Port Hastings, Washington
March 7, 1891
She appeared out of a driving rain, a spirit of the storm, clutching the skirts of her billowing white wedding dress in her hands and running for all she was worth. A circlet of bedraggled flowers graced her dark hair, which hung in sodden ropes to her waist. Her gown was most definitely ruined, and her dainty slippers were muddy and wet. Quinn Rafferty stood fascinated on the platform of his private railroad car, heedless of the rain and the keening of the train whistle that signaled imminent departure. The nymph had gained the tracks now and was charging toward him.
Quite a lot of her trim but womanly bosom was visible from Quinn's vantage point, and he was charmed. When the train lurched into motion and began to clatter and clank he saw the bride set her beautiful jaw and burst into even greater speed.
"Damn you, h-help me!" she gasped, holding up one hand.
Quinn was stunned to realize that she'd actually caught up to the train. Like a man moving in a dream he reached down, gained a hold on her, and hauled her aboard.
Her small, nubile body slammed against Quinn's, and although the impact was slight, for a moment he was as breathless as though he'd been buried alive in a high-country snowslide.
The sprite was spitting mad and panting from her flight and her fury. Her azure eyes snapped. Quinn recovered himself enough to grin and tip the brim of his hat with insolent good manners. He allowed his gaze to slide down over her, and again he had that sensation of being crushed beneath some invisible, elemental substance.
"This is so sudden," he quipped, to hide his distress at being so violently affected by this little snippet of a girl in a muddy wedding dress and a crown of drooping petunias.
She was looking back on the town of Port Hastings now, a certain dismay in her round eyes. A flock of disgruntled wedding guests had gathered at the tracks, peering after her through the drizzle, shouting and waving their arms.
"Forgive me," she whispered. And then she lifted delicate, gloved fingers to her lips and blew a kiss to the throng.
Three men towered in the forefront of the crowd. The one wearing a clerical collar lifted his hand in farewell and smiled sadly, but the other two looked as though they could uproot railroad spikes with their teeth and chew them like peppermint sticks.
Quinn wondered which one was the spurned groom. While he'd never been afraid of any man -- save his own father -- he was glad he didn't have to give an accounting of this episode to either of those two. And that very relief nettled his pride.
"Shall we?" he asked with biting politeness, extending an arm.
The lady took the offered arm, full of disdainful dignity, and allowed Quinn to escort her into the car.
She looked around her, clearly unimpressed with the luxury Quinn had worked all his life to acquire, and plopped her sodden bustle down on a velvet-upholstered bench. She was peeling off her spoiled slippers while Quinn went to the liquor cabinet and poured healthy doses of brandy for himself and the runaway bride.
"What's your name?" he demanded, fairly shoving a crystal snifter into her hand.
She accepted it without the maidenly reluctance Quinn had anticipated, her incredible azure eyes fixed for the fraction of a moment on something above and beyond his right shoulder. "Pullman," she said, after that brief and patently disturbing hesitation. "Melissa Pullman."
He took a long draught of his own brandy before sitting down in a nearby chair and ran one hand through his light brown hair. "Well?" he prompted when, after several long sips from her glass, Miss Pullman had not volunteered her story.
"Well, what?" she countered testily.
Quinn sighed, turning his snifter between his palms. "I'd like an explanation," he responded tautly. "I think you owe me that."
She sighed, and her straight little shoulders stooped just a bit as she pondered the amber depths of her brandy. "I suppose I do," she conceded, and Quinn found himself feeling sorry for her.
The sentiment was of short duration.
"I'm not sure I'm going to tell you anything, though," she added. She eyed him in an appraising fashion. "You are a man, after all."
"Thank you very much."
"Not at all," came the immediate retort. "It wasn't a compliment. And your name, sir?"
"Rafferty," her host allowed, annoyed. "Quinn Rafferty." Even though he was indisputably the best poker player in four counties, Quinn found that he couldn't keep a straight face. What he was feeling was more than mere idle curiosity; it was a driving, vital need to know. "Which one of those three giants was supposed to be your husband?"
