Ann Rossiter is no man’s idea of the perfect wife, yet she has a chance—a single chance—to insure her future. To protect her unborn child, Ann agrees to marry a common riverboat pilot. In exchange, he’ll gain command of he<a href=”#anchorlink”>Click me</a>
<a id=”anchorlanding”>See?</a>r stepfather’s magnificent new steamer—the Andromeda. But as they ply the western rivers together, Ann is drawn to her new husband, to his quiet strength and smoldering magnetism. Still, she dares not yield her heart for fear he will discover her most terrifying secret.As the Andromeda steams toward the wilds of the Montana Territory, Chase Hardesty finds himself falling in love with his new bride. But when Ann’s past comes back with a vengeance, will their marriage of convenience end in tragedy—or in love forever?
Reviews & Awards
“Grayson’s absorbing plot races nimbly along a fast current. The sandbars and snags are as realistic as the people who confront them, and her details about river running would make Mark Twain proud. When the dramatic denouement finally occurs, readers will feel as if Ann and Chase are personal friends.” —Publishers Weekly
“This is Grayson’s greatest achievement yet, a true keeper.” —Kathe Robin — Romantic Times
“Grayson’s beautifully spare, eloquent writing perfectly complements her quietly brilliant story… Readers will want to savor every bit of this powerful, poignant, and sweetly passionate romance.” —Booklist, starred review
Winner of the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award, for Best American Historical
St. Louis, Missouri
It was a proposition that would tempt a saint.
Chase Hardesty hitched forward in his chair and stared across the massive mahogany desk in Commodore James Rossiter’s well-appointed study. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “What you’re offering me is the captaincy —”
“Not the captaincy,” Rossiter corrected him, “ownership. I’m offering you ownership of the Star Line’s new stern-wheeler, commissioned out of the Carondelet shipyards just this morning.”
Chase had been dreaming about captaining his own steamboat all his life. “And you’ll give me the Andromeda,” he clarified, “in exchange for marrying your daughter.”
The commodore nodded. “That’s exactly what I’ll do.”
Chase whistled under his breath. He’d been working as a pilot for the Gold Star Packets for the past three years, and not once in all that time had the commodore given any sign he favored Chase above the other pilots. Not once had he hinted he might consider promoting Chase to the captaincy of one of the boats, much less offering him ownership.
Not once had Rossiter mentioned his daughter. Which made Chase wonder what was wrong with her.
He’d been away on a run to Sioux City last fall when Ann Rossiter returned to St. Louis after years at some fancy school back east, but Chase’s brother Ruben had told him about her homecoming. The commodore had driven his shiny new gig down to the levee to meet her boat. No sooner had the deck hands lowered the gangway than the girl came rushing across it, clearly glad to be home. Rue said Rossiter swept her up in his arms, every bit as pleased to see the girl as she was him.
But if Rossiter had held his daughter in such high esteem six months ago, why did he want someone to marry her off to now? And what made the commodore offer this sophisticated and pampered young woman to him?
Chase made no secret that he came from simple folks. His father had begun as a woodhawk on the frontier, and now sold fuel to the steamers plying the Missouri River west of Council Bluffs. His mother had been the only daughter of an itinerant Baptist preacher. Beyond what she’d taught him reading The Bible, Chase hadn’t had so much as a lick of schooling.
All he really knew was the river. He’d climbed aboard a riverboat when he was thirteen and never once been sorry. He’d worked his way up from cub engineer to master pilot. It was a commendable feat, but for all his efforts to better himself, he’d never picked up the polish and social graces some pilots did. And though he was handsomely paid, Chase never seemed to have more than lint in his pockets.
Which made Rossiter’s proposal all the more attractive — and all the more puzzling. What kind of man did the commodore think he was to accept such a bargain out of hand?
Chase cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind me asking, sir,” he began, trying to couch the question as diplomatically as he could. “Why are you offering your daughter to me?”
Rossiter seemed taken aback, either by the question itself, or that Chase had the audacity to ask it outright. He paced to the windows that overlooked the garden at the side of the house and the street of fashionable residences known as Lucas Place.
