Description*** Now with new material -- Hester and Galen's favorite Mud Pie Recipe ***
As a child Hester Wyatt escaped slavery, but now the dark skinned beauty is a dedicated member of Michigan's Underground railroad, offering other runaways a chance at the freedom she has learned to love. When one of her fellow conductors brings her an injured man to hide, Hester doesn't hesitate even after she is told about the price on his head. The man in question is the great conductor known as the "Black Daniel" a vital member of the North's Underground railroad network, but Hester finds him so rude and arrogant, she begins to question her vow to hide him.
When the injured and beaten Galen Vachon, aka, the Black Daniel awakens in Hester's cellar, he is unprepared for the feisty young conductor providing his care. As a member of one of the wealthiest free Black families in New Orleans, Galen has turned his back on the lavish living he is accustomed to in order to provide freedom to those enslaved in the south. However, as he heals he cannot turn his back on Hester Wyatt. Her innocence fills him like a breath of fresh air and he is determined to make her his, but traitors have to be found, slave catchers have to be routed and Hester's refusal to trust her own heart have to be overcome before she and Galen can find the freedom only love can bring.
Reader Rating: (6 Ratings)
Three loud thumps echoed through the floor beneath Hester's feet—a signal that her guests had finally arrived. She quickly moved aside the rocker, positioned as always in front of the big bay window, then the heavy rug underneath which hid the trapdoor. The visitors were late by more than two hours and she wholeheartedly hoped the delay resulted from the fiercely raging storm outside and not some unforeseen trouble.
Mr. Wood, an old Quaker friend of her late Aunt Katherine's, appeared first on the steps leading up out of the tunnel that ran beneath the house. He acknowledged Hester with a terse nod and handed her a drenched and shivering tarp-wrapped child of no more than five years. Hester carried the boy to the fire and set him down as close as safety would allow, then quickly returned to offer assistance to the others in Mr. Wood's party.
In all, he'd transported six on this trip: one man, and a couple with their three children.
The small family had fared well considering the dangers of the journey. Hester knew from her own experience what they must have experienced escaping north. Along with having to place their lives in the hands of strangers, even such dedicated conductors as Mr. Wood, fleeing slavery—and the only life they ever knew—had probably been a very difficult decision to make. However, they'd ridden the "train" together, and unlike some of the other guests who'd passed through Hester's station on the Underground Railroad, this family had arrived north intact.
The sixth visitor had not fared as well, Mr. Wood explained as he and Hester hurriedly made their way down the length of the lamp-lit earthen tunnel. "I wanted to take him on down to Harsen's Island, but he's hurt pretty bad."
The tunnel emptied out onto the banks of the Huron River, and outside the wind and rain swirled ferociously. Hester, fighting the force of the storm, pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. She had to squint against the deluge in order to help Mr. Wood undo the false bottom of the wagon. The man inside lay motionless. To Hester's surprise, he was dressed and rouged as a woman. The injuries had drained the color from his mulatto-gold complexion, but the angry red swelling and dark bruises associated with a severe beating stood out brilliant against the pallor of his skin. With the rain pouring over his face, he looked like a corpse.
"There's a price on his head!" Mr. Wood shouted to be heard in the storm. "You sure you want to do this?"
"I don't care," Hester screamed back. "Bring him in."
Between them, Hester and Mr. Wood managed to drag the unconscious man back through the tunnel and into the room built behind the wall of the house's underground cellar and finally settle him atop a cot.
"Who is he?" Hester asked softly. Kneeling beside the unconscious man, she listened to his shallow breathing while she hastily shrugged out of the wet shawl. One side of his face had borne the brunt of the beating. The eye was swollen shut, the skin around it had turned a vivid violet and black.
"The Black Daniel."
With a shocked expression, Hester turned his way. "Are you certain?"
Mr. Wood nodded a grim confirmation. "It'll be very dangerous hiding him, Hester."
She agreed. His exploits were legendary; slave catchers had been hunting the elusive Black Daniel for years for leading slaves north. His condition left her few options, however. He didn't look up to going on to the next station, a thirty-mile trip, especially not in the bottom of a storm-jostled wagon. He'd have to stay.
