His Californian Countess

The wind freshened and the sun reflected off the rippling water like dancing diamonds.

“This is all such…such an adventure.” Amber’s smile was even broader now, showing more of her even, white teeth. Her eyes had gone wide with wonder, too.

Jamie looked away from her, feeling things he shouldn’t for an unescorted female. His gaze fell on the water, and through her battery of questions he experienced again the excitement of his first journey.

“So, does your adventure end with the voyage?” he asked. He looked back at her. The attraction he felt for this woman showed him how little he’d known of true desire before.

“End of the adventure?” his lovely rail partner asked, calling him back from his mental wanderings. That endearing frown reappeared. It made her eyebrows arch downward in the middle.

“I hope the adventure continues for a long time.”

His Californian Countess
Harlequin
®
Historical

Available from Harlequin
®
Historical and KATE WELSH

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His Californian Countess
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KATE WELSH
HIS CALIFORNIAN COUNTESS

HIS CALIFORNIAN COUNTESS
Chapter One

1876—New York, New York

J
amie took a sip of tea and winced at how scratchy his throat felt. Leaning back, he looked around the sitting room of the town house he’d bought and decorated with the best in French furnishings. It was what he’d needed it to be—a fitting setting for the Earl of Adair, a wealthy British lord. When he’d first arrived in New York City he’d needed the businessmen of New York to trust his finances and ignore the rumors his uncle had spread that he was penniless.

They had.

And Jamie had done what he’d come to America to do. He’d invested his late wife’s inheritance in the growing country, filling the Adair family’s coffers to overflowing. His title—Earl of Adair—had opened the doors to success, but he’d unexpectedly found the United States offered more. It offered freedom, something he’d craved his whole life. He much preferred the name he’d lost when he became earl, Jamie Reynolds.

Lord, he was exhausted. He dropped his head back and stared up at one of the crystal chandeliers gracing the ornate ceiling. His eyes wouldn’t focus and the effect blurred the beauty of the teardrop pendants.

He blinked. He hadn’t caught scarlet fever from his daughter Meara. Of course, he hadn’t. The doctor said it was nearly impossible for an adult to contract it. He was only tired. He wouldn’t be ill. He didn’t have time. Now that Meara was on the mend he had to redirect his attention to finding Helena.

Jamie glanced at the breakfast Mimm had laid out as he reached for the newspaper on the silver tray next to him. He couldn’t bring himself to eat, but to sit with his tea and actually read a newspaper felt wonderful—such a normal activity after days of dealing with one crisis after another with Meara.

Then his relief over his daughter’s recovery bloomed into a new worry in an instant. He sat dumbfounded and stared in horror at the masthead. “May sixteenth?” he gasped as he crumpled the edges of the newspaper in his fists. “This can’t be right. How could it be six days since she fell ill?”

But of course, the
New York Times
didn’t misprint its date. Last he remembered it was ten days into May. He’d still had nearly a week—one last-ditch effort to find Helena before the
Young America
sailed.

She’d eluded him for months since his search began back in Pennsylvania when the mine owner there told him Helena had run off to New York to catch a clipper to California. He’d hoped to find her before she boarded the ship. But he’d failed. Thank God he’d booked passage just in case he didn’t locate her before the sailing.
Today’s sailing.
At this point, he’d be lucky to make the ship himself.

So what was he doing just sitting there? He’d not a moment to spare. Jamie jumped to his feet and shouted, “Mimm! I have to leave.”

His rotund housekeeper rushed in. “What on earth is wrong, lamb?”

“Her ship sails in a little more than two hours. I must get to the
Young America.
Find her. Stop her.”

Mimm arched one of her eyebrows, giving him one of her shrewd looks. “Yer lady love, my lord? ’Pears to me she’s not sharin’ yer feelings.”

“Helena was never my ‘lady love’ as you keep calling her. You know how I feel about that. I promised her father I’d see to it she was safe. I only offered for her to keep her off her damned guardian’s auction block. Now because I failed to explain why I was offering marriage she’s traveling as an unprotected miss. Her feelings for
me
are immaterial to my search.” Too agitated to stand still, Jamie paced across the fine Oriental rug, closing the distance between them. He’d given his word to a dying man. A man he very much feared had died in his place.

“You need sleep, not to go hying off after someone who don’t want nothin’ to do with you,” Mimm said. “Besides which, Meara’s out of danger, but not able to face such a journey. And frankly neither am I.”

