Impending Love and Lies by Laura Freeman
Blake Ellsworth spotted the two mercenaries at the depot, searching the crowd, waiting for him to board the train so they could kill him. The Cassell brothers were stocky brutes armed with pistols and knives, eager to cut a man to shreds, slowly if time allowed. He’d escaped their clutches in Kentucky and Central Ohio, but like bloodhounds, they had dogged his trail. Confederate deserters turned opportunists, Buck and Clyde weren’t going to forfeit the generous reward for retrieving the money strapped around his waist. Or if greed was their master, they would keep it all. But they would have to wrestle the belt from his lifeless body before he would willingly surrender his gold.
The train was the fastest way north, but he’d have to find an alternate mode of transportation to Cleveland. The sign on the depot read Akron, Ohio. He was in abolitionists’ territory, the former home of John Brown, who had planted the seeds of war. Blake had followed the battle news religiously. After the defeat at Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln called for three-year enlistments.
Battle lines were being drawn in 1862 with both sides testing for strengths and weaknesses.
Blake adjusted the pouch tied around his waist. The gold was heavy, but he didn’t trust banks. Local bonds and currency could be counterfeit or not honored by other banks. His father had trusted a banker with his life savings only to have him empty all the customers’ accounts and head for Europe.
An honorable man, Loren Ellsworth had worked to pay off his debts, but his death more than a year ago had left Blake in charge of his father’s properties and bills.
Only twenty-three, Blake did his best to manage the family-owned hotels he had inherited. He had promised his father he would support his stepmother and spoiled stepsister. But his heart was elsewhere. Drawn by the beat of the drummer, Blake had wanted to enlist in the Union army, but his training at West Point had taught him duty and honor first. His own desires would have to wait.
In Southern territory, the Lucky Gambler hotel had been difficult to visit, but with victories at Memphis and Cumberland Gap earlier in the month, Blake had traveled to Tennessee to collect revenue from the neglected property.
Although The Lucky Gambler was no longer under enemy control, Blake jumped at the offer from J.P. Smith to buy the hotel. The payment in gold had made him wary, and his instincts proved correct. After Blake transferred the deed, a loyal servant warned him Smith had hired two men to attack him and steal the money once he was past the Union sentries.
The gold had belonged to the Confederacy and had been misplaced during the retreat. Both sides sought to recover the stolen coins, and the hotel was being watched by spies from the Union and Confederacy. Smith had been waiting for an inconspicuous carrier when Blake had arrived, served on a platter for his plan.
Sentries searched Blake’s bag but didn’t think to search the young gentleman dressed in a starched white shirt and dark wool suit. Beneath the frock coat and oversized vest, the money belt was carefully packed with cotton to silence any jingling of the coins.
Blake wasn’t going to return the stolen gold to the Confederacy or donate it to Union coffers. As payment for the Lucky Gambler, no one was going to take it, especially the two men at the depot. The money would purchase a replacement hotel in Yankee territory, a safe investment, if he wasn’t killed.
The train station was on the rise of a steep hillside sloping toward the center of town and its canal. Pulled by mules through a man-made ditch, the shallow boats were slow, but he’d be in Cleveland in two days. He’d buy Timothy Scroggs’ inn on the shore of Lake Erie with the gold. Scroggs wouldn’t ask why it was stamped with CSA. Gold was honored whether it belonged to the Union or Confederacy.
He walked west along the steep descent of Market Street. He’d been in Akron a couple summers ago with his father scouting properties, looking for investments, but nothing was familiar. The charred remains of former shops stood as reminders of how quickly fire could destroy wooden buildings. Large commercial structures, made from stone cut from nearby quarries and brick formed from the abundance of clay, offered rental space for shops and offices. Akron was benefiting from the war and bursting at its seams with goods to transport, whether by train or canal boat.
