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About the author:
Patricia Watters writes contemporary cowboy romances that feature courageous, self-assured heroes with endearing flaws, and the gutsy women who capture their hearts, women, these unsuspecting males would lay down their lives for. An author with Harlequin and Avon-Harper Collins in the past, Patricia has published twenty-two romance novels, which include her 13-book DANCING MOON RANCH series, a contemporary western series that spans thirty years and two generations. She invites you to visit her website at http://www.patriciawatters.com/ and drop her a line. She response to all notes
What inspired you to write your book?
The inspiration for this book stemmed out of my many visits to Victoria, British Columbia with my husband, and what the town must have been like in the mid-1800s when it was a bustling stopover city for miners on the way to the gold fields.
Here is a short sample from the book:
San Francisco – August 1864
Her mother's lips stilled, and Sarah Ashley knew she was dead. She stared at her lifeless face, eyes blank in their sunken sockets, and thought, Why did you leave me now with this terrible burden? The weeks leading up to this moment had been filled with hours of sitting by the bedside and watching the life slowly draining away as her mother slept off the effects of the laudanum, but then, in a moment that had taken Sarah by surprise, her mother opened her eyes, and with a clarity that took Sarah by surprise, her mother said in a voice that held purpose, "There's something I must tell you."
"Save your strength, Mother. We can talk later," Sarah said.
Her mother rolled her head back and forth on the pillow. "No, it must be now." She pinched her lips together, as if reconsidering, then she drew in a long rattling breath, and said, "Your father is not your father. Your real father was a captain in the British navy—a man with fiery red hair and restless green eyes." There was no trace of emotion in her voice, only the harsh reality of cold facts that needed to be said. "I fancied myself in love, but by the time your stepfather came along I realized my captain wasn't coming back, so I accepted your stepfather's proposal. But just before we were to marry, your father sailed into port. It was a brief affair—I had to know how I truly felt—and your stepfather found out."
Sarah placed her hand on her mother's arm to stop the words she didn't want to hear, but her mother ignored the gesture, sucked in a breath that wheezed in her chest, and said, "Your stepfather took me back because he needed someone to look after Hollis and Lester. Soon afterwards I realized I was with child, but I didn't know which man was your father. When you were born, your green eyes and coppery hair… there was no question."
"Rest, Mother. Talking is sapping your strength," Sarah said.
Ignoring Sarah's request, her mother said, "I'm telling you this because you need to know why your stepfather always resented you. You were a constant reminder of my betrayal. It was never your fault. It was mine."
Sarah's throat tightened and a deep dull ache settled in her chest. All her life she'd reached out to a man she could never touch, for a love that was never returned, and while Hollis and Lester were gambling away the proceeds from their father's clothing manufactory, she'd worked long hours with him, but the harder she tried, the more he resented her presence.
"Your stepfather and I lived as man and wife, but we never married because he didn't want my bastard child to be his heir, but knowing you'd never inherit from him, I saved money over the years. It's in an account at Wells Fargo in my name and you are sole beneficiary." Her mother's face became pensive, as if a great burden had been lifted from her soul. But then her eyes sharpened, and she said, with the last vestiges of her strength, "Hollis and Lester must never know, or they'll find a way to take it from you…"
The words trailed off, and then she was still.
Sarah gazed down at her mother. Such a heavy burden she'd held over the years, but now, at last she was free. Reaching out, she gently placed her hand over her mother's eyes and dragged her eyelids shut, then kissed her immobile cheek. But when she turned to go, she saw Hollis standing in the doorway, and from the look on his face, she knew he'd heard.
Victoria, Vancouver Island – six weeks later
The rusty cries of gulls announced the arrival of the clipper ship, Mariah. As the tall vessel glided into Victoria Harbor, raucous birds swooped down and dipped into the murky water, snatching debris that rolled in the wake.
Bracing her hands on the rail, Sarah inhaled the sea air and felt the sting of the wind on her cheeks. All day a thick mist enveloped the ship, then shortly before it sailed into the harbor the mist lifted, like a curtain opening to a bright new world, and a fresh new life.
