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The Knickerbocker Club
By Joanna Shupe
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Joanna Shupe
All rights reserved.
Grand Central Depot, New York City
Ted Harper never saw it coming. One minute, he was alone on the platform, and the next he'd acquired a wife.
"There you are, dear husband! Let's not miss the train," said a loud, husky feminine voice.
What in the name of Jacob? He tried to extricate his arm from her unexpectedly strong grip while glancing around for a porter. A patrolman. A crowbar ... Anyone or anything to dislodge this woman from his side. "Listen, miss. I don't know who —"
Her head tilted up and he found himself staring down into the greenest eyes he'd ever seen. Vibrant green, like a leaf just after opening in the spring. Red hair tucked under a sensible hat. Small, delicate nose. Creamy white skin with a touch of color on the cheeks.
His stomach dropped somewhere on the platform.
If possible, she snuggled further into his body, emphasizing soft, unavoidable curves. "I am looking forward to meeting your mother," she said and began propelling him toward the train. "I do hope she can teach me to cook that apple pie you like so much."
Mother? Ted frowned. His mother had been dead for eight years. Crazy, thy name is woman. This one belonged in a sanatorium, not a train station.
He planted his feet. "Miss, I'm sorry, but —"
Two hands clutched his lapel and she launched herself in the direction of his mouth. Her lips crashed into his, hard, shocking him. He could neither push her away nor kiss her back; instead he just stood there, frozen, like a block of ice.
She smells nice was his first coherent thought.
His second was that her lips were soft and full, and her height fit him perfectly. Their hips were nearly aligned — which was something he definitely should not be noticing. Then, because his eyes remained open, he saw her gaze dart to the side.
Next arrived his third, and possibly most important, thought. She wasn't crazy; she was hiding from someone, which explained why she kept searching her surroundings. Why she'd attached herself to a perfect stranger.
His head snapped up, breaking their kiss, and he checked for someone lurking about. Was she in danger? Was someone pursuing her?
She cleared her throat, her skin gone a becoming pink, and threw a glance over her shoulder. Her body stiffened, and then she hunched her shoulders, drawing in on herself, and began tugging him toward the train. Yes, definitely hiding from someone.
"Do you think your mother will like me? I swear, I just don't know what I'll do if she doesn't." She continued her one-way conversation, a never-ending string of senseless words, until they arrived at the train steps.
A porter greeted them, his eyes darting between Ted and the woman now clinging to him harder than scandal on a politician. "Mr. Harper, your car is ready. Ma'am, do you —"
"Thank you, sir. My husband and I are ready to board. I hope you were careful with our luggage. I have some very delicate gifts packed inside. Come along, dear."
Instead of climbing the stairs, the mysterious woman craned her neck to peek over her shoulder. Ted turned to look as well but couldn't see what had spooked her. He had no idea what motivated her, but he had the strangest desire to get her on the train. To ensure she would be safe.
Perhaps he was the one who should consider a sanatorium.
The wide-eyed porter was waiting, and impatient passengers began to line up behind them, so Ted relied on the manners drilled into him as an Ohio farm boy. He swept his hand toward the steps. "After you, madam."
Whatever she saw in the crowd convinced her to climb onto the train. Shoulders relaxing a bit, Ted followed, trying not to admire her trim waist in the fashionably long, slightly dirty brown overcoat she wore as they boarded. The porter led them along the regular train car through an enclosed vestibule to the private Pullman car he'd arranged for the journey.
The woman walked inside first, her feet stumbling a bit on the carpet as she took the measure of their surroundings. He didn't travel much but, when he did, he always leased a private car so he could work in peace. This one was well-appointed, a comfortable space with walnut paneling and brass fixtures. It had elegant, plush furniture and ample light in the small sitting room. A pot-bellied stove in the center of the car threw off quite a bit of heat, and a door at the far end presumably led to the sleeping area and water closet.
The porter shifted on his feet. "Is everything to your satisfaction, Mr. Harper? I know you normally —"
"Oh, this is just perfect, isn't it, darling?" his "wife" answered.
No words came out. Ted just stared at her swollen, recently kissed lips until the porter cleared his throat. "Indeed," he forced out. "Perfect."
"I assume the one bed is sufficient, sir. We weren't told that your wife was coming along."
Panic flared deep in her irises as awkwardness descended. He couldn't very well answer. To agree made him a lecher. To refuse made them both liars. So he waited it out.
She swallowed hard, her stare flicking to the window and the crowd beyond, before saying with a good deal less vivacity, "Of course. Where else would I stay?"
The porter nodded. "Very good, Mr. Harper. Mrs. Harper. We'll be departing in a few minutes. Just ring if either of you need anything."
