Authors: Valerie Hansen
“I wanted to make sure you were feeling all right. Any fever?” Thorne asked.
“I don’t think so. See for yourself,” Charity said.
Thorne hesitated, then, looking into her eyes, he laid his hand on her forehead. “I think you’re cool enough.”
Charity blushed. She had never felt like this before. Was this what love felt like? Could she have been wrong to plan to lead a solitary life after she was widowed? Such a decision had seemed perfectly sensible at the time. Only now was it coming into question.
Her eyes searched the depths of Thorne’s dark gaze. Was she imagining it, or was there truly a new tenderness in the way he looked at her?
Afraid he would deny such emotions, she simply smiled at him and said, “Thank you for looking after me.”
was thirty years old when she awoke to the presence of the Lord in her life and turned to Jesus. In the years that followed she worked with young children, both in church and secular environments. She also raised a family of her own and played foster mother to a wide assortment of furred and feathered critters.
Married to her high school sweetheart since age seventeen, she now lives in an old farm house she and her husband renovated with their own hands. She loves to hike the wooded hills behind the house and reflect on the marvelous turn her life has taken. Not only is she privileged to reside among the loving, accepting folks in the breathtakingly beautiful Ozark mountains of Arkansas, she also gets to share her personal faith by telling the stories of her heart for Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired lines.
Life doesn’t get much better than that!
“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
To all the parents who continue struggling to do the best they can and to those extraordinary individuals who take in other people’s children and make them their own. It is truly a gift.
New York, 1853
he wooden deck of the three-masted freighter
rose and fell, rocked by the building swells. Thorne Blackwell knew a storm was imminent, he could smell its approach in the salty air, hear the anxiety in the calls of the soaring gulls and feel the changing weather in his bones. Pacing nervously, he awaited the arrival of his half brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s family. Once they were safely aboard he’d relax. At least he hoped he would.
It had been over two years since Thorne had heard from Aaron, or any of the other Ashtons for that matter, and he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would Aaron have contacted him if he hadn’t been desperate? It was doubtful. Then again, Aaron had good reason for whatever misgivings he still harbored.
Thorne braced his feet apart on the pitching deck, pushed his hat down more tightly over his shoulder-length dark hair and drew up the collar of his woolen frock coat against the impending gale. Of all the nights for anyone to decide he needed immediate passage to San Francisco, this had to be the worst. Then again, Aaron’s note had contained such evident panic, perhaps the risk was warranted. Thorne hoped so, since Naomi and the child would also be boarding.
Lying at anchor in the crowded New York harbor, the
was fully loaded and awaiting final orders to embark on her third voyage around the horn. They’d hoist sail at dawn and be on their way, providing the storm didn’t thwart their plans. Thorne had fought nature before. But for the grace of a benevolent God, he would have been a resident of Davy Jones’s locker instead of the owner of the finest full-modeled vessel ever built in Eastport.
Why God had chosen to spare him from drowning at sea when so many of his comrades had lost their lives he didn’t know. The only thing of which he was certain was his current role as his only sibling’s protector.
Peering into the fog he spied a bobbing lantern in the prow of a small boat off the starboard. Shouting orders, he assembled members of the crew and affected a safe, though treacherous, boarding.
Aaron handed the sleepy two-year-old he was carrying to his wife, then shook Thorne’s hand with vigor and obvious relief. “Thank you. I was afraid you might not want to help us. Not after the way we last parted.”
Touched, Thorne hid his emotion behind a brusque facade. “Nonsense. Let’s get you all inside before the rain begins in earnest. Then you can tell me everything.”
He winced as his brother placed a protective arm around Naomi’s shoulders. Her head was bowed over the blanket-wrapped child in her arms, her face hidden by the brim of her burgundy velvet bonnet, yet Thorne could see her golden hair as clearly as if they were once again walking hand in hand through a meadow and dreaming of an idyllic life together.
