Albany, New York 1849
"But Vicky, we can be rich beyond our wildest dreams!"
Victoria Somerset shot a skeptical glance at her husband as she pulled loaves of bread from the oven. "Henry, how many times do I have to tell you? The stories are all exaggerated. I don't believe men are finding fortunes in the gold mines. And I don't want to travel all the way to California, just to say 'I told you so'."
"What if I wanted to go without you?" he replied, giving her a defiant look.
"You would go without me?" she replied, pausing in her work, flicking a lock of ebony hair out of her sapphire blue eyes. "You would leave me here, to run the bakery alone, while you go chasing after gold?" she asked, incredulous that he would even suggest such a thing.
"I would only be gone a few months," he said, continuing . "And when I got back, we wouldn't have to run the bakery. We wouldn't have to do anything. We could have a big house. In New York City...with servants. We could travel the world. We could do anything we want!" he cried.
She stared at her husband. The gleam in his brown eyes scared her. Ever since news of the gold rush in California had hit the newspapers in Albany, it was he could talk about. He had never before mentioned going without her, and from the look in his eye, it seemed as though he might actually do it. "Henry, can't we just stay here, both of us? I like Albany and I like our bakery. I know it's hard work, but it's starting to pay off and we're doing well enough that we can begin thinking about starting a family. I want what we have here, not what might very well not be waiting for us in California," she said desperately, trying to dissuade him.
"We would be millionaires," he whispered, as if he hadn't even heard her. Staring into the distance, he continued excitedly, "If I went by ship, over the Isthmus of Panama, I could be there in a month. I could head out to the gold fields right way and in less than a month, we'd have more money than we know what to do with!"
He was really starting to frighten her. He had never looked like this before. Would she be alright if he left, she wondered. She didn't love him, but she enjoyed his company and had grown accustomed to the security he provided, plus she was eagerly looking forward to the children they would have. If she let him go to San Francisco without her, she may never see him again. She made a daring decision, "Well, if you go, you're not going alone. I'm going with you." In the back of her mind, she was hoping that the idea of shutting down the bakery and closing the house for six months would be too daunting of a task and that he would rather stay than bother with it. He was to prove her wrong.
She stood next to Henry on the ship's deck and watched the Bay of San Francisco materialize out of the fog. She couldn't believe they had made it. Not only made it, she thought, survived it. The harrowing journey from the comfort and security of their home in Albany to this frightening new place. The ship was horrible, she had spent most of her time in the cramped space that was their cabin, too afraid of the rough crew and the other mostly male passengers. She almost laughed aloud at the absurdity of it; their cabin. Barely big enough to squeeze a set of bunk beds and a bureau into and they had been charged four hundred dollars each.
The first part of the journey down the east coast had been bad enough but when they reached the Isthmus of Panama, things had gone from bad to worse. The three day overland journey to Panama City had been terrifying. It was incredible they had escaped the myriad diseases awaiting them in the jungles and in the city: yellow fever, malaria, dysentery and the deadly cholera. They were also amazingly lucky to get a ship to San Francisco within a couple of days. In total, a trip that was promised to take only a month had taken nearly three.
But they were finally here, in this new place, this place of riches. Or so Henry believed. He has assured her that the eight hundred dollar fare was a mere pittance to how much he was going to make in the gold fields. Within a few months they would return to New York to live like royalty. He had kept on with stories of a large estate of their own filled with servants and every imaginable convenience and luxury. Sumptuous gardens filled with fountains and exotic flowers. She was still skeptical, but a small part of her was hoping that Henry was right.
She watched the crew as they loaded their trunks into their small boat that was then lowered down over the edge of the ship to the waters of the harbor below.
She stared out at the crowded harbor. She had never seen so many ships in one place before. "Why aren't we disembarking at a pier?" she asked one of the crew men. "Is this harbor always so busy?"
"Oh, the harbor ain't busy ma'am. Most of these ships are abandoned," the young man replied.
"Abandoned? What do you mean?" she asked, staring out at the virtual forest of masts.
"The crews arrive here and immediately take off for the mining fields, just leaving the ships here. The captains are unable to find enough crewmen to sail back to Panama, so the ships just sit," he answered, heaving one of her trunks into the row boat.