The door closed behind the porter but Ted kept his gaze trained on the young girl. She had to be no more than twenty-two or twenty-three, he guessed, and she was even more lovely in the soft electric light of the compartment. And she'd kissed him, bold as brass. He suddenly regretted not making the most of that kiss when he had the chance.
He removed his derby and placed it on the nearest armchair along with his satchel. "I feel introductions would be appropriate at this time," he started. "I'm —"
"You're obviously Mr. Harper." A flush worked its way over her cheeks. Had she recognized him? She strode forward, hand outstretched. "My name is Clara. Clara Dobson."
He shook it. "Nice to meet you, Miss Dobson. I take it you have no luggage?"
"That's correct." She twisted her hands together, fingers knotting in agitation as she worried her bottom lip mercilessly. Ted had the absurd desire to soothe the abused surface with his tongue.
"But I need to stay on this train," she said, a hint of desperation in her voice.
"I see. Is someone following you?"
"I must get to St. Louis," she blurted out, dodging his original question. "To see my family."
"Of course. I also need to stay on the train. Which puts us in a bit of a bind, now that we've told the porter that we're a married couple."
"If you'll help me during the day, I can find some quiet spot on the train to sleep at night. I won't be a bother, I promise."
A pretty woman, not a bother? As far as he knew, that was the very definition of the word.
"That would only arouse suspicion." Not to mention leave her vulnerable to whatever danger she faced, provided said danger had followed her onto the train.
Head turning, she seemed to assess her surroundings once more. "I'm not certain staying here is a good idea. Do you have another wife? I mean, a real wife?"
Does she really not know me, then? As president of the New American Bank and one of the wealthiest men in the country, his name was hardly uncommon in print — although one was more apt to find mention of him in the business section than the social pages.
"No, I do not have a wife."
"Oh, that is a relief." Having said this, her hands immediately flew to her cheeks. "Goodness, I didn't mean it that way. I'm not interested in ... anything. I meant there's no worry that I'm offending any other woman by pretending to be your wife. Which would have been —"
"Are you always so talkative?" He cocked his head at her. Please let her say no, he thought.
"Well, I do like to talk, I suppose. They're always telling me at Hoyt's — I work the perfume counter there — that I can talk to anyone, anytime. Customers like me." She shrugged. "I had four brothers and three sisters, and if you didn't talk fast, you'd never be heard."
Talk to anyone. Anytime. As if wired to Edison's power station, a jolt went through Ted. Yes, he could use her. Of course, she could be a flimflam artist. Her fear on the platform may have been faked for his benefit. But wasn't all business a form of deception in the end?
"All right, Miss Dobson. I'll help you, but you have to do something for me in return."
* * *
Clara's knees wobbled, and her reaction had nothing to do with the jerky start of the train. As the wheels began turning, the heavy exhales of the engine echoing through the car, she faced him squarely. Whatever he was about to say, she knew she would not like it. He had the upper hand, and she feared he would take full advantage.
Oh, why had she ever moved to New York? Adventure, she'd told herself eight months ago at home in Missouri. Experiences, good times, broadened horizons ... Yet here she was, on the run from men who probably meant her harm, with no money or belongings, and about to be propositioned by a stranger.
Oh, Clara. What have you done?
"Yes?" she forced out.
"May we sit?"
She lowered onto the sofa and tried to imagine what Mr. Harper was about to say. She studied his features for anything that might give away his intentions. He wasn't devilishly handsome. He wasn't overly tall, and wore plain clothing. No fancy facial hair, just a faint hint of gray swept into his brown hair at the temples.
But he carried himself with confidence. A man who knew what he was about. Steady. Compared to the flighty young men of her acquaintance, Mr. Harper's self-assured presence interested her.
Too bad he couldn't kiss worth a damn.
"The reason for my journey," he said, "is to meet with Erik Webber, a potential partner in a venture I am keen on undertaking. My associates met with him twice in New York and he's refused us. But he is on this train traveling back to St. Louis, and I'll have two more nights in which to press my case."
"How does that involve me?" she asked warily.
"This man has also brought along his wife, and she is ... prickly. Notoriously resistant to new ideas. I'm afraid she's against my proposal, and I won't stand a chance of convincing him if she's involved."
"You want me to distract her?"
His mouth hitched and appreciation lit his blue eyes. Oh. Oh. She hadn't noticed how very striking his eyes were, the light having transformed them into vivid pools of clear sky. She suddenly realized she needed a deep breath of air.
"Precisely," he said.
Clara pushed aside her unexpected reaction and thought about what he was asking. It hardly felt like much, not when one compared the request with the cost of a train ticket and sharing a luxurious space such as this for two nights. Two nights. Was she really to sleep in the same car as this stranger not once, but twice?