“Well, you’re unmarried for, one thing,” the commodore answered with far more candor than Chase had expected. “I like that though you came from humble beginnings, you’ve made something of yourself. It proves there’s grit in you. And I thought that since you might never make captain on your own, you might find this offer — intriguing.”
It was intriguing, but Chase couldn’t help bristling a little at the commodore’s attitude. He didn’t much mind admitting where he’d come from, but he resented that Rossiter had draw his own conclusions about his prospects. The man had as much as said Chase had ambition enough to be hungry and was poor enough to be bought.
“Both the crew and officers like you,” the commodore went on, enumerating. “They think you’re even-handed and dependable.”
Which was the same as saying he was good at his job and could be probably be counted on not to beat his wife. They were, at best, minimal qualifications for what the commodore was proposing. But then, the older man wasn’t being all that exacting in his requirements for a son-in-law. Which made Chase wonder all over again what Ann Rossiter had done to deserve such treatment.
Then, clearing his throat, the commodore turned from the window, and Chase knew the time had come to make his choice. He scowled a little as he weighed the possibilities: Rossiter’s daughter and a brand new steamer against the unfettered life he loved and whatever adventures the future might hold for him.
His answer seemed obvious.
“While I’m complimented that you consider me worthy of joining your family, Commodore Rossiter,” he began, aware of the gravity of what he’d been asked and grappling for the exact right way to couch his answer, “I’ve never once set eyes on your daughter. And as far as I know, sir, she’s never once set eyes on me.”
When Chase opened his mouth to continue, Rossiter cut him short. “You would be willing to meet her, though, wouldn’t you, Hardesty?”
Chase hesitated, caught between the refusal he’d been about to make and the commodore’s new question. “Well, I…”
“Would you be willing to meet her now?” Rossiter pressed him. “This afternoon?”
Chase’s nerves tingled in warning.
The commodore raised the ante. “The Andromeda is a beautiful steamer, Hardesty. A man could gain a great deal by agreeing to this.”
A man could get in over his head wanting things he had no business aspiring to. Or a man could make his dreams come true.
Visions of a sleek, freshly painted stern-wheeler flitted through Chase’s mind. He could almost see the wide decks and graceful galleries. He pictured a wheelhouse standing tall, ornamented with stained glass windows and an upholstered lazy bench. He could all but feel the smoothness of the steamer’s wheel slide through his hands and hear the roar of her boilers.
He knew how his chest would warm with pride as he nosed a steamer like that in close to the bank at Hardesty’s Landing, and what his father would think when he did.
“I can arrange for Ann to meet you in the parlor in ten minutes,” Rossiter cajoled.
What could it hurt? temptation purred in his ears.
Chase swallowed uncomfortably and shook his head. “Of — of course, I’ll meet her,” he answered, in spite of himself.
He regretted the impulse the moment the words were out of his mouth.
* * *
Trapped—here. Trapped—here. Trapped —
The needle and thread Ann Rossiter thrust and then pulled through the fabric stretched taut over her embroidery hoop seemed to whisper of her predicament. Trapped in her step-father’s house, isolated, apprehensive, and vulnerable. Trapped by restrictions that chafed her raw and circumstance she could barely bring herself to acknowledge.
She ached to leave, to run away someplace where nobody knew her. She’d packed her things last fall and had gotten as far as Memphis before her step-father’s men caught up with her. Since then the commodore had kept her too closely confined to try again, but Ann kept watching, waiting for an opportunity.
When the door to the cozy second floor sitting room started to open, Ann grabbed for the kitchen scissors hidden in the folds of her skirt.
James Rossiter stepped through the doorway. “Hello, Ann,” he greeted her. “How are you feeling today?”
Ann released the reassuring weight of the scissors. “Well enough, thank you, Father.”
“Good,” he answered, sauntering nearer. “Good.”
He paused not quite a foot from her chair and compressed his lips. He clearly had something to say to her, something he thought was important.
Probably something she wasn’t going to like.
Though her fingers had begun to tremble, she bent even more intently over her stitching.