He reached Howard Street and followed the boats making their way through a series of closely-placed locks down the staircase of water to Lock Fifteen in front of Mustill Store. The pilot, who had guided the long, narrow boats through the stack of locks, handed the rudder control to the boat’s captain, collected his fee, and took another boat up the same locks.
Mustill Store was a two-story structure with a Meat Market sign on the far right of the roof line and Groceries and Provisions advertised in another sign along the front of the porch roof. Six square posts supported the roof. Double doors were flanked by twin windows that ran the height of the first floor. The store was well stocked with supplies and provisions like salt, coffee, and manufactured goods packaged for canal boat owners, the crew, and passengers.
After barely escaping the Cassell brothers the first time, he had replaced the clothes of a young gentleman with the garb of a common worker. A canal boat would provide the low profile he needed to avoid the two hired men. He could ask for help from the local sheriff, but he was a stranger, and the gold would attract unwanted questions. Instead, he’d slip away, quietly, and float to Cleveland. He purchased the local weekly paper, the
Summit County Beacon, for two cents and read about the fashions and market news. Printed on Wednesday, June 25, 1862, it was a day old.
“That’s Captain Michael Donovan.” The storekeeper pointed toward an older man as he strutted through the door. “This man is seeking passage, Captain.”
Michael removed his hat to reveal a full head of thick white hair. “I’m not takin’ passengers on this trip,” he said in a thick Irish brogue.
“I’ll double your rate,” Blake said.
Michael’s blue eyes widened. He extended his hand and gave a hearty handshake. “Welcome aboard, laddie.”
Blake waited as Michael collected a hatchet, rope, fishing line, coffee, and a jar of Schumacher’s oatmeal.
The clerk loaded the supplies into a wooden box, and Michael added a bottle of whiskey and a dozen peppermint sticks. He paid with paper currency and received postage stamps in change. Blake carried the box and followed Michael from the cool interior to the bright sunshine.
The Irish Rose was docked north of Lock Fifteen in front of the store. The canal boat consisted of three separate cabins, the roofs connected by a catwalk. The stable cabin was in the center where three mules were stored inside to replace the three tied in tandem to the towline. A tall, thin boy with red hair and blue eyes checked the harness of the three mules on the towpath, ready to tow the boat along the canal.
“Where’s the crew, Paddy?”
The boy pointed toward the boat. “Down below storing their gear.”
“This is Blake Ellsworth. He’s riding with us.”
“Welcome aboard,” Paddy said. “You’re our first passenger of the season.”
Blake nodded since his hands were full. “Paddy?”
“Short for Padrick,” he said. “We Irish love nicknames.”
“Put the box in the cargo hold.” Michael pointed to the open area between the three cabins filled with barrels, crates, and seed sacks. It was too early in the season for the rich harvest of corn, wheat, and other crops grown on the farms in the county, but cheese, leather, and metal products filled the hold.
Blake had worked on a boat for a few summers when he was Paddy’s age. Canal boats were standard size, no more than eighty feet long and fourteen feet wide, to fit through the locks. He secured the wooden box and stepped onto the gunwale running the perimeter of the boat. Above him at eye level was the deck, a single plank joining the three cabin roofs. A pair of shapely ankles below a short skirt floated along the catwalk, bare feet dancing along the narrow platform.
Blake scrambled up a series of footholds outside the cabin to reach the deck.
“We’re ready, Captain.”
Blake turned to the sensual melodic tone of the female voice. He had expected a weathered hag, worn out from long years of hard work. Instead a young woman pirouetted on the stern deck, her skirt flaring and falling with the motion. She wore no crinoline, and her corset wasn’t stiff and unyielding but emphasized the curves of her breasts and waist. The floral dress had long full sleeves with cuffs, and a bodice opened at the neck that hinted at the fullness of her feminine attributes. Her face was shielded by a wide straw bonnet tied under her chin with a green ribbon. The color contrasted with the shock of ginger curls at the end of two thick braids framing a face that stole his breath when the morning light lit her delicate features.
“Cole, darlin’, we have a passenger,” Michael said.
