She pulled the letter from her pocket. Smoothing out the wrinkled, tear-stained paper, she read the words again, though in truth she could have recited them from memory.
My dearest Tori,
I fear I’ve made a horrible mistake in coming here. Things are not as they were portrayed to be. But I cannot come home. I can no longer look decent folk in the eye. Unspeakable things have happened. I thank heaven that mama and papa are no longer here to witness my shame.
With God’s mercy, one day we will see each other again. Until then, be safe, dear sister, and know that I will always love you.
Victoria stared blindly out the window at the endless plain, trying to empty her brain of the frightening images conjured up by Bianca’s letter. Not a house, not a tree, not a sign of human presence as far as the eye could see. How people could ever want to leave civilization and come to this Godforsaken wilderness was beyond her.
Wearily, she closed her eyes and rested her head against the glass. She had scarcely slept in days and before long the monotonous clacking of the wheels against the track lulled her into a fitful slumber. But it was only to dream of the horrid argument she’d had with Edgar the night before she left Boston. When a jolt of the train awakened her, his harsh words still echoed in her head.
Until that night, she’d admired what she thought of as his rational nature, his ability to put emotion aside and make sound decisions even in the midst of difficult situations. Looking back, she could now see it for what it was. Not a desirable character trait, but a flaw. Edgar was cold. Incapable of any depth of feeling.
“For heaven’s sake, woman, come to your senses. Your sister has disappeared into the Wild West. How can you possibly think you could succeed when even Pinkerton’s men found no trace of her?”
“They gave up. For them, it was all about collecting their fee. They didn’t love her as I do.”
“Love, my dear, is seriously overrated. If your sister loved you as much as you say you love her, she would never have run off and left you as she did. She’d have stayed here in Boston, married Charles Worthington, and made the best of her lot in life.”
“I don’t blame Bianca for wanting to find a little happiness. She had a hard enough time of it before she and her mother came to live with us. I cannot fault her for wanting the same kind of love her mama found with my papa.”
There’d been no reasoning with him. Edgar blustered and raged, then tried to dissuade her with threats of all sorts of dire consequences that might befall her on the trip. Frightened and sick at heart, Victoria nearly relented. But when she tried to say the words, her sister’s sweet face appeared in her mind. She’d promised Molly on her deathbed that she would care for her younger stepsister.
“Edgar, I beg you, do not make me choose between you and the only family I have left.”
“At least wait until we are married and I can go with you. You know I can’t leave the business right now. Things are dicey with father and my uncle fighting for control of the board of directors.”
Victoria sighed. At the rate they were going, that could be another year. Things had been ‘dicey’ for months now. Their wedding date had been postponed twice already because of one dire emergency or another in the business. Edgar worked in the family’s shipping firm and she feared his ties to those purse strings were far more binding than any feelings he had for her. Lately she’d had the uncomfortable thought that perhaps her grief at losing her father and stepmother so quickly one after another had led her to rush into an engagement with the first man who offered her comfort and stability. Edgar was kind and, until tonight, always calm and reasonable. Ten years older than she, at thirty-four, he reminded her of papa. Reliable. Steadfast.
Now she wondered if perhaps her sister had been right after all, at least about one thing. She’d found Bianca in her room a fortnight before her planned wedding day, tossing clothes helter-skelter into a small valise as tears flowed down her face. At the last minute, she’d refused to go through with her marriage to Worthington. She said he was pleasant and polite and fond of her, but she just couldn’t marry a man who didn’t love her with all his heart.
Victoria begged her to stay but her younger sister couldn’t bear to face Worthington at every social event in Boston after rejecting him. She’d pressed a note into Victoria’s hand, making her promise to deliver it personally to her jilted bridegroom. Eventually Victoria got her to agree to think it over and talk again before doing anything rash. But in the morning, Bianca was gone.
The next day, she received a wire from Bianca telling her not to worry. It said she was on her way to San Francisco. She planned to enroll in a private women’s college there. Victoria suspected that Bianca had been lured to that city because, by all accounts, her natural father lived there in the last years before his death.
