflected with a sigh, she'd had high hopes for the city crescented around the bay. She'd planned to take rooms in some decent, respectable house and to start a music school. Now it seemed her destiny lay elsewhere, after all, in a land of timber and savages and men who wore plaid shirts and spiked boots.
The doorman at the Federal Hotel eyed Lydia carefully as she walked past him, this time keeping her chin high, his gaze falling on her pitiful little bundle of worldly possessions. Lydia clutched her belongings closer to her bosom and proceeded into the lobby.
That night, she dined with Mr. Quade in a restaurant renowned for beefsteak, and he took her to see a melodrama in a clapboard theater with a sawdust floor.
Lydia began to wonder when the marriage ceremony would take place, whether she and Mr. Quade would exchange vows there in San Francisco or up north, in Seattle. Since she wasn't particularly anxious for the duties that would come after the wedding, she kept her curiosity to herself and simply let events unfold as they would.
The next day, her future husband didn't put in an appearance at all until dinner, when he seemed harried and distracted. Lydia had spent some of her precious funds to take a carriage tour of the city, and she'd had her palm read by a Gypsy at the waterfront as well. Since she'd deduced from Mr. Quade's manner that he wouldn't care to hear about any of those things, she kept her accounts to herself.
The following morning, when the sun was winking on the waters of the bay, as bright and new as if it had never risen before, Mr. Quade collected his bride and her purchases and they set off for the waterfront by carriage.
Lydia was filled with trepidation and joy. On the one hand, she was very frightened, for she was taking a bold step, as dangerous in some ways as braving Confederate cannon fire to help her father perform surgery. On the other, she sensed that an adventure was beginning. You will have need of your great strength, the Gypsy had told her, while staring solemnly into Lydia's palm. You have already suffered much. Now, you must face an even greater challenge: learning passion and true joy.
The ship they boarded looked sturdy enough, though it wasn't as large as the one that had carried Lydia around Cape Horn with poor Mrs. Hallingsworth. There were two black smokestacks, and the color had been swabbed out of the wooden decks. Lydia tried not to think about the way the craft would roll and pitch once it left San Francisco Bay for the open sea. She had seen every conceivable horror in wartime surgery tents without folding up, but a few swells in the ocean could send her scrambling for the rail.
Perhaps, she reflected, she would become Devon's wife there, aboard the ship, with the captain officiating.
Mr. Quade made no mention of the event. He simply escorted Lydia to a small stateroom, which contained a narrow bed, a wardrobe very cleverly built into the wall, a washstand and commode. She took her new dresses from the carpet bag she'd purchased the day before and hung them up on a peg, then went out to walk the decks and get her bearings.
The craft was chugging away from the wharf when she came around to the stem and saw Devon standing at the rail. Beside him was a tall, beautiful dark-haired woman, finely dressed, her arm linked with his in a rather familiar fashion.
A cold feeling washed over Lydia's heart, followed immediately by a parching rage. It seemed Mr. Devon Quade would prove to be a scoundrel after all.
She might have jumped overboard and swum back to shore were it not for the fact that Jim the bartender had told her there were hungry sharks in the bay. Summoning up all the dignity she possessed, Lydia joined the two-some and looked up at the man who'd promised to marry her.
Devon beamed, as though nothing were amiss. "Ah, Miss McQuire," he said, patting the kid-gloved hand of the woman beside him, which was resting in the crook of his right arm. "May I introduce Mrs. Polly Quade -- my wife?"
Copyright © 1993 by Linda Lael Miller