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Pier 2, New York Harbor
January 16, 1866
Head high, Allegra Banks Howard held her daughter's hand and marched down the rough planks of the pier to join the queue of women about to board the S.S. Continental. In the frigid air that blew up the Hudson, the four-year-old's skin looked nearly as blue as her wide eyes inside the hood of her fur-lined cloak.
"I'm not seeing that fellow who's been following you," her friend Madeleine O'Rourke reported, standing beside Allie on tiptoe to peer through the crowd that surrounded them.
"Neither am I," Allie replied, but she wished she could be certain. She and Maddie weren't tall enough to look over the others' heads. With so many people about, their pursuer might be within a few feet of them, and Allie wouldn't know until he swooped down to grab them. Her hand tightened on her daughter's.
Stay with us, Lord! We 're so close!
"And when will we catch sight of Mr. Mercer?" her other friend Catherine Stanway asked behind them. With her pale hair smoothed back under a fashionable feathered hat, she did not appear overly troubled by the absence of their leader. "Will the man miss his own sailing?"
Allie shook her head. All she'd wanted this afternoon was to take Gillian aboard the ship bound for Washington Territory. They would travel with Asa Mercer and the dozens of women who had pledged themselves to live and work in the new city of Seattle, to help make it a community.
She'd already met many of the other travelers, from the ever-so-proper Catherine to the outspoken Maddie. She could hear the women in line now, chatting with excitement. Each had a story to tell, of loss, of hope, of faith. Each believed her destiny lay on the far-off shores of Puget Sound. After all Allie had gone through, she refused to be left behind!
And yet, from the moment she and Gillian had tiptoed out of the Howard mansion in the dead of night in Boston two weeks ago, nothing had gone right. One of the horses had thrown a shoe, delaying the stage at Hartford; someone had stolen the bag with most of Gillian's clothes as she and Allie waited in Danbury; and for the last three days, an older man in a common brown coat had dogged their steps every time they had set foot outside the hotel. Allie was fairly sure she knew his purpose.
She wouldn't go back to Boston. She couldn't. Gillian's future and her own depended on it.
The line crawled forward, far too slowly for Allie, while all around them New Yorkers gathered to see them off, gazes curious, voices no more than a murmur among the calls of the sailors and the creak of hoists. That frost-laden wind tugged at her quilt-lined wool cloak, sending icy fingers even under her gray skirts, and she was thankful she'd decided to put on multiple petticoats instead of the steel crinoline her mother had once favored.
What would her mother and father have said if they could see her now? For the first time she was grateful they hadn't lived to see how their good friends the Howards had trespassed on her nature.
A tug blew its mournful horn as it chugged by, coughing silver smoke. Allie felt as if the sound echoed inside her. She could not fail, not this time. She refused to be the woman the Howards expected, and she would not allow Gillian to be molded into a shape that ill suited her, forced to marry, to live to please the prominent family.
As if her daughter quite agreed, she pulled on Allie's hand. "Let's go, Mother. I'm going to have the vapors."
The vapors. Allie knew where Gillian had learned the word. Allie had been advised by her mother-in-law to use the excuse whenever she felt distaste for a situation. A lady might have the vapors when an unwanted suitor came to call, when a treasured gown no longer fit properly. If a Howard had the vapors, people scurried to fix the problem. But having the vapors would hardly help them now.
Allie bent to lift her daughter into her arms. Gillian seemed heavier even than the day before. She was growing so fast, at least physically and mentally. But life with the Howards had bruised her daughter, and Allie could only thank God for the chance to take Gillian out of that environment.
"We'll be aboard soon enough, sweetheart," she promised. She nodded to the man in a brown coat and cap who stood beside the gangway, sheaf of papers flapping in his grip. "See that fellow? He's very likely the purser, ready to welcome us. And he may ask us some questions. Remember what we practiced?"
Gillian nodded solemnly. She was such a serious child, every propensity for play eradicated by the stern governess her grandmother had hired.
"We are going west because of Papa," she said.
Allie nodded encouragement. After all, it was the truth. Frank's death had been the catalyst to propel Allie from Boston at last. But a casual questioner would likely assume Gillian's father was waiting for her on the West Coast and not connect them with the story that had appeared in the New York papers about the Howards' missing daughter-in-law. It had been a little unnerving for Allie to see her face gazing back at her from the sketch on the page.
