A mail-order bride from Cincinnati, Ariah Scott had traveled all the way to Oregon to marry one man…only to lose her heart to another in this steamy romance. What would become of her now? Ever since her father died at the hands of a vengeful relative, Ariah’s life had been shadowed by dark secrets. And now her forbidden desire for Bartholomew Noon filled her with uncertainty—and a secret longing that could never be fulfilled.
From the moment Bartholomew Noon saw Ariah standing alone in the Portland Station, the keeper of the Cape Meares Light was lost. Hopelessly in love with this angelic beauty who was fated to live beside him at the isolated lighthouse as another man’s wife, Bartholomew never dreamed that destiny would someday bring them together. Would Ariah truly be the woman he could cherish…forever?
Cape Meares, Oregon, 1891
To Bartholomew Noon the unceasing rumble of the sea and the melancholy cry of gulls were the very embodiment of his loneliness. Constant. Never ending. But loneliness was not the cause of the heavy sense of foreboding that had come over him on awakening that morning. A warning he well knew better than to ignore.
In the hope of escaping the gloomy cloud hanging over him, he had hiked the steep trail down to the beach where a man could be alone. Here on the driftwood littered strand, he could be himself. No one to placate. No one from whom he must hide his innermost feelings in order to keep from being manipulated or tormented. Here, he could ponder his unwonted presentiment without interruption.
Out where the water deepened, a wave of translucent jade crested, curled in upon itself, then broke in a boiling froth that tossed and fumed until its force ebbed. Then, indolently, it crept toward him until the foam-tipped water encircled his boots, as if to embrace him in empathy and compassion, before being sucked back into the gray Pacific Ocean, stealing the sand from under him as it went.
A derisive snort erupted from deep inside Bartholomew’s chest as he shrugged off his imaginings. The sea neither embraced nor understood him. What it did do, a few grains at a time, was erode away the land, the same way life with Hester was eroding away his soul.
The sky darkened from gray to black as a storm drew near. Fog, pushed by the wind herding the storm inland, had already obliterated the headland to the south where Hester and the lighthouse awaited him. The air grew chiller. Soon the rain would begin. Resolutely, he thrust his icy fingers into his coat pockets and turned his back on his beloved sea. It was time to see to his responsibilities.
The thick February mist formed droplets on his lashes and the tip of his sturdy nose. Under his Keeper’s cap, his damp sable hair formed a mass of loose curls.
“Come, Harlequin,” he called to a puffin feeding in the shallow water, “time to go.”
The stubby bird scooped up a last mouthful of tiny mole crabs in its garish orange and red beak and waddled out of the surf toward the man, every bit as though it had understood the human command.
Awkwardly, it flapped its raven wings, flying barely high enough to reach the man’s broad shoulder, but it seemed content there. Bartholomew patted the sleek snowy feathers of its breast as he climbed the bluff that rose above the strand. The wing Bartholomew had mended was nearly as strong as ever. Any day now the bird would rejoin its own kind on the seastacks off the Oregon coast, leaving Bartholomew more alone than ever.
Evergreens draped in moss crowded close around him as he made his way up the trail, and added to the gloom of the foggy morn. Tree trunks, misshaped by ferns that rooted in every gnarl, appeared like phantoms in the drifting mist, writhing and moaning in the rising wind. It was when the track ran close enough to the cliff to offer a last view of the sea that Bartholomew saw the ship.
One second the vessel was there, the next it was gone. The fog congealed to the consistency of Hester’s sausage gravy and laid every bit as heavily upon the sea as the gravy did in Bartholomew’s stomach. His dark eyes strained to penetrate the ghostly vapor. If he was right, Pyramid Rock lay directly across the vessel’s course.
Like a too-tight seam, the fog split apart. In the resultant window, he spotted the ship, heading straight for the hidden rock.
He screamed for the vessel to veer sharply portside, knowing in the more reasonable portion of his brain that he was much too far away to be heard.
The rising wind hurtled the ship closer to its destruction, as easily as a stone cast from a sling. To the man the scene played out in painful slow motion, grating on his nerves like wood beneath a rasp. People were on that ship, people who would die. He wanted to rage at the heavens for allowing such tragedy.
The thought that there might be survivors sent him racing back down toward the beach, until reality brought him to a halt.
At sea level the white-capped waves would hide the ship from him. Even if it did crash, there would be time to fetch horses from the lighthouse station and get back before the sea deposited its victims on the sand. Meanwhile, he could hope he was mistaken about the ship’s danger.