The commodore cleared his throat and waited. When she refused to so much as look his way, he proceeded anyway. “Since you seem to be feeling well enough, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Ann raise her head in spite of herself. Her step-father hadn’t allowed her to speak to anyone except family or servants for weeks and weeks. God knows, it had been easy to cut her off. She’d been gone from St. Louis long enough to lose track of the boys and girls she played with when she was a child, and since she’d been back, she hadn’t made the kind of friends who’d come banging on the door demanding to see her. She’d been sequestered in these upstairs rooms, shut safely away while the commodore met with his bankers and employees in his study downstairs, or had dinner with his cronies in the dining room.
Ann tucked her needle into the cloth at the prospect of having a visitor. “Who on earth is it you want me to meet?”
“The man’s name is Chase Hardesty,” James Rossiter answered. “He’s one of the Gold Star most reliable pilots.”
Ann set aside her embroidery altogether and struggled to suppress the note of eagerness that crept into her voice. “Is there a particular reason you want me to meet him, Father?”
Rossiter lowered himself onto the footstool, then reached to take her hands. She submitted to his touch, let her fingers lie lax in his, though she didn’t like it.
“You know, Ann,” he offered almost kindly, “I’ve been giving your situation a good deal of thought.”
“So have I.”
“And I think I may well have hit upon a solution.”
She raised her gaze to his, succumbing to a thrill of hope. Perhaps the commodore had finally seen things her way. Perhaps he was asking this pilot, this Mr. Hardesty, to escort to New Orleans or Cincinnati. To someplace where she could live in peace and anonymity.
“What seems to make sense—” Her step-father allowed himself a self-congratulatory smile. “— is for you to marry a strapping young man and start raising your family. And I’ve found just the fellow!”
The breath whooshed out of Ann like air from a bellows. Her brain went porous with shock. “You—you want me to m-m-marry this Mr. Hardesty?” she finally managed to gasp. “The man downstairs?”
Her step-father inclined his head. “I’ve been watching Hardesty ever since he came to work for me. He’s a good, dependable fellow, and an extremely able pilot. I think he’ll make you a damn fine husband.”
Ann couldn’t do more than gape at him. This man—the man her mother had entrusted her to when she lay dying—intended to marry her off to a stranger! To some riverboat steersman!
He meant to betray her all over again.
Cold ran through her veins and pooled in the pit of her belly. Her head swam and her mouth went dry with revulsion. Then blistering outrage roared in on the heels of the shock.
Ann jerked her hands out of James Rossiter’s grasp and surged to her feet. The scissors clattered to the floor.
“This isn’t the Dark Ages!” she shouted at him. “Men don’t arrange marriages for their daughters. Women aren’t wed against their will. Surely Mr. Hardesty hasn’t agreed to this!”
“He’s consented to meet you.”
At least Mr. Hardesty was astute enough not to buy a pig in a poke, Ann thought. Still, what kind of a man would be party to wedding a woman he’d didn’t even know?
He’d have to be someone unscrupulous. Someone ambitious. Someone who didn’t understand the scope of what he was agreeing to do.
Suspicion swooped through her. “What exactly did you tell Mr. Hardesty about me?” she wanted to know.
“For God’s sake, Ann!” her step-father snapped at her. “How do you expect me to remember exactly what I said?”
That meant her step-father hadn’t told her prospective bridegroom why he’d been soliciting someone to marry her. He was leaving it to her to tell him, to stand there sick with shame as contempt rose in Hardesty’s eyes.
“Well, I won’t meet with him,” she declared. “I won’t!”
Rossiter all but leaped to his feet. “Damn you, girl! If you’d only be agreeable, we could get this settled.”
“‘Get this settled?’” she echoed. “Have you made some sort of bargain with Mr. Hardesty, Father? Is my new husband already bought and paid for?”
When he didn’t deny it, Ann pressed him. “So what is the going rate for a man’s good name?”
Though his face mottled red, James Rossiter couldn’t seem to deny what he had done. “No petty price! I’ll tell you that!”
For a moment Ann thought he was going to refuse to say anything more. Then he sucked in his breath, as if he wanted her to know exactly how grateful she ought to be.
“I’ve offered him ownership of one of the Gold Star’s steamers in exchange for a quick marriage and no questions asked.”