A smile curved her lips, and Quinn was struck with a piercing awareness of her loveliness. God in heaven, even in that dirty, water-spotted wedding dress, with her hair dripping and her face wet with rain and, Quinn suspected, tears, she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. "None. They were my brothers."
Quinn searched his memory for a trio of Pullman brothers based in Port Hastings and came up dry. "And the groom?"
"I doubt that Ajax would stoop to running after me." She made the admission with a small sigh. "He's practically royalty, you know. His family goes back to the time of William the Conqueror."
Quinn shrugged, irritated by that kind of pretension. "We all go back to Adam and Eve, don't we?"
To his surprise, she smiled. "You're right, Mr. Rafferty. You're absolutely right." She shoved the snifter at him. "Might I have more brandy, please?"
Quinn was about to refuse -- it was powerful stuff, that brew -- when he knew a certain stab of sympathy. The poor little sprite had run out of a church, through a pounding rainstorm, and been wrenched aboard a railroad car by a complete stranger. Despite the cocky act she was putting on, Quinn was convinced that Melissa Pullman was nervous and afraid.
He rose and refilled her snifter, and when he handed it back she took a great gulp. After a few more such swallows she seemed more receptive to sensible conversation.
"Why did you leave Ajax at the altar?" Quinn asked kindly.
Melissa smoothed her skirts, ignoring their hopeless condition, and avoided Quinn's eyes. She bit down hard on her lower lip for a moment, then tossed back the last of her brandy. "I didn't love him," she stated shakily, and in a hoarse voice, after a very long time.
Quinn had his doubts as to her sincerity. "Wouldn't it have been simpler to say so?" he prompted in a gentle tone.
"I couldn't have faced him," she said.
"Then why didn't you just tell your brothers how you felt? Surely they would have understood."
Melissa hiccuped and set her snifter aside on a table that, like all the other furniture in the car, was bolted to the floor.
She shook her head. "As far as they're concerned, I'm a spinster," she confided. "I'm sure they thought Ajax was my last chance."
Moments before Quinn had been glad not to have to deal with the Pullman brothers. Now he longed to confront them. "Bull-balderdash!" he muttered. "How could you be an old maid? You're on the sunny side of twenty or I'm a donkey's first cousin!"
She gave a pealing, slightly drunken giggle and gingerly removed her halo of flowers. "I'm twenty-two, and your family heritage would explain your stubbornness, wouldn't it?"
Quinn knew that he should have been insulted -- in essence, she'd just called him a jackass -- but the truth was that Melissa's presence filled him with a peculiar, suspenseful kind of joy. "How do you know I'm stubborn?" he demanded to know.
Melissa yawned, delicately covering her mouth with one hand. "It's written in every line of you," she answered. And then she toppled unceremoniously to one side and closed her eyes with a sigh that wrenched at Quinn's insides. "I'm very tired," she explained.
Quinn went to the bed, hidden beyond an ornate partition, and came back with a lush, furry lap robe that was usually put to more adventurous uses. He covered Melissa, who made an endearing little snoring sound, and then turned away.
It was at that moment that his gaze found the word "Pullman" stenciled discreetly near the arching roof of the car. Quinn Rafferty knew then that he'd been bamboozled, and the humiliation robbed him of every whit of tenderness he'd drummed up for the would-be bride sleeping on the bench.
He wished he'd never laid eyes on Melissa whatever-her-name-was, let alone hauled her into his railroad car like that.
His instinct told him he'd made a disastrous mistake -- the kind that could change the course of a man's life.
Quinn Rafferty liked his life just the way it was.
It was dead dark when Melissa awoke, confused and a little scared. Noise and motion combined to assure her that she was aboard a train bound for God only knew where.
She remembered the events of the preceding day in bits and pieces -- her family and friends gathered at the church, the confession Ajax had made so offhandedly, the terrible hurt that had driven her to flee, unable to explain to anyone.
Before that pain could catch hold of her again Melissa shifted her thoughts to the man who had lifted her off the tracks and onto the platform of the railroad car just before her strength would have given out. He was a handsome one, Mr. Rafferty was, with his golden brown hair and eyes the color of caramel, and he had good, sturdy white teeth as well.
