New Orleans, Louisiana
The drunken man weaved and stumbled and finally fell across Joseph Danner’s table, managing an idiotic smile before losing consciousness altogether. Joseph, who had been holding his beer about a foot off the table, calmly took a long draft and absently wondered why no one, himself included, even cared.
The smoky bar was lit by quivering oil lamps and the brightly colored beads strung across the back door led to dim, red rooms and innumerable sinful pleasures. Not that Joseph much cared about that, either. Since Sarah’s death he found precious little in this life to interest him.
“Would you like anothah draft, sir?”
The mountainous barmaid showed him a smile missing several important teeth. Joseph considered. “No, but you could do me a favor. My son’s asleep upstairs. Room four. I’d like someone to check in on him.”
“I’ll be happy to check on him. You from up north, then?”
Joseph hesitated, just for a fraction. “Boston,” he said, lifting the mug to his lips once more.
“Jes passin’ through?”
Normally, he wouldn’t consider giving out his destination; he didn’t want anyone he knew to find him and try to talk him into returning to Boston and starting his practice again. What kind of doctor could he be, when he hadn’t been able to save his own wife’s life?
But Joseph didn’t see how conversing with the friendly barmaid could hurt. “I’m going to St. Louis and then on to Oregon.”
“Well, then, you should talk to Brett.” She inclined her stiff blond head toward the barman. “His brothah went on the wagon train jes last summah.”
Joseph looked around, surprised by this bit of luck.
“Thanks. I will.”
The barmaid smiled again, dropped one fat hand on the scruffy collar of the drunken man, hauled him up from Joseph’s table, dragged him a few feet, then let him fall face down on the grimy wood floor. “I need hep with this un,” she hollered, heading toward the back stairs, which led to the upper rooms.
Feeling eyes on him, Joseph glanced up. A woman was seated at a corner table on the other side of the marred oak pillar. Her face was obscured by a black veil, but the rigid and still way she sat revealed an upbringing not in keeping with the regulars at this backstreet bar.
To his intense surprise she suddenly rose, rustling in layers of taffeta petticoats, picked up a bulky valise, and walked straight to his table. “May I sit down?” she asked, a soft southern drawl rippling through an already dulcet voice.
“My pleasure, ma’am.” Joseph stood up and pulled back a chair. His courteous manners brought snorts of laughter from the other customers, and the woman herself seemed surprised.
She tugged nervously on the fingers of her black kid gloves. “I heard you say you are going to Oregon. I wondered, how are you traveling?”
“Overland, ma’am.” Joseph studied her thoughtfully. Blond hair was swept up into a pillbox hat and slanted blue eyes met his gaze directly. But her lips quivered almost imperceptibly and any loud noise had her starting from her chair. “Is there something I can do for you?”
He was dying to ask her what she was doing in this part of town, in this smelly, run-down hotel, which was little more than a brothel. But he kept his thoughts to himself and waited.
She drew a deep breath. “I want to go with you to Oregon.”
Joseph rubbed a hand across a two-day growth of beard. “In what capacity, ma’am? A lady traveling with a man might –”
“I’m aware of what people may think,” she cut him off harshly. “I want to avoid – notoriety.” Her fingers climbed to the cameo brooch at her neckline, betraying her anxiety. “It’s imperative, in fact, that I make this trip without creating a lot of attention.”
“Are you in trouble?” Joseph asked quietly.
“Of a sort.” she smiled faintly and extended her hand, a small cinched satin handbag swinging from her arm. “My name’s Eliza Smythe. I’ve been watching you and your son for the past few days.”
Joseph was astounded. Had he been in such a fog that he hadn’t noticed this beautiful woman before? “You’ve been here?” he asked incredulously.
“Here and there. I heard you mention that the boy’s mother is dead.”
Joseph drew a breath. That must have been when Tremaine asked him if he would ever have another mother. Joseph had explained that he didn’t count on the future bringing any such good fortune. “She died about a year ago. I’ve been – traveling ever since.”
Drifting was a more accurate term, he supposed. Or maybe running away. The image of his wife teetering on the upstairs windowsill, reaching her fingers toward Tremaine who climbed out onto the moss-covered roof and was too afraid to come back inside, was indelibly etched on his brain. He could still see the way her foot had slipped, could hear her echoing screams. He’d screamed, too, running to catch her, but she’d fallen at his feet. Then for weeks she’d lain unconscious, barely alive, while Joseph had done everything possible to save her life.
The day she died he sold the house, turned his infirmary over to an associate, and took off with Tremaine. He would never again practice medicine. A man who couldn’t even save his own wife wasn’t fit to be a doctor – or so he told himself. He wasn’t certain what he wanted to do but he knew he could never go back to the life he’d led before.
He felt the woman’s eyes on him and surfaced as if from a dream. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Joseph Danner,” he said gruffly. “And if you’ve been watching me, you probably know that already.”
She looked down at her hands, as if embarrassed, and gave a curt nod.
“I don’t see how I can help you,” Joseph told her, finishing his beer and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m not in a position to take on another responsibility.”
“Mr. Danner, I have money.”
“Money?” he asked blankly.
“You can have all of it.” Her gaze was steady. “Come with me and I’ll show you.”
“Wait a minute . . .”
But she wasn’t listening. Hauling up the heavy valise, she headed for the narrow back stairway.
“Miss Smythe,” Joseph protested, blinking, but when she showed no signs of slowing he muttered a curse, dropped some change on the table, and followed after her. The odor of cooked fish and rotting vegetables rose suffocatingly from the kitchen below as Joseph mounted the stairs, but he barely noticed. His gaze was trained on Eliza’s straight back.