“Is it really worth giving Mr. Hardesty a boat worth tens of thousands of dollars to strip me of the Rossiter name?”
Her step-father’s jaw clenched. For an instant Ann thought he meant to strike her. He backed away instead.
“I suggest you make the most of the time you have with Chase Hardesty, because you aren’t likely to find a better—or a more congenial—suitor.”
“Please, Father! Can’t you just let me leave on my own?” she all but begged. “If you let me go, I swear I’ll never trouble you again.”
He paused when he reached the door. “Go see to your appearance, Ann. Put on your good gray gown and repin your hair. I’ll show Mr. Hardesty into the parlor once you’re ready.”
He slammed the thick wooden panel behind him, leaving Ann standing alone in the ringing silence.
* * *
At first Chase didn’t see her.
What he saw when James Rossiter showed him into the townhouse’s deep double parlor was a pair of enormous gilt-framed mirrors that gave back reflections of the soft-green silk wall paper, the rose and green velvet settees, and plush Abusson carpets. The room smelled of lemon polish and elbow grease, of bayberry candles and extravagance. But the silence, broken only by the ticking of the ormolu mantle clock, was the most unexpected luxury.
A steamboat was never quiet. The engines roared and banged and wheezed, the paddles sluiced, bells clanged and whistles hooted. People were always about and the hum of conversation, to say nothing of the shouted orders and the cries of the vendors on the levee, added to the cacophony.
The silence in this room was restful, calming, like being submerged in a pool of still, green water on a summer day.
Only slowly did Chase come to realize that the woman he’d agreed to meet was already here. She was standing motionless, looking out the window at the far end of the room as if there were something of great importance taking place in the street.
He slipped silently toward her, soaking up impressions. He noticed first that though she stood gracefully erect, she wasn’t all that tall. She held her shoulders a bit too straight to complement the prevailing fashions, but her gown was well-cut and of a soft, gray color that reminded him of winter dawns. Her hair draped thick and golden-brown against her cheeks, then coiled back close to her nape, twisted like a honeybun.
He paused when he stood barely three feet away. “Miss Rossiter?” he said softly.
Her back stiffened and she turned her head, glancing at him over her shoulder. In that moment, Chase took note of a stalk of satiny throat, the thumbprint of a dimple at the tip of her chin, and a delicate mouth, held far too tightly.
Then gradually she turned to face him—and he understood why her father had summoned him.
She was with child.
Chase should have expected it, but the realization thumped into him with force enough to make the breath huff in his throat.
She acknowledged his reaction with a quick, brittle lift of her chin and a bright rise of color into her cheeks.
Her pregnancy was the reason he’d been offered things he hadn’t sought and probably didn’t deserve. In exchange for ownership of a riverboat, he was supposed to provide Ann Rossiter’s bastard with a name.
The knowledge curdled in his belly, a hot mix of cynicism and an odd kind of disappointment.
Judging by what he’d observed when his sisters were carrying their children, Miss Rossiter was fairly well along in her pregnancy. Four months, at least. Yet in the instant before he’d discovered her condition, he’d sensed a daisy-white purity about her, an open-faced innocence that seemed as much a part of her as breathing. But how could she seem so chaste when she’d quite obviously lain with a man, a man who was cad enough deny her his protection?
As Chase fought to subdue his incredulity, he realized that Ann Rossiter was staring at him every bit as intently as he’d been watching her. She was seeing a tall, ruddy-faced man who’d invaded her parlor, a rough-looking fellow with a day’s growth of stubble on his jaw and curly, windblown hair.
Suddenly self-conscious, Chase did his best to tame the waves with his fingers, then flashed her a self-deprecating smile. “I didn’t know I was coming courting when I left the levee this morning.”
At those few off-handed words something stark and desolate kindled up in Ann Rossiter’s eyes. She immediately lowered her lashes, but Chase knew what he’d seen.
In response, his chest filled with a fierce and improbable protectiveness. It was a thick, tight ache that made him want to curl an arm around her shoulders and reassure her, just as he might have done if one of his younger sisters was troubled or frightened.