He set his jaw. Whatever else happened on this voyage, he was not going to resurrect a love better left dead. He and Naomi had had their chance at happiness, or so Thorne had thought, and she had chosen to wed Aaron, instead. That was all there was to it and all there ever would be. He had long ago concluded that romantic love was highly overrated and nothing had happened since to change his mind.
Guiding his guests into the captain’s cabin he explained, “I’ve arranged for you to occupy these quarters until we can prepare a suitable suite elsewhere. It’s not the quality you’re used to, of course, but it’s the best I could do on such short notice.”
“It’s fine,” Aaron was quick to say as he ducked to guide his wife to a chair beneath a swaying lantern suspended from a beam. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“All I ask is an explanation,” Thorne replied. He leaned against the inside of the cabin’s narrow door and crossed his arms. “What has happened to make you so insistent on leaving New York?”
Aaron’s gaze darted to his wife, then rested lovingly on the small boy asleep in her lap. “It’s mostly because of Jacob,” he said sadly. “Father has grown more and more irrational as the years have passed. We think he may be going insane, although no doctors will agree to it and chance losing the exorbitant retainers he pays them. He’s turned against us just the way he turned against you.”
Thorne gave a deep-throated laugh. “I doubt that very much. At least he doesn’t keep reminding you you’re not really his son—or refuse to allow you to call yourself an Ashton.”
“He may as well do so,” his brother said. “He’s made up his mind that my family is evil and has ordered me to divorce my wife and abandon my child.”
“What?” Thorne’s dark eyes narrowed. Unfolding his crossed arms, he removed his hat and raked his fingers through his thick, almost-black hair. “Why would he do that?”
“It’s evident that his mind is unhinged. Some of the threats he’s made lately are dire, indeed. There is no way I would consent to remain under his roof one more day, let alone subject my family to his lunatic ravings.”
“I can understand that,” Thorne said. “But why leave the city?”
“Because,” Aaron said with a shaky voice, “if I won’t agree to a divorce he has threatened to free me by having Naomi and my son killed.”
San Francisco, 1854
harity 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 a widow.
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 gallows—or perhaps the hangman, himself—such 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
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
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 side—probably to everyone he met. Clearly he was used to getting his own way. Equally as clearly, he was not used to being challenged by anyone, let alone a woman.
He placed his hand on the knob of the door she sought and stood very still.
“May I?” she asked boldly.
“In a moment. First, I must ask for your discretion, particularly regarding my brother’s family. We’re traveling in secret and must therefore guard our true identities judiciously.”
Charity’s chin jutted out, her head held high. “And your point is?”
“Simply that we require your silence. Since you’re a working woman, perhaps a generous gift would help you forget you ever saw us.”
She drew herself up to her full height of five and a half feet, noting that the top of her head, even piled high with her blond curls, barely came to the man’s shoulder. Nevertheless, she was determined to give him a piece of her mind. How
he try to bribe her!
“Sir,” she said fervently, “I have promised Naomi that I would keep her secret and so I will, but it is because
asked me for my silence, not because your money interests me in the slightest. Is that clear?”
Thorne bowed from the waist as he said, “Perfectly.”
“Good. Because there is a hungry, tired little boy waiting for this food and no bully in a fancy brocade vest is going to stop me from delivering it to him. Am I making myself understood?”
A slight smile started to twitch at the corners of his mouth and Charity couldn’t decide whether or not he was about to laugh at her. Since she didn’t want to spill the milk, she sincerely hoped she was not going to have to balance it and slap his face at the same time for unseemly behavior.
His dark eyes glistened as the smile developed. To Charity’s dismay she found him quite handsome when he wasn’t frowning or trying to appear so menacing.
Averting her gaze she nodded toward the closed door. “May I go in?”
“Of course.” He rapped twice, then paused a moment before opening the door for her and standing back to let her pass.
The child had already fallen asleep on the bed. Aaron stood facing the only window, staring into the street below. Naomi was the only one who looked happy to see Charity. She smiled. “Oh, thank you!”