Even as his mind formed the thought, he saw it happen. Ship and rock appeared to merge and become one as they collided. Then, as though to refuse such a marriage, the cold lifeless stone ejected the helpless mass of wood and sailcloth back out into the sea. Billowing white sails crumpled as the mast snapped and collapsed upon the heaving deck. The wind and the roar of the sea drowned out the splintering of wood and the screams of men, but Bartholomew heard them. In his heart.
For one more moment the ship bobbed uncertainly upon the waves, then sank from view. Bartholomew turned and sprinted up the steep forest trail. The puffin frantically flapped its wings to maintain balance on the man’s broad shoulder, then plummeted unnoticed to the mossy earth.
Hester was coming from the garden when her husband sprinted out of the woods and around the fenced compound in which the houses stood. She crept along as though each step were an act of painful labor. With one hand she carried the freshly rinsed ceramic chamber pot she used at night instead of making the long walk down to the cold water closet off the kitchen.
“Where you going in such a hurry?” She waited for him to reach her, her shawl clutched over her flat, pious chest.
“Shipwreck,” he said as he passed her. “Crashed into Pyramid Rock. I’m taking the horses down to the beach for survivors.”
“What’ll you do with ’em if you find any?” she called after him in the waspish voice she was careful never to use around others.
Bartholomew didn’t bother to answer. He rushed into the barn, snatched bridles off the wall and went to work readying the four horses they kept for hauling supplies.
Hester was still standing on the path, her thin face scrunched with disapproval, when he led the horses out into the fog.
“Won’t have no putrefying bodies stinking up my house,” she said, following him to the back porch of their home.
“Don’t worry, Hester, I’ll put them in the barn.”
He glanced up as a white beam cut weakly through the thickening fog, followed by a red flash. On a good day the beam could be seen twenty-one miles out to sea. But today wasn’t a good day. At least Pritchard had not fallen asleep and allowed the light to go out.
“Have Seamus relieve Pritchard, Hester, and send the boy down to help me. Right now I need blankets, and that brandy we keep for emergencies…if you haven’t drunk it.”
Hester blanched then colored. In her best imitation of refined gentility, which she usually saved for company, she said, “How dare you accuse me of drinking alcoholic beverages? You know I am a member in good standing of The Tillamook Women for Temperance Coalition…even if you have buried me here where I can’t get to the meetings anymore.”
Her husband tossed her a look of disgust, saying nothing about the bottle of Dr. Hamilton’s Heavenly Elixir he had found that morning under the porch steps. The so-called tonic was mostly alcohol, but Hester had ignored his demand that she destroy her supply. She claimed it gave her strength and made her feel better. Bartholomew no longer cared. It made her easier to live with, if nothing else.
“Yes, Hester. Now get the blankets, please, I haven’t time to argue.”
“Get them yourself then. You can move faster than me.”
* * *
The day was nearly gone before Bartholomew was able to head back to the lighthouse station, exhausted and gloomier than ever. Each time he had spotted a head bobbing on the waves, or a body clinging to a piece of flotsam, he had swum out to bring the victim ashore. He built a bonfire to guide survivors through the fog and warm them when they arrived. He emptied one woman’s stomach of seawater and dealt with the deep gash her son had received on one leg. He carried or dragged lifeless bodies through the surf to dry land. He rubbed life into the frozen limbs of the living, doled out blood-warming doses of brandy, then loaded everyone—dead and alive—onto the horses for the ride over the headland. Pritchard Monteer met the cavalcade halfway along the trail and took charge of the extra horse. Slung over its back were two wet, blanket-wrapped bodies, a bright-eyed, black and white puffin perched irreverently on top.
“Are you all right, Uncle Bart? Seamus was out playing with those blasted goats again and Aunt Hester couldn’t find him or I would have been here sooner.”
Bartholomew had no strength to reply.
Across the rump of the bay mare he rode lay a small shrouded bundle, two dainty bare feet dangling limply from beneath the blanket. A third horse carried a young man in his teens, an unconscious woman cradled in his arms. Two more men rode double on a buckskin gelding, looking as weary as their dark-visaged rescuer.
At the back gate of the compound, Bartholomew dismounted and looped the reins around the rail. He took the woman from her son and carried her to the house while Pritchard helped the others alight. Before Bartholomew could open the door and usher his charges inside, Hester swung the portal wide and stood barring the entrance.
“Where do you think you’re taking them?” she asked.
He stared at her with eyes like black ice until she backed away nervously. Then he motioned for the shipwreck victims to go on in and warm themselves at the kitchen stove. Turning to Pritchard, Bartholomew handed over the unconscious woman. The younger, smaller, man staggered under the weight his uncle had so easily carried.