She only hoped the purser was less observant as she set Gillian back down and came abreast of him. Could he tell that the hair tucked inside her hood was jet black? If she lowered her gaze fast enough, would he fail to notice her eyes were as deep a blue as Gillian's? Her clothes were wrinkled from travel. She'd traded her velvet coat for this gray wool cloak. She knew she had shed a few pounds of worry with each step away from home.
Did she still look like the daughter of one of Boston's best families?
Apparently not, for all he said was "Name?" with his gaze poised over the papers. He was a small man, cleanshaven, with straight brown hair peeping out from under his cap of office and not much older than her twenty-three years, she thought.
"Allegra Banks and daughter," she replied, using every skill her mother had taught her to keep her voice level, calm and composed.
He scanned down the page, then looked up. His smile warmed her. "You are on the list, Mrs. Banks. I'm Mr. Debro, the purser. We'll provide more information about the journey once everyone has been settled. Welcome aboard."
Heat flushed up her. This was it, their chance. No more arguments with her mother-in-law about how she should live, what she should think; no more pulling her hand from the fevered grip of Frank's cousin as he offered himself as her next husband; no more fighting over who would influence Gillian's future. Perhaps she could even forget the look on Frank's face when he'd marched off to meet his death at the Battle of Hatcher's Run, leaving her a widow.
Allie's foot was on the gangway when a hand came down on her shoulder.
"You don't have to do this, Allegra," a man said.
Allie's breath caught in her chest like a bird in a cage. It couldn't be. Clay was many miles away and nearly six long years ago. Yet she could not mistake that voice: deep as a winter's night and warm as hot chocolate on a cold New England morning. It still had the power to set her to trembling.
She glanced back. The man standing behind her dwarfed the purser. One gloved hand sat heavily on her shoulder, the other was wrapped around the handles of a worn leather satchel as if he'd come at great haste to find her. His fur coat would have made him look like a bear except that the hair escaping his fur-lined hat was as red-gold as the lashes framing those cool green eyes. His skin was more bronzed than she remembered, as if he'd spent much time out of doors, and where once he'd laughed at life, now he seemed to be scowling.
Clay Howard could have only one reason for being here now. Somehow, his family had found him and sent him in pursuit of her. They must have thought she'd bow to his demands. She refused to be the little scared mouse of a girl who had wed his brother because she couldn't bear to follow Clay into the wilderness. She was a widow now, a woman of her own making. She didn't have to pretend she had the vapors.
She drew herself up, looked down the nose her mother had always called entirely too pert, and said in a perfect imitation of Mrs. Howard's prim tone, "You have no call to accost me, sir. Unhand me before I call the authorities."
Mr. Debro took a step closer. "Mrs. Banks? Is there a problem?"
"Banks?" Clay shook his head as he dropped his hand. "I might have known you'd go by your maiden name." He nodded to the purser. "This is Mrs. Howard, and I'm Mr. Howard. I suggest you leave the lady to me."
Clay watched the purser's frown deepen even as Allegra paled. The creamy color suited her more than the angry red she'd worn when she'd first seen him.
Of course, he probably looked just as red. It wasn't often you found your dead brother's wife trying to board a ship of husband hunters. That was the kindest term given to the women foolish enough to join Mercer's expedition to Seattle.
Why would a woman put her faith in Asa Mercer after seeing his ad in a newspaper? By all accounts, he'd only held one meeting with the women. And as for the jobs supposedly waiting for these women when they landed on those verdant shores? He knew from experience they were more likely to find the willing arms of every lumberjack, fur trapper, farmer and prospector starved for female companionship.
Allegra Banks didn't need to go to Seattle to find herself another husband. He hadn't been out of Boston a month before she'd married his younger brother. He was certain the men must be lining up for the chance to be husband number two.
He would never be one of them. His mother and the Boston belles he'd met cherished a picture in their minds of the perfect husband, and he'd soon realized he could not fit that frame. He took too many risks, with his money, with his life, to ever make a good gamble for a husband.
