San Francisco, 1857
Once he reached China, Cameron Andrews didn't give a bloody damn where he ended up.
He stood on the dock in front of the Andrews Shipping Company offices, one booted foot perched atop a stubby mooring, eyes fixed on the
. The sleek clipper tacked back and forth, gracefully working her way into the harbor on the first leg of her journey since departing New Orleans. She'd tie down long enough to drop off mail and cargo, then refill her stores and head to the Orient for another load of goods. He'd be aboard her when she set sail.
Born in New Orleans's Vieux CarrÃ© to a French mother, and educated at Cambridge like his English father, he was used to the very best. He and his cousin had inherited the family business, had worked their arses off to turn the shipping line into an empire that maintained the largest fleet in the world. He was a wealthy man who could afford just about anything.
A soft snort escaped him. Anything, that is, except a modicum of peace. No amount of money could buy his way out of the misery that threatened to suffocate him.
Somewhere behind him a church bell pealed the noon hour, and like clockwork, his stomach growled. A glance down the street at the Morgan Hotel, and any desire for food left him. He'd taken his noon meal there every day without fail since his arrival four years agoâthat is, until recently. Even though it had been two years since his wife's passing, facing her parents, the owners of the hotel, was growing more tedious by the day. Lately, he'd been skipping luncheon altogether.
The sun escaped the cover of a billowy cloud and turned the gray waters of San Francisco Bay into a hard sparkle of blue. The air lost a bit of its briskness. He shielded his eyes from the glare and watched the
glide silently through the water. Good Lord, she was magnificent. The fastest ship on the seas.
, but it would feel good to gain his sea legs again.
, two more of the company's elegant clippers, rode low in the water harbor-side, both laden with goods from China and India. In a few days, one would head to New Orleans, the other to Boston.
tacked eastward one last time before coming into port, Yerba Buena Island appeared behind her like a backdrop, an emerald oasis in the middle of the bay. A familiar hollowness ate at him. His wife and stillborn son lay buried on the western slope of that island. His chest grew taut. Would Dianah forgive him if he left? Lord knew how many times he'd stood beside her grave begging permission to leave without guilt.
“Ho, there, Mister Andrews,” Davey, his dockhand, shouted. “
heavin' to. The wind's shifted, so she'll be coming 'round port-side. Best ye step back, sir.”
Seagulls swooped and squawked, wheeling and diving into the choppy waters like pirates after buried treasure. The sleek clipper, her sails drawing in, glided silently to the dock. Sailors tossed a couple of ratlines. Davey grabbed one, while Cameron slipped the other over the mooring post he'd just vacated. The vessel came to a complete stop in the water.
The gangplank lowered. First off the ship was a scowling, red-cheeked captain, the ship's log tucked under one arm, as he dragged a scruffy boy by the neck.
Cameron stepped forward. “Looks like you got yourself a stowaway, Hallowell.”
“The little bastard is all yours now, by God.” The captain gave the boy a hard shove.
The lad, his face smeared with dirt, stumbled to a halt in front of Cameron, shoulders scrunched in an exaggerated wince as he rubbed at the back of his neck. “Why you be draggin' me like dat? I was damn glad to be off dat boat, don'cha know.
I would've come down on my own without you trying to rip my head off.
Bloody hell if it wasn't a no-account Cajun straight out of the bayou
“Ship,” Cameron drawled. “
refer to my fine line of vessels as boats.”
The breeze kicked up and swirled around the boy, shooting an acrid scent up Cameron's nostrilsâsweat, dirt, and frayed clothing that likely hadn't seen a washing the entire trip. If ever. “Christ, you smell like Napoleon's army after a forty-day march.”
“Probably worse,” Hallowell responded. “He refused a bath the entire journey. Can't figure how a body not used to the sea could find so many places to hide. Whenever I mentioned even a little water around the ears, the guttersnipe vanished so fast I had to scratch my head and wonder if he wasn't an apparition. I finally gave up and stuck to my duties. It was either that or toss him overboard and forget I ever saw him. Can't tell you how many times I was sorely tempted to do that very thing.”
