Authors: Nerys Leigh
Escape to the West
No One’s Bride
ESCAPE TO THE WEST BOOK 1: NO ONE’S BRIDE
Copyright: Nerys Leigh
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“But that money is rightfully mine!”
Franklin Courtney leaned back into the green leather upholstery of his chair, one side of his thin lips twisting up. “Is it? And you have that in writing, do you?”
Realisation opened a void in Amy’s gut. How could she have been so naive? “There was a contract.”
“Really? And where is this alleged contract now?”
“I... you and Mrs Courtney said you would keep it safe for me.” Even as she said the words, she knew they were futile.
Mr Courtney’s mouth curled further. “Funny, I don’t recall that. In fact, I don’t recall a contract at all.”
A heated belt of anger coiled around Amy’s chest. He couldn’t do this to her, not now, when she was so close. “You said I would be paid once I reached twenty-one. I trusted you. I was only fourteen.”
“And that was seven years ago,” he said. “You were just a child. I wouldn’t expect you to remember the events surrounding your employment accurately. My felicitations on your birthday, by the way.”
“You can’t do this! I’ll...”
“You’ll what? Go to the authorities? With what proof?” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the polished surface of the expansive mahogany desk in front of him. “I have many friends in the higher echelons of the police, not to mention the judiciary. Who do you think they’ll believe? A well-respected member of New York’s highest society?” His eyes travelled down her body, his smile becoming a sneer. “Or a kitchen maid?”
She shook her head slowly, hardly believing what was happening. How could he steal her dreams from her without the slightest hint of remorse?
“However,” he continued, “I am not unsympathetic to your plight.”
He pushed back from the desk and sauntered around the huge piece of furniture. Amy took a step back, a lifetime of having to watch over her shoulder making her wary.
“There is no money for you,” he said. “Your wages covered your bed and board, nothing more. But I’m sure we could come to an arrangement so that when you do eventually leave my employ you won’t be left completely destitute.”
She backed away as he advanced, looking beyond him to the door he’d somehow cut her off from. How could she have been so stupid, coming to him alone? But she’d been so eager to collect the seven years of wages she was owed. So eager to start her life.
Her back hit the wall beside one of the tall bookcases in the office.
Courtney continued his advance. “As you are aware, my wife spends much of her time on long visits away from home. I don’t begrudge her the opportunity to spend time with her family and friends, but a man has certain... needs that must be fulfilled.”
The staff of Staveley House were well aware of Courtney’s reputation. Amy had no doubt his “needs” were being met regularly in any number of the city’s houses of ill repute. Not that it had stopped him from ogling her at every opportunity.
Fear skittered up her spine. Since she was sixteen she’d known better than to allow herself to be caught alone with Mr Courtney. Why did she come here?
He was only three feet away now. “My proposition is that you come to my bed every day for two years. After that, you may leave with a generous donation towards your future.” He smirked, clearly anticipating her agreement.
Stunned at his brazenness, Amy glared at him, fury fuelling her words. “I am not one of your whores. I will never let you touch me.”
The smirk melted from his face, replaced by anger. “Foolish girl. Perhaps you will change your priorities when you don’t think yourself so pure.”
He lunged forward, his hands grasping Amy’s arms. Pinned into the corner, she struggled to push him back. Despite being more than twice her age and rotund from lack of exercise, his strength still outclassed hers.
Help me, Lord!
She turned her head away as the alcoholic fumes of his breath puffed around her face.
“Don’t struggle, my dear,” he rasped, his hands tugging at her skirts. “You might even enjoy this. I know I will.”
“No,” she gasped, her voice barely audible as she frantically strained against his bulk. “Let me go!”
A knock sounded on the door.
Courtney clamped one hand over Amy’s mouth and shoved her back, his bulbous gut pinning her in place, and barked, “
“Sir, Mrs Courtney has arrived home,” Mr Rand replied from outside the closed door.
Courtney’s jaw clenched, a vein throbbing in his temple. “I’ll be right there.”
“Yes, Sir.” The butler’s footsteps receded along the wooden floor of the hallway outside Courtney’s office.
He leaned forward until his nose was almost touching Amy’s. “No one will believe you if you say anything about this.”
He released her and she ran for the door, pulling it open and fleeing along the hallway. She didn’t stop running until she reached the bedroom she shared with three other women in the servant’s quarters. No one else was there and she threw herself onto her narrow bed, burying her face into the thin pillow and sobbing.