"You're not interested in the gold mines?" she asked him.
"Ah, I've already tried my luck out there. Rough going it is. I'd rather do this. With such a shortage of crew, I'm able to command a pretty good wage," he said with a smile, holding out his hand to help her into the boat.
Victoria clung to the sides of the small boat as it was lowered down over the side of the larger ship. She breathed a sigh of relief when it was rocking gently in the water. She glanced over at her husband. He was staring, transfixed, at the city beyond the harbor. He seemed like a different man to her. Of course, he was still her Henry, big and bear like, with unruly brown curly hair and brown eyes. As usual, he needed a shave, but it was the look in his eyes, that she didn't recognize. That hungry gleam.
She followed his stare, but quite frankly, couldn't see much. There was so much fog, that she could barely make out the buildings. As they threaded their way though the silent ships, spires and buildings began to emerge from the gray.
She was watching the town so intently, that she was startled when their small boat ran aground. She stared down and was surprised to see that they were stuck in mud. In fact, the mud spread for a couple hundred more feet in front of them. Crude wooden piers had been built over the mud flats and the crewmen in their boat, began unloading their trunks onto the one next to them.
A couple of boys ran out onto the pier and picked up their trunks and started carrying them toward the shore. Victoria let Henry deal with them as he always took charge in these situations. When they had cleared the mud flats, she accepted the offer of his hand into a carriage and was looking forward to getting a good look at the town they had just arrived in. She had to admit that, now that they were on dry land, it was a bit exciting, this adventure they were embarking on. Her excitement quickly turned to shock as they rode through town. She had never seen so many brothels and gambling houses in her life.
"Henry, you cannot leave me here in this town," she hissed, grabbing her husband's arm.
Henry, however, seemed oblivious to the immorality she was witnessing. "Oh, you'll be fine," he said absentmindedly.
"Henry," she said more insistently. "How can you say that? Are you not looking out the windows?" she cried.
"Of course, it's a little rough..."
"A little rough? I've seen eight brothels and I don't know how many gambling halls! I cannot stay here!" she said, on the verge of tears.
"I'll set you up in a nice hotel and you won't even have to go outside. And don't worry, I'll be back before you know it," he said, patting her hand.
"You're going to leave me cooped up in a hotel for goodness knows how long, while you go merrily traipsing off to the gold fields?" she cried, aghast that he was being so insensitive.
"You'll be fine, I won't be gone that long. A couple of weeks at most," he said, finally noticing her distress.
"Are you sure? Only a couple of weeks?" she asked, thinking that wouldn't be so bad.
"Yes, I promise. The gold is just sitting on the ground, waiting to be picked up!" he said excitedly.
Victoria watched the hungry gleam return to his eyes and feared that it would be longer than a couple of weeks. "And what if it's not? A crew member I spoke with said that it's rough work out there. He's already tried his luck and prefers working on the ship to the gold fields."
"Well, maybe it's not quite so easy as picking it up off the ground. But I'm not against a little hard work. Believe me, my dear, I'll strike it rich in no time."
"But what if you don't? How long will you stay out there?" she asked again.
"What do you mean? I will find gold, Victoria, I will," he replied, his eyes shining bright.
Henry had directed the carriage to the best hotel in town. "Henry, we can't afford this!" Victoria whispered to him, as she stared up at the opulent exterior.
"Get used to it, Vicky. We'll be living like this for the rest of our lives," he laughed as he helped her from the carriage.
"Maybe I should stay somewhere else until you come back," she said warily, as the hotel's porters began removing their trunks from the carriage.
"Nonsense, this is where you belong," he said confidently. "And I won't hear another word about it." Holding his head high he guided her into the luxurious lobby.
He settled her onto a velvet covered settee and continued on to the front desk to arrange for their room. Victoria looked nervously about the spacious lobby, twisting her hands. I'll just move to another hotel as soon as he's gone, she thought. She removed her hat and looked around the lobby again. Although, it is so beautiful here, and Henry promises to be back within a couple of weeks, so maybe I could stay here, she thought. If it takes him longer than that, then I'll move to another place.