No job held his interest for long. He'd panned for gold in California and shipped lumber from the forests of Oregon Territory. Half the people of Seattle owed him their livelihood because he'd been willing to invest the money he'd earned to take a chance on their dreams. If they didn't make good, he'd be back in the gutter again. What wife would ever put up with such an unpredictable lifestyle? And why should he settle for anything less than his freedom?
If he had the sense God had given him, he'd have refused his mother's request to bring Allegra back to Boston where she belonged. But for once he found himself in agreement with his family. The wilderness was no place for a pampered Boston socialite like Allegra Banks.
As if to prove it, she shrugged out of his grip, blue eyes flashing fire. The black silky fringe trimming her gray skirts positively trembled in her ire. But before she could level him with a word, as he knew she was capable of doing, another voice interrupted. It was thin and reedy and seemed to be coming from the front of Allegra's cloak.
The word stabbed through his chest, made it hard to breathe. A little girl peered around Allegra to gaze up at him. Curls as golden as Frank's were pressed inside the hood of her cloak. But those blue eyes, like the sea at night, were all her mother's.
"Hush, Gillian," Allegra said, one hand going to pull the child close.
Gillian. His mother's name. No one had said anything about Allegra and Frank having a little girl, but then the mighty Howards were all too good at pretending. If they could forget they had another son besides precious Frank, they could certainly forget an inconvenient granddaughter. He couldn't imagine his father willing anything to a girl, and he doubted his dutiful brother would have risked their mother's wrath by leaving his estate to a daughter. Still, the pier must have been bucking with the incoming tide, for he suddenly found it hard to keep his footing as well.
The purser didn't seem to be having any trouble. "I don't understand," he said. "Aren't you the widow Mrs. Banks?"
He had the widow part right. And like the rest of Boston society, she probably thought Clay was to blame. He'd fought his father all his life. It was only logical that Clay should have been the one to go to war, the one who died fighting. He was the prodigal son who had never managed to ask forgiveness for leaving. No one in his family but Frank would have mourned his loss.
"Mr. Howard is correct," Allegra said, still so stern she could have been a professor at Harvard. "My married name was Howard, but he bears no responsibility for me. I make my own decisions."
And she had every right and capacity to do so. She was of age, and she'd been smart enough to turn down his offer of marriage once. But he couldn't agree with her decision this time.
The purser nodded toward the ship, where a couple of burley sailors had paused in their work to watch the scene on the pier. "In that case, I must ask you to do as the lady asks, Mr. Howard. I believe you will find yourself outgunned shortly."
The sailors were a match for him in size, but he'd tussled with bears twice as furious. "I don't much care what you believe," Clay said. "Mrs. Howard and her daughter are coming with me."
He flipped back one side of his coat. He could see the purser eyeing him, taking note of the size of his shoulders, the way his free hand hung down in ready reach of the pistol on his hip. Mr. Debro had to realize that Clay wasn't one of the proper Boston gentlemen who courted women like Allegra Banks. They would only have protested, promised a stinging letter to the editor of the newspaper, refused to raise a fuss. Clay specialized in raising fusses.
Still, the purser held his ground. "Mrs. Howard, do you wish to speak to this man?"
Allegra frowned at him. She had to wonder at his presence, standing here, bag in hand, as if he'd just arrived on the stage. After all, the last time she'd seen him, he'd been begging her to marry him, to leave Boston and journey west. Her refusal had stung then, but everything he'd experienced since had told him she had been right to stay in Boston where she would be safe.
And he certainly didn't look the part of a gentleman ready to escort a lady home. His fur coat was patched together in places, his boots were scuffed and dirty, and all he carried with him were a few days of clothing and toiletries stuffed in his satchel. His own mother had refused to allow him in her parlor. Allegra would be mad to accept his help.
Or desperate. As her breath came in short bursts like the puffs of a steam engine, he could almost feel her determination. He couldn't understand what had driven her out of the city of her birth. Surely returning to Boston was preferable to traveling thousands of miles away to a place she was ill suited to live. Why was she so set on leaving home?
"Excuse me." Clay turned to find a pretty blonde in a tailored brown coat behind him along with a narrow-eyed woman in a cloak nearly as red as her hair. Around them ranged several other women, all with heads high and fingers clutching their reticules as if they meant to use the little cloth bags to effect.