Grand Central Depot, New York City
Ted Harper never saw it coming. One minute, he was alone on the platform, and the next he’d acquired a wife.
“There you are, dear husband! Let’s not miss the train,” said a loud, husky feminine voice.
What in the name of Jacob? He tried to extricate his arm from her unexpectedly strong grip while glancing around for a porter. A patrolman. A crowbar… Anyone or anything to dislodge this woman from his side. “Listen, miss. I don’t know who—”
Her head tilted up and he found himself staring down into the greenest eyes he’d ever seen. Vibrant green, like a leaf just after opening in the spring. Red hair tucked under a sensible hat. Small, delicate nose. Creamy white skin with a touch of color on the cheeks.
His stomach dropped somewhere on the platform.
If possible, she snuggled further into his body, emphasizing soft, unavoidable curves. “I am so looking forward to meeting your mother,” she said and began propelling him toward the train. “I do hope she can teach me to cook that apple pie you like so much.”
Mother? Ted frowned. His mother had been dead for eight years. Crazy, thy name is woman. This one belonged in a sanatorium, not a train station.
He planted his feet. “Miss, I’m sorry, but—”
Two hands clutched his lapel and she launched herself in the direction of his mouth. Her lips crashed into his, hard, shocking him. He could neither push her away nor kiss her back; instead he just stood there, frozen, like a block of ice.
She smells nice was his first coherent thought.
His second was that her lips were soft and full, and her height fit him perfectly. Their hips were nearly aligned—which was something he definitely should not be noticing. Then, because his eyes remained open, he saw her gaze dart to the side.
Next arrived his third, and possibly most important, thought. She wasn’t crazy; she was hiding from someone, which explained why she kept searching her surroundings. Why she’d attached herself to a perfect stranger.
His head snapped up, breaking their kiss, and he checked for someone lurking about. Was she in danger? Was someone pursuing her?
She cleared her throat, her skin gone a becoming pink, and threw a glance over her shoulder. Her body stiffened, and then she hunched her shoulders, drawing in on herself, and began tugging him toward the train. Yes, definitely hiding from someone.
“Do you think your mother will like me? I swear, I just don’t know what I’ll do if she doesn’t.” She continued her one-way conversation, a never-ending string of senseless words, until they arrived at the train steps.
A porter greeted them, his eyes darting between Ted and the woman now clinging to him harder than scandal on a politician. “Mr. Harper, your car is ready. Ma’am, do you—”
“Thank you, sir. My husband and I are ready to board. I hope you were careful with our luggage. I have some very delicate gifts packed inside. Come along, dear.”
Instead of climbing the stairs, the mysterious woman craned her neck to peek over her shoulder. Ted turned to look as well but couldn’t see what had spooked her. He had no idea what motivated her, but he had the strangest desire to get her on the train. To ensure she would be safe.
Perhaps he was the one who should consider a sanatorium.
The wide-eyed porter was waiting, and impatient passengers began to line up behind them, so Ted relied on the manners drilled into him as an Ohio farm boy. He swept his hand toward the steps. “After you, madam.”
Whatever she saw in the crowd convinced her to climb onto the train. Shoulders relaxing a bit, Ted followed, trying not to admire her trim waist in the fashionable long, slightly dirty brown overcoat she wore as they boarded. The porter led them along the regular train car through an enclosed vestibule to the private Pullman car he’d arranged for the journey.
The woman walked inside first, her feet stumbling a bit on the carpet as she took measure of their surroundings. He didn’t travel much but, when he did, he always leased a private car so he could work in peace. This one was well-appointed, a comfortable space with walnut paneling and brass fixtures. It had elegant, plush furniture and ample light in the small sitting room. A pot-bellied stove in the center of the car threw off quite a bit of heat, and a door at the far end presumably led to the sleeping area and water closet.
The porter shifted on his feet. “Is everything to your satisfaction, Mr. Harper? I know you normally—”
“Oh, this is just perfect, isn’t it, darling?” his “wife” answered.
No words came out. Ted just stared at her swollen, recently kissed lips until the porter cleared his throat. “Indeed,” he forced out. “Perfect.”
“I assume the one bed is sufficient, sir. We weren’t told that your wife was coming along.”
Panic flared deep in her irises as awkwardness descended. He couldn’t very well answer. To agree made him a lecher. To refuse made them both liars. So he waited it out.
She swallowed hard, her stare flicking to the window and the crowd beyond, before saying with a good deal less vivacity, “Of course. Where else would I stay?”
The porter nodded. “Very good, Mr. Harper. Mrs. Harper. We’ll be departing in a few minutes. Just ring if either of you need anything.”
The door closed behind the porter but Ted kept his gaze trained on the young girl. She had to be no more than twenty-two or twenty-three, he guessed, and she was even more lovely in the soft electric light of the compartment. And she’d kissed him, bold as brass. He suddenly regretted not making the most of that kiss when he had the chance.
He removed his derby and placed it on the nearest armchair along with his satchel. “I feel introductions would be appropriate at this time,” he started. “I’m—”
“You’re obviously Mr. Harper.” A flush worked its way over her cheeks. Had she recognized him? She strode forward, hand outstretched. “My name is Clara. Clara Dobson.”
He shook it. “Nice to meet you, Miss Dobson. I take it you have no luggage?”
“That’s correct.” She twisted her hands together, fingers knotting in agitation as she worried her bottom lip mercilessly. Ted had the absurd desire to soothe the abused surface with his tongue.
“But I need to stay on this train,” she said, a hint of desperation in her voice.
“I see. Is someone following you?”
“I must get to St. Louis,” she blurted, dodging his original question. “To see my family.”
“Of course. I also need to stay on the train. Which puts us in a bit of a bind, now that we’ve told the porter that we’re a married couple.”
“If you’ll help me during the day, I can find some quiet spot on the train to sleep at night. I won’t be a bother, I promise.”
A pretty woman, not a bother? As far as he knew, that was the very definition of the word.
“That would only arouse suspicion.” Not to mention leave her vulnerable to whatever danger she faced, provided said danger followed her onto the train.
Head turning, she seemed to assess her surroundings once more. “I’m not certain staying here is a good idea. Do you have another wife? I mean, a real wife?”
Does she really not know me, then? As president of the New American Bank and one of the wealthiest men in the country, his name was hardly uncommon in print—although one was more apt to find mention of him in the business section than the social pages.
“No, I do not have a wife.”
“Oh, that is a relief.” Having said this, her hands immediately flew to her cheeks. “Goodness, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m not interested in…anything. I meant there’s no worry that I’m offending any other woman by pretending to be your wife. Which would have been—”
“Are you always so talkative?” He cocked his head at her. Please let her say no, he thought.
“Well, I do like to talk, I suppose. They’re always telling me at Hoyt’s—I work the perfume counter there—that I can talk to anyone, anytime. Customers like me.” She shrugged. “I had four brothers and three sisters, and if you didn’t talk fast, you’d never be heard.”
Talk to anyone. Anytime. As if wired to Edison’s power station, a jolt went through Ted. Yes, he could use her. Of course, she could be a flimflam artist. Her fear on the platform may have been faked for his benefit. But wasn’t all business a form of deception in the end?
“All right, Miss Dobson. I’ll help you, but you have to do something for me in return.”