At the top of the stairs he met the barmaid, who was hurrying from the other direction. The barmaid flicked Eliza a glance before turning to Joseph. “He’s doin’ fine, your son is,” she said. “A regular heartbreaker, that kid. He’s gonna be a looker.”
Joseph sought to squeeze past her, but the barmaid stopped in the center of the narrow hall, her corset seemingly stretched to breaking beneath her faded red velvet dress. She touched Joseph’s arm companionably, and glanced wistfully after the elegant woman who’d just passed. “A woman like her in a place like this means a pack of trouble, mistah. Ah’ve seen ‘em come in before. You’d best watch more’n your wallet.”
With that piece of advice she stood aside, and Joseph, though forewarned, followed thoughtfully after the mysterious Eliza Smythe.
She was waiting for him at the door to room four. His room. Joseph twisted the key in the lock and stepped back. She moved past him in a cloud of French lavender perfume. “Close the door and lock it,” she said softly.
Joseph glanced at his son. Tremaine slept fitfully on the narrow bed, his eyelids quivering, his small hand clenching the threadbare bedspread. Was this some kind of strange seduction? he wondered. Was this woman merely a bored housewife, seeking a way to liven up her evenings? Did she have a husband somewhere? Just what did she plan on doing with Tremaine sleeping on the only bed?
With surprising strength Eliza tossed the valise on the creaky mattress near Tremaine’s feet, drew a silver key from a ribbon around her neck, unlocked the case, and threw open the lid. Inside were neat stacks of money. More money than he’d ever seen in his life.
“It’s all mine. I didn’t steal it,” she said with a trace of humor. “You can have it if you take me with you to Oregon.”
“You’re running away from someone,” Joseph said.
She inhaled through her teeth, hesitating. The seconds ticked by. Finally, she admitted, “I’m running away from a past I’d rather forget. That’s all I want to say. Oh, but there is one condition.”
Of course. He’d known there would be.
“I want you to marry me before we leave.”
Joseph looked dazedly at Tremaine. The boy sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Eliza shut the case and locked it, waiting.
“Go back to sleep, son,” Joseph said.
Eliza sat down on the edge of the bed, smiling at him. “I’m someone who needs a family.”
Tremaine’s blue eyes regarded her with the steady, stripping appraisal that most people found unnerving. “We need a mother,” he said.
Joseph cleared his throat. Both Eliza and Tremaine looked at him expectantly. He was about to negate this foolishness once and for all, when a tiny voice inside his head asked “Why?” Marrying a woman he knew nothing about seemed about as sane as drifting aimlessly from town to town. And Tremaine was right when he’d said he needed a mother.
Still, what did he know about her?
“Mr. Danner, I will make you a good wife,” she said quietly. “You won’t be sorry.”
His palms were sweating. He’d taken chances in the past. Being a risk taker had served him well on more than one occasion. Clearing his throat, he said in a strange voice, “We don’t need to go overland. There’s a steamer heading out around the Horn the day after tomorrow. It’ll be a long trip but I don’t think we’re in any hurry. It might make less – er – commotion than hooking up with a wagon train . . .” Joseph trailed off.
Eliza’s eyes shone with unshed tears. “I would like to be married before we leave,” she said, so softly he could barely hear.
“Yes, ma’am.” His mouth was as dry as shoe leather.
“Will you make the arrangements?”
“You can call me Eliza . . . Joseph,” she said haltingly, gathering her skirts as she headed for the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, ma’ – Eliza,” Joseph said as he held the door for her. “Tomorrow.”
Two days later Joseph Danner stood at the railing of the Bonnie Lynne with his son and new bride. A hot, moist breeze trembled against Eliza’s veil and tossed Tremaine’s too-long black hair into his eyes. Eliza’s hand gripped Joseph’s so tightly he wondered if she were having second thoughts.
Three blasts from the ship’s horn signaled their departure. Eliza shifted closer to him, tense and tight. He put his arm around her, and she melted into his shoulder. The pitch of the steam engines altered and the sailors pulled in the lines. Beyond, the sun rose from a shifting sea of pink and scarlet.
“I’m pregnant,” Eliza said as the shore slipped away. “I thought you should know.”
Joseph absorbed this in silence. Since he and his young bride hadn’t had a chance to discuss the physical side to their marriage, let alone do anything about it, Joseph had to add this uneasy bit of news to the already disturbing picture he had of his new wife.
“She’ll be born in February.”
“She?” For a moment he thought she somehow knew the sex of her child. It wouldn’t have surprised him.
“I think it’s a she,” Eliza admitted, blushing. “I hope so. I want to name her Lexington.”
“Is that where you’re from? Kentucky?”
“Yes,” she said in the clipped way he was beginning to recognize. The subject wasn’t open for future discussion.
“Eliza, I need to at least know about the child’s father.”
“He’s dead.” She pulled away from him, as if the memory alarmed her. “Someday I’ll tell you everything,” she said. “I promise.”
Joseph wondered if he really wanted to know.
She glanced at Tremaine. The boy, as if feeling her eyes on him, dragged his gaze from the diminishing shoreline and looked her way. She smiled. “The barmaid was right,” she said softly. “He will be a heartbreaker. Those eyes . . .”
Joseph Danner gave his son a long disturbed look. Those eyes had seen far too much, he thought. They had seen his mother die. They had watched the decay of his father’s life.
What, Joseph wondered, would those eyes see in the uncertain future ahead of them?