She supposed he was in his mid-thirties; and, since he had use of this luxurious railroad car, he was most certainly well-heeled, probably successful....
Melissa stifled a sob. She didn't give a damn about Quinn Rafferty or what he'd achieved in life, and she never would.
It was Sir Ajax Morewell Hampton that she loved, and trying not to think about him was a hopeless task.
If Melissa had had a pillow, she would have buried her face in it to muffle the outpouring of grief she could no longer stem, but she had none. She covered her face with both hands and let go of her despair, wailing as the force of it carried her, like some unseen river, beyond the far borders of her pride and into a place where there was no such vanity.
The light of a lantern flared, showing red-gold between Melissa's fingers; there was a muttered exclamation, and then Mr. Rafferty sat down on the bench and drew her awkwardly into his arms.
His chest was broad and strong; being held by Rafferty was like being held by one of her brothers, and yet strangely different.
"You do love him," Rafferty said quietly.
"No!" Melissa tied with all the strength she had, shuddering in his arms. "I hate him -- I swear I hate him!"
Rafferty made no reply to that. He simply held Melissa, and she was grateful, for she felt in that moment as though she would fly apart if it weren't for his tight grasp holding her together.
After a long interval he cursed.
Melissa's sobs had subsided to sniffles, and she gazed up at him in the lamplight, alarmed. "What is it?"
Instead of answering, Rafferty got to his feet -- he was wearing a silken robe with a dragon embroidered on the back -- and stormed around a partition. He returned moments later, carrying a linen shirt.
"Put this on," he ordered, flinging it at Melissa.
She swallowed hard, staring at him. A heartbeat before he'd been comforting her; now he was demanding the unthinkable.
Rafferty went to the liquor cabinet and helped himself to a drink. This time he didn't offer Melissa refreshment, and she hadn't the nerve to ask for it. She couldn't make out the diatribe he was muttering, except for the word "stupid," which was woven throughout.
Melissa finally found her voice. "I won't," she said clearly.
The caramel eyes scanned her with angry impatience. "Look at you -- you're wet to the skin from the rain. If you die of pneumonia before morning, it'll be no fault of mine."
Melissa was profoundly aware, all of a sudden, of her damp, cold gown. Although discomfort had niggled at her in her sleep, she had been too exhausted, and too drugged with brandy, to be concerned. She glanced toward the partition.
Quinn spread his hands. "You can have the bed, minx, and I'm not going to be peering around the wall at you while you change. Get on with it, so a man can get some sleep."
Melissa scrambled around the barrier, as much out of curiosity as cold, and was struck to encounter a bed of nothing less than decadent proportions. A brief investigation proved that the sheets were silken ones, and the blanket was chinchilla.
Giving a long, low whistle of exclamation through her front teeth, Melissa set aside her heartbreak over Ajax and began straining to unfasten the many buttons at the back of her gown. Only that morning Mama and Banner and Fancy and Tess had been there, doing them up by turns and joking that it was too big a job for one woman but perfect for one man.
Tears sprouted in Melissa's eyes, but she forced a smile into her voice. "You live a shamefully self-indulgent life, Mr. Rafferty," she called out.
Rafferty ignored the observation. "Tell me what that bastard did to you, to make you run away and then cry like that."
Grateful for the wall that hid her from his view, Melissa squirmed and struggled with those dratted buttons for several frustrating moments, then answered, "You won't believe it, Mr. Rafferty. You truly won't believe it."
"Try me," prompted Mr. Rafferty.
It would be a relief to confide in someone, Melissa decided. Someone objective, someone unimportant in the general scheme of her life. "He had a mistress," she confessed in a very small voice, as though the sin of that were somehow her own. "He'd brought her all the way from Munich and installed her in a house in Port Hastings and then had the gall to invite her to our wedding!"
There was silence from beyond the partition, the still kind that precedes a violent storm. But instead of exploding, Mr. Rafferty came around and began helping Melissa with the buttons of her gown.