“And I am not proposing either of you come along. I’ll meet you in California,” he said, then rushed off to see his trunk was packed.

Miriam Trimble had never learned there were things best left unsaid. But she’d been more than a mother to him. He owed Mimm for his very life so he guessed that gave her the right to say whatever she wished.

 

She eyed him when he met her in the hall outside Meara’s room several minutes later. “I still say this isn’t a good idea. You’re lookin’ a bit peaked to me, me lamb.”

He took her shoulders in his hands. “I’m sorry I snapped before, Mimm. I’m okay, as Americans say. It’s a childhood disease Meara had. You heard the doctor. All I could get is a lesser form. Besides, I don’t have time to be sick and that’s all there is to it.”

“Sickness isn’t all that cooperative, darlin’. I’m worried for you.”

He nodded and shrugged on his coat. “You needn’t be. I’ll be fine. Is Meara sleeping?”

“Aye.”

Meara needed sleep more than a farewell hug from her da. “I hate leaving her after being gone nearly all winter, especially without saying goodbye. Give her my love and tell her she’ll have a great adventure seeing this vast country from the rail car when you all travel to join me in San Francisco. I think perhaps the doctor is right about the air at Cape May. I asked Palmer to see that the house there is opened when he was here…was it yesterday?”

Mimm sighed. “Last evening after the little one’s fever broke.”

Jamie raked a hand through his hair. He really was exhausted. “I’ll make sure there’s a pony waiting in New Jersey for her birthday. That ought to help get her strength back and make up for my missing her special day. Tell her I’ll see her by mid-September.”

“We’ll miss you, lamb. Take care,” Mimm ordered.
When he looked back down the hall, she had tears in her eyes.

“I’ll be fine,” he promised, then turned away and hurried from the town house. He couldn’t let the clipper sail without him. He stopped on his way to the docks to see his man of business. There, he and Palmer put in place the plans for Meara and her entourage, as well as the purchase of the pony. Then he hastened down Dover Street to Pier 28 where the
Young America,
black hull gleaming in the late morning light, stood ready for departure.

He arrived just as several longshoremen prepared to hoist the gangplank off the clipper’s gunwale, making him the last to board. Mindful of his driver carting his trunk behind him, Jamie strode up the gangplank, his knees growing weaker by the minute. He knew he didn’t present the aristocratic image his uncle would expect, but he’d finally gotten to a place where that didn’t matter. America had not only allowed him to amass a sizeable fortune and given him a buoyant sense of freedom; it had helped him put most of the ghosts of his past to rest.

Except for the reason he needed to watch over Helena. Because if he was right that Harry Conwell had given his life for him, Jamie’s past was still a threat to his present and future.

Many of the passengers were on deck, but Jamie didn’t see Helena. He found the steward and asked if she’d boarded. The man returned to him rather quickly with the news that she had and so Jamie began his search again.

Then he saw her. Sunlight gleaming in her blond hair, she stood at the rail, looking down at the murky water. He walked over and tapped her on the shoulder.
She whirled to face him. Though there was a strong resemblance, this young woman wasn’t Helena. She had the same heart shape to her face and the same perfectly turned-up nose, but rather than blue, she had the biggest, darkest brown eyes he’d ever seen. A poet would say a man could fall into their depths and not care if he were ever seen again.

He felt a primeval punch to his gut. He’d never felt this before. It was attraction that went past that to desire, but was untainted by lust. He was quite unprepared.

She tilted her head and frowned a bit. “May I help you, sir?”

It was only then he realized he’d been staring. He blinked and the deck shifted under his feet. “Sorry. At first I thought you were someone else. But you aren’t her a’tal.” He nearly cringed at the sound of the Irish lilt in his voice before he remembered. He was free. He could talk as he wished. His uncle had drilled repressing that accent into him all his life, but he was his own man now. Jamie Reynolds answered to no one.

“Should I be sorry I’m not her?” the young woman asked.

“Definitely not.” He didn’t know what surprised him most, her sweet, warm smile, her answer, or his. Nor did he know why she’d unnerved him so completely. “Is this your first trip at sea?” he asked, needing, for some reason, to keep the conversation going. He knew he should probably continue his search for Helena, but now that the ship was under way, all urgency deserted him. He pushed thoughts of Helena away, suddenly wanting to know more about this lovely, innocent-eyed woman.

“I was born in California, but my family died of fever. I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle but I
traveled overland. I remember little of the journey and only a bit more of the state. This is my first trip anywhere since except to Poughkeepsie, New York. I went to a college there.”