The boy shot a fiery glance at the captain and muttered a French profanity so foul, Cameron was glad Hallowell didn't understand the language. “Take your leave, Hallowell. I'll see to the scalawag. Is my replacement aboard?”
“Aye.” The captain jerked his thumb in the air behind him and headed for the company offices.
“Mr. Andrews!” Joshua Cooper, carpetbag in hand, stepped smartly off the ship, but when his feet hit the deck, he weaved from side to side like a drunken sailor.
Cameron chuckled. “Still got your sea legs, I see.”
Cooper managed to stick out his hand and, with a grin, grasped Cameron's and pumped it up and down. “Much as I love the sea, and everything about the shipping business, sir, I still end up thinking I'm afloat for a good three or four days after we've docked.”
He glanced around at the gray clapboard buildings lining the bayside wharf and at others branching out behind and along narrow streets. “Isn't this a sight different from New Orleans?” His eyes narrowed at the new clouds forming overhead. “Not to mention the cooler weather.”
“It takes time, but you'll get used to it. Whatever the conditions are at the moment, they can change fast. You'll soon learn to carry an umbrella with you as a matter of course.” Cameron gave a nod toward a large white building emblazoned with a green roof to his left. “That's the Morgan Hotel. Go ahead and get yourself settled in. We'll meet over dinner there and discuss permanent lodgings for you.”
“Thank you, sir. Until this evening, then.” Cooper trotted down the street.
Cameron folded his arms over his chest and turned to the boy standing beside him. He stared at the top of a cap-covered head. “What's your name?”
With the way he cast his eyes to his boots and scuffed a toe against the dock, Cameron would bet the scamp was lying. “Straighten up and look me in the eye, boy. How old are you?”
The lad lifted his head and, with a cocky attitude that nearly made Cameron laugh, folded his arms across his chest, arrogantly mirroring Cameron's stance. “Old 'nuff.”
“Is that so?” What the devil was he supposed to do with this ne'er-do-well until the clipper destined for New Orleans set sail? He surveyed Alex, from his threadbare clothing, to his worn shoes, which appeared a few sizes too large. A shaft of compassion shot through him. “Were you looking for a little adventure? Is that what made you stow away? Or was the law after you?”
“Were you running away from someone who mistreated you?”
.” Alex assessed Cameron in the exact same manner as he'd been surveyed, slow and easy. Completing his mock appraisal, his gaze settled back on Cameron's, where it held steady. A smirk curled one corner of his mouth. “I had a fair good reason for hoppin' aboard your fine vessel asides finding me a good time.”
He spoke in that lyrical Cajun French that made even the most evil of epithets roll off a tongue like a sweet lullaby. Unease spread through Cameron. Was he in charge or had the boy just taken over? Wily little thing.
“Since my stomach is playing fiddle with my backbone, the sooner you tell me why you stowed on one of my ships without a never-you-mind, the sooner I can get a meal. Are you hungry?”
. I could use me a bite.”
He'd have to take Alex to the public baths before they'd dare venture into the hotel. “Not until you wash away that stink and get into some clean clothes. There's a mercantile down the street where we can pick up a change of clothing. And then you can bloody well have a bath before eating. Got any money?”
That smirk again. “
, but you fair do.”
Cameron grunted. “Brilliant. After a free trip halfway around the world, you expect me to supply you with clothing as well?”
“Sumpin' like dat.”
Bloody hell, he couldn't just leave a lad this far from home to wander. “Is San Francisco where you intended to land?”
“So what was your purpose in coming here?”
Alex grinned, flashing a set of fine white teeth, but the look in his eye turned flinty. “I came lookin' for my papa.” The boy rocked back on his heels, his arms still crossed over his chest. “And it looks like I done found you.”
