Elizabeth Douglas couldn’t think of a better incentive than a husband who wanted her dead. Thus inspired, she packed a bag, changed her name and now gripped the handrail of the Northstar as it shimmied up the Ohio. Despite the warm air, she shivered. Abe would look for her as certain as the glistening blades of the paddlewheel churned the muddied water. When a man loses his greatest possession he himself becomes possessed.
‘If you ever leave me, I’ll kill you,’ he’d promised.
She didn’t intend to die, at least not yet.
Startled to hear someone call her new name, she spun toward the voice. She brushed a hand over the black silk crepe of her widow weeds, loathing the dress and the deception.
Against a backdrop of Pittsburgh’s receding factories Reverend Vernon Deeds minced around the thinning crowd on the ship’s deck. One arm clutched a chubby baby to his chest the other hand tugged a small lad behind him. Flushed, Vernon dropped the boy’s hand and pulled a crisply folded handkerchief from his coat pocket. He mopped his beaded brow. “Who would have thought June could be so muggy?”
“Zaza,” the baby chirped then jammed a pudgy fist back into her mouth.
“Hello, my sweet,” Eliza cooed. She’d known little Ada only a few days. Already she’d bonded with her as if she were her own.
“The children were asking for you,” Vernon said, tucking the hankie back into a pocket. “Mrs. Deeds was saying this morning how blessed we are to have you along to watch after the children.”
“I consider myself blessed to have heard of your need.” She warmed to the freckle faced boy staring up at her.
“Yes, well.” He thrust his pointy chin forward. “It’s never a good idea for a woman to travel alone. Too unprotected, you see. Anything might happen.” He rocked back on feet too small for his wide frame. “I admit I thought it too soon for a widow to travel.”
His opinions made her bristle. Until a few days ago, she was a stranger to him. Did he now think to presume what was best for her?
“Fortunately, Mrs. Danton, your desire to get to High Bluff coincided with our need to have a companion for the children.”
“Then it is lucky, indeed, we are both getting our needs met.” She brushed a hand across her skirt as though it might soothe her ruffled feathers.
He opened his mouth, preparing to speak then hesitated with a frown. Apprehension fluttered in her stomach. Was he about to voice some criticism of her? Had she acted too happy and not enough like the grieving widow? Did he suspect her ruse?
“So it seems,” he commented with a dismissive shrug. He dropped a look at the boy whose sun kissed face reflected both wonder and excitement.
“Would you unpack some toys for the children? Then perhaps a tour of the boat before lunch.”
Eliza opened her mouth with a ready reply but he rushed on. “And you’ll help with the English lessons today?” He smiled expansively, confident of her reply and thrust the baby at her.
His bossy manner irked and she recognized in it Abe’s domineering behavior. How pitiful that even in his absence Abe’s controlling ways loomed as forbidding as the gunmetal clouds clustering over the tree-shrouded horizon.
“And of course the children will need a rest this afternoon,” he said, pensive as the list of her many duties clicked in his head.
Despite his overbearing manner, Reverend Vernon Deeds was a whirlwind of good intentions. How could Eliza complain if some of his good deeds involved her? She was happy to care for the children and help the German speaking passengers with their English skills.
She clamped her mouth to keep from saying something brash or imprudent. Hadn’t Abe always complained she lacked obedience and humility requiring him to take her down a peg or two? She forced a pleasant smile.
Vernon patted his pockets in a primping fashion. “Till lunch then,” and he shuffled off.
Vernon spun about and chuckled. “Forgive me, son.” Looking embarrassed, he said, “I promised Chet a trip to the pilot house. Come along then, boy.”
Grinning, Chet skipped after Vernon whose shoulders drooped slightly as if weighted by the humid air.
Eliza brushed aside any disquieting thoughts, vowing to stop thinking of the past. Instead, she focused on the giant paddlewheel shooting hundreds of creamy droplets into the air.
“Let’s wave goodbye, shall we?” She lifted Ada’s plump hand and shook it at the smoke stacks and brick factories lining the shore. Before long the landscape became flat and green and the acrid smell of burning coal no longer filled her senses. A new future lay bright before her. She intended to seize its possibilities.
