Clara’s knees wobbled, and her reaction had nothing to do with the jerky start of the train. As the wheels began turning, the heavy exhales of the engine echoing through the car, she faced him squarely. Whatever he was about to say, she knew she would not like it. He had the upper hand, and she feared he would take full advantage.
Oh, why had she ever moved to New York? Adventure, she’d told herself eight months ago at home in Missouri. Experiences, good times, broadened horizons… Yet here she was, on the run from men who probably meant her harm, with no money or belongings, and about to be propositioned by a stranger.
Oh, Clara. What have you done?
“Yes?” she forced out.
“May we sit?”
She lowered onto the sofa and tried to imagine what Mr. Harper was about to say. She studied his features for anything that might give away his intentions. He wasn’t devilishly handsome. He wasn’t overly tall, and wore plain clothing. No fancy facial hair, just a faint hint of gray swept into his brown hair at the temples.
But he carried himself with confidence. A man who knew what he was about. Steady. Compared to the flighty young men of her acquaintance, Mr. Harper’s self-assured presence interested her.
Too bad he couldn’t kiss worth a damn.
“The reason for my journey,” he said, “is to meet with Erik Webber, a potential partner in a venture I am keen on undertaking. My associates met with him twice in New York and he’s refused us. But he is on this train traveling back to St. Louis, and I’ll have two more nights in which to press my case.”
“How does that involve me?” she asked warily.
“This man has also brought along his wife, and she is…prickly. Notoriously resistant to new ideas. I’m afraid she’s against my proposal, and I won’t stand a chance of convincing him if she’s involved.”
“You want me to distract her?”
His mouth hitched and appreciation lit his blue eyes. Oh. Oh. She hadn’t noticed how very striking his eyes were, the light having transformed them into vivid pools of clear sky. She suddenly realized she needed a deep breath of air.
“Precisely,” he said.
Clara pushed aside her unexpected reaction and thought about what he was asking. It hardly felt like much, not when one compared the request with the cost of a train ticket and sharing a luxurious space such as this for two nights. Two nights. Was she really to sleep in the same car as this stranger not once, but twice?
Yet what was her alternative? Escape had been her only thought in New York, and she had no money or clothes. Hiding on this train would at least allow her time to think. And really, as long as the journey took her away from the men chasing her, she hardly cared about the destination.
Then she noticed Mr. Harper staring at her patiently as he awaited an answer. “I would gladly help you if you’re willing to offer me assistance,” she rushed out.
“Excellent. Now any chance you’ll tell me what had you so frightened on the platform?”
Knots formed in her stomach. How could she explain, when she hardly understood it herself? The whole thing happened so quickly. Going to deliver a letter to her manager, Mr. Ross. Opening the door, finding a man choking Mr. Ross, a man she recognized as Edward Thompson, a prominent politician. A policeman leaning against the wall, watching. Hearing the words, “Grab her,” just before she ran.
The evening crowds in the store had provided some assistance, and she had been able to reach the street safely. From there, she had hopped aboard a north-bound streetcar and tried to catch her breath. Get home—that had been her plan. There she would be safe. Yet as they crossed over Thirty-Fourth Street, she had noticed a Metropolitan Police wagon steadily following the streetcar, the bushy-mustached policeman sitting up front. Two other patrolmen had been with him.
She’d needed another crowd to lose them. Grand Central seemed the logical place, given her choices. Dashing inside, she’d felt the patrolmen chasing her. But she’d always been the best in her family at hide-and-seek, so she stayed low. Blended in. Then she’d found the first train departing for St. Louis and searched for a man standing by himself.
A man that seemed entirely too nice to involve in her dangerous drama.
“Clara, the platform. What happened out there?”
Talk, she thought. Make him forget the question. “Oh, that. I wasn’t scared. I just thought it might be fun to take a trip, go back home to see my family in Missouri. They live in Columbia and it’s my mother’s birthday. She’s turning fifty-five and her only wish was for all of her children to be there. Do you travel much? I bet you do, the way the porter seemed to know your name. Have you been to St. Louis before?”
He heaved a weighty sigh. “I suppose there’s no reason to trust me, but I would appreciate it if you did not try to talk me in circles, either, Miss Dobson.”
“Please, call me Clara,” she said with a grin. At least he was smart. Most men her age would’ve been glazed over by now, heads spinning from her inane prattle. “And I’ll try. But I won’t help you unless you agree not to ask questions about what happened on the platform.”
“You already agreed to help me.”
“I’ll take it back, unless you promise not to ask me questions.”
He held up his hands. “Fine. No questions.” He relaxed into the chair. “Would you mind very much if I attended to some work before dinner?”
“No, not at all.”
He found his satchel and opened the flap. From his inner jacket pocket, he withdrew a pair of eyeglasses and slipped them on his face. She liked the way he looked in the frames. Intelligent. Serious. And they gave her the strangest desire to smooth his rumpled hair while he lectured her on…fossils or science whatnot.
Perhaps she could teach him how to better kiss. Two beaus had complimented Clara on her skills in that area. The poor man must not get much practice. “I’m sorry I kissed you on the platform. Maybe—”
“You should get comfortable,” Ted told her, not meeting her eyes. “After all, this is your car, too.”
Sensible and considerate as well. The last man who’d courted her hadn’t even held an umbrella over her in a downpour. Not that Mr. Harper was courting her, but she could tell he was a good man. She unpinned her hat, set it next to her, and then stood up to remove her coat. She walked over to hang the garment on the wall hook.
When she returned to her seat, Mr. Harper was reading a stack of paper, pen in hand. He made the occasional note as he flipped the pages. With that amount of work and his less-than-fashionable clothing, he did not strike her as a wealthy bon vivant or captain of industry. Certainly not someone who could afford to lease a private rail car. His company must have paid for his accommodations, she guessed.
After a stretch, her curiosity got the better of her. “Are you a salesman of some kind?”
For some reason, this seemed to amuse him, though he kept focus on his work. “Yes, something like that.”
“I said you may call me Clara, but you never told me your name.”
“Ted. You may use that name as well. There’s no need to be formal when it’s just the two of us.”
Ted Harper. She liked that name. He looked like a Ted. Hardworking, industrious. A man who said what he meant and meant what he said.
At Hoyt’s, she could usually tell what a customer would buy just from their name. Someone with a common, practical name, like John or Mary, tended to purchase perfume without even smelling the bottle. Then there were the odd names, like Orpha or Erline, who tested every perfume until landing on the precise one.
But those with formidable, smart names would stop, describe the person for whom they were buying the perfume, and ask Clara’s opinion on the scent. She liked those people best of all.
“Have you ever bought perfume?” she asked Ted casually.
His head snapped up, and he pierced her with a confused stare. “Good God, no. Why?”
“No reason. Just wondering is all.”
“Is there any chance you could stop wondering? About anything? Or at least refrain from wondering aloud?”
Her hands went up in apology. He must be concentrating very hard on his work. Clara didn’t want to distract or irritate him, since he’d been so charitable. “I will try not to interrupt.”
“Why don’t you freshen up for dinner? We’ll head to the dining saloon as soon as they attach it in Poughkeepsie.”
She turned toward the window instead, content to watch New York, as well as her troubles, disappear.