A mail-order bride from Cincinnati, Ariah Scott had traveled all the way to Oregon to marry one man…only to lose her heart to another in this steamy romance. What would become of her now? Ever since her father died at the hands of a vengeful relative, Ariah’s life had been shadowed by dark secrets. And now her forbidden desire for Bartholomew Noon filled her with uncertainty—and a secret longing that could never be fulfilled.
From the moment Bartholomew Noon saw Ariah standing alone in the Portland Station, the keeper of the Cape Meares Light was lost. Hopelessly in love with this angelic beauty who was fated to live beside him at the isolated lighthouse as another man’s wife, Bartholomew never dreamed that destiny would someday bring them together. Would Ariah truly be the woman he could cherish…forever?
Cape Meares, Oregon 1891
To Bartholomew Noon the unceasing rumble of the sea and the melancholy cry of gulls were the very embodiment of his loneliness. Constant. Never ending. But loneliness was not the cause of the heavy sense of foreboding that had come over him on awakening that morning. A warning he knew better than to ignore.
In the hope of escaping the gloomy cloud hanging over him, he had hiked the steep trail down to the beach where a man could be alone. Here on the driftwood littered strand, he could be himself. No one to placate. No one from whom he must hide his innermost feelings in order to keep from being manipulated or tormented. Here, he could ponder his unwonted presentiment without interruption.
Out where the water deepened, a wave of translucent jade crested, curled in upon itself, then broke in a boiling froth that tossed and fumed until its force ebbed. Indolently, it crept toward him until the foam-tipped water encircled his boots, as if to embrace him in empathy and compassion, before being sucked back into the gray Pacific Ocean, stealing the sand from under him as it went.
A derisive snort erupted from deep inside Bartholomew’s chest as he shrugged off his imaginings. The sea neither embraced nor understood him. What it did do, a few grains at a time, was erode away the land, the same way life with Hester was eroding away his soul.
The sky darkened from gray to black as a storm drew near. Fog, pushed by the wind herding the storm inland, had already obliterated the headland to the south where Hester and the lighthouse awaited him. The air grew more chill. Soon the rain would begin. Resolutely, he thrust his icy fingers into his coat pockets and turned his back on his beloved sea. It was time to see to his responsibilities.
The thick February mist formed droplets on his lashes and the tip of his sturdy nose. Under his keeper’s cap, his damp sable hair formed a mass of loose curls.
“Come on, Harlequin,” he called to a puffin feeding in the shallow water, “time to go.”
The stubby bird scooped up a last mouthful of tiny mole crabs in its garish orange and red beak and waddled out of the surf toward the man, every bit as though it had understood the human command. Awkwardly, it flapped its raven wings, flying barely high enough to reach the man’s broad shoulder, but it seemed content there. Bartholomew patted the sleek snowy feathers of its breast as he climbed the bluff that rose above the strand. The wing Bartholomew had mended was nearly as strong as ever. Any day now the bird would rejoin its own kind on the seastacks off the Oregon coast, leaving Bartholomew more alone than ever.
Evergreens draped in moss crowded close around him as he made his way up the trail, and added to the gloom of the foggy morn. Tree trunks, misshapened by ferns that rooted in every gnarl, appeared like phantoms in the drifting mist, writhing and moaning in the rising wind. It was when the track ran close enough to the cliff to offer a last view of the sea that Bartholomew saw the ship.
One second the vessel was there, the next it was gone. The fog congealed to the consistency of Hester’s sausage gravy and laid every bit as heavily upon the sea as the gravy did in Bartholomew’s stomach. His dark eyes strained to penetrate the ghostly vapor. If he was right, Pyramid Rock lay directly across the vessel’s course.
Like a too-tight seam, the fog split apart. In the resultant window, he spotted the ship, heading straight for the hidden rock.
He screamed for the vessel to veer sharply portside, knowing in the more reasonable portion of his brain that he was much too far away to be heard.
The rising wind hurtled the ship closer to its destruction, as easily as a stone cast from a sling. To Bartholomew the scene played out in painful, slow motion, grating on his nerves like wood beneath a rasp. People were on that ship, people who would die. He wanted to rage at the heavens for allowing such tragedy.
The thought that there might be survivors sent him racing back down toward the beach, until reality brought him to a halt.
At sea level the white-capped waves would hide the ship from him. Even if it did crash, there would be time to fetch horses from the lighthouse station and get back before the sea deposited its victims on the sand. Meanwhile, he could hope he was mistaken about the ship’s danger.
Even as his mind formed the thought, he saw it happen. Ship and rock appeared to merge and become one as they collided. Then, as though to refuse such a marriage, the cold lifeless stone ejected the helpless mass of wood and sailcloth back out into the sea. Billowing white sails crumpled as the mast snapped and collapsed upon the heaving deck. The wind and the roar of the sea drowned out the splintering of wood and the screams of men, but Bartholomew heard them. In his heart.
For one more moment the ship bobbed uncertainly upon the waves, then sank from view. Bartholomew turned and sprinted up the steep forest trail. The puffin frantically flapped its wings to maintain balance on the man’s broad shoulder, then plummeted unnoticed to the mossy earth.
Hester was coming from the garden when her husband raced out of the woods and around the fenced compound in which the houses stood. She crept along as though each step were an act of painful labor. With one hand she carried the freshly rinsed ceramic chamber pot she used at night instead of making the long walk down to the cold water closet off the kitchen.
“Where you going in such a hurry?” She waited for him to reach her, her shawl clutched over her flat, pious chest.
“Shipwreck,” he said, as he passed her. “Crashed into Pyramid Rock. I’m taking the horses down to the beach for survivors.”
“What’ll you do with ’em if you find any?” she called after him in the waspish voice she was careful never to use around others.
Bartholomew didn’t bother to answer. He rushed into the barn, snatched bridles off the wall and went to work readying the four horses they kept for hauling supplies.
Hester was still standing on the path, her thin face scrunched with disapproval, when he led the horses out into the fog.
“Won’t have no putrefying bodies stinking up my house,” she said, following him to the back porch of their home.
“Don’t worry, Hester, I’ll put them in the barn.”
He glanced up as a white beam cut weakly through the thickening fog, followed by a red flash. On a good day the beam could be seen twenty-one miles out to sea. But today wasn’t a good day. At least Pritchard had not fallen asleep and allowed the light to go out.
“Have Seamus relieve Pritchard, Hester, and send the boy down to help me. Right now I need blankets, and that brandy we keep for emergencies…if you haven’t drunk it.”
Hester blanched, then colored. In her best imitation of refined gentility, which she usually saved for company, she said, “How dare you accuse me of drinking alcoholic beverages? You know I am a member in good standing of The Tillamook Women for Temperance Coalition…even if you have buried me here where I can’t get to the meetings anymore.”
Her husband tossed her a look of disgust, saying nothing about the bottle of Dr. Hamilton’s Heavenly Elixir he had found that morning under the porch steps. The so-called tonic was mostly alcohol, but Hester had ignored his demand that she destroy her supply. She claimed it gave her strength and made her feel better. Bartholomew no longer cared. It made her easier to live with, if nothing else.
“Yes, Hester. Now get the blankets, please, I haven’t time to argue.”
“Get them yourself then. You can move faster than me.”