The motions of his fingers were awkward and slow, but there was something so tender in the gesture that Melissa felt fresh tears smarting in her eyes. Lord knew she'd done her share of crying that day, and then some. It was time to stop, to get a hold of herself, to go on with her life.
She lifted her chin and sucked in her breath.
"Where exactly is this train headed?" she asked.
"I wondered if you were ever going to get around to asking about that. It's on its way to Spokane."
Melissa's mouth fell open, and she whirled, clutching the bodice of her dress to her bosom with both hands so that she wouldn't further disgrace herself. "Spokane! That's on the other side of the state!"
The look in Quinn Rafferty's brown eyes was completely at variance with the gentle solicitation he'd shown moments before. It was, in point of fact, arrogant and quite smug. "What do you care -- Miss Pullman?" he drawled.
Melissa's cheeks smarted with heat and color. She could not afford to offend this man. She was alone with him in a railroad car that looked as if it had been decorated by a spendthrift madam. It was night, and they were in the middle of nowhere.
"My name isn't Miss Pullman," she confessed, lowering her eyes.
"No!" he cried in mock surprise, laying one hand to his breast.
Melissa stamped one foot. "I'm Melissa Kate Corbin," she announced, infuriated. "Do you know what that means, Mr. Rafferty?"
The expression of surprise was transformed into one of theatrical horror. "No. What, pray tell, does that mean?"
Melissa was stumped. Under the circumstances, she wasn't sure it meant anything.
"Never mind," she finally said.
Rafferty chuckled at that, finished unfastening her dress, and then left her to her privacy.
"You're better off without this Ajax character," he served after some time, when the lamp had gone out. By then Melissa was cuddled deep between the silken sheets of Mr. Rafferty's bed, clad only in his ruffle-fronted shirt. He was probably sleeping on the narrow bench where she had reclined before.
Melissa sighed. "I suppose so."
"I still don't understand why you had to run away. You could have explained the whole thing to your family -- "
"But I couldn't have," Melissa argued. "Mama and I had had words about Ajax on more than one occasion -- she never liked him, you know. And if I'd told my brothers -- well, Keith would probably have been civil enough -- he's a preacher, after all -- but Adam and Jeff? It doesn't bear considering. Heaven only knows what they might have done to Ajax."
Mr. Rafferty let out a long sigh, as if to show an infinite capacity for suffering. "So you decided to jump aboard the first train out of town," he said.
"Of course not. I was just running, that's all. And I ended up in the railroad yard, so -- "
A richly masculine chuckle sounded in the darkness.
"Do you live in Port Hastings?" Melissa asked, wanting to change the subject. "I don't remember ever seeing you there before."
"I make my home on the other side of the peninsula, Miss Corbin. In Port Riley."
Melissa settled deeper into the silken sheets. There was a certain rivalry between the two towns, and that added a spark to an already provocative situation. She sighed. "My brothers say that Port Riley will be a ghost town in five years."
"Oh, they do, do they?"
"Yes. To use Jeffs own words, there's one piss-ant sawmill grinding out two-by-fours, and that's it for industry."
"'One piss-ant sawmill'?" It was obvious that Melissa had touched a nerve. "I'll have you know that 'piss-ant sawmill' is mine, Miss Corbin, and I own one of the biggest timber operations in this state. There are four banks in Port Riley, along with a cannery and a library and a hospital. Until six months ago, there was a newspaper." He paused and drew a deep breath before finishing grandly, "Furthermore, there are seventeen saloons."
"Oh," Melissa chimed, with prim airiness. "That changes everything. Any community with seventeen saloons is certainly worthy of its position on the map."
"Go to sleep, Miss Corbin. Tomorrow will be a long day."
Melissa didn't want to think about the next day -- or all the tomorrows that would follow it. And she wasn't ready to go to sleep.
"What happened to the newspaper?"
Rafferty gave an exasperated sigh. "What newspaper?"
"The one Port Riley had until six months ago."
"It was burned out."
"On purpose. Somebody had a difference of political opinion with the publishers."
"I have no idea, Miss Corbin."