“Put the woman in Hester’s room, the boy in the garret. The men can share my room.”
Pritchard waited until Hester gave a reluctant shrug before he carried out his uncle’s orders. Bartholomew closed the door and pinned his wife to the wall with his harsh gaze. His voice was low and deadly calm. “Those people nearly died, Hester. They’re exhausted, half-frozen and in shock. The boy lost a lot of blood. Would you truly deny them the comforts of a dry bed and some warm broth?”
“Why can’t you put them next door? They’ll track up my floors. I just—”
“Hester!” Bartholomew’s large hands grasped her shoulders, dangerously close to her chicken-thin neck, and lightly squeezed. She squinted up at him, daring him, her thin lips so pinched they nearly disappeared. Slowly, he loosened his fingers and forced himself to relax.
“There’s an extra bed over there,” she said with a smug smile, knowing she’d won that last round.
“One bed. Where would the rest of them sleep?”
“The boy can sleep on the floor and Pritchard can share your room till they’re gone.”
To Bartholomew, Hester’s brown-checked shirtwaist gave her complexion a sallow cast and deepened the blue stain beneath her dull, hazel eyes. She wore only dark, somber colors, considering anything brighter to be appropriate only for “loose” women. Yet she insisted on wearing ruffles and ruching and bows that made her look like a gift-wrapped prune. Her values were high, her rules strict, but she tended to twist them to suit her needs. Regarding her with a mixture of pity and exasperation, he said, “You won’t mind running next door several times a day with hot broth and whatever else they’ll need?”
Hester’s eyes yawned wide in astonishment. “Let them make their own broth. Or let Seamus do it, Lord knows he’s not worth much else. I’m no scullery maid, I’m your wife.”
“Only when it suits you,” he muttered.
He ignored her question. “Do you truly think that would be the Christian thing to do, to leave them to shift for themselves in their condition? Or to push them off onto an old man?”
“I daresay a little rest is all they need. You know what the good book says: ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves’.” She bobbed her beak-like chin as if dotting an exclamation point.
Bartholomew smiled sadly. “The Bible says no such thing, Hester. But it does say ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’.”
Hester’s mouth opened, closed, and opened again. “So I didn’t say it exactly right, it still—”
“They stay, Hester.” His voice was like cold granite. “I’ll sleep with Pritchard. You can sleep down here on the sofa, or take the extra bed next door. I don’t care. But those people will stay in this house, and you will care for them until I can get them to Tillamook. Is that clear?”
Her eyes filled with hatred as she glowered at him. Without another word, she stormed into the kitchen, slamming the door in his face. Alone, Bartholomew pressed the inner corners of his eyes with thumb and forefinger. The discreet clearing of a throat brought up his head. Pritchard stood in the doorway to the hall which opened onto the end of the porch.
“Excuse me, Uncle Bart. I had to move some books off your bed onto the floor. The shelves were full. But the folks are all settled in now.”
Bartholomew gave a weary sigh. “Fine, Pritchard. Come and help me with the bodies now.”
“What’ll we do with the others when they’re feeling better?” the younger man asked as they led the horses to the barn.
“We’ll drive them to Bigg’s place and get him to take them in to Tillamook. From there they can catch a ride to Astoria and go on to San Francisco where they were headed in the first place.”
“I think I’d be wanting to stay off ships if I was them.” Pritchard shuddered. He wasn’t very brave at the best of times, but the thought of having a deck break apart beneath his feet and chuck him into an icy ocean made him want to crawl under his bed and never look at the sea again.
In the barn, as they lowered the last of the victims to the floor, a blanket slipped, exposing the face of a young woman with russet hair and a freckled nose.
“Holy Hector,” Pritchard muttered, staring at her.
Bartholomew flipped the blanket back over the girl’s face and dragged himself to his feet.
“Pretty little thing, wasn’t she?” The boy hop-stepped to keep up with his uncle’s long, loose stride as he went to tend the horses. “Married, too. At least I guess she was. She’s wearing a gold band.”
Bartholomew stopped and looked at his nephew. “The other day you were asking me if the Hopkins girl over on Trask River had married yet. What is this sudden interest in the marital state of young females, Pritchard?”
The boy colored. “I…well…. Holy Hector, Uncle Bart, I am a grown man. Why shouldn’t I be interested in women? Maybe I’m tired of baching it with old Seamus while you go home to Aunt Hester every night.”