When the shrill whistles and bells of the busy harbor fell silent behind her, she mouthed a final goodbye. Turning, she surveyed the unfamiliar river ahead. With a little luck and well-laid plans, all would be well. She hoped.
Sighing, Eliza looked at the curly headed girl. “Well, what say you to a walk, young lady?”
Ada gurgled and jutted a wet, glistening finger in the air.
“I’ll take that for a yes,” she said and chuckled.
They strolled once around the busy promenade deck thick with excited passengers and uniformed deckhands. They climbed two flights of stairs to the upper deck. From this vantage point, Eliza could see for miles. When Ada grew heavy, they dropped below to the boiler deck and settled into a wooden lounge chair painted a glossy white.
Ada cooed and babbled. Eliza cooed and babbled in return, delighted with their game of patty-cake. A couple strolled the lengthy exterior deck, a tasseled parasol slung over the woman’s shoulder as a barrier to the brilliant sun. As they neared, a small child traipsed behind and stopped to scramble onto a deck chair. In no time the curious boy bent recklessly over the water.
Panic shot through her.
She flew from the chair like a panicked pheasant and glanced wildly about for help. A man in an ivory linen suit leaned back against the wall.
“Would you watch ...?”
His eyes flared in surprise but instantly he reached for the baby. Thinking only of Chet, Eliza sprinted off.
“Get down,” she shrieked.
Chet’s head swiveled in her direction, his eyes startled and confused. She eased her steps, containing her panic so as not to alarm him further. In his fear, he might lose his balance. The thought made her quiver. Beating a steady path to him she prayed.
Don’t fall. Don’t fall.
In the few seconds it took to reach him, she could have sworn day turned into night.
“Chet,” she breathed and swallowed him in a big bear hug. She clung to him, wondering whose heart pounded the loudest. Setting his feet on the sturdy planks, she dropped to her knees, still clinging to him. “Whatever were you doing?” A silly question, she knew.
“You scaredid me,” he accused in a muffle. His mouth and nose pressed against her shoulder and his chest rattled in her arms accompanied by a sniffling noise.
She leaned back and studied his face, still gripping him firmly by the shoulders. Innocent blue eyes sparkled with unshed tears.
The thought of him pitching into the river left her shaking. She hugged him tight again, smelling the sweet heat of his bony little body. “I was scared, too.”
The boy shouldn’t have been alone. “Where’s your father?” she asked sounding angry.
Slowly, his skinny arm lifted, pointing some fifteen feet away. Through the windows of the promenade parlor, Eliza recognized the back of Vernon’s head, his golden hair cresting the dark collar of his jacket. Scattered around him were three men engaged in a serious discussion. Eliza’s mouth pursed with scorn biting back the scolding words - for now.
Inhaling deeply, she leaned back on her haunches and gave Chet her best mock, stern look. “Don’t ever do that again. Chairs are to sit in, not for climbing.”
He stared at his boots, pink flushing his cheeks. She lifted his chin, catching his eye. “You are not to hang over the railing. Understand?” At his nod, she stood and offered him her hand.
“Now, let’s go get ...”
Her gaze covered the length of the deck to the weathered chair where she’d been sitting only minutes ago. Her heart sped. Where in blazes was Ada? And where was the lanky stranger?
Vernon hurried toward them with a distracted air. “There you are little man.” “Papa!” The boy dropped her hand and scampered to greet his father.
Eliza scurried away, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll be right back.” Fear pealed in her voice as noisy as a clanging church bell.
Terrifying thoughts about where and why he might have taken her raced through her mind?
A deep, composed voice broke through her panic. “Your child, ma’am?”
She whirled around, her heart fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird.
Clasped to the pleats of the man’s starched shirt, Ada babbled. Chubby legs and arms spun like a windmill.
A breath of relief whooshed from her lips. As she gaped at the bizarre tableau, she wanted to both laugh and cry. Poor Ada dangled over his forearm like a carelessly draped bath towel. Despite the man’s shortcoming in proper toddler control, Ada looked none the worse appearing content and drooling happily. He, on the other hand, did not.
