November 1898, St Augustine, Florida
Annabelle Pennington hurried across the rotunda of the famous Ponce DeLeon Hotel and up the short flight of marble stairs that opened onto the hallway leading to the dining room. She was behind schedule, as usual. Her cousin, Caroline, had expected her in the dining hall several minutes ago and was probably impatient by now. For Annabelle tardiness was nothing new. Still, if she hadn’t spent so much time talking to the maid, she wouldn’t be late now. But the conversation had been too stimulating to resist.
Annabelle paid little heed to the variegated mosaic tile at her feet, the pattern designed by Henry Flagler himself. She didn’t pay any attention to the statues flanking the pillars around the rotunda, each one a different likeness of Flagler’s daughter. She passed through the beautiful French Renaissance hotel too quickly to admire any of the amazing architecture that had been put into it, the red Verona marble, the elegance, the opulence. There was no need of taking notice. After two weeks at the hotel, she had become very familiar with the romantic designs.
She sighed. The time had gone by too quickly. It was their last day in St. Augustine, and she was loath to let go of what had been their first taste of freedom. Still, the adventure had been fun while it lasted.
Convincing her father to allow her and Caroline to stay in St. Augustine unchaperoned had been no easy feat. Though a pushover when it came to his only daughter, he was protective as an old lion, and he capitulated only with great reluctance.
The entire family had spent the vast majority of the season in Ormond Beach, one of the new playgrounds for the wealthy. According to her father, it was the less licentious place to vacation, more suited to families with young girls. Much less game than the newly sanctioned Palm Beach, where Flagler had only just recently introduced gambling to the rich and pampered. It was at the end of this vacation that Annabelle had gotten the idea to stay on in Florida. St. Augustine had once been the hit of every season, but Palm Beach had rapidly taken over, leaving the old fort city to the elderly. It was a fact Annabelle had used for leverage, and it had worked.
“I’ll only allow this stay because St. Augustine is more sedate,” her father assured her.
“It’s full of old people,” she’d later grumbled to Caroline. “But it’s enough. We’ll be alone, and that’s all that matters.”
At the train station, Annabelle had barely been able to contain herself during the worried farewell from her mother and father, her fourteen-year-old brother rather indifferently hanging back. She hadn’t even bothered to give him a kiss. He was in such a strange mood these days. “The pain of adolescence,” her aunt had whispered.
With no more thought for her family, Annabelle had stepped off the platform, eager to embrace the famous city she’d heard so much about.
Even now, when the adventure was almost at an end, it still seemed like a dream come true. She could hardly believe she’d had the good fortune of experiencing it. The very idea of being alone, miles away from New York, an entire city at her feet, was just too...well...dreamy.
St. Augustine had seemed all their own for two nearly perfect weeks. Indeed, after the idle pleasantries at Ormond Beach, it turned out to be an absolutely fascinating city, with an entire world of exciting history to it. Stories of Spaniards and Indians abounded, and all the fascinating discoveries made up for the rather tired guest list at the hotel.
Annabelle had made certain they were never bored. She’d insisted on dragging Caroline to everything there was to be seen. Anastasia Island, golf at the fort, tennis matches behind the Ponce. They’d even gone swimming in the pool at the Alcazar. Caroline had balked at the unseemly notion, but Annabelle’s persuasive tactics had finally nudged her into the daring game.
Every day in St. Augustine had been a virtual flurry of activity. She only wished it could have lasted longer. But they were expected back in New York, and that’s precisely where they would be in just thirty-eight hours, transported there by Henry Flagler’s beautiful Pullman cars on his very own railroad.
Annabelle paused at the top of the steps to shift her hat to her free hand, and then continued down the hall. She was the height of fashion in her favorite day dress, a magnificent creation of the finest silk, with pin-tucked sleeves, swirling train, and matching hat.
As she hurried along, she became so absorbed in trying to pin her watch to her dress that she didn’t see the man coming out of the adjoining hall, didn’t even know anyone else was there until she bumped into him. Her hat had been dangling precariously from one hand as she struggled with the watch, but she dropped it the second she collided with the stranger.