Then the impulse to protect Ann Rossiter gave way to something a good deal more appropriate—a sharp jab of annoyance. He groped for something glib and ironic to say, for words to put her in her place and deny the feelings she’d stirred in him. But nothing came.
Instead he became unbearably aware of the rush of his own breathing and the faint flutter of hers. The drumming of his heart seemed loud, as the silence between them lengthened.
Finally she took mercy on him and raised her head. “So, you’re Chase Hardesty.” Her voice was low and cool, and blatantly assessing. “One of my father’s men.”
Chase dipped his head in acknowledgement. “I work for your father as a pilot,” he clarified, “but I’m nobody’s man.”
Her eyebrows arched, lifting like the flicker of a bird’s wings. “If you’re not one of my step-father’s men, Mr. Hardesty, why are you here?”
Though heat crept up his jaw, he answered as forthrightly as he could. “I’m here because the commodore asked me to meet you. I’m here because he made me a proposition I’d be a fool not to at least consider.”
“He’s offered you one of his steamers in exchange for marrying me.” Her tone was richly flavored with contempt. “Is that right?”
“He offered me the Andromeda,” he corrected her.
Her soft mouth parted, bowed. “Father’s offered you his new stern-wheeler?”
Chase inclined his head.
“He and my step-brother have talked of little else all winter.”
“Then your father must think highly of you,” Chase observed, “to offer something so dear to insure your future.”
She shook her head as if she were surprised by his assessment of the commodore’s motives. “Or he’s exceedingly eager to get me off his hands.”
“You must be wrong about that,” Chase contradicted her. “He’s offered to let stay on here, so there will be people to look after you when I’m away.”
Her expression didn’t change, but a new desolation crept into her eyes. “He told you that, did he?”
“He mentioned it just now,” he said, gesturing toward the hallway. “He’s very concerned about your welfare.”
Ann inclined her head. Then she abruptly turned and stalked to the far side of the sitting room, her skirts aswish behind her. When she reached the marble fireplace she rounded on him, her expression imperious—a princess considering a commoner.
“Well then, Mr. Hardesty, tell me just what kind of a man would consider trading his good name for a riverboat?”
Only if you’ll explain how a woman like you comes to need my services, he found himself thinking. But he held his tongue and took a moment to assess his motives. To assess himself.
“A poor man would consider it,” he answered carefully. “A practical man. A man who can be bought and sold.”
She looked back at him, her eyebrows lifted in inquiry. “And which of those men are you, Mr. Hardesty?”
He hesitated, smiled, then inclined his head in a mocking bow. “Why I’m all of them, Miss Rossiter. But I’m also a man who knows enough to walk away from a bargain when it seems too good to be true.”
“Is this bargain too good to be true?”
He let his gaze slide over her, let it skim the velvety luminosity of her cheeks, let it follow the slender column of her throat down toward where the black velvet banding at the neckline of her gown skimmed her collarbones, down to where her breasts rose and fell beneath the bodice. He curled his lips appreciatively, letting her know that in spite of her pregnancy, he liked what he saw.
“I’m not sure about this bargain yet, Miss Rossiter. There have been some surprises already. Are there going to be more?”
A fresh flush flared in her cheeks, and she clasped her hands in the folds of her skirt as if to keep her from slapping him for his impertinence.
Even angry and clearly undone, she was a lovely woman. Graceful, patrician, intriguingly prim, especially considering her condition. In normal circumstances, no one would have thought to introduce her to a man like him, a common riverman, a man who’d run wild in the Missouri bottoms nearly half his life. If he’d encountered Ann Rossiter on one of the packets, he might have inquired if she was enjoying her trip or commented on the weather. Their conversation would never have gone beyond the common courtesies a riverboat pilot afforded a cabin passenger.
It would never have occurred to him that he could marry someone like her. Women with beauty and money and family position didn’t take up with river rats. Women with schooling and sophistication didn’t wed men who were barely literate. Yet with things as they were, the possibility of marrying Ann Rossiter ruffled the edges of his imagination.
What would it be like to take her as his wife?
A simmer of heat rose through him. A frisson of awareness—of her nearness, her scent, her softness. Of what it would be like to take her in his arms. Just thinking about touching her stirred his blood.