He raised his eyebrows. “College?”

She nodded. “Vassar.”

“Beautiful
and
intelligent. Not qualities I’ve seen in combination all that often.”

Her little pointed chin notched up a bit. “Are you saying it is mostly homely girls who have good minds?”

She had backbone. He liked that. “I was speaking of London and the young women of its marriage-mart Season. Beauty and pretty manners are prized. Intelligence isn’t.” He hoped she hadn’t noticed the bitterness in his tone.

She blushed prettily and he relaxed. “That was a compliment, then?” she asked, her head tilted a bit.

“Of course. Colleges for women are rare, aren’t they? England has Girton College, but they don’t offer a degree.”

“Vassar does and there will be more colleges that do, I assure you. You find London’s women distasteful for some reason.”

And she was perceptive. “Many of them are only interested in learning how to trap a man into marriage, then to run his house and his life afterward. They aren’t beating down Girton’s doors, I assure you.”

She smiled. “And you had to come all the way to America to escape them?”

“I had other purposes in coming here. It’s a happy coincidence that they’re there and I’m not.”

She seemed to ponder his answer with an adorable little frown wrinkling her smooth forehead. “It wasn’t very smart of them to let you escape.”

He laughed. “So if they’d been smarter, I wouldn’t be here? Intelligent women can be dangerous then. I must remember that.”

It was her turn to laugh. And it was such a low and sensual sound it reminded him he’d been too long without a woman’s warm body beneath his.

She flashed a look at him from head to toe, then gave him a teasing grin when her eyes met his. “You look quite capable of defending yourself against danger of any sort,” she said. Then she did the strangest thing. She looked out over the water and her expression changed from temptress to pixie in an instant. “Oh, look! We’re moving. It’s so beautiful,” she cried, so animated she fairly vibrated with glee.

“We’ve been moving since we began talking.”

“I hadn’t thought there’d be so much water! Which is rather silly of me, isn’t it? It’s only that this is all such…such an adventure.” Her smile was even broader now, showing more of her even white teeth. Her eyes had gone wide with wonder, too. Innocent eyes.

He looked away from her, feeling things he shouldn’t for an unescorted female. An innocent one at that. His gaze fell on the water and through her battery of questions, he experienced again the excitement of his first voyage.

Growing a bit tired, but not wanting this interlude to end, he leaned on the rail and pointed out Brooklyn with its verdant-green rolling landscape, Manhattan and the few landmarks within it that he’d learned to spot on earlier trips.

The wind freshened and the sun reflected off the rippling water like dancing diamonds. The ship vibrated and the deck shifted under his feet. Crewmen seemed
to fly up the ratlines. A whooshing sound from the bow cutting through the water filled the air, disturbed only by a drone of conversation from the passengers still on deck or the occasional shout of a crewman going about his business.

“So, does your adventure end with the voyage?” he asked now that they entered the harbor. He looked back at her. It was a lowering thing to admit, but the attraction he felt for this woman showed him how little he’d known of true desire before. He certainly hadn’t felt anything like this for Helena for whom he’d embarked on this voyage. For her he felt only duty and obligation. Perhaps he should be looking for her now, but he had the whole voyage to relay her father’s worry for her safety and to offer whatever assistance she needed.

“End of the adventure?” his lovely rail-partner asked, calling him back from his mental wonderings. That endearing frown reappeared. It made her eyebrows arch downward in the middle.

I must get her name.

“I hope the adventure continues for a long time.”

“Where did it begin, if I may ask?”

“Begin? I grew up in the mountains in Pennsylvania. I’d been to Poughkeepsie, New York, for college, but that city is small, especially compared to New York City. I’d been through there on the way to the school, but I never left the rail station. The cities have been very exciting.”

“Cities, not city?”

She laid her hand over his on the rail and smiled at clearly happy memories. “I stopped off in Philadelphia. For the Centennial Exposition and—oops.” She lifted her hand from his and covered her mouth with it. His
gaze flew to her eyes and found them widened. He didn’t know what could have alarmed her when all he felt was the loss of her innocent touch. “I shouldn’t have mentioned our Centennial, should I?”

He smiled. “I took my daughter to see it. I assure you most people in Britain have got over the revolt. It has been a hundred years, after all. Though there are those who still insist on referring to America as the colonies.” His smile widened. “I suppose it follows that a country bold enough to revolt against an ancient power would spawn colleges for women and female adventurers,” he teased.

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