She had no idea what Hollis and Lester would do when they learned she'd liquidated her account and fled from San Francisco, but she prayed they wouldn't come looking for her in Victoria. Lester she didn't fear, but Hollis was not one to issue idle threats. If he found her, his revenge would be swift and unmerciful.
Gazing at the scene before her, she was almost too excited to breathe. Everywhere, she saw signs of growth. In the distance, vast areas recently cleared of woods bordered patchwork fields of homesteads. Closer in, stores, hotels, saloons and other businesses lined an orderly network of streets, a city on the threshold of prosperity, but in the foreground the scene changed dramatically. On the quayside between the aging palisade of Fort Victoria and the warehouses at the water's edge, ragtag tents and makeshift hovels housed prospectors waiting for passage to the Cariboo goldfields. Shabby-looking men carrying knapsacks laden with picks and shovels crowded the wharf, and hacks, carts and peddlers' wagons, all come to profit from the gold seekers, jammed the thoroughfares.
Anxiously fingering the handles of her reticule, Sarah scanned the passengers on deck for her maid, and caught sight of the young colored woman sashaying past a seaman with skin as black as pitch, his grin coaxing a demure smile from Mandi. It wasn't the first time a man had rested appreciative eyes on her. With beautifully sculpted lips the color of burgundy, a smooth complexion the shade of walnut, and mirthful black eyes fringed with long curling lashes, Mandi possessed uncommon beauty. Still, she'd turned down several offers of marriage because she carried in her heart hopes of one day finding her ideal man.
As Mandi approached, Sarah gave her a sharp look, and said, "Where have you been? It's almost time to disembark."
Mandi's eyes flicked over the passengers on deck, then she leaned toward Sarah and said, in a hushed voice, "Ah heard Miz Galbraith sayin' to one of the ladies aboard some things about you and the captain, so Ah had to keep on listenin'."
"For heaven's sake," Sarah said. "Captain Sweeney's old enough to be my father. You must have heard wrong."
"No," Mandi insisted. "Miz Galbraith was sayin' you is one of them loose women from San Francisco. Ah hope she don't do like Mister Hollis and Mister Lester did and spread ugly lies about you. She seems a right spiteful woman for a preacher's wife."
Sarah pursed her lips. "She may be a preacher's wife, but she's also a harridan, a snoop and a busybody, and I'm sure the people in Victoria will disavow anything she might say."
"Not accordin' to Ida—that's Miz Cromwell's maid. Ida says the ladies of Victoria have nothin' better to do but sit around and gossip, that word spreads so fast, a lady can start a rumor one day, and by the next it's bein' talked about in every parlor in Victoria."
Sarah chuckled. "Then think how quickly word of our business venture will spread."
"But that's not all," Mandi said. "Ah heard Miz Galbraith sayin' loud enough so's other folks could hear, that the guv'nor's sister ought not be in your company, her traveling with the guv'nor's daughters, and that's apt to get back to the guv'nor's mother, since Ida said Lady Cromwell and Miz Galbraith are special good friends."
Sarah felt a twinge of uncertainty. If Lady Cromwell, the woman at the pinnacle of Victoria's polite society, believed such gossip it could be a repeat of what happened in San Francisco. Glancing beyond Mandi, she saw Esther Cromwell, the governor's sister, walking toward them, the skirt of her plain brown traveling dress swishing back and forth with each step.
Esther and Governor Cromwell's teenage daughters, Louella and Josephine, were returning to Victoria after a holiday in San Francisco. During the voyage, Sarah and Esther had become friends. A spinster in her early forties, Esther wore her mouse-brown hair parted in the middle and dragged back into an unadorned bun at her nape, her brown eyes were without bistre, and her cheeks and lips were devoid of rouge. On first seeing Esther, Sarah felt sorry for the woman, being so plain, and suspected her personality was as lackluster as her appearance. Instead, Sarah found a warm, humorous lady hidden beneath the colorless exterior.