“Me?” A bark of laughter left Cameron's throat. He peered into sharp, amber eyes fringed top and bottom with dark lashes. A chill snaked through him. If he looked in the mirror, he'd see the same damn thing. But that was impossible.
“You're coming with me.” He dug his fingers into the boy's dirty jacket and headed him toward the mercantile. “Davey, I'm off to lunch. Tell the captain I'll see him and Cooper at eight, over dinner at the Morgan.”
“Aye,” Davey called back.
In less than ten minutes, Cameron and Alex were in and out of the mercantile and in front of the public baths.
Alex twisted away. “I ain't goin' in there to get buggered by some lusty sailor who can't wait to be slidin' his wiggle worm into some doxy.”
Cameron halted, his neck hairs bristling. “Is that why you refused a bath aboard ship?”
A slow turn of Alex's head away from Cameron's eyes, and he let go a soft, “
By now, Cameron had moved beyond hunger and frustration, and was fast working his way into full-blown anger. “Then it's to my home we'll go, but if you so much as slip a candlestick inside one of your pockets, I'll have your head on a platter.”
“Don't call me that!” Hell, the boy could belong to his cousin, Trevor. No, those were definitely Cameron's eyes. But still, the idea was preposterous. “How old did you say you were?”
Alex shrugged. “Didn't.”
“Well, do so, now,” he roared.
Alex only grinned. “I'll be needin' dat bath first, don'cha know.”
Bates, a miner-turned-butler, met Cameron at the door to his California Hill mansion. Cameron shoved the paper-wrapped clothing at him. “See to it Alex here gets a decent bath, and have Cook fix a couple of plates.”
“Jambalaya would suit,” Alex piped in. “But I ain't takin' no bath with your man here tinkin' to scrub me clean an' bugger me at the same time.”
The butler's cheeks flushed, but he made no comment. Cameron fought a grin.
That must have curled the old boy's toes.
“There's no jambalaya to be had in San Francisco, and you can bloody well take a bath alone, but I'll be checking your pockets when you come down, you hear?”
,” Alex said, and jauntily climbed the stairs behind Bates. “You got yerself a peculiar accent, Papa. Sometimes you sound like a right good Frenchman out of Nawlins oughta, but other times you sound like a proper Englishman. Just saying so you know I pays attention.”
“Christ.” Cameron turned on his heel and made his way into the library, where he dropped onto the sofa with an exaggerated exhale. How the devil could a predicament like this have popped up out of nowhere? And now of all times, when he was about to embark on an endless journey to nowhere.
A Cajun bastard? Not likely. Cameron had been just seventeen when he left New Orleans. He and Trevor had been hell-raisers, which was why Cameron had ended up in a private school in England and later at Cambridge, but the last thing he could've done was leave a child behind.
An hour later, when Alex failed to appear, Cameron went looking for him in the guest quarters. He gave a quick rap on the door.
“Entre, Papa. I be all cleaned up and dressed in my new clothes, now.”
“Haughty little fool,” Cameron mumbled, and helped himself inside.
And nearly fell over.
Gone was the dirty, disheveled boy with a worn cap pulled over his head. Long, black hair, as shiny as a crow's wing hung about the face of a beautiful young girl heading straight into womanhood. They stood staring at each other while Cameron collected his thoughts.
And she smirked.
“What did you say your name was?”
Soft laughter rolled out of her. “Alexia, dear Papa. Alexia Thibodeaux. From Bayou St. Laurent.”
Her sweet, silken voice sounded too old, too wise for a young girl. She stepped forward, bold as you please. “You remember my maman, don't you? Solange?”
“I . . . I can't say as I do. How old are you?”
“Near thirteen, Papa.” She tilted her head. “My maman was Solange Thibodeaux. Oh, wait. She was Sally to you.”
Well, he had her there. Even in his misdirected youth, he had known better than to have anything to do with a woman out of the bayou. The idea that they could be even remotely connected was absurd.