“Oh!” Her cheeks burning with embarrassment, she backed away in shock. His body was so hard that running into him had been something akin to slamming into one of the pillars in the rotunda. And, goodness, he was tall. He must have been six feet two inches in his bare feet.
“Pardon me, miss. I didn’t see you there,” he apologized, removing his hat in deference to a lady.
Such an amazing voice. Deep and smooth and rich, like a fine brandy. Lord, what a specimen! He was so handsome it nearly robbed her of breath. He had the most incredible eyes, glittering chips of obsidian in a perfect face that was crowned by thick waves of jet-black hair.
He was a formidable man, with his arrogant stare, and he had a gaze so piercing she found it difficult to look at him. She felt awkward and rather plain in his presence. He was larger than life, the sort of man who would instantly be noticed in any crowd. Broad in the shoulders, narrow in the hips, he wore his dark suit with a sort of haughty pride to his carriage. She’d never seen a jaw so strong, a nose so straight, cheekbones so high, eyes so unbelievably sharp. And lips.... She peered up at him through her lashes. Lord, his lips. They were almost cruelly masculine. What would they feel like against her bare hand, against her own soft mouth.
She flushed hot. She shouldn’t entertain such ideas about a complete stranger, especially one so possessing of rugged appeal. Indeed, if he hadn’t been wearing an expensive, finely tailored suit, she could have easily imagined him to be a man given to dangerous liaisons, perhaps even espionage.
Oh, bother! She was letting her imagination get away with her. Although, he certainly fit the part. All dark looks and hard muscle. Such mystery.
There was a gleam in his eyes that bordered on an angry glitter, though she couldn’t for the life of her imagine what he had to be angry about. Surely not this little accidental bump.
She realized she’d been staring and dropped her gaze to the floor, only to see then that she’d left her hat lying at their feet. When he noticed her embarrassed glance, he bent to retrieve it for her. She tried not to notice the way his trousers stretched over the muscles of his thighs as he knelt down, tried not to notice the strong look to his hands, the grace of his movements. But it was impossible not to see and be stirred by these things.
He straightened again and silently held the hat out for her to take. Annabelle hesitated to do so. Despite her usual bravado in the face of new challenges, she had to admit she was a little afraid of the strong emotion this chance encounter had caused. He was perhaps the most interesting man she’d ever seen. She wondered that she had to run across him on this particular day of all days when she was preparing to leave St. Augustine to return to her family in New York. Why couldn’t it have been last week, or even last evening? Why the last day, of all days?
She snapped to attention and glanced up at the stranger in confusion. She’d been so intent on her own thoughts that she’d almost forgotten why she was there.
“Your hat,” he said simply, thrusting it closer.
Still a little afraid of brushing his hand, she quickly took it from him. He smiled, and her heart accelerated. She expected him to introduce himself, or strike up a conversation, but, much to her disappointment, he didn’t. He merely gave her a polite nod, then turned on his heel and walked off. Annabelle was left frozen beneath the marble arches, one hand at her throat as she stared after him. She’d never in all her life had the pleasure of encountering a man quite so captivating, quite so...virile. Her father spent a good deal of his time protecting her from men like this, men who had the strange power to take her breath away.
She silently reprimanded herself for being so ridiculous. She was behaving like a half-witted, moon-eyed girl in awe of this man’s very maleness. My goodness, she was a woman already. Nineteen-years-old. She should be more confident, in control, not a bumbling little fool. He was only a man, for heaven’s sake.
And that hat thing. He must have thought she’d dropped it at his feet on purpose, just so she could catch his eye. As if she couldn’t do so without resorting to tricks. After all, she was certainly beautiful enough. Petite, with red hair that reached her waist when it wasn’t rolled into a knot on top of her head. Wide amber eyes that should have looked innocent but were somehow too full of mischief to quite pull it off. Skin pale and smooth, except for a smattering of freckles across her nose. A tiny waist that was envied by all her friends, made to appear even tinier by the ample swell of breasts above it. She could turn any man’s head.
She had to wonder now. He hadn’t seemed nearly as affected by her beauty as she’d been by his tall good looks. How disappointing.