As Esther approached, her face held a look of grave concern. "I insist you and your maid stay with us." She looked toward the wharf and the multitude of bearded, hard-looking men milling about, most armed with revolvers and bowie knives. "Look at them, the absolute dregs of society. It's not safe for an unmarried woman to stay at the hotel."
Sarah appreciated Esther's concern, but she expected to be so busy setting up her business she didn't anticipate spending much time at the hotel. "I'm sure we'll be fine."
Esther's eyes sparked with concern. "You don't understand. Several women have disappeared and no one knows what happened to them. Jon suspects they've been carried off to the goldfields and sold to the prospectors."
Sarah stared at Esther, incredulous. "Sold? Like… slaves?"
"Precisely. The women here are afraid to go out in groups of less than three. So far, all the women who disappeared have been prostitutes, but one never knows when a decent woman might be snatched and hauled off."
Sarah eyed the disreputable-looking throng. Until now she hadn't realized how untamed the city was. The thought of staying in a hotel crowded with these men for even the short time she anticipated before finding permanent residence was becoming increasingly unappealing. She looked askance at Esther. "If it's really no imposition."
"I assure you, it's not. So it's settled. Now I must find Louella and Josephine."
As Esther walked off, Sarah had second thoughts about staying with the Cromwell's. Esther mentioned earlier that her brother, Jon, the governor of Vancouver Island, was opposed to the influx of Americans coming to Victoria to make their fortunes, and there was no question, she was another American doing just that.
Thirty minutes later, as Sarah stood on the wharf with Esther, Mandi, Ida, and the two girls, a great commotion arose among the crowd, then shouts erupted and a horse reared, breaking its ties. The horse bolted forward, toppling a vegetable wagon, and rushed headlong toward a child. Suddenly, a horseman on a blood bay soared over the toppled wagon, overtaking the riderless horse, and in one fluid motion leaned low astride his horse and scooped up the child. Reining to an abrupt halt, the horseman comforted the crying child for a few moments then lowered him into the upraised arms of his distressed mother.
Esther slapped both hands to her face. "Good gracious! It's Jon!"
Sarah stared at the man, too stunned to speak. Tall and powerfully built, with a crop of unkempt dark hair, a thick chest and broad shoulders, and muscular thighs evident beneath his tight breeches, the man looked nothing like a governor, at least not in the sense Sarah would have expected. But then, Jonathan Cromwell governed a wild, untamed frontier, a land that seemed as raw and rugged as the man himself.
For a moment he looked directly at her, and in that instant Sarah's cheeks grew warm and her entire body seemed to respond. The sight of him awakened something deep inside, something that stirred and warmed her, and scared her too. Never had she seen a man who exuded so much strength, a bold strength evident in the firm angle of his jaw and the almost brutal line of his mouth. Then his mouth softened and his eyes brightened, and she knew he'd spotted his daughters running toward him. Swinging his leg over the horse, he leapt to the ground and gathered Josephine and Louella to him in a fierce embrace.
Esther took her arm. "Come on," she said. "I'll introduce you to Jon."
Only then did Sarah realize she'd been holding her breath.
Feeling a vague uncertainty, she walked with Esther to meet the man.
"Jon," Esther said, tugging Sarah toward him, "may I introduce Miss Sarah Ashley. I've taken the liberty of inviting her to be a guest in our home, and she has agreed."
Captivated by the dark eyes that seemed to be assessing her, Sarah extended her hand. "I'm very pleased to meet you," she said, in a voice she hoped was steady.
Jonathan Cromwell's broad hand curved around hers. "This is indeed a pleasure," he replied, his eyes reflecting the lazy grin on his face as he held her hand a shade longer than propriety allowed. "Am I to assume you have no friends or relatives here?"
"Well… yes," Sarah replied. "That is, I have no relatives in Victoria. Most of my family live in the east, except my two bro…" she paused. After what Hollis and Lester had done, she found it difficult to consider them family. Trying to dismiss the anger and bitterness, she said, "Two stepbrothers live in San Francisco."
The long pause that followed led Sarah to believe Governor Cromwell was trying to adjust to the idea of his sister he Cromwell asked.