Victoria had been troubled until she received the first letter. She’d enrolled in a very exclusive women’s academy, Bianca said, run by a graduate of the prestigious California Collegiate Institute. Miss Cora Holmes was said to be an excellent headmistress, teaching deportment and social skills as well as a full schedule of academics. Bianca planned to study there and then open a primary school for young ladies with the inheritance papa had left her. Her exuberance flowed from the pages of the letter. Bianca described the bustling city and her first meeting with Miss Holmes in glowing terms.
Victoria wrote back several times but for weeks she heard nothing more. Then came that second letter. Written in a shaky hand that looked nothing like her sister’s, it had been crumpled, as though tossed in the trash and then dug out again and sent. Distraught, Victoria took the letter to Edgar. He’d suggested that she wire the headmistress immediately and put her fears to rest.
But the curt response they received only caused more anxiety. According to Miss Holmes, Bianca had been enrolled there for a short time but was no longer a student.
Victoria was ready to take the next train to San Francisco. That’s when Edgar stepped in and, ever practical, arranged to hire Pinkerton’s detective agency. After all, he pointed out, she could certainly afford to leave this matter in the hands of those far better suited to the task. Papa had bequeathed a sizeable sum of money to each girl. In his wisdom, he’d left Victoria in charge of doling out the bulk of her stepsister’s share over a period of time as she saw fit, to ensure that innocent little Bianca didn’t fall prey to some cad who was only after her for her fortune. She couldn’t help feeling as though she’d let papa down. She wanted Bianca to have an account all her own to pay for wedding expenses, buy an occasional gift for her new husband. If she hadn’t turned over a good bit of money to her sister, Bianca would never have been able to run off to San Francisco.
Victoria had been taken aback at Edgar’s blunt remark, but he convinced her that if she were truly concerned about her sister’s well-being, trained investigators had a far better chance of discovering her whereabouts. He’d hinted that if Bianca was in any sort of difficulty, a pair of strong men armed with weapons would make better rescuers than a single young woman, no matter how determined she might be.
A month passed, then two. Pinkerton’s sent regular bulletins by wire.
Interviewed Miss Holmes. Examined academy records. Bianca St. Germaine enrolled April 23, 1883. Left without notice June 3, 1883. Current whereabouts unknown.
Interviewed drivers of buggies and carriages for hire. No one recalls transporting Miss St. Germaine around that date in June, although one reported he’d taken a young lady matching her description to the academy sometime in late April.
Spoke to every hotel and boarding house in the city. Miss St. Germaine is not in residence, nor has she ever been.
Then the last one, the one they’d received the night she and Edgar had their first—and last—real argument.
Made the rounds of hospitals, jail, mental institutes, bawdy houses, and city morgue. No sign of Miss St. Germaine. Until new lead surfaces, ending search.
Seeing the words ‘bawdy house’ and ‘morgue’ in the same message as her sister’s name sent a cold chill down Victoria’s back. She couldn’t sit by any longer doing nothing. Edgar was furious but she stood her ground.
“If you leave for San Francisco against my wishes, I will have to seriously reconsider the wisdom of entering into a marriage with you.”
“Let me save you the trouble,” she shot back, yanking the ring off her finger and hurling it across the room at him. “I release you from your proposal.”
That had been four days ago. Four lonely, monotonous days, broken only by disembarking from one train to wait in a hot, dusty station for another. Victoria stood up, stretching the muscles that had cramped in her fitful slumber. She poured a little water from a heavy china pitcher in the corner into the matching bowl and washed her face, grateful once again that her circumstances allowed her the luxury of a private compartment, no matter how tiny.
She wasn’t hungry but she knew she needed to eat to keep up her strength. Heaven only knew what was in store for her once she got to San Francisco. Heading for the dining car, she wondered what they’d serve on this leg of the trip. She’d already been on three different trains in the last four days and the menus varied widely, from barely edible beans and stale bread to a surprisingly good meal last night. The new Pullman coach she’d taken out of Chicago had offered the finest selection of food. But those coaches weren’t available yet on most of the western route.
It hardly mattered, really, since she had no appetite. She’d been going through the motions of daily life for months now feeling like a wraith, ever since she got the letter. No, that was not right. Surely wraiths did not live in a state of constant fear and emotional pain.