She frowned. She shouldn’t give him another thought. After all, to do so would only prove her to be something less than the worldly woman she’d like to consider herself. With great poise, she made a fuss of dusting her hat, although it hadn’t gotten a single speck of dirt on it, and then proceeded down the corridor to the dining hall where her cousin waited.
In the arched doorway, she paused to glance around. The Ponce DeLeon was an amazing hotel, immaculately kept, and the dining hall was no exception. All dark carved wood and pale, painted murals on the arched ceiling, a room that could seat eight hundred guests if need be. Yet, it wasn’t even half filled this afternoon. The few guests that were scattered around seemed swallowed in the enormous space.
She recognized an elderly couple who sat just inside the door, and waved to them. Since her arrival with Caroline, the couple had managed to keep a kindly eye on them. They were nice people really, but Annabelle hadn’t been able to resist giving them the slip now and then just so she and Caroline could have a few adventures away from their watchful eyes.
“Good morning, Mrs. Edwards. Mr. Edwards.”
“Good morning, Miss Annabelle,” Mr. Edwards answered.
Mrs. Edwards looked delighted to see her, and she immediately launched into conversation. “Annabelle, you and your cousin must have lunch with us this afternoon. We’re returning to Anastasia Island with a picnic. It will be such fun.”
“Oh, I am sorry, Mrs. Edwards, but Caroline and I are leaving for New York this afternoon.”
The woman’s face fell. “Oh, it will be such a shame to see you go.”
“Yes, I quite agree. Forgive me if I don’t linger, but my cousin is waiting for me.”
“Perhaps we’ll see you again sometime,” she chimed hopefully.
“Perhaps,” Annabelle agreed. But she seriously doubted it. If her father had his way, she’d be married by mid-summer, and then all her adventures would be brought to a rather hasty and disappointing end.
She murmured a polite goodbye and took her leave. She’d already spied her cousin conspicuously seated in a corner, and by the look of disapproval on her face, she was fit to be tied. Dear Caroline, tucked away from the crowd. Annabelle would have preferred a table right in the middle of the room, where she could see and be seen. But Caroline seemed to want to shrink into the walls wherever she was, so shy despite her beauty.
Caroline was the taller of the two, though only by a few inches. Where most of the Penningtons had red hair, Caroline was blonde with beautiful green eyes, and hadn’t the first freckle, a blessing Annabelle had always envied. She often wondered how her dear cousin had managed to escape the Pennington family trademark.
Still, they all possessed the Pennington spirit. She was so often told that she was too much like her father—the mister, as her mother liked to call him—high-spirited, determined. “Stubborn,” her Uncle James always told her, even though he himself suffered the same malady.
“Annabelle, what am I going to do with you? I swear you’re getting worse. You’re nearly twenty minutes late,” Caroline complained, frowning even more when she saw the tilt of mischief to her cousin’s mouth. “Seriously, Annabelle, this must stop. You’re just too careless for your own good. Not everyone will wait for you, you know. I dare say Eric won’t.”
Annabelle frowned. “I don’t care if Eric waits for me. I’m not sure I want to marry him, anyway. Besides, it isn’t as if we’ve announced our betrothal!”
“Well, you’ve certainly kept me waiting one too many times. I—”
“Oh, but just wait until you hear what I’ve learned,” she interrupted, perching her hat on the edge of the table as she sat down. “Then you’ll think the wait was worth it.”
Caroline opened her mouth to retort, but then closed it again. And there was a spark of interest in her eyes as she gazed back at Annabelle. Feeling smug about having captured her cousin’s attention, Annabelle eased back in her seat with a self-satisfied smile. She couldn’t help but prolong the moment a bit. It was just too delicious to pass up, this opportunity to make her cousin squirm with curiosity. Caroline was more the daredevil than she cared to admit, and it was obvious Annabelle had her hooked now.
“Annabelle Pennington, if you don’t tell me this instant, I’ll pinch you.”
Annabelle giggled and leaned forward again, eager to disclose the latest tidbit of gossip she’d managed to finagle from the maid.