"Well, no," Sarah replied. "I'm moving here. I've heard the town offers many opportunities."
Governor Cromwell's expression hardened. "I suppose it does. I understand many Americans are deserting families, jobs, and country in favor of gold."
Sarah couldn't dispute that. She'd heard talk of merchants and farmers quitting work, husbands abandoning wives and family, lumber mills shutting down, even Union and Confederate soldiers fleeing from battle, all swarming to outfitting stores and steamship ticket offices, before funneling up the Fraser river to the goldfields.
Fourteen-year-old Louella, a pretty child with golden-brown hair and a delicate face, fixed anxious blue eyes on her father, and said, "Please, Papa, may we go home? It's been dreadfully long since I've seen Taffy and her kittens."
Jon gave his younger daughter a warm smile. "Yes, poppet." He curved his arm about Louella's shoulders, took his horse by the bridle, and motioned for everyone to follow.
Sarah gathered her skirt and petticoats. Lifting them clear of the dirt on the wharf, she and Mandi traipsed behind the governor and his entourage as they marched up the plank roadway ascending the quay. On the street, two carriages waited—a dark green depot wagon drawn by a pair of mismatched browns, and an elegant town coach bearing a crest on the door, its team of four whites prancing nervously in place. A mark of prosperity. Only a colony with wealth could afford to provide its governor with such refinement. Sarah smiled inwardly. Victoria would indeed bring her prosperity, and with it, the security she needed to maintain her independence.
Mandi, Ida, and the girls climbed into the depot wagon. Then, to Sarah's surprise, the governor turned his horse over to one of the footmen, and said, "Tie him behind the coach, Hayworth. I'll be joining Miss Cromwell and Miss Ashley for the ride home. But first, I have to talk to Mayor Harris." With little more than a nod to the women, he left.
Esther climbed into the coach, but Sarah remained outside where she could peruse her new surroundings. She scanned the buildings lining the waterfront. A small brick building, the kind she envisioned as housing her clothing business, caught her eye. It also appeared to be unoccupied. Curious, she wandered over to where a man stood just outside the front door. Smiling politely, she said to the man, "Is this building by any chance for let?"
The man's gaze meandered down the length of her, as he replied, "For you, little lady, it could be arranged."
Sarah wasn't certain how to take the man's comment. "Then it is available?" she asked.
The man nodded. "Come inside and we'll talk about it." He took her arm.
At first Sarah started to walk with him, then she became frightened. She knew nothing about the man other than he owned a building for let. "Not now. I have to go." She tugged against the man's grip, and to her relief, he released her.
As she walked away, the man called after her, "I look forward to seeing you, soon."
She didn't respond, but when she looked up, Governor Cromwell's eyes were fixed on her. The dark look they held, and the hard line of his mouth, left no question as to how he'd interpreted what he'd seen. She gave him an uncertain smile, then scurried past him and climbed into the coach and sat beside Esther.
The coach dipped as Governor Cromwell swung inside and sat opposite the women, his long legs and broad-shouldered frame seeming to fill every available space in the coach. He rapped on the window behind him, and the coachman cracked his whip, giving the command. The coach moved forward, the wheels rumbling over cobblestones.
The governor's dark eyes on Sarah, he said, "You mentioned Victoria offers many opportunities. Does that mean San Francisco does not?"
"Maybe not the same kind of opportunities," Sarah replied, and offered nothing more. The man set her on edge. Not only was he opposed to Americans encroaching on his domain, but he had eyes like a raptor.
His gaze still on her, he said, "I'm surprised you expect to find something in Victoria that a thriving city like San Francisco lacks. What, may I ask, would that be?"
"It's not that I expect to find anything… exactly," Sarah replied.
"Then I assume you hoped to leave something behind," Governor Cromwell said.
"For heaven's sake, Jon!" Esther snapped. "Why are you interrogating Miss Ashley as if she left San Francisco under a cloud?"