A muscle twitched in irritation at the side of his wide mouth. He glared down his long, straight nose at her. The broad rim of his Panama hat shaded his face and added to his fierceness. It sliced like a knife to the heart. In protection, her hand dropped to her chest.
“The child crawls as fast as a centipede,” he drawled.
Eliza envisioned Ada scooting over the stained planks on chubby knees, her ivy sprigged smock and lacy bonnet fluttering around her. Biting back a nervous smile, she stepped forward to ease him of his bundle of energy.
The man stood a good head taller. She tipped back her head and stared up at his eyes. Cool, appraising eyes stared back. His penetrating gaze went beyond the bones and skin of her face and right to the heart of her shame. Did he think her negligent, a foolish woman who couldn’t keep track of her children?
“Thank you,” she murmured stiffly with outstretched arms.
“You mind your mama now, little lady,” he said handing Ada to her.
“I’m not her mother.” She glanced away with a whiff of embarrassment she didn’t understand. “I’m traveling with her. Helping the parents.”
At the sound of footsteps, Eliza turned. Chet skipped toward her, singing a little ditty.
“Is everything alright? You ran off...” Vernon asked drawing near with a worried look on his face.
Heat rose in her cheeks. “Everything’s fine.” She didn’t want to explain, not now, not in front of this stranger whose probing stare set her heart racing. She jiggled Ada on her hip.
“The children belong to the Reverend Vernon Deeds.”
“Reverend Deeds,” Vernon said with an outstretched hand.
“William Heaton,” He grasped Vernon’s hand with a solid shake.
“I can’t stay to talk,” Vernon explained with a hurried air. “A man has collapsed minutes ago ... requires my services, you see.” He jerked his head in Chet’s direction. “You don’t mind, do you, Mrs. Danton?”
“No, of course not.” She laid a hand on Chet’s shoulder.
“Sorry to rush off. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
The tall gentlemen watched Vernon scurry away then turned to her. “Busy man.”
“Yes, he is.”
She felt tongue-tied. Surely from his stiff expression he judged her harshly.
“You must think me quite incapable of minding children.” She cringed wishing she hadn’t revealed this insecurity. Biting her lip, she stared at Ada’s mop of golden curls.
He shrugged broad shoulders that seemed as wide as a doorway. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t have children. They’ll keep you running though. You were fast on your feet saving the boy. I take it he was in the care of the Reverend at the time?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
For a moment, he didn’t say anything. “I saw you on the stairs with the girl. Before you headed over to the deck chair. The boy wasn’t with you.”
He’d been watching her. But why?
She wiped her hand against her silk skirt, realizing it was slick with sweat. Chet tugged at her other hand.
“Goodness. Where are my manners?” she blubbered flicking her head back and forth from boy to man. “I’d like you to meet Master Chester Deeds.” The small boy puffed out his chest at the grownup introduction.
To her surprise, the man whipped off his hat, revealing thick hair as glossy as a black cat. Resting the hat against his thigh, he bent from the waist bringing himself as low to the boy’s height as possible. He held out a hand graced with tapered fingers – not the hands of a journeyman or someone who works the earth for a living. “How do you do, Chester? My name is William Heaton but, you may call me Will.”
Looking sheepish, Chet inched closer to slink behind Eliza’s wide skirt.
“He won’t bite. You can shake his hand,” Eliza prompted.
Chet chewed his lip a moment before shoving out his stubby hand. The man pumped it triggering Chet’s ear to ear grin.
“And this is Miss Ada Deeds,” Eliza offered, shifting Ada to her other hip. Ada puckered her lips.
The elegant man straightened. As he watched Ada blow bubbles through her stout fingers, his stern face softened. “We’ve already met though not formally.” His voice droned as smooth as molasses in July. Then he turned to Eliza and smiled.
Even, white teeth flashed in a grin so captivating it seemed the sun sliced through the storm clouds and graced them all in rays of warmth. “Indeed,” she muttered, incapable of further words.