“Do you know that married men who bring their wives to St. Augustine to stay at the Ponce DeLeon keep their mistresses across the street at the Alcazar.”
Caroline’s eyes went round with shock, and one slender hand automatically found its way to the heavily frilled bodice of her dress. “It can’t be true.”
“But it is,” Annabelle literally squealed, her entire body animated with excitement. “Isn’t it just the most unbearably intriguing thing you’ve ever heard?”
“It’s the most awful thing I’ve ever heard!” Caroline cried, looking thoroughly appalled. “Where did you hear such a lie?”
Annabelle frowned in the face of her cousin’s skepticism. “It’s not a lie.”
Caroline looked crestfallen.
“Oh, Caroline! Don’t be such a prude. You know married men have mistresses. It happens all the time.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. I just don’t want my future husband, whoever that may be, to have a....” She didn’t seem able to say the word.
Annabelle’s delight waned in the face of her cousin’s distress. She hadn’t meant to upset her, only to shock those delicate sensibilities she so stubbornly clung to.
“Oh! Now I wish I’d never told you. The fun is all spoiled, and I didn’t even get to finish.”
Caroline stopped twisting her ruche in her fingers and gazed at her from across the table. “Well, by all means, finish.”
Annabelle smiled. Her story was obviously too interesting to keep her cousin upset for long. “Apparently there is an underground tunnel that connects the two hotels. The men simply tell their wives they’re going to the bar, and then they take the tunnel to the Alcazar for a rendezvous with their mistress. Isn’t that just too wicked?”
“Why, it’s downright tragic, I tell you. It pains me to even think it. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Annabelle, spreading such terrible stories.”
“But it’s true, and I can prove it. I’ll find the tunnel.”
“Don’t be silly. There’s no time. Our train is leaving in just a few hours.”
“We’ll make the time. I tell you, Caroline, a woman has to be smart these days, calculating. We have to stay one step ahead of these men, to keep them honest. I swear no husband of mine will have a mistress. I’d stab him clean through to his black heart if....”
She trailed off when she realized her cousin wasn’t paying her the slightest bit of attention. Instead, Caroline was gazing intently past her shoulder at something on the other side of the room.
“Caroline? What is it?”
“That man over there is watching you. Do you know him?”
Annabelle started to turn around.
“Don’t look!” Caroline hissed. “That would be too obvious.”
Annabelle ignored her and looked, anyway. Her cheeks went warm when she realized it was the man she’d bumped into in the hall. He was looking directly at her. For one heart-stopping moment their gazes locked, and even from the distance between them his eyes glittered with mystery and intrigue. Everything else in the room dimmed and faded away until there was only him in the very center of her vision, and she felt rather than heard the catch in her throat as she drew in a sharp breath. She couldn’t seem to make herself look away. It was as if he had mesmerized her somehow. But then, thankfully, she managed to tear her gaze from his before she literally swooned from the impact of his stare.
Still, it seemed strangely warm all of a sudden, and she had to resist the urge to fan herself as she turned to meet Caroline’s curious stare. She hoped she looked more composed than she felt. She didn’t want her cousin to see what a profound affect the man had on her. But she was not so indifferent on the inside. The handsome stranger had an odd way of making her heart beat a little too fast.
“I bumped into him in the hall,” she managed. It was a lame explanation, not nearly enough to accurately describe an experience that had left her breathless with an emotion she’d never felt before. Not even when Eric had pressed that first kiss to her mouth. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything on all of God’s earth that could compare to that one moment when her body had accidentally brushed against the hard chest of this total stranger.
Caroline gazed at him in fascination. “He is a handsome devil, isn’t he? I don’t remember seeing him here before.”
“He must have only just arrived.”
Annabelle tried to feign indifference, but the attempt was futile. Why, she could virtually feel his presence there, could almost feel the heat of his gaze against her back. He exuded something so powerful that even distance was of no consequence.
“I’m sure if I’d seen him before I’d have wanted to prolong our stay,” Annabelle remarked.