“Good hell.” If the boy only knew. Pritchard had turned twenty-two a month past. In truth, he wasn’t a boy any longer, though he would always be one to Bartholomew. “So, you’re thinking of getting married, are you?”
His cheeks bright rose, the young man shrugged and gave his uncle a shy smile. “Actually, I’ve been doing more than thinking about it. You see, I…well, I’ve been trying to find a way to talk to you and Aunt Hester about this for weeks. I contacted Pa’s brother in Portland a while back, the one who’s an attorney, and he placed an advertisement for me back east.”
“What kind of advertisement?” Bartholomew turned the mare into her stall.
“For a bride.”
Bartholomew stared at him in amazement, certain he had not heard right. “A bride? You advertised for a bride?”
Pritchard filled a bucket with grain. “Uncle Edward wrote to a lawyer friend of his in Cincinnati and asked him to screen applicants for me. It took three months, but now—” he grinned. “—she’s on her way.”
Bartholomew took the bucket and dumped the grain into the mare’s feed bin. “Are you telling me they found you a bride, and she’s already on her way here?”
“Kind of like getting hit by a wild pitch, huh? That’s how I felt when the news came in yesterday’s mail.”
Pritchard filled another bucket and took it into the buckskin’s stall. Through the haze in his head, Bartholomew heard the grain strike the metal bottom of the bin. A thin cloud of chaff rose toward the loft.
“Uncle Edward’s friend knows her and her family real well,” the boy said over the partition. “In fact, he and her father are law partners. Her name is Ariah Scott and she’ll be coming in on the train next week.”
Bartholomew was still standing in the mare’s stall, an expression of bewildered astonishment on his face when Pritchard emerged with the empty bucket.
Pritchard chuckled. “I’m getting married. Plumb throws you a curve ball, don’t it?” His smile faded. “I…uh, was hoping you might do me a favor, Uncle Bartholomew.”
Bartholomew frowned. The boy only addressed him by his full given name when he was in trouble or wanted something outrageous. “I can’t arrange a leave for you, if that’s what you want. You know I have a shipment of pheasants to deliver in Portland next week. The buyers are expecting it and a delay could put us too close to nesting time. Frank Worden is coming to take my shifts, but he can’t cover for both of us, and it’s too late to change things anyway.”
“I wasn’t going to ask you to change anything. I was only hoping you could pick Ariah up for me at the Portland train station while you’re there.”
“Who? Oh, no.” Bartholomew shook his head, holding up a curry comb as if to fend off Pritchard with it. “There’s no reason she can’t take the train to Yamhill and then catch the stage like everybody else.”
“But the worst part of the trip is between Yamhill and Tillamook. Especially in March. You know that ride over the Trask River toll road is pure hell at the best of times, let alone in spring when it’s all muddy and everything.”
“Then have her take a steamer up the Columbia and around to Tillamook Bay.”
“I suggested that, but she’s terrified of boats.”
Bartholomew slung his arms across the mare’s back, rested his forehead against her side, and groaned. “Can’t you have her wait a month till the weather’s better?”
“I don’t want to wait another month. I’m a man, Uncle Bartholomew, and I’m looking forward to having a wife of my own. I have needs, like any other man. That’s something you should understand, even if it has been a long time since you’ve had to worry about how to fill those needs.”
Bartholomew stifled the bitter retort that came to mind about the so-called pleasures of marriage. He might have attempted to set the boy straight, except that Pritchard took after his aunt in one way—he saw only what he wanted to see, heard only what he wanted to hear. Clamping a commiserating hand on the young man’s shoulder, he said instead, “I do understand. But don’t you think the solution you’ve chosen is a bit drastic? You don’t even know this woman. Lord only knows what she looks like.”
“No, I don’t think it’s drastic.” Pritchard shook his head so enthusiastically his baseball cap nearly flew off. “You know how lonely it is here. I want a family of my own, a wife I can share things with. And children, I want children.” He grinned. “Nine boys. My own baseball team. Wouldn’t that be grand, Uncle Bart?”
“Yes, Pritchard, that would be grand.”
Suddenly, Bartholomew felt a hundred years old. A yearning so sharp it pierced his being, urged him to hurry back down to the beach where he could lose himself in the roar of the waves and the scream of the gulls overhead.
Loneliness and a man’s needs. Had there ever been a day in his adult life when he hadn’t suffered those needs?
Maybe one. The night his father died, when a prettier, more amiable Hester had come to his bed to comfort him. One brief moment when he thought he had found heaven.
But that had been a lifetime ago.