Yet what was her alternative? Escape had been her only thought in New York, and she had no money or clothes. Hiding on this train would at least allow her time to think. And really, as long as the journey took her away from the men chasing her, that was the most important thing.
Then she noticed Mr. Harper staring at her patiently as he awaited an answer. "I would gladly help you if you're willing to offer me assistance," she rushed out.
"Excellent. Now any chance you'll tell me what had you so frightened on the platform?"
Knots formed in her stomach. How could she explain, when she hardly understood it herself? The whole thing happened so quickly. Going to deliver a letter to her manager, Mr. Ross. Opening the door, finding a man choking Mr. Ross, a man she recognized as Edward Thompson, a prominent politician. A policeman leaning against the wall, watching. Hearing the words, "Grab her," just before she ran.
The evening crowds in the store had provided some assistance, and she had been able to reach the street safely. From there, she had hopped aboard a north-bound streetcar and tried to catch her breath. Get home — that had been her plan. There she would be safe. Yet as they crossed over Thirty-fourth Street, she had noticed a Metropolitan Police wagon steadily following the streetcar, the bushy-mustached policeman sitting up front. Two other patrolmen had been with him.
She'd needed another crowd to lose them. Grand Central seemed the logical place, given her choices. Dashing inside, she'd felt the patrolmen chasing her. But she'd always been the best in her family at hide-and-seek, so she stayed low. Blended in. Then she'd found the first train departing for St. Louis and searched for a man standing by himself.
A man that seemed entirely too nice to involve in her dangerous drama.
"Clara, the platform. What happened out there?"
Talk, she thought. Make him forget the question. "Oh, that. I wasn't scared. I just thought it might be fun to take a trip, go back home to see my family in Missouri. They live in Columbia and it's my mother's birthday. She's turning fifty-five and her only wish was for all of her children to be there. Do you travel much? I bet you do, the way the porter seemed to know your name. Have you been to St. Louis before?"
He heaved a weighty sigh. "I suppose there's no reason to trust me, but I would appreciate it if you did not try to talk me in circles, either, Miss Dobson."
"Please, call me Clara," she said with a grin. At least he was smart. Most men her age would've been glazed over by now, heads spinning from her inane prattle. "And I'll try. But I won't help you unless you agree not to ask questions about what happened on the platform."
"You already agreed to help me."
"I'll take it back, unless you promise not to ask me questions."
He held up his hands. "Fine. No questions." He relaxed into the chair. "Would you mind very much if I attended to some work before dinner?"
"No, not at all."
He found his satchel and opened the flap. From his inner jacket pocket, he withdrew a pair of eyeglasses and slipped them on his face. She liked the way he looked in the frames. Intelligent. Serious. And they gave her the strangest desire to smooth his rumpled hair while he lectured her on ... fossils or science whatnot.
Perhaps she could teach him how to kiss better. Two beaus had complimented Clara on her skills in that area. The poor man must not get much practice. "I'm sorry I kissed you on the platform. Maybe —"
"You should get comfortable," Ted told her, not meeting her eyes. "After all, this is your car, too."
Sensible and considerate as well. The last man who'd courted her hadn't even held an umbrella over her in a downpour. Not that Mr. Harper was courting her, but she could tell he was a good man. She unpinned her hat, set it next to her, and then stood up to remove her coat. She walked over to hang the garment on the wall hook.
When she returned to her seat, Mr. Harper was going over a stack of paper, pen in hand. He made the occasional note as he flipped the pages. With that amount of work and his less-than-fashionable clothing, he did not strike her as a wealthy bon vivant or captain of industry. Certainly not someone who could afford to lease a private rail car. His company must have paid for his accommodations, she guessed.
After a stretch, her curiosity got the better of her. "Are you a salesman of some kind?"
For some reason, this seemed to amuse him, though he kept the focus on his work. "Yes, something like that."
"I said you may call me Clara, but you never told me your name."
"Ted. You may use that name as well. There's no need to be formal when it's just the two of us."
Ted Harper. She liked that name. He looked like a Ted. Hardworking, industrious. A man who said what he meant and meant what he said.
At Hoyt's, she could usually tell what a customer would buy just from their name. Someone with a common, practical name, like John or Mary, tended to purchase perfume without even smelling the bottle. Then there were the odd names, like Orpha or Erline, who tested every perfume until landing on the precise one.
But those with formidable, smart names would stop, describe the person for whom they were buying the perfume, and ask Clara's opinion on the scent. She liked those people best of all.
Excerpted from Tycoon by Joanna Shupe. Copyright © 2016 Joanna Shupe. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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