Ship of Dreams
On her own in wild, wicked, post-Gold Rush San Francisco, Della Gilliland has become a bit of a con artist, though a harmless one. Falsely accused of murder by a rival snake-oil salesman, she is forced to flee the lawless city's vigilantes aboard an outbound steamer. Surely her quick wits—and tongue—can convince someone to help her until her pursuers are far behind.
Stuffy New York businessman Kent Bradford is shocked when a lovely redhead he's never met suddenly introduces herself as his wife to an important business contact. Fearing a scene, he plays along . . . for the moment. But moments turn into weeks and growing attraction becomes something more. Then, only days out from New York, their ship encounters a hurricane that threatens not only their budding love, but their very lives.
Release date: December 15, 2010
Publisher: Dolphin Star Press
Print pages: 337
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Ship of Dreams
The bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she;
Nodding their heads before her goes
The merry minstrelsy.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
San Francisco—August, 1857
"MURDER? IMPOSSIBLE!" Della stared at her landlady in disbelief, but the woman only nodded her neat gray head.
"Murder," she repeated. "That's what they're saying in the streets. Mr. Potts claims it was the Doctor Mirabula's Sovereign Remedy for Ague you sold him that carried off his wife last night. And that apothecary, Mr. Willis, is telling everyone who will listen that it must be true."
The bristle brush she'd been pulling through her thick, carroty curls hung suspended as Della absorbed the words. "That's preposterous! I mixed that remedy myself. It contains nothing but vanilla, quinine, and a jigger of brandy. It may not cure the ague, but it's perfectly harmless. More likely it was one of Mr. Willis' own brews at fault."
Mrs. Lewis shrugged. "I wouldn't be surprised. But be that as it may, I've turned away four people already this morning wanting their money back on your remedies, and I fear there'll be more. This could take an ugly turn, dearie."
"Yes. Yes, I suppose it could." Remembering the vigilante sweeps of the previous year, Della shuddered. More than a few accused 'criminals' had been hanged without benefit of trial, based on sketchy evidence, at best. Standing up from the dressing table, she crossed the tiny room in three steps and cautiously parted the yellow chintz curtains to peer out at the street below.
A crowd had gathered two blocks away, in front of the Euphemia, once a landlocked ship and now converted to a hotel. Even from this distance she could hear the high, nasal voice of Mr. Willis as he shouted and gestured toward Mrs. Lewis' boarding house. The apothecary had been trying to put her out of business for months, seeing her as his greatest competitor. Now it looked as though he might succeed.
Selling patent medicines had been Della's most successful enterprise yet, first in the outlying mining towns, then in Sacramento, and now in San Francisco. A dash of this and a dash of that, and she could command far higher prices than her sewing or produce had ever brought in. Of course, most of her remedies were useless, which caused her the occasional twinge of conscience. Still, she'd always made certain they would cause no harm, in accordance with Hippocrates—and in contrast to others peddling medicines, to include Mr. Willis.
"They're getting louder. What will you do?" The landlady wrung her hands vigorously, as though to compensate for Della's immobility.
"Do?" She turned from the window and shrugged. "Why, leave, I suppose."
Mrs. Lewis stared. "Leave? Leave San Francisco, you mean? But if you're sure your tonic did no harm—"
At that moment, Della felt far older than her twenty years—older even than Mrs. Lewis. "Of course I'm sure. But that may not matter." Quickly, she weighed her options.
She could face her accusers, attempt to prove her innocence and clear her name. But the Coroner was a friend of Mr. Willis, as was the Chief of Police. And even if she prevailed against all odds, most of her customers would desert her.
Two weeks ago she'd squandered most of her money on a new dress, in hopes it might elevate her social standing—a business investment of sorts—and she had yet to be paid for most of the past two weeks' sales. Now she likely wouldn't be, which meant she'd have nothing to pay her creditors when they came knocking. Which they would do any moment, as today happened to be Steamer Day, the twice monthly date when all San Francisco businesses—and individuals—settled up accounts.
