Excerpt from Moon in the Water

 
March 1867
St. Louis, Missouri
     It was a proposition that would tempt a saint.
     Chase Hardesty stared across Commodore James Rossiter's massive mahogany desk. "Let me get this straight," he said. "What you're offering me is the captaincy—"
     "Not just the captaincy," Rossiter corrected him. "I'm offering you the chance to own the Star Line's new stern-wheeler, commissioned out of the Carondelet shipyards just this morning."
     "And you'll give me ownership of the Andromeda," Chase clarified, "in exchange for marrying your daughter."
     When the commodore nodded Chase whistled under his breath. He made no secret that he came from simple folks, that all he knew was the river. He'd climbed aboard a riverboat when he was thirteen, worked his way up from cub engineer to master pilot and never once looked back. The only dream he'd ever had was to own and captain his own steamboat.
     "If you don't mind me asking, sir," Chase cleared his throat. "Why are you offering your daughter to me?"
     He'd never picked up the polish and social graces some pilots did. And though Rossiter paid him well, Chase never seemed to find more than lint in his pockets.
     The commodore paced to the window that overlooked the garden. "Well, you're unmarried," he began. "And might never be able to be master of a steamer of your own, I thought you'd find the offer—intriguing."
     What the man was saying was that Chase had ambition enough to be hungry but poor enough to be bought. Which made him wonder what it was Ann Rossiter had done to deserve being offered to him.
     "While I'm complimented that you consider me worthy of joining your family," Chase answered 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."
     "You would be willing to meet her, though, wouldn't you, Hardesty?"
     Chase's nerves tingled. "Well, I..."
     "A man could gain a great deal by marrying her."
     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.
     "I can arrange for Ann to meet you in the parlor in ten minutes," Rossiter cajoled.
     What could it hurt?
     "Of—of course, I'll meet her."
     Chase regretted the words the moment they were out of his mouth.
* * *
     At first Chase didn't see her.
     What he did see when Commodore Rossiter escorted him into the town house's deep double parlor was two enormous gilt-framed mirrors that gave back reflections of soft-green silk wallpaper, the rose-velvet settees, and plush Aubusson carpets. The room smelled of lemon polish, bayberry candles and extravagance. But the silence, broken only by the ticking of the ormolu mantel 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, the shouted orders and the cries of the vendors on the levee, added to the cacophony. The silence in this room was 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 consuming importance was taking place in the street.
     He stepped 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 barely three feet away. "Miss Rossiter?"
     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 step-e 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 sharp, brittle lift of her chin. Her pregnancy was the reason he'd been offered things he hadn't sought and probably didn't deserve. In exchange for the Andromeda, he was supposed to provide Ann Rossiter's bastard with a name.
 
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