“Show him where to stow his bag.”
She tilted her head, and his gaze locked onto dancing blue-green eyes. His previous estimate of her beauty had been inadequate. Not quite angelic, her earthy beauty could send a man to heaven with a smile or hell if she spurned him. He couldn’t stop staring, studying every angle, curve, and lovely feature. “Who are you?”
What was his name? Blake shook his head to clear the spell he had fallen under. “Blake, Blake Ellsworth.”
She slid open the hatch in the stern of the boat and descended. She turned her head, her hat tilted to reveal a portion of her face. Her full lips revealed straight white teeth when she spoke. “Coming?”
Blake searched his surroundings. White clouds floated in the blue summer sky, a gentle breeze rustled through the tall grass along the bank of the canal, and songbirds chirped in the treetops in between. He wasn’t dreaming. She was real. He descended a ladder nailed to the wall and surveyed the small cabin. Two bunks were stacked on the far wall with storage beneath.
She opened a drawer and moved the folded clothing to the side. “You can place your belongings in here.”
Blake dropped the leather bag with a few personal items and clean clothes in the drawer. His trunk had been left on the train, and he would collect it in Cleveland. The bunks were narrow with thin feather-filled mattresses over straw bags and rope supports. “Is this your bed?”
“That’s Ethan’s bunk, but he won’t board until we reach Peninsula.” She turned to climb the ladder.
“Paddy has the top bunk.”
Blake sat on the thicker mattress of the large bed built against the stern wall. “Will we be sharing this bed?”
She turned slowly, her fingers clenched into fists, and her face an angry blush. “That’s the captain’s bunk, but since you’re a passenger, you can sleep there. Alone. I’ll be busy on deck.”
He’d insulted the canal brat. She couldn’t be an innocent. Too many men made it their purpose in life to seduce beautiful girls before they were aware of their power over ordinary men. He was terrified of the mysterious gender but eager to learn the secrets women possessed, especially this one. Blake had fumbled his first attempt at seduction and didn’t want her to leave without making amends. “The captain called you Cole. That can’t be your Christian name.”
A secretive smile formed on her lips. “Colleen. Miss Colleen to you.”
“How do you know the captain?”
“He’s my grandfather.”
An orphan. Was Paddy her brother? They had a family resemblance. Three beds in the stern were accounted for. “Where do you sleep?”
“In the bow cabin with Jess, Cass, and Jules.”
Three more crew members, or was one of them something more? She wore no ring. “One of them your husband?”
She laughed as if he’d made a joke. No twittering parlor maid laugh that set his nerves on edge. The sound was hearty and ignited a sensual response. Cole stepped on the bottom rung, revealing a hint of a petticoat beneath the worn and faded fabric of her gown.
“Do you have to leave?”
“I have work to do.”
Blake’s father had believed in hard work and a strong moral character. Employees and guests of the hotel were not romantic partners. Nothing was more embarrassing than a pregnant maid or a female guest who expected her bill to be dismissed because her
favors had been bestowed upon the owner. Older women trying to recapture their youth with brazen suggestions had never interested him, and the giggling girls with finishing school manners reminded him too much of his annoying stepsister.
Cole was different. She had captured his imagination. She was seductive with every confident movement, but her reaction to his brazen invitation to share the bed had been outrage. He couldn’t be the first to make a proposition to spare her a life of drudgery. “A beautiful woman like you shouldn’t have to work.”
Her hand remained on the rung, but she turned to face him. Her breasts rose with a tired sigh, straining the seams of her bodice. “Are you going to whisk me away to your castle, decorate me with jewels, and dress me in silk gowns? I’ve had my fill of romantic lies.”
Cole’s voice cracked in a husky tremor of pain, and her eyes glistened. “You’re missing a button from your coat, your sleeve needs mended, and your trousers have been patched. When I marry, and I said marry, it will be a man of wealth and prestige not a beggar who can’t afford the fare for the train.”