With a mischievous smile, Annabelle gave a slight lift of her shoulders. She adored teasing her cousin. Dear, sensible Caroline. Always practical, always prepared, and ever so proper. While Annabelle was the reckless spirit, the forgetful one with no regard for time. Life was to be experienced, enjoyed, not carefully pocketed into time slots of total boredom.
“Don’t you think there’s something rather dangerous about him?” Caroline continued, still trying to eye the man without being obvious about it.
“Absolutely wicked,” she agreed. “And that only lends to his appeal, doesn’t it?”
“You’re just teasing me now! You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Annabelle gave a light-hearted laugh. “Oh, Caroline! Live a little. That’s what we came here to do.”
She sighed. She was so reluctant to see this trip come to an end. Two weeks hadn’t been nearly enough time to experience all that she’d hoped to.
“I do hope we’ll be allowed to come back next season. This has been the most wonderful, exciting time of my life.”
“Annabelle, you know your father is expecting you to marry Eric by next year.”
All her hope withered at the mere thought. “Oh, pooh! Who wants to get married. In just two years it will be the turn of the century, the dawn of a new age. A woman doesn’t have to marry so young anymore.”
“Maybe that’s the way you feel. But I can’t wait to be married.”
“Then why haven’t you accepted Donovan’s proposal?” She was unable to resist the jibe after her cousin had so successfully ruined her fun.
Caroline sighed. “You know very well why.”
“Because he’s not exciting, and you don’t love him.”
“He’s just too sweet, too....”
“Putty in your hands. And you want a real man, dynamic, handsome, wealthy, and a good lover.”
“Annabelle!” Caroline was shocked. “You’ve always been a little reckless, but this trip has made you entirely too independent, too....”
She giggled. “Oh, don’t be so provincial. You’ve enjoyed every second of this vacation, and you know it.”
“Besides, that’s precisely what I want in a man. And I refuse to marry until I’ve found just that,” she said with assurance.
Caroline smiled. Annabelle watched her from across the table. It was odd that someone as practical as Caroline would want a man so completely her opposite, someone powerful and headstrong. Still, Annabelle couldn’t exactly blame her. After all, what woman wouldn’t want...a man just like the one who still sat across the room, hopefully watching her.
“Oh, if only that mean-spirited Hannah could see us now. She would just scream with envy. For all her worldly ways, I’m sure she’s never done anything so bold in her entire life.”
“Her father would never allow it,” Caroline mused. “But enough of this chatter. Let’s order. I’m famished, and we’ll be late if we don’t hurry,” she insisted.
Annabelle didn’t bother to argue. She knew they had enough time, but there was no sense in trying to tell her cousin that. Caroline was always painfully punctual, if not five minutes early.
Even after it was served, the meal couldn’t hold Annabelle’s attention. She was too aware of the stranger across the room. She could no more ignore his presence than she could ignore her own heartbeat. She just couldn’t seem to keep her mind off him. He was so dynamic. And there was nothing like a little intrigue to spark her interest, even if there was a flare of danger involved.
Once, under the pretense of retrieving the napkin she’d deliberately dropped at her feet, she managed to cast a surreptitious glance in his direction, and was surprised to find his dark eyes on her, watching every move she made. With a boldness she scarcely felt, she held his gaze for a moment, just to let him know she was no coward, and then returned to her meal.
Just one glance from those unfathomable eyes of his was enough to make her pulse quicken. She’d never been so fascinated by a man before, and she hated the fact that this had to happen on the very day she was leaving. Despite all the activities, their stay had been relatively dull. Finally here was a man who could liven things up a bit. It was a pity she had to leave him behind. She could only imagine what sort of person he was, but she fancied whatever station he held was one of extreme excitement and mystery.
Annabelle tried to listen to Caroline’s chatter, but the effort was useless. She couldn’t concentrate on a single word. Her thoughts were otherwise occupied. Who was this stranger, and what was he doing in St. Augustine? He seemed far more suited to the gay life in Palm Beach, not the sedate pace of a city that had already lost its popularity. Could he be a villain of some sort? She frowned. She wouldn’t want to think of him as a criminal, but a gentlemanly villain had possibilities. Still, what would bring a villain to St. Augustine, such a geriatric little place?