The steward greeted her at the door and showed her to a private table. Victoria placed her order and stared moodily out the window. The scenery still hadn’t changed a whit.
She’d scarcely had her first sip of tea when she was startled out of her reverie by a deep voice at her side.
“Pardon me, Miss Bennett.”
Victoria glanced up. A tall broad-shouldered man in a charcoal gray traveling suit stood beside her table. He looked to be somewhere in his early thirties. Close in age to Edgar but with far more masculine vigor about him. He’d used her name, but she was certain they had never been introduced. Even in her current state of preoccupation, she’d have remembered the chiseled planes of his face, that square jawline, the well-trimmed dark moustache. Equally dark wavy hair fell across his forehead. A warm smile creased his bronzed skin all the way up to eyes the color of hot cocoa looking down at her with more than a trace of interest. Victoria swallowed nervously. She loved hot cocoa.
“I understand from the steward that you’re traveling alone. My name is Benjamin Hudson. It can be a long and possibly dangerous trip for a woman, especially one as young and attractive as yourself, if I may be so bold as to remark. I’d like to offer you my protection for the remainder of your journey.”
She stared up at him in shock. Manners here were so rough compared to what would be considered acceptable behavior in Boston. Back home, a gentleman would never dare to approach a young lady with such an improper suggestion. But now that she got a closer look, this man wouldn’t pass muster as a gentleman back home. His traveling garb had obviously seen better days. And though clean and starched, the collar on his white shirt had frayed with wear. Edgar would have given it to one of his servants long ago.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hudson, but I could not possibly accept your offer. Thank you and good day.”
Pointedly, she turned her head away, as though the view out the window was suddenly fascinating.
“Then at least allow me to dine with you this evening. You must be lonely, making a long journey like this without a companion.”
Without waiting for an answer, he pulled out the chair opposite hers and sat down. Speechless, Victoria gaped at him open-mouthed. He gave her another of those charming smiles.
“I know your name is Victoria Bennett and you’re traveling alone all the way to San Francisco.”
He leaned across the table, dropping his voice to a more confidential tone. “The steward was eager to offer me that information in exchange for a small gratuity—another reason why you need the protection of a male figure on a journey like this.”
Victoria blanched. So much for her confident pronouncement to Mrs. Dinkins that she’d be taken care of by the employees on the train.
Hudson resumed the deep timbre of his normal speaking voice and went on.
“That’s where I’m headed, all alone as well. But if you don’t feel the need for my protection, perhaps I can offer companionship instead. Since we’ll be spending the next few days in close quarters, it might be nice for both of us to have a friendly face across the table during our meals, a little pleasant conversation to pass the time.” He chatted casually, unfolding his napkin and placing it on his lap, taking her silence as approval.
“Mr. Hudson, I assure you I am in no need of male protection. Not yours or that of any other man.” She finally found her voice and it dripped with disdain. “I am quite capable of taking care of myself. Now I really must ask you to leave. This is totally improper.”
He regarded her calmly, not the least bit chastised.
“Things are a little different out west than they are back where you’re from, Miss Bennett. You’ll find most folks here, male and female, have no patience with what’s considered proper back in Boston.”
Her cheeks flushed. “A lady does not lower her standards merely because she finds herself in the midst of an unruly group of people.”
“That philosophy didn’t pan out too well for Marie Antoinette, did it?”
She stared at him, speechless. He’d already shown her that her trust in the train employees had been naïve. But he couldn’t be serious. Surely people in the Wild West didn’t roam around in mobs randomly attacking those they perceived to be in the upper class? He must have seen the flash of fear in her eyes, because he gave her another of those disarming grins.
“I’m only teasing, Miss Bennett. You’ll find San Francisco has the same veneer of respectability Boston does. On top, a rich, well-bred upper class who live their perfect life simply by pretending the less desirable elements of society don’t exist.” His grin disappeared. “And underneath, a lower class mostly too tired and hungry to muster up the energy to ruin their illusion by displaying any rebellious behavior.”
“I detect a note of disapproval in your voice when you speak of the ‘upper class,’ sir.”
