Katherine Foster walked briskly down Main Street. Nathan Johnson, the dashing man from San Francisco who had arrived in Clarenceville traveling in the fanciest carriage she’d ever seen, was waiting for her in the dining room of Clarenceville’s brand new hotel. Her pulse was racing and she wished she could run down the street rather than walk. Though she had known him only a couple of weeks it felt like a lifetime. Being with him was like living a fairytale. He was so sophisticated, he led an incredibly thrilling life, and when his note had been delivered to her home, she’d opened it with trembling fingers. It had been mysterious and compelling, and had sent her mind into all kinds of imaginings.
You are the prettiest young lady in Clarenceville, and I know you would be the prettiest young lady in all of San Francisco if you ever visited there. It’s been such a joy getting to know you, and I would like to think you feel the same about me. It is such a shame I have to leave, but I think there is a way we might continue our friendship. It would take courage on your part, but it would be very exciting for us both. Please meet me in the dining room of the hotel for lunch at noon today.
Fondly, Nathan J.
As she reached the door that led into the town’s newest building, she glanced around to see if anyone was paying her any attention. Clarence Foster was her father, and it had been her grandfather who had founded Clarenceville. Her family was well-known, and she didn’t want the local busybodies gossiping about her.
Sometimes she wished she wasn’t the daughter of the town’s leading citizen. He was a man well-respected and well off, though how well off she wasn’t sure. He had steadfastly refused to leave the modest log house built by his father decades before to move into one of the newer homes on Maple Avenue, a street that was the nicest street in the fast-growing community. She found his stubbornness irritating, but at least they had lovely furniture, and growing up her mother had always seen to it that Katherine wore the finest dresses and the latest shoes. It had been a terrible tragedy when her mother had passed away several years before, and though her father had done his best to hide his deep distress, Katherine knew he was sad almost all of the time. She was sad too, and often had to wipe away the tears, but she wasn’t as woebegone as her father. Life in their house had certainly changed. It was now a somber place, and meeting Nate Johnson had brought a burst of sunlight into her gloomy world.
She did have Rhett Cooper, of course. Rhett had been courting her. He always knew how to cheer her up, but more than that, he made butterflies dance in her stomach, and when he kissed her it was sheer heaven. But as much as Rhett lived in her heart, and was her dearest friend in the whole world, he wasn’t anything like Nate.
Nate was a wealthy man from San Francisco, a real man, a mature man! Rhett was closer to her age. She was twenty-one and Rhett was twenty-four, and very proud that he was the deputy sheriff who could well take the top job when the current sheriff retired. While being a sheriff was certainly impressive, Nate was a businessman! An honest-to-goodness businessman, and he lived in a big house with servants, not just a cook and part-time housekeeper like her home. She knew all about the grand residence because Nate had given her rhyme and verse about the magnificent estate that overlooked the San Francisco bay. It had ten rooms. Ten! She could scarcely believe it. And a huge backyard with a special shed for his elegant coach.
Katherine had not only been mesmerized by the description of his majestic home, but the stories of his life in the big city. The restaurants, the theaters, the balls and parties, and the fashionable clothes the women wore, new ones for every change of the season. It sounded glamorous and thrilling, and it astounded her that a man like Nate Johnson liked her, really liked her, in a special way. That’s what he’d told her just as she had been about to leave after their last secret dinner in his room.
It had been two nights before, and as she had risen to her feet, he had picked up her coat and had held it open for her, but when she’d slipped her arms into the sleeves, he had placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him.
“You are a wonder, Katherine. You’re beautiful and well-spoken, and there’s something you must know.”
His face had been close to hers. She had smelled a spicy cologne, and his dark brown eyes had been gazing down at her. She couldn’t imagine what he was about to say, and filled with anticipation, she’d held her breath.
“I cannot go another moment without telling you this,” he’d said dramatically. “Katherine, the truth is, you’ve become very dear to me. I’d give anything to…”
“To what?” she’d asked breathlessly, amazed that such a debonair gentlemen was taken with her. She simply couldn’t believe it. Her!
“To have you on my arm at the many glittering events I regularly attend. You would outshine all the women there. I’d dress you in the latest fashions from Paris, and you would be my princess.”
She had almost fainted on the spot. Such a life, but a moment later a cloud had crossed his face, and she’d asked him why he looked so sad.
“I suppose you are wondering why I’m not married.”
“I had thought about it,” she’d admitted, surprised he’d brought up such a sensitive subject. “I didn’t think it my place to ask.”
“I am married,” he’d said ruefully, casting his eyes down.
Though she’d tried to remain composed, his confession had made her stomach churn in a most peculiar way, and she’d felt the heavy disappointment written on her face.
“My wife… it’s such a tragedy,” he’d sighed. “I am married in name only. You see, the poor woman suffers from mental illness. I had to have her placed in an institution.”
“What? That’s terrible,” Katherine had declared, shocked at the information. “How long ago?”
“It feels like a very long time,” he’d sadly murmured, “though it’s going on three years. I’m told she will never be well, but the doctors have warned me not to divorce her. They are afraid it would send her into complete insanity.”