For a moment she allowed her imagination to run wild. She envisioned him sitting atop a black beast of a stallion, a black, satin mask hiding his features, save for two sinister slits for his eyes. It was a romantic, out-dated sentiment, but it had its intrigue.
“A train robber,” she murmured, unaware she’d spoken aloud until Caroline’s voice insinuated itself into her thoughts.
“Annabelle, you aren’t paying the slightest bit of attention to me.”
She came back to the present with a little start and refocused on her cousin. “I’m sorry, Caroline. I was just wondering what it would be like if we could stay another two weeks.”
Caroline frowned. “Well, we can’t. We just can’t, and there’s no sense even entertaining such an idea.”
“It doesn’t hurt to dream,” she muttered.
With a sigh, she propped her elbow on the table, put her chin in her hand, and absently toyed with the remainder of food on her plate. Her spirits were woefully low at the moment, and she couldn’t seem to pick them up again.
Caroline checked her watch. “We should be going. Your tardiness has already put us too far behind schedule, and you did want to make one last visit to the curio shops, didn’t you?”
Annabelle gave her a vague nod. Her heart was not in this departure, and she wouldn’t pretend to be excited about it. The idea of returning to New York to settle into the dull, lifeless days spent at afternoon teas and socials, being followed everywhere by that simpering Eric, was just too disheartening. If she could find a way, she wouldn’t go back until she’d had her fill of adventure. And if Caroline were honest with herself, she had a good idea her dear cousin wasn’t very excited about going home, either. They’d discovered something here in St. Augustine, the two of them together, something only a fool would want to leave behind: independence. And she liked the taste of it.
“Come along then,” Caroline instructed, already rising.
As she reluctantly rose with her, Annabelle’s gaze sought out the handsome stranger. Much to her disappointment, he was already gone. Crestfallen, she started after her cousin.
Out on the streets, her spirits returned somewhat. She adored quaint old St. Augustine. It was sunny and warm and everything that New York wasn’t. The smell of horses lingered along the narrow brick streets as they passed through the Plaza and entered St. George Street. Here was the hub of the city, with all its shops and taverns, the interesting sights and sounds, the brightly colored dresses of the women, the eclectic peoples.
As they went, she kept a watchful eye on the people strolling the thoroughfare, thinking that perhaps she might catch one last glimpse of the captivating stranger somewhere along the way. It would be just the right touch of romance, the final parting pang of what could have been, a heroine dragged away from the only man who could ever capture her heart.
But he was nowhere to be found. He’d disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. In a way it was symbolic of her adventure here in St. Augustine, an adventure that was just a breath away from ending before it even had the chance to begin.
The shops were no less enthralling than they’d been on the first day of their arrival. Annabelle took great care examining the items displayed along the counters. She wanted the gifts she took back to her family to be unique in every way. A jewelry case caught her eye, and she eagerly studied its contents. She was disappointed to find that most of the baubles were far too gaudy for her taste, and she urged Caroline on to the next shop.
Caroline had already done her shopping, and she was only along for the company. But she soon grew impatient with Annabelle’s selectivity.
“Do hurry. We’ll miss our train.”
Annabelle started to glance at her own watch and was stunned to realize it was missing. Then she remembered. She’d been trying to fasten it to her dress when she’d bumped into the stranger. She must have dropped it and...accidentally left it there. Oh, dear. The watch had been a gift from her father on her last birthday. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing such a treasured item.
Oblivious to her dilemma, Caroline rattled on. “Perhaps I should go back to the hotel and check on the travel arrangements. It would save some time. I’ll leave your valise at the front desk, and you can meet me at the train station.”
Annabelle only half listened.
Caroline took her shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. “One of us has to be responsible. Just remember, the carriage is twenty-five cents. Make sure you have it.”
Seemingly satisfied with her plan, Caroline left her standing there on the walk, still frowning.
