The Caroline

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In the Hotel that night.

They followed the maids carrying water for them up to their rooms. Wyatt entered Caroline’s room with her to see her bag already there, placed her second bag on the low table, and checked what he could see out of the window as he looked out across the busy street. No one on the street seemed interested in that upper floor of the hotel. He could see no one behind any of the windows opposite, and no one could see him. There was no easy way up to either of their rooms on the outside of the building, no roof for anyone to walk over or tree that might give access to that window.

She overheard some of the exchange between Wyatt and the clerk and knew what his concerns were. She felt she could look after herself once he left her pistol, which she had given to him for safekeeping on the drive out of town, but was not about to scorn his help. However, she gently but firmly showed him to the door, or he might not have easily left. “Sir, after that most wonderful outing together, I need to bathe and change so that we may dine together. I can assure you that I can manage that by myself. If you are worried about my being safe without you, I assure you that I shall lock the door behind you, and I do have my pistol.” She watched him place it on her table. “When I am ready, I shall come and knock on your door, and then we can go down for dinner together.” He had to be satisfied with that. She saw him go along to his own room, and then, as he turned and watched her, she closed and locked her own door.

When she opened her door thirty minutes later, just as the dinner gong sounded, she found him waiting patiently for her, sitting by the table located at the top of the stairs. He had heard her key turn and had folded his newspaper and laid it on the table beside him and stood up, as a gentleman should when a lady approached him, especially one who smiled so charmingly at him. She hoped he had not been waiting long.

She had been as quick as she could be, but he had not wasted any time either. He said nothing about how long he might have been waiting for her, but made it seem—when she made the comment that she hoped that he had not been waiting long—as though he had just arrived there and had waited for less than a minute for her. It had been one of those minor deceptions but a gentle and forgivable deception compared to the others they had alluded to. He had probably been waiting for almost twenty minutes but would never admit to it.

“If I had been waiting for even an hour, my dear, that smile and the way you dress would have more than made up for it.” She acknowledged his obviously considerate response, as well as his carelessly calling her his dear with another smile. He had seen to their accommodation; the horses; the carriage; and getting to the Hudgin’s estate, while all that she had needed to concern herself with was seeing that she was properly dressed—a dress for the carriage ride, her riding clothes, clothes to dine in, clothes to walk back to the boat—and, of course, her toiletry, perfumes, and nightclothes. She had not taken such great care over herself for many years or had needed to. Men seemed to have so much more simple a time of it.

He took her key from her, placed it with his own in his pocket, and linked her arm as they went down to the dining room for dinner. She was aware that he had admired her with some surprise as she had walked the few tens of feet to join him along the corridor, but she had admired him, just as he admired her. He was dressed as a gentleman rather than as a ship’s officer. When they entered the dining room, there was a momentary lull in the conversation as several heads turned to see who the extraordinarily beautiful young woman with the long hair might be, with her husband on her arm. Some of them were frequent travelers themselves and may have known Wyatt by sight, and knew his business, though they had never seen him in company of any woman for longer than a few minutes. He would never marry and tie himself down but would have a woman waiting for him in every port.

She was not known at all. However, strangers were common through that town, with people coming and going all the time from the river; so they did not attract attention for long, and none at all once the food began to be served. He helped her to her seat and by that simple considerate gesture to her gender had set himself even farther apart from those others in that same room.

There was no choice on the menu other than to accept what was placed in front of you, or not, but no one needed to go hungry as there was hot bread, fresh from the oven, constantly being brought to each table and a little butter brought only for them to use. None had been placed on any other of the tables. It had once been a rare luxury, and still was, but not so much here for some reason. They were being shown as special and privileged guests.

They began with a spicy soup with various kinds of fish, as well as shrimp and crayfish. The main course was a rich meat stew in a thick gravy with carrots, onions, and sweet potatoes along with turnip and with a doughboy floating in the dish. The bread was for those more eager diners to use to mop up the gravy and who were not shy to do so. His companion was hungry, and they spoke very little as the meal progressed. Wyatt said nothing, but some of the tough meat in that stew was certainly horsemeat. Some things had not changed. Unlike those at the other tables, who seemed to be served only with beer, Wyatt had spoken for a bottle of wine for them both. They both decided to forego desert after that, though it looked delicious and might even be apple pie. There was another choice: Pecan pie.

The dining room was almost empty when they finally left. Wyatt noticed that she was unsteady on her feet. He reached out and took her arm to steady her. He had not realized that she had that much of the wine.

She apologized. “My foot seems to have gone to sleep.” He smiled at her and waited for her to recover as he escorted her upstairs.

She did not object when he steered her to the left, toward his room at the top of the stairs, rather than right, toward her own, though she had noticed.

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