How could this happen? This morning she’d woken up filled with joy that her hopes and dreams were about to be realised. How could everything have gone so badly wrong?
“Amy? Amy, what is it?”
The mattress dipped and hands touched Amy’s shoulders. Amy sat up and collapsed into her friend’s embrace.
“What happened?” Katherine said, rocking her slowly.
Between sobs, Amy told her about the meeting with Courtney.
“That... that... that...” Katherine sputtered. “I can’t even think of a word bad enough for him!”
“What am I going to do, Kate?” Amy wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. “You’ll be married in two months and gone to live with Edward and I’ll still be here with him. I have to get away.”
Katherine dug into her pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to her. She always was more organised than Amy. “You can come and live with us.”
Amy dabbed at her eyes. “It’s kind of you to offer, but Edward’s home is barely big enough for the two of you. Marrying him is your dream and I won’t spoil it for you.”
“Well, isn’t there anyone you would want to marry? You know how happy I am with Edward. I know you could be just as happy if you found the right man.”
Amy knew Katherine meant well and that she was truly happy, but Amy knew the devastation that came when everything you loved was lost. Love would never blind her. “I’m not going to marry. I won’t be dependent on any man. The only person I will ever rely on is myself. Too many things can go wrong.”
“You can rely on me,” Katherine said softly.
“Oh, Kate, you know that’s not what I meant. I know you would never let me down.”
Katherine took her hand and squeezed it. “God will help you. He’ll provide a way out, I know He will. And in the meantime, none of us will leave you alone, I promise. Mr Courtney will never get the chance to hurt you. We stick together, us kitchen girls.”
Amy managed a small smile. “I know.”
She reached beneath her pillow and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, its edges worn from years of handling. She unfolded it to reveal a page from a magazine with a photo of a building eight storeys tall that took up a whole block, with white painted walls, flags fluttering on the roof, and so many windows she couldn’t even imagine how many rooms were inside.
“I have to go here,” she said, her determination stronger than ever. “Whatever it takes, I have to get to San Francisco somehow.”
Three months later.
Amy peered through the train window as it chugged into the station, staring past the dust and grime that had accumulated during the long journey.
Around her, chattering voices grew excited.
“Can you see them?”
“There are so many people, how do we know...”
“Over there! That must be them!”
“Oohhhh, they’re all so handsome. I can’t even decide which I want to be mine.”
A series of sighs followed, but Amy was barely listening. She didn’t even glance in the direction of the group of men her companions were so fascinated by. Instead, she scanned the station, first finding the ticket office and the exit and then identifying possible escape routes and places to hide.
Going on the amount of time the train had spent at previous stations, she wouldn’t have much time. But if she missed her window of opportunity there was always the backup plan, such as it was.
It wasn’t a very big town, Green Hill Creek. Population six hundred and thirty-four, according to Mrs Wright at the Western Sunset Marriage Service. About to increase to six hundred and thirty-nine.
Six hundred and thirty-eight, Amy corrected herself. She wouldn’t be staying.
She tightened her grip on her small carpet bag as the train slowly came to a halt. Those around her got to their feet and men, women and children began filing down the aisle between the seats. From previous stops when she’d done the same, Amy knew they weren’t all getting off here. On a long journey any opportunity to stretch one’s legs in the fresh air, or as fresh as it got around the steam train, was welcome.
Her companions rose, smoothing their clothing and hair, asking each other how they looked.
“Amy? Aren’t you coming?”
She moved her gaze from the window to look up at Sara. The strawberry blonde young woman was smiling down at her. Sara was two years older than Amy and during their week long journey from New York they had struck up a friendship that made Amy sorry she wouldn’t be staying. She hoped the man Sara had come for treated her as well as she deserved.
“I’ll be right there,” Amy said. “You go on.”
“You don’t have to be nervous,” Sara said, sitting down next to her. “They look like fine men. I’m sure we’ll all be very happy here. Are you sure you don’t want to borrow one of my dresses? We could find somewhere for you to change before we get off. It’s not too late.”
Amy smiled and shook her head. “No, I’m fine, thank you. But you’re very kind. I hope you’ll be happy here.”
“We’ll both be happy,” Sara said, “you’ll see.” She took Amy’s hand and stood. “Come on, let’s go and meet our husbands.” She laughed. “Doesn’t that sound strange?”