Marston J. Ashford paused in the hallway just beyond the rotunda of the Ponce DeLeon hotel, his keen eyes having noticed a change in pattern on the mosaic tiled floor. He’d gone back to his room briefly to retrieve a few items before stopping by the front desk to order a carriage and was on his way to the breezeway when he saw it. Curious, he knelt down to get a closer look and was intrigued to discover a lady’s watch lying there. He picked it up and turned it over. It was an expensive watch. Rugged. It had survived its little mishap without the faintest scratch. But most intriguing was the engraving on the back.
“For my darling Annabelle,” he murmured aloud.
He lifted his head, his eyes narrowed in concentration. This was precisely where the beautiful red-haired girl had bumped into him. This must be her watch he held in his hands. Odd, he hadn’t recalled hearing it clatter to the floor. How could such a thing have escaped his notice? Perhaps he’d been far too bewitched by her amber eyes, that saucy set to her mouth, the freckles across her nose.
He frowned. He was here on business not pleasure. The last thing he needed at the moment was to be sidetracked by a female.
Very deliberately, he turned and strode back in the direction he’d come. It was best to take care of the matter now. The lady would surely miss her watch, and the front desk was the first logical place to take it.
But the clerk was quick to inform him, in his impersonal tone, “Miss Annabelle and her cousin have already checked out. They’ll be returning to New York on the two o’clock Pullman. Would you like me to notify the next shift. They can send the watch post-haste to New York, and it will be there in just a few days.”
Marston glanced at his own watch, then shook his head. “No, that won’t be necessary. Perhaps I can catch her at the station before she leaves. I already have a carriage waiting.”
“Very good, sir.” The clerk nodded, then turned a dismissive shoulder to him.
Marston frowned. The young man didn’t seem interested in anything but handing the desk over to the next shift. Mildly annoyed, he made a mental note to inform Henry when next they met. Henry was a stickler for perfection, and he would certainly want to know if one of his employees wasn’t performing up to snuff.
He looked again at the watch in his hand. Unable to resist, he read the engraving once more. He couldn’t help wondering about the man who called the lovely redhead his darling. Her husband perhaps? Oddly he’d much rather think of the watch as a gift from a fond uncle.
“Annabelle,” he murmured, then tucked the watch into his coat pocket before proceeding back down the hall. He would make a special trip to the train station and return it personally. But first he had some important business to attend to.
Annabelle had convinced herself that the watch could wait. Perhaps someone would find it and leave it at the front desk there at the hotel. In the meantime, she had to finish her shopping. She couldn’t return to New York with nothing for the family. And time was running out.
Inside one of the tiny shops, she spied a beautifully hand-carved wooden box with a deep blue, jeweled overlay arranged in the shape of a lovely pattern of flowers. It was perfect for her mother, and she quickly took it to the counter with her, along with a few other items she’d found.
“Good afternoon, miss,” the store clerk chimed as she approached.
“It is a fine afternoon, isn’t it?” she answered, placing the items she’d chosen before him so he could mark them down on his receipt pad.
While she waited, she glanced around. Her choices had not come easily. There was so much to see. Watch charms and scarf pins, broaches and bangles, necklaces and compass charms. There were even heron plumes, crane’s wings, angelfish, coral branches, and coquina figures of all kinds. Buttons made from sea beans, canes carved out of orange wood. Even baby alligators. It seemed silly that anyone would want to purchase a wild reptile. She’d heard that even as tiny juveniles they could snap a finger clean off. She couldn’t imagine giving anyone a gift that was liable to bite.
“That will be eight dollars, miss,” the clerk said, having finished his tally.
Annabelle smiled and gave him a polite nod as she reached for the chatelaine purse she always kept tied at her waist. She was surprised to realize she didn’t have it with her. Oh, dear! Had she lost her purse, as well? How could she be that forgetful?
Her cheeks burning with embarrassment, she glanced helplessly at the clerk. He stared back at her, uncomprehending.
“Forgive me. I seem to have misplaced my purse.” He sighed and put his pencil down. He seemed resigned to such occurrences, as if it were quite ordinary for a lady to do something so bothersome.