"At best, my business is ruined," she said to Mrs. Lewis, at the end of her ruminations. "At worst, I'll be charged with murder. Leaving is the sensible thing to do."
She left unsaid what they both knew: once a charge was brought, the verdict would depend as much on public sentiment as on the truth of the matter. Justice was too often swift and careless in this sometimes overly exuberant young city—especially when a prominent man like Mr. Willis had incentive to affect the outcome.
"You're paid through the end of the month," Mrs. Lewis reminded her, pale blue eyes crinkled with worry.
Della smiled at the woman's kindness. "Consider next week's rent my gratitude for your help in this matter." She glanced out the window again, at the milling crowd. "They'll be heading over here at any moment. Hold them off as long as you can, while I slip out through the kitchen. You've always been kind to me, Mrs. Lewis, and I thank you." She absently kissed the landlady on the cheek, already planning her escape.
As the woman bustled out of the room clucking to herself, Della's mind worked rapidly. With a decisive nod, she pulled out her largest valise—the trunk would be too heavy—and began throwing necessities and her most valuable possessions into it. The brooch and rings that had been her mother's, her real silk scarf, her silver handled hairbrush. No room for her bottles of Carter's Consumption Cure or Doctor Brown's Brain Tonic. Nor for her new hooped dress, the beautiful but expensive green dimity with the seed pearls that had taken her savings.
She'd wear that, she decided. Being dressed like the cream of society might give
her more choices. Besides, she couldn't bear to leave it behind. She could pack the old lilac one she had on. Her mother's wedding ring she slipped onto her left hand. She could pose as a married woman—a widow, perhaps. That would give her more freedom.
Unable to afford a maid, Della only owned dresses with front closures, so she was able to change quickly and unaided. Throwing an ivory shawl over her tell-tale red hair, she tucked her few remaining twenty dollar gold pieces into her bodice and headed down the back stairs, suitcase in hand.
"She's not here, I tell you!" came Mrs. Lewis' shrill voice from the front of the house. "She went out just after breakfast to make some deliveries."
Dear Mrs. Lewis. Della would miss her—the nearest thing to a mother she'd had in years. Just now she had no time for sentiment, however. At any moment, someone might think to check the back of the house.
Lifting her skirts out of the dirt with one hand, her valise clutched tightly in the other, she set out at a brisk pace up Front Street toward the wharves, grateful that at least there was no mud just now. And what another stroke of luck that this had happened on Thursday, the day the steamer sailed!
Lady Luck had always been Della's good friend, getting her out of more than one tight place in recent years. She trusted the good dame would come through for her again today. With a glance at her pocket watch, she quickened her pace. This was going to be close.
When she neared the crowded docks a few minutes later, passengers had already begun boarding the elegant Pacific Mail side-wheel steamship, Sonora. Steerage passengers, from ragged to respectable, stood in lines to have their tickets and papers checked, while those sailing second and first class proceeded with more decorum. Della focused on the latter, thinking hard.
She'd be safest in first class, and she could just about afford a ticket, assuming any were still available, but it would take every bit of her money. Many of those aboard did not plan to sail, she knew, but were merely seeing friends off, and would debark at the final boarding call. Perhaps she could pretend to be acquainted with a first-class passenger, then buy a steerage ticket once aboard? It would be risky ...
"Hoy, there!" came a shout from behind her. "Has a Miss Gilliland boarded this ship?"
Her heart in her throat, she forced herself to keep walking along the wood-planked street, which at this point became a wharf, extending out into the bay. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a uniformed policeman hurrying to question the crewman taking the steerage tickets. What a mercy she hadn't joined that line! Without slowing her stride, she veered toward the first class section, keeping as many people as possible between herself and the police officer. Dressed in her finest, she easily blended in.
A loud cheer from behind her made Della glance back. A luxurious, decorated carriage had stopped, and as she watched, a couple, obviously just married, stepped out. Their wedding party and other well-wishers cheered again. Then they were being swept toward the steamer—toward Della.