“You poor man. How dreadful.”
“She is in a beautiful, tranquil place, and has the very best of care. I spare no expense to make sure she is completely taken care of, but I am lonely,” he’d confessed, taking Katherine’s hands and staring into her eyes, “and now I shall be even more lonely. Meeting you… oh, Katherine, how I shall miss our quiet dinners and your company. You have brought a joy into my life I was sure I’d never find again.”
He’d slowly put his arms around her, and she’d let him, and allowed him to hold her close to his chest for a warm hug, and when he’d pulled away, apologizing profusely for having taken advantage of her, she’d felt so sorry for him she’d flung her arms around him and hugged him again.
It had been a magical moment, but she had needed to hurry back before Bertha, the cook, locked the kitchen door. Escaping the house for her secret meetings with Nate had been easy. She’d retire to her room with a headache saying she didn’t wish to be disturbed, then after sneaking out the back door she’d make her way to the hotel by skirting behind the shops and buildings so as not to be seen. The difficult part had been returning home before the back door was locked.
The lunch would be her first public appearance with the dapper gentleman, and as she entered the lobby of the fine new establishment, she suddenly decided she no longer cared that people might see her with the handsome man from out of town. She wasn’t a child anymore, and if a man like Nate Johnson thought it was all right to sit with her for his midday meal, then it was! Lifting her chin, she marched forward and into the dining room. She immediately saw him seated in the far corner of the room, and as she walked across to join him, he rose to his feet.
“Katherine, my dearest, please sit down.”
“Thank you,” she replied, slightly out of breath, but not just from her walk; this public appearance was brazen, and she was feeling the adrenaline course through her veins. “Your note was very mysterious and I can’t believe you sent it to my house. Bertha, that’s our cook, asked me all sorts of questions.”
“Why can’t a gentlemen who has an interest in a young lady send a note to her house? You’re bright and know your own mind. I’m sure you are well within your rights to have lunch with whomever you please. Dinner might raise an eyebrow or two, especially since I’m a stranger in town, but that’s going to change. I plan on stopping by your house and speaking with your father after we finish our meal.”
“But I’m getting ahead of myself,” he said, leaning across the table. “I have a truly wonderful idea.”
“Tell me, please, Nate, I cannot stand the suspense.”
“I want to take you back to San Francisco with me for a visit. You’ll have your own room of course, and it won’t be just a room. My house is so big you’ll have a suite of rooms. I can show you around the city, buy you the latest dresses from Europe, and take you to those parties and balls I’ve told you about. We would have so much fun. Please say you’ll come.”
Katherine’s head began to spin. Was it possible? Would she dare? She wanted to. She wanted to so very much, but what would Rhett say? She did adore him and he was her best friend and her… her what? He was her young man, and they had been stepping out together for a while. He kissed her, and held her, and made her feel all goosebumpy, but he did something else too. He would spank her, and when he did it sent a thrill through her body like nothing else. She suddenly felt a sharp pang of guilt. She and Rhett had an understanding and it had been wrong of her to sneak off to see Nate. She’d known that of course, but it had been so exciting.
“I see my idea doesn’t appeal to you,” Nate said solemnly. “I thought you’d be delighted. I’m terribly sorry. I misread our friendship. I thought you liked me as I like you. I thought you saw me as special, as I see you. I thought you had come to care for me, as I have come to care for you. How very disappointing. I must say, I’m most embarrassed. Perhaps we should cancel this luncheon and you should leave. I really am most upset. I shall return to San Francisco as I arrived, sad and alone, but even more so.”
“Please don’t be upset,” she said hastily. “It sounds wonderful, better than wonderful, it sounds absolutely thrilling.”
“But you certainly don’t appear to be thrilled.”
“I am, truly, it’s just…”
“I can assure you, Katherine, I don’t go around making offers like this to every young woman I meet. I suppose I should have expected this. You’re beautiful, and no doubt you have a young man tucked away somewhere, and considering the difference in our ages your father would doubtless object. You will, of course, listen to his objections and surrender to his will. It was foolish of me to have been hopeful, though I did believe you to be a young woman who had her own mind, who was brave and wasn’t afraid to step out into the world. Clearly I was wrong. I shall pack my bags and leave first thing tomorrow. You needn’t concern yourself any further. I won’t bother you again.”
His tone was dour and his face forlorn, and as he started to rise from the table, Katherine felt a surge of panic.
“No, wait, please, I’d love to go with you, honestly, I would. It’s true I do have a, uh, friend, but he’s nothing like you. I mean, he’s a dear friend, but, uh, he doesn’t own me or anything, and as far as my father goes I do have my own mind, and if I want to go to San Francisco with you for a visit, why shouldn’t I? It’s a brilliant idea.”
Her words had tumbled out of her in an excited torrent, and to her joy he sat back down, leaned across the table, and took her hand.
“Do you mean all that, Katherine? Do you really? Don’t say such things unless you mean them.”
“Yes,” she said, nodding her head fervently, “of course I do. I’d love to go to San Francisco with you, more than anything in the world.”
“Is that right?”
Rhett’s voice had come from behind her, and spinning around, she stared up into his scowling face.