"Well, that's a fine thing. Don't you have a United States marshal in your town?"
"Yes, we have a United States marshal in our town," Mr. Rafferty mimicked. "I think he has his suspicions, but he never came up with any proof. Now, if you'll just shut your lovely little mouth, Miss Corbin..."
"I need to talk."
Rafferty sighed again. "I think Sir Ajax Whoever may have missed out on a fate he richly deserved."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. Forgive me," Mr. Rafferty said wryly. "I lost my head for a moment."
"Why are you going to Spokane?"
Mr. Rafferty groaned. "I have business there."
"What kind of business?"
There was a short, deadly silence, but the answer, when it came, was quite reasonably stated. "I mean to deposit you in a hotel, then contact your family and let them know that you're all right. After that I will meet with some business partners of mine -- "
"I am not going to be 'deposited' in some hotel like a runaway child," Melissa, sitting bolt upright in bed, informed him. In that moment she knew that she could never go home -- her pride wouldn't let her -- until she'd accomplished something real and lasting all on her own. Otherwise the family would fuss over her ever after, as if she were an eccentric spinster.
The prospect was alarming; the reality would be unbearable.
She got to her knees and moved aside the window blind to peer out at the passing countryside. The moon bathed the barren country of central Washington State in an eerie light. "I can look after myself," she said, hiding all her uncertainties in a bright tone of voice.
And then she lay down again, closed her eyes, and slipped into a fitful sleep.
When Melissa awakened the car was filled with sunlight, and an elephant seemed to be balancing on one foot on her chest. Her nose was clogged, and the heat emanating from her body was so intense that it threatened to smother her.
A stranger with a bristly white mustache and a stethoscope affixed to his bald head was bending over the bed. "You'll be just fine, miss," he told her.
Melissa was certain that she was dying of some mysterious plague the likes of which had never been documented before. She started to croak out her last words and found they wouldn't come.
"Lots of lemon juice, that's what she needs," the doctor said jovially. And then he turned away.
Accommodatingly, Quinn soon brought her a steaming mug. He looked damnably handsome and damnably healthy in his clean, well-tailored clothes. Melissa could see the ridges left by a comb in his still-damp hair.
Despite her proximity to the hereafter, she managed to drag herself to a sitting position and reach out for the mug. The lemon juice had been liberally laced with liquor.
"Sorry about your new start in life and all that," Quinn said merrily. "Guess you'll just have to go on with the old one."
Melissa narrowed her eyes at him. The moment she arrived on the other side she'd get permission to become a ghost. And then she meant to haunt Mr. Rafferty until all his hair either turned white or fell out.
Rafferty laughed as though he could read her impotent thoughts and patted her fever-hot cheek. "If you're very good, I'll bring you a present," he condescended to say. "Mind Eloise now, and rest yourself."
Eloise, a dour woman in black sateen, appeared at the end of the bed. She was holding a Bible to her bosom and peering through the tiny square lenses of her glasses. It was clear that she had the wrong idea entirely about who Melissa was and what she was doing in Mr. Rafferty's railroad car, sick unto dying or not.
Melissa closed her eyes. They must be in Spokane, she realized, too ill to care what it was she'd meant to do there.
The day was a difficult one. Melissa slept deeply at intervals, but then the fever and her fiery throat would awaken her, making her toss and turn in abject misery.
She was delighted when Mr. Rafferty arrived at nightfall. He brought a present, just as he'd promised, and sent Eloise away.
With the last shreds of her failing strength -- she was sure to be dead by morning -- Melissa clawed the wrapping paper from the gift Quinn had laid in her lap. It was a book, and Melissa would have laughed if she'd been able to, because she'd written the opus herself -- under a pseudonym, of course.
Her eyes sparkled with more than fever as she looked questioningly at her benefactor.
"They're bringing beef stew from the dining car," he said, undoing his tie beside the bed. His glance fell again to the book. "Pure trash, according to the bookseller," he said, "but women love it."
He looked completely baffled when Melissa hurled the volume at his head.
Copyright © 1990 by Linda Lael Miller