She felt someone's eyes on her and turned. A man standing at the end of the long front counter was staring at her. He was very handsome and had the greenest eyes she had ever seen. He raised his hand and swept thick blond hair back from his face. His full lips broke into a smile as she continued to stare at him. Blushing, she quickly averted her gaze and looked for Henry. He was at the other end of the front counter talking with the clerk. She busied herself with removing her gloves and looking around the lobby again. She snuck a glance at the blond man to find he was still watching her with a small smile teasing at his lips. She quickly looked away and pretending to check her hair, she patted it with her left hand, plainly displaying her wedding ring.
She fiddled with her gloves again before daring to look at the blond stranger again. He touched his hand to his brow while executing a discrete bow to her, acknowledging her message.
At that point, another man approached him, taking his attention away from Victoria. She took this chance to look more closely at him. She saw that his clothes were made of expensive cloth and well cut to his tall, strong build. She was again aware of how very handsome he was. She glanced down the counter at Henry and was struck by how different he was from this intriguing man.
Turning her attention back to him, she noticed that he had what seemed to be a naturally commanding and self assured presence. It made her wonder what his place was in this strange and frightening town.
She saw the desk clerk approach him, with Henry following. She watched them being introduced and Henry speaking a few words while gesturing towards her. The blond man was again gazing at her and she had to tear her eyes away from his and focus on her husband. She felt a warmth creep into her cheeks as she watched them approach.
"Victoria, my dear, I apologize for taking so long. The clerk was advising me on where to buy the supplies I will need for my trek to the gold mines. Please forgive me."
Victoria stared at her husband, trying to hide her astonishment. He had never spoken so eloquently before nor been so solicitous. He must be trying to make a good impression. This man must be important she thought.
Continuing, he said, "May I introduce Mr. Nicholas Andrews, the owner of this hotel."
She was right, to Henry this man was important.
"Mr. Andrews, this is Victoria Somerset, my wife."
Victoria again had to hide her surprise, this time due the pride in Henry's voice. He had never tried to show her off before.
With his cool green eyes locked on hers, Nicholas bowed slightly. In a warm, deep and slightly accented voice he said, "A pleasure to meet you Mrs. Somerset."
Was it her imagination or did he place an extra emphasis on "Mrs." she wondered as Henry continued, "I was telling Mr. Andrews about how anxious you are to be left in town alone and asked if he wouldn't mind giving you a bit more attention, making sure that you're alright."
"Why Henry, I'm sure Mr. Andrews is far to busy to trouble himself with me," she protested.
Once again, snaring her eyes with his, Nicholas replied, "I assure you, it's no trouble at all. Most of my guests are women waiting for their husbands to return from the gold fields, so it is quite a common request."
"There you see? You'll be just fine, my dear," Henry declared happily. "And as Mr. Andrews just said, the hotel is full of women just like you, so you won't be lonely. I'll be back before you know it."
Still staring into Nicholas' eyes, she replied, "Thank you, it's very kind of you to show such concern."
"Not at all, it will be my pleasure," he said smoothly. "Now I'm sure you'd like to get settled into your rooms." He summoned over a porter to look after their bags and watched as they made their way to the stairs. He shook his head sadly, knowing she'll be waiting a long time for him to come back, if he comes back at all.
Victoria stood in the doorway of their suite and stared at the luxurious surroundings. "Henry, can we afford this?" she asked in awe.
Henry wrapped his arms around his wife, "Of course. In a couple of weeks we'll be rich. This place will be a mere drop in the bucket."
Alarmed, she questioned, "But do we have the money now? What if something happens and you don't find gold?"
"That's not going to happen," he said laughing. Seeing the distress shining in Victoria's deep blue eyes, he soothed, "Yes, we have the money for now and some left over for you in case you need to buy anything."
Still not sure, she asked, "How long can we afford to stay here?"
"I've paid for two weeks and there's enough for another week after that, just in case." Taking her chin in his hand and looking into her eyes, he said playfully, "I know how you tend to worry, so I made sure there would be a little extra."
She still wasn't sure, but Henry was, so she smiled and told herself that he was right and everything would be fine.