For a long moment Governor Cromwell looked at Sarah in silence, then one corner of his mouth lifted slightly, and he said, "I apologize, Miss Ashley. I did not mean to imply that."
But Sarah knew, from the look on his face, that he'd meant precisely what he said. It was also the bitter truth. She had left San Francisco under a cloud.
Turning away from his assessing gaze and the unsettling effect it had on her, Sarah peered out the window at the row of false-front brick and wooden buildings lining walks of fresh-cut cedar planks. Her heart quickened with excitement as she took in the bustling town. It resembled San Francisco in the days of the gold rush, and she too would build a successful business, just as her father had. No, not father. Stepfather. It was easy to slip back to a time before her mother died when she hadn't known the truth, but struggled to understand the enigma of her father. But that was behind now. Glancing at Esther, she said, "I haven't seen a women's apparel store here."
"Most of the women fashion their own garments or buy ready-made wear from the Hudson's Bay Company store," Esther replied.
Sarah couldn't suppress her smile. It was as she had anticipated. Women would flock to her store for bloomers and shirtwaisters, eager to shed their corsets and petticoats.
"Jon," Esther said, "have any more women disappeared since we left?"
Jon nodded. "Two. Both prostitutes. It's assumed they left on their own for the goldfields."
"Assumed?" Sarah eyed the governor, annoyed with his callous attitude. "Does that mean the authorities aren't searching for them?"
"It hardly warrants a search," Jon said. "The women will practice their trade whether here or in the Goldfields."
Sarah felt her temper rise. "The women are after all human beings, Governor, many of whom have no doubt been cast into their demeaning profession by ruthless men."
"That may be," Governor Cromwell said, "but right now we're more concerned with stopping the smuggling of contraband rum and whiskey to the gold fields and arresting Americans trying to avoid the purchase of mining licenses."
"Yes, I suppose you would find that more important than the welfare of a couple of women of questionable character." Clamping her mouth shut, Sarah intended to say nothing more. After all, she was to be a guest in the man's home.
As the coach turned off the main street, the grating of wheels on cobblestones ceased, and they followed a hard-packed dirt road that skirted the bay. Several minutes later the carriage pulled to a halt in front of an impressive two-story white house with turrets, gables, and wide porches that followed the varied lines and curves of the house. When they entered, Jon excused himself, and Esther gave Ida instructions as to where Sarah should stay.
Gathering her skirt, Sarah followed Ida up a wide bank of stairs, down a long hallway, and into a room with a window facing the bay. After Ida left, Sarah took in her surroundings. It was obviously a woman's room. A floral bedcover of pinks and dusty blues covered a turned-wood bed, with a grouping of needlework pillows against the headboard, and a dressing table with an ornate silver brush, a matching comb, and a hand mirror graced one wall of the room, along with a ladies desk. Sarah lifted a scrap-work screen from the desk and examined the cutouts of rosy-faced cherubs, and snippets of lace with satin ribbon. A meticulous person had planned it, and a steady hand had tediously pieced it together.
Her eyes were drawn to a large oil painting above the fireplace. In the scene, a woman of exceptional beauty sat on a sofa, her golden-brown hair caught in a coronet of braids and flowers, her glacial blue eyes staring out at the world. Beside her, two young girls looked on. The younger, a child with blue eyes and golden-brown hair, bore a striking likeness to Louella. The older, a girl with large brown eyes and dark hair, resembled Josephine. Peering into the icy blue eyes of Jonathan Cromwell's deceased wife, Sarah had an almost overwhelming urge to withdraw from the room. Those eyes were so like the eyes of her stepfather. Cold. Distant. With no trace of warmth or affection. Even when his health began to fail, her step-father didn't look to her to run his business, but turned it over to Hollis and Lester, and by the time he died, Hollis and Lester had depleted the capital, running up large debts from gaming.
On learning about her account, Hollis set into motion his plan to obtain her money. The scandal that followed was intended to sway the judge in Hollis's favor in his lawsuit against her, but before Hollis could serve papers, Sarah liquidated the account and fled. She prayed he wouldn't track her down and press the lawsuit. She needed the money to start her business so she'd never be dependent on a man again. Only then could she set aside the tug of jaded emotions that dragged her down, and come to terms with the fact that her entire life had been a lie.