Seizing her chance, she donned a bright smile and joined the throng. Carried along by the crowd, she hurried up the gangway and onto the promenade deck—and away from the police search, which had now progressed to the second class passengers.
Hordes of wealthy people jostled each other politely as they made way for the large wedding party. Even in her tight situation, Della couldn't help analyzing the faces and voices, trying to guess which ones had made a killing in the gold fields, which had made fortunes in business, and which had been born into money. Experience had made her an excellent judge of character.
Moving a little bit away from the wedding party before someone realized she didn't belong, she scanned those on deck for a likely face—someone who might be persuaded to help her. The nouveau riche tended to be less generous than those who'd had their wealth longer, she'd discovered ...
Ah! That tall, dark-haired man. He had the aristocratic bearing of one who'd grown up with a sense of his own importance. At the same time, something in his handsome, patrician features told her he just might listen to a hard-luck case. He appeared to be alone at the moment, too, which would make this easier.
A glance back at the dock showed that two other police officers had joined the first, one of them now questioning an important-looking man with a top hat and walking stick, clearly a first class passenger. She had no time to lose.
Pasting a winning smile onto her lips, she moved toward the man she hoped would save her.
* * *
Kenton Bradford, of the New York Bradfords, stood near the top of the gangway, irritation warring with impatience. Where the devil was Sharpe? They were supposed to have met an hour ago, before he boarded the Sonora. He had important business to discuss with the man, but now it looked as though they might miss each other altogether.
The riverboat bringing Bradford south from Sacramento yesterday had hit a snag in the river, necessitating repairs and delaying him by several hours. When he'd finally reached San Francisco late last night, he'd immediately sent a message to Mr. Sharpe explaining, and suggesting they meet at the Sonora before he sailed. But Sharpe had not yet appeared, and the ship was due to depart in a quarter of an hour.
Though he had done so only a minute or two earlier, Bradford pulled out his finely-chased gold watch and consulted it yet again before thrusting it back into his pocket. Sharpe had been the one to convince him to attempt establishment of a California branch of Bradford Shipping & Mercantile, and had promised to become an important investor. Without his support and influence, its success would be far from assured.
He had run across more than a few slick talking shysters since reaching California six months ago, men adept at parting the foolish from their money. Was Sharpe another such a one? He'd had nothing beyond a few letters from the man since meeting him in New York last year, when he'd so enthusiastically expounded upon the opportunities for established businesses expanding to California. Those opportunities still abounded, no doubt about that. But to convince local businesses to patronize his company over others would take some doing. Competition was fierce.
Already, Bradford Shipping had received pledges—and gold—from numerous merchants eager to take advantage of the lower shipping rates he offered. Not enough, however. If only Sharpe—Ah! Was that him? Tilting back his silk top hat, Kenton scanned the shifting, richly dressed throng on the promenade deck and caught another glimpse of the man. Yes, it was definitely Sharpe. He'd seen Bradford now, and angled toward him, laboriously making his way through the press of bodies.
Kenton stepped forward, raising a hand in greeting. "Sharpe! I was afraid you wouldn't make it."
"Bradford! Kenton Bradford. It's good to see you again. I only received your note this morning, about having been delayed on the way from Sacramento," explained the shrewd-eyed, sandy-haired young man, raising his voice to be heard above the general clamor. "It's been all of a year, hasn't it? How have you been?"
"Fine, fine," Kenton said quickly, impatient with this small talk. "We have only a few minutes, I fear, and I have a lot to tell you."
"A lot to tell, indeed," came a feminine voice from behind him. A slender hand took his arm, and he turned in surprise to see a flame-haired vision—a striking young woman he had never seen before in his life—extending her other hand to Mr. Sharpe.
"I'm so pleased to meet you at last, Mr. Sharpe," said the young lady. "I'm Della—Della Bradford. Kent's wife."
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