Shrugging into his coat, he said, "Why don't you unpack, while I go out and get the supplies I'll be needing."
"Oh Henry, please be careful! It seems so dangerous out there!" she pleaded.
Pushing his hat onto his head, he said with a smile, "Don't worry, I'm a big boy. But I will be careful." He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and headed out the door.
She unpacked their belongings, still uneasy in the fine rooms he had rented. After an hour, she wandered down to the lobby to wait for him.
Earlier she had noticed some paintings on the wall of the lobby and was examining one when she was startled by a voice behind her. "Did you find your rooms suitable, Mrs. Somerset?"
She turned to find Nicholas looking down at her. Meeting his gaze, she found herself suddenly breathless. He hadn't had that look in his eye earlier, when Henry was here, she thought to herself. Realizing he had asked her something, but that she couldn't remember what it was, she blushed while asking, "I'm sorry what did you say?"
He took a step closer and asked softly, "I was inquiring to your rooms. Are they suitable?"
She took a deep breath to steady herself before replying, "They are more than suitable. They're very beautiful."
"A beautiful woman like you belongs in beautiful surroundings," he replied in the same soft tone.
The look in his eyes along with the silky smooth voice in which he had made his compliment sent a warm tingling through her limbs. Unsettled by the feelings she said quietly, "Please, Mr. Andrews, I'm a married woman, you shouldn't say such things."
"Even if they're true?" he responded, stepping even closer to her.
Victoria's breath caught in her throat and she didn't quite know what to say. No man had ever spoken to her like this or made her feel this way before. She stared into his eyes, momentarily lost in the warm green depths. Tearing her eyes from his, she turned back to the painting she had been admiring. Clearing her throat, she said in an unsteady voice, "You have some wonderful paintings. Where did you acquire them?"
He took so long to respond, she thought that perhaps he had left. When he finally did speak he had resumed his normal tone and answered, "I've been collecting them for a number of years. They're all American artists."
Looking closer at a landscape, she murmured, "Some of them are most interesting."
"This one is by Asher B. Durand. The incredibly large trees and the realism of his paintings are a common theme for him." He guided her about the lobby naming the artists and pointing out interesting details in the various pieces.
Henry entered the hotel lobby and smiled to see his wife and Nicholas enjoying the collection of artwork. It assured him that Victoria was going to be just fine while he was away.
"Well, I see you found someone who shares your interest in art," he said as he approached them.
Turning to her husband, she nervously replied, "Yes, Mr. Andrews has been telling me about the artists. I had no idea American artists were so accomplished." To her dismay a guilty blush rose in her cheeks.
Henry didn't seem to notice and bent to place a kiss on her pink cheek.
Noticing that he wasn't carrying any bags or parcels, she asked, "Were you not able to find any of the supplies you need?"
"Oh yes, I got everything I need. It's all stowed, ready for my departure tomorrow morning."
Victoria stared at him with wide eyes. "Tomorrow morning? You're leaving so quickly? But we just got here today!"
"No time to waste!" he said cheerfully. Seeing the worried look in her eyes, he continued, "Don't worry Vicky. I'll only be gone a couple of weeks and Mr. Andrews here has promised to take care of you. Please believe me, you'll be fine."
She gave him a nervous smile, not wanting him to worry about her while he was gone.
"I can introduce you to the other ladies in the hotel to keep you company, if you like," Nicholas added. "And I would like to invite you both to dinner tonight at my home."
"Why thank you Mr. Andrews, that's very kind of you. Doesn't that sound nice Vicky?" Henry enthused.
"Yes, thank you Mr. Andrews. It sounds lovely," she replied quietly, again blushing to her great annoyance.
"It will be my pleasure," Nicholas replied. "Shall we say seven o'clock?"
He indicated that he would send a carriage for them and then left them to continue settling into their suite. As they headed to the stairs, Victoria glanced back over her shoulder to find Nicholas watching her. He gave her a small smile before she turned away.
Back in their room, she said to her husband, "I wish we weren't going to Mr. Andrews' for dinner tonight." She was uneasy about the way he looked at her and spoke to her and made her feel, and was uncomfortable with the idea of visiting him in his home.