She was a love child, conceived in lust. The only truth was that her real father had not wanted her, the man she believed to be her father had not wanted her, and her stepbrothers despised her. Men were an abject, contemptible lot, she decided, and determined to give them no further thought.
Within the hour, Sarah's trunks arrived. While she was unpacking, sixteen-year old Josephine sallied into the room, dark eyes gleaming with anticipation, and said in a hushed voice, "Miss Ashley, may I see the bloomers?"
"You certainly may." On the ship, Sarah described her shirtwaisters and bloomer costumes to Esther and the girls, and Josephine had shown particular interest.
Josephine eyed the crinoline collapsed on the bed. Fingering one of the wide steel hoops, she said, "Louella wants one of these, but I think crinolines are the absolute height of absurdity, props for yards of unnecessary material, sweeps for gathering dirt and dragging it into the home."
Sarah looked at Josephine in curiosity. Her words seemed far too opinionated for such a young woman. "Louella may have that crinoline if she wants it," she said. "I intended to leave it in San Francisco but it found its way among my things when my maid packed."
Josephine shook her head. "Papa wouldn't allow Louella to have it. He says when they swing back and forth they show the limbs and that's bad, so he insists Louella and I wear layers of petticoats instead. But Aunt Esther's not as strict as Papa. She would have bought Louella a crinoline when we were in San Francisco, but she won't go against Papa's wishes."
Sarah removed a gown of emerald-green duchesse from her steamer trunk and looped the hangar on a hook on the door of the armoire next to a gown of plum and fuchsia foulard. She pressed her hand along the skirts of her gowns to smooth away the wrinkles then looked askance at Josephine. "Does your grandmother agree with your father?" she asked, curious about the older woman, wondering if she could find an advocate there.
"Not always," Josephine replied. "Grandmother thinks we should go to St. Ann's Academy where we'd have the benefit of a virtuous upbringing, but Papa insists we go to Madame Pettibeau's Seminary for Young Ladies so we can learn to be poised and proper like Mama was."
Sarah whisked out a pair of black bloomers from her trunk. "This pair should fit you, and you may have them if you'd like." She handed the bloomers to Josephine. "You wear them over your pantalettes and under a short skirt or tunic."
Josephine draped the bloomers from her waist and peered into the mirror. "They seem very practical."
"They are, but you mustn't wear them unless your father approves."
Josephine gave a vague nod of agreement. Walking over to the armoire, she touched the sleeve of Sarah's plum and fuchsia gown and trailed a finger down the skirt of the green duchesse. "These are surely pretty. I've never seen such bright colors."
"Those are the new aniline dyes," Sarah said. "Vivid colors are all the rage in Paris."
Josephine traced a finger along the scooped neckline. "The front is surely low."
Sarah eyed the gown. "It's the latest fashion. In the boxes at the San Francisco opera, the woman whose dress is not décolleté is presumably a maid or a theater attendant."
"It sure is pretty," Josephine said in a wistful voice, "but Papa would never let us wear anything so bright in color, and with the front so low he'd say we were trying to tempt the devil, yielding to base sin. Papa's a God-fearing man."
"Then you'd best listen to your papa," Sarah said, finding Josephine's comment incongruous with what she'd seen of the man. Jonathan Cromwell seemed anything but a God-fearing man.
After Josephine left, Sarah fetched her journal from the trunk, sat at the lady's desk, and made an entry dated September 3, 1864: Dear Diary, Victoria is everything I dreamed it would be. Every woman we passed on the ride through town wore yards of skirt, and I am here to change that. Tonight will be my overture. I shall wear a gown to dinner, and without the layers of petticoats, and before long, the women of Victoria will see the reasonableness of shedding layers of petticoats and the practicality of wearing bloomers and flock to my store. My hope is that the ladies of Governor Cromwell's household will set things in motion. I have at least two allies in the governor's sister and eldest daughter.