“I have nothing against the upper class, Miss Bennett. Only those men in it who think their money gives them the right to ride roughshod over those of lesser means—and the women who treat those they consider beneath them with disdain or outright cruelty.”
“I find those, as well as other types of crass behavior, objectionable in any human being, Mr. Hudson—and not limited to the upper class.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “You’re certainly not shy about expressing an opinion that differs from that of a male. I always thought well-bred young ladies from back east were taught to smile and be agreeable to men at all times.”
Nothing she could say seemed to discourage him from his plan to dine with her. Nervously, she fingered the top button of her deep blue traveling costume, then flushed when his eyes followed her hand to the neckline. Victoria stood up, tossing her napkin down over her untouched plate of beef stew.
“Well-bred young ladies from back east are taught many lessons, sir. Above all, we are taught to stay away from strange men. If you will not leave, Mr. Hudson, then I must. Good day to you, sir.”
She flounced out of the dining car and back to her compartment, heart racing. What an impertinent man! Staring openly at her like that, practically ogling. She closed the door to her compartment, made sure to turn the lock, and sat down, fanning herself with one hand.
Her experience with men was limited to papa, his gentleman friends who came to dine occasionally and then retreated into the study for brandy and cigars, and her nearly two-year engagement to Edgar. None of them had ever caused the fluttering in her stomach that Benjamin Hudson did when he fixed those hot cocoa eyes on her just now. Even when Edgar embraced her or gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek at the end of an evening, she’d never felt her heart thudding against her ribs this way.
She raised a finger to her lips, wondering how it would feel to be kissed by a man with a moustache like Hudson’s. If it was as soft as his hair looked, she imagined it might tickle a bit. Edgar was clean-shaven, far too fastidious to allow the possibility that hair on his upper lip might come in contact with a morsel of food.
Her sister would probably have accepted Hudson’s offer of companionship. Before the trip was over, she may even have satisfied her curiosity about the sensation of being kissed by lips decorated with a full moustache. Perhaps it was that sort of behavior that had gotten Bianca into whatever trouble she found herself in.
Annoyed with herself for giving credence to Edgar’s negative opinions of her stepsister, she vowed to put the uncharitable thought out of her mind. She picked up the novel she’d been reading before dinner and tried desperately to empty her mind of everything else.
Unfortunately, every time the story’s hero spoke she pictured Benjamin Hudson’s devilishly handsome moustache framing the lips forming the words. Heard his deep voice with the timbre that made her shiver a little inside. Saw him staring at her intently with those warm chocolate eyes. When she found herself reading the same passage over and over without comprehending a word, she gave up and tossed the book aside with a sigh, staring blindly out the window.
By then it had nearly grown too dark to read. A few minutes later, the porter knocked and offered to set up her berth for the night. Victoria stepped out into the hall for a moment while he folded out the sleeping berth from the wall and turned down her covers. After he left, she drew the window shade and changed into her nightgown. Climbing into the narrow berth, she pulled up the covers, laid her head on the pillow, and tried not to worry about her missing sister or what the future might hold for both of them.
She’d tossed and turned for what seemed like hours, dozing fitfully. Images of hungry, faceless hordes forced to survive in the desolate plains of the Wild West dragging callous rich members of the upper class off to their deaths like modern-day French aristocrats flooded her dreams.
Her eyes popped open, suddenly wide awake, when the train braked to a halt with a series of shuddering jolts. Doors slammed in the passageway beyond her compartment. Shouts rang out from everywhere, a jumble of voices. She couldn’t make out any words. Just as she was about to raise the shade to see what all the commotion was about, she heard what sounded like gunshots outside near her window. Then a scream.
Footsteps pounded down the hall, stopping abruptly outside her room. Her doorknob rattled sharply. Pulling the covers up to her neck, she huddled, trembling, against the wall. A series of thuds came next. She stared at the narrow wooden doorway in horror. Intent on gaining entry, the fiend had turned a shoulder to the door and began hurling himself against it over and over, each blow rocking the entire car and shaking the door in its frame.
With a loud crack, the lock gave way and a dark figure brandishing a handgun burst into her room.
She opened her mouth to scream. A large hand clamped over it. The other hand yanked aside her covers and the dark figure climbed into her bed.