Tiny golden fireworks exploded in his irises sparking brilliance into his green eyes. She reared back. A yearning flared inside igniting feelings fallow and long forgotten.
Inky brows lifted in studied consideration, as if he sensed her turmoil.
Blinking nervously, she fought against the attraction. Not once as she planned her journey did the thought of a man, or her pleasant reaction to one, enter her mind. Now, as the sweat beaded on her forehead, she silently cursed her betraying body. Attractions, such as this, had no place in her life.
“You haven’t mentioned your name, ma’am?”
Her leg muscles twitched in an urge to run. “Yes, of course,” she murmured and swallowed a fortifying gulp. “I’m Mrs. Eliza Danton.” She struck her chin in the air defying him to question her while inside she quivered.
At his unwavering gaze she felt like a guilty prisoner standing before a judge. Suddenly, she wanted to proclaim the truth, stop the lying and plead forgiveness. Yet to do so would be insanity. Nobody could know her secret.
“I’m a widow.” At the lie, her cheeks burned. “My husband died ...a month ago.” The urge to babble on, to convince him of her phony loss with details of Abe’s demise tugged at her. She held her tongue.
When he remained silent, his eyes questioning, her uncertainty mounted. Did he know she lied? But how could he? She turned and stared at the dark water afraid her face might reveal too much. Inhaling deeply, she noted the subtle scent of cloves and pepper that clung to his clothes.
An eternity passed before he broke the silence. “Sorry to hear about your husband.”
She faked a mournful sigh, gave a helpless shrug. What could she do or say when none of it was real? But he already knew that, didn’t he? Those sharp looks of disbelief – she hadn’t fooled him for a moment. Would he make an issue of her lying; press her for truthful answers she couldn’t give?
She picked at her top button, her breathing shallow and forced herself to look deep into his eyes. A flinty cleverness stared back. A perceptive man had his dangers. His threat weighing heavily, she grabbed Chet’s hand and backed away.
“I haven’t thanked you yet for keeping an eye on Ada. So thank you.”
Reeling about, she marched briskly away towing Chet behind her.
Later, she would think it incredible how quickly one’s security could vanish. Her safety had evaporated quicker than the tiny drops of river water settled on the ship’s outer deck.
Damnation. Only hours into her journey and now there was another man she hoped never to see again.
# # #
With mounting curiosity, Will watched the young widow bolt. But from whom or what did she flee? Surely she had nothing to fear from him? Leaning back against the railing, arms crossed, he pondered the matter.
She was something all right although he wasn’t certain what. Feisty and full of fire one moment, shy and uncertain the next. But most of all, Eliza Danton seemed afraid.
He’d lost a wife, murdered some five years ago. All too familiar with the pain and still burdened by her loss, he lived with a constant regret and a loneliness he kept to himself. But during all those rough passages he couldn’t remember any fear. So what made Eliza Danton so fearful? It didn’t make sense and that bothered him.
He was nothing if not a logical, level-headed man. Facts were his bedrock. When a woman’s fear yowled louder than a pack of coyotes he wanted to know why. And despite his wanting to ignore the call, her distress tugged at his conscience in some idiotic way he fought to ignore.
That she lied to him, he did not doubt. She lacked the artifice to deaden her expressive eyes. Her body bristled with the discomfort of her untruths.
So what did she hide?
He snorted, annoyed at the unsolved mystery. He loved puzzles of all kinds – mathematical, structural, mystical and human. Puzzles ensnared him like a fish caught in a net. Once the puzzle snagged his interest, he’d see it through to the end. And Eliza Danton posed a puzzle. But was he foolish enough to plow into her life to find the answers?
Naturally his interest in her had nothing to do with her looks – a beauty so lush and delicate he couldn’t stop staring at her. Or so he told himself. He blamed the boredom of ship travel which undoubtedly enhanced her air of mystery and added to her allure. None of this would be worth consideration at home in High Bluff. If he were busy with his law practice and the mill. And he might yet walk away from this enigma if he knew what was good for him. The woman smelled of trouble.
But seven days on a paddlewheel was a long, long time.