Things would never be dull if he were married to her—and things certainly wouldn’t be easy. He could see that ideas came and went behind those eyes. There were depths and layers to her a simple man like him might never penetrate.
But then, he had far more to consider than whether he and Ann Rossiter were likely to be compatible. Taking on a wife—much less a wife and child—meant changes, expenses, responsibilities. Marrying her would mean giving up the freedom he’d relished since all his life. It would mean giving up his dreams and the far-flung possibilities he’d never once mentioned to anyone.
It would alter who he was, what people expected from him. It would change the way he saw himself.
Before he could think what else marrying Ann Rossiter might mean, she straightened from the soles of those very-costly Moroccan leather slippers and faced him.
“The truth of the matter is, Mr. Hardesty,” she began, “that Father and I have rather different ideas about how my—my predicament should be resolved.”
Chase ambled toward where she stood before the fireplace, curious about how she meant to remedy this. “So you don’t mean to marry me, then, Miss Rossiter?”
She turned the question back on him. “You don’t want to be saddled with a woman who’s carrying another man’s child, do you, Mr. Hardesty?”
Chase watched her, saw her steel herself, and wondered if she expected him to rebuke her for conceiving a child before she was wed. Or was he supposed to say he’d be well-enough compensated that he didn’t give a damn about her condition.
“Normally no man wants another man’s leavings,” he answered easing nearer. “But sometimes a man takes on this kind of responsibility to give a child a name or to offer his protection.”
Her chin came up. “I don’t need you to protect me.”
He though there might be more bravado than truth in those words, and that ridiculous concern stirred in him again.
“A man might marry a woman who’s with child,” he went on, “to acknowledge a long-standing relationship or win some advantage.”
“Is the Andromeda advantage enough to induce you to spend the rest of your life with a woman you do not love?”
The question took him aback. It hinted at aspirations that could only make his decision—and hers—more difficult.
He deliberately tipped a one-cornered smile in her direction. “I try never to mix love and business, Miss Rossiter,” he advised her. “What we’re talking about here is riverboats and bargains, your condition and my ambition.”
She hesitated for one long moment, then gave a terse nod, acknowledging that if he offered to wed her and she agreed, there would no pretense of a courtship between them. No boxes of bonbons and nosegays of roses. No protestations of affection.
What Chase wished he understood in all of this was how a man could make love to a woman like her and leave her to face the consequences. What he wished he could ask was whether Ann Rossiter had loved her baby’s father, and how the commodore could bargain with his grandchild’s future.
But then, Chase figured, even if he had the audacity to ask those questions, he wouldn’t much like the answers.
“Well, then, Mr. Hardesty,” she began, her voice wavering ever so slightly, “since your priorities are so clear, what are you going to tell my father?”
For an instant Chase couldn’t think how to answer. Now that he’d met her and responded to her the way he had, what on earth was he going to say when James Rossiter asked him if he meant to marry his daughter?
“What do you want me to tell him?”
She must have detected the faint rasp of sincerity in his voice, because she raise her head. In that moment he could almost see the thoughts skim through her mind: a spark of hope, a waver of concern at needing to trust a man she barely knew. A brief, bright glint of guilt. Then a darkness, a weariness settled over her, stealing the color from her face and the life from her eyes.
Instinctively Chase reached for her.
She deliberately stepped beyond his grasp. “Tell my father—” She stood like a duelist preparing to fire, terrified but resolute. “Tell my father you wouldn’t marry me if he offered you every steamer in the Gold Star fleet.”
She left no room for compromise. For compassion or concern.
Chase had no choice but to dip his head in acknowledgment. “Very well, Miss Rossiter. When he asks me what I’ve decided, I’ll refuse your father’s offer. And may I wish both you and your child the very best life has to offer.”
He turned to go.
He glanced back to where she still stood before the fire.
Something in those two softly spoken words, some hint of vulnerability or trepidation made him retrace his steps.
“Ann?” he murmured, searching the depths of her gold and green eyes. “Ann, are you sure this is what you want?”
She drew a wavery breath. “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes.”