Amy followed her to the door, swallowing the lump in her throat. She desperately wished she could say goodbye, but she couldn’t risk it. As soon as she was off the train she would sneak away, buy another ticket, and find somewhere to hide until the train left again. It was the only thing she could do.
Outside, she was relieved to see many of the passengers still milling around the station. Slipping away into the crowd should be easy. She pulled her hat onto her head and took a step towards the ticket office.
Sara grasped her hand. “Oh Amy, I’m a little nervous myself now.” She pulled Amy after their three other travelling companions, in the direction of a group of men standing a little way back from the train. “If you feel me starting to swoon, pinch me hard. The last thing I want is Daniel thinking I’m a feeble woman who isn’t able to cope with life in the west.”
Panicked, Amy glanced over her shoulder towards the ticket office as Sara tugged her along. She had to get away.
“Ladies, welcome to Green Hill Creek.”
A man with a round belly and greying hair was smiling at the little cluster of women Amy was now trying to hide behind. A plump, kind looking lady was at his side. Beyond them stood a group of four young men looking more nervous than if they’d been caught in the middle of a stampede of bison. Or whatever it was they had out here. A fifth, older man stood a little off to one side.
Amy tugged her wide-brimmed hat lower, glad she was behind everyone else. She focused on the man who had spoken and the woman beside him, purposely not looking at the young men. The last thing she wanted was to see him. If she saw the man she was doing such a terrible thing to, she might lose her nerve.
“I’m Pastor Simon Jones,” the man said, “and this is my wife, Irene.”
The woman next to him grinned. “We’re so thrilled to welcome you all. I’m sure you will be happy in our little town.”
“That we are,” Pastor Jones said, matching her smile. “Now, I’m sure you are all tired from your journey, so I’ll make this quick. I will read out each of your names in turn and your intended will introduce himself, then we’ll all go to the church and perform the ceremonies. Don’t worry, no long sermons.” He grinned and his audience laughed. “And then you can all go to your new homes and get settled in.”
Please Lord, don’t let me be first
, Amy prayed, glancing back at the ticket office again. She subtly tried to extricate her hand from Sara’s, but her grip was like iron.
“All right,” the pastor said, looking at a piece of paper in his hand. “First, Elizabeth Cotton.”
Lizzy bounced forward, her curly dark hair doing its best to escape from the ribbons holding her topknot in place. During their long journey, Lizzy had always been the one who wanted to see and do everything, her boundless enthusiasm infectious. Amy hoped her new husband loved her for it.
A tall man with short brown hair and a neatly trimmed moustache stepped forward.
“Miss Cotton,” Pastor Jones said, “may I introduce Richard Shand.”
Richard held out his hand. “Ma’am.”
Lizzy squealed and launched herself at the shocked man, throwing her arms around his neck and almost knocking him over. There were scattered gasps around the group. Mrs Jones put one hand to her mouth, chuckling behind it.
Regaining his balance, Richard held his hands out without touching the woman wrapped around him, looking uncertain what to do.
Lizzy let go and smiled up at him. “I’m so pleased to meet you, Richard. You’re very handsome.”
He appeared slightly stunned as he looked down at his enthused bride. “I’m pleased to meet you too, Ma’am. And thank you.”
She giggled and slipped her arm through his as they stepped back.
“He’s going to have his hands full,” Sara muttered to Amy.
Amy couldn’t help but smile. “He certainly is.”
“Well, um, yes,” the pastor said, rallying. “So far so good.” He looked at his piece of paper again. “Louisa Wood?”
Louisa stepped forward, pushing a non-existent stray strand of auburn hair under her bonnet with a white lace gloved hand.
“Louisa, this is Peter Johnson.”
The older man stepped forward, pulling his hat off to reveal a mop of greying mid-brown hair. Despite his age, which Amy would have judged at late forties, he had a large, muscular build with exceptionally broad shoulders. “Miss Wood, I’m Jesse’s father and I’ll be taking you to meet him, if that’s all right.”
“Of course,” Louisa said, her impeccable manners shining through her confusion. “I do hope he’s not unwell.”
“Oh no, Miss. He’ll explain when we get there.”
She smiled and nodded, moving to stand beside Mr. Johnson as he stepped back.
, Amy thought.
Pastor Jones consulted his paper again. “Sara Worthing?”
Sara gasped and squeezed Amy’s hand.
“Shall I pinch you now?” Amy whispered.
Stifling a laugh, Sara let go of Amy’s hand and walked forward.
