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Cold Gold

Chapter One

 

Cold Creek, California

March, 1907

 

She should have let him know of her arrival. She could have telegraphed him before she left San Francisco.

But then, Lady Serena Buxton reflected, when had she ever done anything expected of her?

She sat back against the velvet upholstered railway carriage seat, thankful to have the compartment to herself. The wheels hummed steadily along the rails but changed to a rattle as the train crossed a trestle bridge. She peered out of the window for her first sight of Cold Creek, then sighed with disappointment at the unprepossessing sprawl of buildings along each side of the creek that gave the town its name.

Beyond the town the jagged peaks of snow covered mountains reached up into a clear blue sky that seemed to go on forever. It couldn’t have been more picture-perfect. A moment later, as she stepped down from the train, she wished for it to be a picture as a bitter wind swept down from those snowy slopes. It sucked the air from her lungs, making her gasp. The cold bit into her cheeks as viciously as a hungry dog. Her eyes watered and Serena dabbed the resulting tears away with the edge of her sable wrap.

“Dammit, Randolph, why couldn’t your gold mine be somewhere warm?” she muttered.

She ducked her head against the wind and scurried across the empty platform to the stationmaster’s office, almost tripping on the doorstep in her hurry to escape the cold.

A glowing potbellied stove stood in the center of the room. Wisps of black smoke leaked from the stack that reached up through the roof. Serena ignored the sooty haze and moved into the circle of warmth the stove provided and peeled off her gloves. Her fingers were stiff with cold and she held them over the stove top until feeling returned. Only then did she begin to relax.

A quick glance around the room assured her she would find no more comfort than this. Weather stained windows, with solid wooden benches placed beneath them, faced each other across the bare plank floor. One window offered a view of the station platform and from the other, Serena could see a row of what could only be business premises. The street that lay between showed signs of much use, being deeply scored with wheel ruts. Sunlight glinted off the ice-encrusted edges, causing Serena to blink in the glare.

“Can I help you, Ma’am?”

Serena looked over her shoulder at the man who emerged from behind the ticket counter. From his clothes and cap she deduced he must be the stationmaster and smiled at him.

“When I have warmed myself a little,” she replied, still holding her hands over the stove.

“You chose a mighty cold day for traveling, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

She heard the curiosity in his voice. “Traveling in mid-March is not by choice, I assure you. It’s more of a necessity, if anything.” She rubbed her hands together then stamped her feet a little.

“I’ve got some coffee going back here, if you’d like some.” The man jerked his thumb towards the area behind the counter.

“That’s very kind of you but no, thank you.” Serena feared the coffee would be as black as tar, very strong and not at all to her liking. “I would, however, like directions to the Eldorado Hotel. Is it far?”

“It’s across the street behind us and down on the end of the next block.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any form of transport available to take me there?” Serena held her hands over the stove again.

The stationmaster laughed. “You could walk there by the time I get the station hitch harnessed or start the automobile.”

“Then I shall just have to walk very quickly.”

The door opened again, letting in an icy blast of air followed by a lanky boy dragging a loaded trolley.

“And here’s my luggage.” Serena eyed the piled trunks, hat boxes and valises. “These I would like delivered, if you please.”

“I’ll take care of that right away and, if you have no objection, I’ll have young Joe here walk you to the Eldorado.”

“Thank you, Mr...?”

“Wilding, Ma’am. George Wilding.” George tipped his cap.

“Well, Mr. Wilding, I thank you again.” Serena turned to the boy who twisted his cap nervously in his hands. “Are you sure you don’t mind walking me to the hotel, Joe? It is a very cold day to be outside.”

Joe blushed. “I d-don’t m-mind at all,” he stuttered, overcome with embarrassment at being made the object of her attention. “If you’ll c-come w-with me I’ll show you the way.”

George watched the young woman cross the street. Joe stumbled along beside her, trying to keep up. Her long, athletic stride made the skirt of her dark green traveling suit swirl about her legs. He’d noticed the wisp of dark hair that escaped the confines of her fur hat and her pink cheeks and clear gray eyes certainly brightened his day. No doubt about it, she was one good looking woman.

When they were out of sight he crossed to the trolley. He ran his hand over the top of a valise and eyed the trunks they perched on. He’d never seen Louis Vuitton luggage, but he sure knew the name and what it likely cost. Her unmistakably English accent, and everything else about her, spoke of a quality he normally didn’t see passing through his station.

Why would she be traveling alone, and what did she want in Cold Creek? He lifted one of the luggage tags.

Lady Serena Buxton, Eldorado Hotel, Cold Creek, California, he read.