Blake stared as the fortune hunter escaped, her frayed hem swaying above her bare feet. She had high ambitions for a canal brat. She couldn’t write her name, but she could count the coins in a man’s purse. Beneath the disguise of his beggar’s garb, she might have seen the heavy money bag thickening his middle.
She had scoffed at his ability to clothe her in silk and decorate her lovely skin with jewels. Did he dare show her the gold in his pouch and buy her affection? Would she be impressed if he told her he owned the Dutchman Hotel, a favorite lodging for the rich elite heading to New York City? What would the wealthy patrons think of his bonny Irish brat?
The men would wish they were bedding her, and the women would be envious of her beauty. He would spoil her with gifts, and they would have a fine time, enjoying the sights, lavish dinners, and exotic entertainment. She would be none the worse from the experience and would gain a bit of refinement to tempt the next man.
He removed his coat and examined the missing button and torn sleeve. She couldn’t see the bruised ribs and shallow blade cut from the attack by the Cassell brothers he’d barely escaped the previous day. He had risked life and limb to keep his gold, but the sad smile of an Irish lass had tempted him to see what his money could buy besides a lakeside inn.
His father had taught him to respect women, even those who offered their bodies for coin, but Cole had vanquished any cautious approach. He was smitten, but he had blundered by insulting her. How did a man soothe the prickly emotions of a woman?
Blake put the coat on to hide the bulky bag and scrambled to the deck. He closed the trap door and surveyed the crew. Cole was giving orders to three younger girls. Although they each had different hair color, they had to be sisters. She called the tall slender blonde Jess, the brunette Cass, and the strawberry blonde Jules. Her bunk mates. No wonder she had laughed when he’d asked about a husband among the crew. The girls wore their hair in loose braids tied with ribbons beneath wide brimmed hats to protect their fair skin from the sun. Their dresses were faded and patched. What parents had created these beauties and condemned them to poverty and hard labor?
Another boat was ready to exit the lock and would pass them if the Irish Rose didn’t push off and head downstream.
Cole put her hands on each side of her narrow waist and studied him. “Have you decided to earn your fare?”
He’d paid her grandfather, but he wouldn’t mind showing off. Blake rubbed his hands together. “What needs done?”
Cole waltzed along the deck plank, and Blake followed at a cautious wobble. The single board had seemed wider as a boy. “Toss me the line!”
Paddy swung the towline in a high arc.
She snatched it from the air and attached the rope to a deadeye ring on the front cabin of the boat.
The other end of the rope was attached to the three mules where Jules waved a long switch in her hand. The pink ribbons tying her bonnet beneath her chin matched the gingham dress she wore. She was the only one wearing shoes, and they were boots instead of slippers. A practical choice considering the towpath was decorated with manure piles and buzzing flies.
Cole grabbed two eight-foot long wooden poles with metal tips and handed one to Blake. “Don’t let go of the pike and try not to fall in.” She reached toward the shore, stabbed the sharp stick into the ground, and shoved, moving the boat away from the edge. Blake followed her example, but as the boat left the shore, he pretended to lose his balance.
“Watch out!” She grabbed the back of his coat.
Blake stood with ease. “Did you think I was falling?”
Her stormy features displayed her displeasure at his faked distress. “You should be in a sideshow.” Cole handed him her pike. “Store these.”
He’d meant to amuse her, gain a smile, but he’d angered her instead. When he turned to apologize, a soft smile played on her pouting lips. She wasn’t as angry as she pretended. She had a sense of humor. A rare trait among the sophisticated young ladies in New York.
Cole pointed north. “Take us away, Jules.”
Her sister tapped the lead mule with the switch, and the towline grew taut, tugging the canal boat through the still water. Paddy whistled as he walked behind the young girl.
Cole was an enigma. She didn’t belong on a canal boat, yet she commanded the deck like a seasoned sailor. Blake scratched the short growth on his face, searching the fading streets of Akron for any sign of the Cassell brothers. He’d escaped them.