Amy moved back a little, but didn’t leave despite the chance to escape. She badly wanted to see who Sara’s future husband was.
“Miss Worthing,” Pastor Jones said, “meet Daniel Raine.”
A very handsome, dark haired man stepped forward. “I’m very pleased to finally meet you, Sara,” he said in a deep, smooth voice, smiling and holding out his hand.
Amy watched Sara practically melt onto the platform. She gazed up at her husband to be, her mouth opening and then closing again. Finally, she took his hand.
“Hi,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper.
Daniel placed her arm around his and led her back into place with the others. Sara’s eyes shone as they smiled at each other.
Amy allowed herself a moment to feel happy for her friend. Sara was obviously delighted and Daniel looked like a good man. Saying a silent prayer for their happiness, she took another step back, glancing at the ticket office. She heard the pastor say Josephine Carter’s name, introducing her to a Gabriel Silversmith, but she didn’t wait to see what happened. Stepping behind a family gathered nearby, she looked for a way to sneak off without being seen.
“And finally, Amy Watts.”
, she told herself.
Just go. Don’t look back
“Amy?” Sara called.
The area around her was emptying. She had to go now, while she still had the chance.
She heard confused voices. The family she was hiding behind began to move.
She turned to flee, not looking where she was going, and collided with an arm clad in a black jacket sleeve. She looked up. The arm was attached to a man dressed in a black suit who was staring behind her. He glanced down at Amy, a line forming between his close set eyes and his lips pursing beneath his thin moustache.
“Excuse me,” she muttered, stepping back.
“Amy, there you are!” she heard Sara call.
Screaming at herself not to, she slowly turned towards the group of people she was trying to escape.
Beside Pastor Jones, a young man stood looking around him, twisting his hat nervously in his hands. He was tall and wore a grey suit and shiny black shoes, unlike the other men who were all dressed in plaid shirts and wool trousers and boots. His clean-shaven face was handsome, framed by gently curling dark brown hair down to his collar. He was the complete opposite of what she’d imagined. He looked kind. And utterly terrified.
Guilt pierced Amy’s soul. She couldn’t do this, not to him, not to anyone. It was a despicable thing to do to another human being. She wished, not for the first time, that her heart was harder.
Cursing herself for looking when she knew she should have run, she threw one last, longing glance at the ticket office and then walked towards the little crowd of people. She would just talk to him, explain, come to an arrangement.
It would work out somehow. She would think of something. She’d come this far, she’d escaped. She could do it again.
Reaching Pastor Jones and the young man, she pushed her hat from her head and let it hang behind her on its thong.
The pastor let out a sigh of relief. “There you are,” he said, smiling. “Amy Watts, may I present Adam Emerson.”
Adam stared at her with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, his gaze travelling from her sandy blonde hair caught up in a loose braid, down past her beige shirt and brown linen jacket, to her brown trousers and brown leather shoes. Amy swallowed, suddenly feeling self-conscious. She’d dressed for the possibility of having to ride, not meeting someone she was supposed to marry. She glanced at the other women with their fancy dresses and ribbons in their hair, thinking how strange she must look. And how much of a disappointment she must be to the man who thought he was meeting his wife today.
Except, she hadn’t intended to meet him at all. She should have been buying a ticket for the remainder of the journey to San Francisco and getting back on the train by now. Or, failing that, finding the nearest livery to buy a horse to ride there.
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and held out her hand. At least this way, when she explained how she wasn’t going to marry him, he might at least be a little relieved.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr Emerson,” she said.
He looked back at her face, a bemused expression lingering on his features. “Uh, yes,” he said. He took her hand and shook it. “Pleasure to meet you too, Miss Watts.” He smiled slightly.
“Well,” Pastor Jones said, “now we’re all sorted out, let’s get the luggage and head to the church.”
“Can I carry your bag?” Adam said as they all headed for the far end of the train.
Amy looked down at her shabby carpet bag. “Oh no, thank you.” While she was almost certain he wouldn’t run off with it, she felt safer with it in her hands. It held everything she owned.
He nodded and looked at the ground awkwardly. Amy felt instantly sorry for him. How on earth was she going to do this?
The baggage car was being unloaded when they reached it. Amy watched Sara smile up at Daniel. He leaned down to say something to her and she laughed and tightened her hold on his arm. Amy glanced at Adam beside her. He had replaced his hat and was moving stiffly, his hands stuffed in his pockets. She sighed and shifted her grip on her bag.