Annabelle stared down at the counter. She was about to formulate an apology when it suddenly occurred to her. Perhaps she’d accidentally packed the purse into her valise. Caroline had promised to leave her valise at the front desk of the hotel. It was simple enough to go fetch it, then return to the store for the purchases.
The problem solved, she turned a bright smile on the clerk. “I believe I’ve left my purse at the hotel. I’ll just go fetch it.”
He didn’t seem to share her confidence. In fact, he appeared to be irritated by the inconvenience.
Undaunted, Annabelle went on. “I wonder...would you be so kind as to keep these items behind the counter until I return? I’ll only be a moment. It’s just across the Plaza at the Ponce DeLeon.”
Upon hearing the prestigious name of Henry Flager’s expensive hotel, his face brightened. “Of course, miss. I’d be more than happy to.”
“Thank you. You’re very kind,” she murmured, then hurried out the door and down the street. She had to be quick about it. Caroline would be livid if she left her waiting for a second time that day.
It wasn’t really far, but in her cumbersome skirts the walk seemed an even greater distance. Across the hotel courtyard, past the beautiful cascading fountain with its lush tropical plants set all around, from their lofty perches the gleaming eyes of stone gargoyles watched her passage up the steps that led into the rotunda.
She was breathless by the time she reached the front desk. “My valise. My cousin left it here for me,” she told the clerk.
“Of course, Miss Pennington,” he said, already turning to retrieve it for her.
“Thank you,” she managed. Before she’d even checked to see if her purse was inside, she turned and hurried back down the stairs.
“Oh, Miss Pennington!” the clerk called after her. “I meant to tell you about your watch....”
He trailed off. She was already gone, and he was certain she hadn’t heard a word. He checked his own watch. It was time for him to sign off his shift, and there was no sense chasing after her. After all, Mr. Ashford had promised to take care of it. With a shrug, he turned back to the new clerk he was training.
“No matter. Mr. Ashford will see that she gets it.”
“Gets what?” the new clerk queried, looking puzzled.
“It doesn’t matter now. I swear, Jamison, you need to pay attention. Now let’s go over the check-in procedure one more time before I go. You know how strict it is, and I want you to get it right.”
Out on the street, Annabelle had to slow her pace for a moment to catch her breath. She’d developed an awful stitch in her side. While she rested, she took a moment to open her valise and search the contents. Much to her dismay, her purse wasn’t there.
“Oh, dear. It must be in my bags. And my bags are...on the train,” she wailed. “Oh, dear. This is a problem.”
Confused, she stood helpless in the streets. She didn’t know what to do. The store clerk expected her to return with the money, but there was no time to go to the station, retrieve the purse, and then come back for the gifts. Embarrassing as it was, she would just have to go apologize for the misunderstanding and tell him that she wouldn’t be able to make the purchase.
A sudden shout alerted her that a carriage was coming rapidly from behind. With a squeal of alarm, she bolted out of its path and pressed herself against the side of the nearest building. She was barely to safety before the vehicle careened by, the draft horses snorting as they passed, their hooves clattering loudly against the brick street. Suddenly the narrow lane didn’t seem so friendly anymore.
Her heart pounding from the near collision, she gathered her skirts and hurried the remaining distance to the store. The storekeeper glanced up in surprise when she rushed in.
“I’m so sorry. There’s been a terrible mistake. My purse is on the train, and I fear I won’t be able to purchase those lovely items I asked you to hold for me.”
Before he even had the chance to answer, she was back out the door and racing down the street in the direction of the carriage house. She would have to hurry and catch a driver before it was too late. If she wasted one more minute....
She was halfway across the Plaza when it hit her. She stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes wide with alarm. With painful clarity, it dawned on her how very significant it was that she didn’t have her purse. All of her money was in her purse. And without the twenty-five cents it would take to get to the station.... She was stuck here, alone in St. Augustine, with nothing save for the few items in her valise, the clothes on her back, and no one to turn to for help.
The thought frightened her so much that she couldn’t think straight. All she could do was stand there in the middle of the Plaza, a tragic figure with her hair falling from its pins. Tears stinging her eyes, she clutched her valise with trembling hands. It seemed that her circumstances had worsened by several degrees.