He immediately recognized the name and his heart sank. He turned the tag over to make sure he hadn’t misread the label.

Lady Serena Buxton, Buxton Hall, Stoneton, Gloucestershire, England.

“Aw, hell,” he muttered. “Now there’ll be trouble.”

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Serena walked into the foyer of the hotel and stamped the snow off her boots on the mat inside the door. She turned to the young man who had accompanied her from the station.

“Thank you for walking me here, Joe.” The boy shivered inside his thin jacket and she withdrew a dollar from her purse. “Perhaps a warm drink will help revive you before you return to your duties at the station.”

Joe bobbed his head, his face still carrying a blush at her attention. He backed away and then slipped out the door.

Serena looked around the lobby in which she stood. The antlered heads of moose and deer decorating the walls reminded her of a Scottish hunting lodge. The setting seemed so familiar and nothing at all like the rustic accommodation she feared awaited her, it immediately put her at ease.

To her right a long reception desk fronted a wall filled with cubby holes. A surprisingly elegant stairway curved up to the second floor, the polished handrails surely the work of well-trained cleaning staff. To her left an open doorway led into a large, comfortable looking sitting room. Stylish tables and easy chairs sat on a colorful rug. Logs crackled, bright with flames, in a wide fireplace. Chilled from her walk, she moved toward the welcoming fire and held her hands towards the blaze.

Now that she had arrived, uncertainty danced in her stomach. Would Randolph be pleased to see her? He’d asked her to be patient and remain at Buxton Hall while he attended to his mining interests in Cold Creek. Only she wasn’t patient. She’d missed him terribly when he’d toured his holdings in South Africa, then insisted on traveling with him when he went to Australia. They had only been at home for a short while before Cold Creek needed his attention.

Their parting in England had been nothing less than acrimonious. One last trip, he told her, then that’s it. They’d settle down and start a family.

Serena sighed as she recalled their heated argument. She wanted children so much but Randolph appeared to have no joy in the prospect of producing an heir, even for the continuance of his family line. For as much as she loved him, did she love him enough to give up hope of ever having a child?

The core of the argument gnawed at her, almost breaking her resolve. She really should have telegraphed him from San Francisco. But, in spite of the devastation left by the earthquake a year ago, the city diverted her. Two weeks and dwindling funds later, she boarded the train for Cold Creek.

Had she really sought diversion, or merely dragged her feet to avoid the inevitable awkwardness of their first meeting? Remembering how they parted, she wasn’t sure now that he would be pleased to see her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of soft footsteps on the carpet and the swish of skirts. Serena turned to see a neatly dressed woman eyeing her curiously.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the bell,” the woman said. “May I help you?”

“I do hope so. I’m here to join my husband. I am Lady Serena Buxton. Could I be shown to his rooms, please?”

“You mean Randolph?”

“Well, yes, of course I mean Randolph. Lord Randolph Buxton.” Serena frowned at the impertinent use of her husband’s name. “Is something wrong?”

“Lady Buxton, I think you should sit down.” The woman appeared agitated as she indicated a chair by the fire. “I’ll get us some tea.”

The chill that traveled the length of Serena’s spine had nothing to do with the temperature outside the hotel. In spite of her wrap she shivered as she sank into the chair. The expression on the woman’s face did not bode well. What had happened? Could Randolph be ill or worse yet, lost in the mountains or maybe even dead? No, she couldn’t go there, would not even consider that eventuality as possible.

In a few moments the woman returned, carrying a tray which she set down on a side-table and then seated herself in the chair beside it.

“I’ll just let the tea steep a little,” she said. “I’m Lucy Vanderberg. My husband and I own this hotel. We have a small but select clientele, which is just as we like it. We didn’t know about Randolph’s title, but that would explain his manners.”

“Yes, he can be very personable.” Serena’s smile hid her impatience for news of him. She now wanted nothing more than to get their first meeting over and done with. “Do you know what time he might come in?”

The question seemed to upset Lucy. Her hands shook as she lifted the teapot, but she steadied them and began to pour.

“Unfortunately,” Lucy said slowly, handing the cup and saucer to Serena, “no one seems to know where Randolph is. He’s been missing for the past week.”

“A week?” Serena’s eyes widened in alarm and her hand trembled as she hastily replaced her cup in the saucer. Hot tea slopped over the rim of the cup and a drop splashed onto her hand. She gave a mew of surprise and flicked it off. “What is being done? Have search parties been out looking for him?”

“All that can be done, has been done,” Lucy assured her. “Sheriff Johnson’s problem is that no one knows exactly where Randolph was, or who he might have been with that day. All that is known, is that he went to the mine office in the morning and then, well, he just disappeared.”

Serena sprang to her feet and paced in front of the fire. She clenched her hand into a fist and pressed her knuckles against her lips. Why had she stayed in San Francisco? Why couldn’t she just have swallowed her pride and come straight to Cold Creek?

“No one just disappears,” she said stubbornly. “Are his belongings still here?”

Lucy nodded. “Everything, and his bill is paid to the end of this month. We thought he might have gone to Yreka, but nobody fitting his description has been seen there. And if he did go to Yreka he could only have gone by train and George says he didn’t buy a ticket.”

Serena crossed her arms and turned to face Lucy, her mind whirling. How many times had Randolph just dropped everything to go on a business trip? What if he walked through the door in five, or ten minutes time? She had to be here when he returned. “So you won’t object to me moving into his rooms?”

Lucy hesitated. “Well, of course, if you really are Randolph’s wife then...”

“What do you mean?” Serena demanded. “There is no question of my not being Randolph’s wife and if you require proof I can satisfy that as soon as my luggage is delivered.”

“Lady Buxton,” Lucy stood up. “You must understand that Randolph never talked about having a wife, or indeed any family. However, if you are who you say you are, then I would not want to upset him. But, if he has not returned by the end of the month, you will either have to pay your own way or move out.”

Serena swallowed and put her hand on her stomach to quell the butterflies dancing there. Paying her own way would be another problem altogether. Lucy walked to the entrance of the sitting room and then turned to her.

“I’ll have Min take you up to Randolph’s rooms so that you can refresh yourself and rest a little after your journey. Come down for dinner when you are ready.”

Serena slumped into the chair. Her stomach churned and roiled at the thought of food, making her feel quite nauseous. Damn her temper. If not for her fury at Randolph leaving her again, she would be safely at home in Buxton Hall with a secretary to arrange funds for her or her personal banker happy to indulge her financial requests. The last situation she expected did not include Randolph not being in Cold Creek.

“Missee?”

Her thoughts were interrupted by the soft voice and she looked up. She had not heard a sound, yet a slim Chinese girl with a face as round and smooth as a peach stood before her. The girl’s eyes were as dark as olives and she wore her hair pulled back in one long, thick braid. She could have been sixteen or sixty.

“Please come this way.”

“Are you Min?” Serena asked.

“Yes, Missee.”

Serena, almost mesmerized by the way the girl moved so silently and gracefully, followed her out of the sitting room and up the stairs. Min stopped outside a solid wood door and opened it. She stood to one side and indicated with a gentle sweeping motion of her hand that Serena should enter. Serena did so and immediately felt at home.

Advancing into the room she breathed in Randolph’s particular scent, so lost in the familiarity of it that she did not hear the door close behind her. Tall leather riding boots stood sentry beside a deep wing chair, as if waiting for their owner to step into them. A heavy overcoat lay over one arm of the chair. On the table beside it a stack of papers. slipped to one side, now spread across the surface in an untidy heap. All indications of normalcy were countered by Randolph’s absence.

Serena moved into the bedroom where the linens on the bed smelled clean and fresh. Pillows were piled against the headboard and the coverlet had been turned down, revealing crisp white sheets. She opened the dresser drawers and found folded shirts, long johns and knitwear. They were familiar, everyday things that would have been in Randolph’s dresser at home. When she looked in the wardrobe, the pungent aroma of cigars and Randolph’s favorite cedar wood cologne almost overwhelmed her. She rifled through the suits and pants hanging there, fingered the rough fabric of a tweed jacket. Something protruded from the breast pocket and she pulled it out.

An old, hand-tinted photograph showed her sitting in the rose arbor at Buxton Hall. She ran her fingers over it, remembered it being taken. Maybe she’d been wrong. Maybe he did love her. If not, why would he carry a photograph of her? She pushed it back into the pocket. Would he ever wear that jacket again? She dismissed the thought, quelled the dread that rose in her heart. If he didn’t come back, what would she do?

His razor, shaving brush and soap were arranged tidily on the washstand which stood against the wall on the far side of the room. Randolph had never been this tidy. Who had folded and hung his clothes and arranged his toiletries? Along with most men of his ilk, a valet or someone in the household took care of his domestic arrangements. Had Min been looking after him? And if not Min, then who? Serena feared the answer but she had to know.

A knock on the door stopped her from investigating further.

“Come in,” she called.

Min entered the room carrying a steaming kettle in one hand, and a water jug in the other.

“Missus Lucy say if you need bath, must book time tomorrow. Bath house always busy.”

“Thank you, Min.

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