Hester gently opened his heavy woolen coat. Her stomach lurched at the deep red stain saturating the right side of the old dress he wore. "Are you going on tonight?" she asked Mr. Wood.
"Not with this storm," he responded while she ran her hands lightly over Daniel's upper torso and shoulder blades in search of less visible injuries. A soft touch over the surface of his ribs made him moan and his battered face twisted with pain.
"I believe he has some broken ribs," Hester said, looking up into Mr. Wood's concerned blue eyes. "He needs more help than I can give. If you're not going on, I need you to fetch Bea Meldrum and bring her here."
Bea lived about a half mile up the road and did most of the doctoring for their community, and right now Hester prayed she was home. "Help me get him out of this coat, then go get Bea."
At fifty-six years old, Mr. Wood was still a formidable-sized man, but the strain of raising the Black Daniel so Hester could slip the coat off showed plainly in the old man's face. The Black Daniel was big. He towered over Mr. Wood's six feet by more than a few inches. He also looked to outweigh him by a good fifty pounds. Mr. Wood described it as trying to raise a mountain.
When she freed him of the coat, Hester tried not to dwell upon the blood staining the sheet where the Black Daniel had lain, and silently signaled Mr. Wood to ease him back down to the cot.
Hester placed a hand on his damp forehead; fever had set in. He was beginning to shiver and shake. Because he'd been concealed in the false bottom of the wagon, his clothing, except for the blood staining it, felt relatively dry, so Hester left the dress, and the trousers he wore beneath, on him for now. After she and Mr. Wood removed the Black Daniel's boots, another maneuver which seemed to cause him much pain, she drew three large quilts from the old chest in the corner of the room and covered him gently.
Mr. Wood left to fetch Bea, and Hester went back up to the house to check on her other guests. The children were sleeping soundly in one of the bedrooms on the second floor of the big old house. Their parents were seated and talking quietly in front of the fire in the dining room. At her entrance, both looked up with tired smiles. After assuring Hester they'd had enough to eat, she directed them to the room they would have for their time here. In another few days, after they'd regained their strength and adequate clothing had been acquired for them and their children, they would decide whether to go on into Canada or try to carve out a new life somewhere else.
There was still a bit of hot water left in the kettle from the tea Hester had made earlier in the evening so she poured what was left into a small basin. Then she refilled the kettle and put it to boil just in case Bea needed the hot water. After covering the basin with a clean towel, she went in search of some clean rags that could be used for bandages. Ready, she extinguished the lights in the front rooms and went back to the man in the cellar.
Hester placed a hand on the Black Daniel's forehead – and felt fever-driven heat scorch her skin. In the short time she'd been away, he'd grown hot as a flatiron. Dampening one of the rags in the warm water, she gently began to clean up the cuts and abrasions on his swollen face. She hoped she wasn't causing him any pain, but there was no other way to tend the superficial wounds.
Mr. Wood returned with Bea a short time later. Hester considered Bea one of the oldest and wisest people around and was glad she had arrived to help with this situation. Bea declared that the wound in his side had come from a knife. She treated the ugly gash and stitched it closed, along with the wicked slashes across the backs of his hands. Three ribs were indeed broken and she bandaged him gingerly, though tightly, to give them support.
Bea also discovered why the removal of his boots had seemed to cause such pain; the left ankle was injured and very badly swollen. She wrapped it to keep it still.
When she was finished, Bea looked up and pronounced, "He'll live, although it's apparent someone wanted it otherwise." She gathered up her supplies and slowly got to her feet, saying with mock severity, "Lord, I hate getting old."
Bea had celebrated her sixty-seventh birthday last August First. She was a valuable member of the community, and Hester knew that when she inevitably passed on, there would be a hole left in everyone's hearts.
Bea shrugged back into the old olive-colored slicker she'd discarded earlier and said, "You know, Hester, beneath all that bruising is probably a very good-looking man."
Hester could see nothing of the man's true features beneath the injuries. "Why do you say that?"
With all seriousness, Bea replied, "Because the Good Lord would not put a mule's face on a man as finely made as that."
Hester, accustomed to Bea's frankness, simply shook her head and chuckled. The old woman could always be counted upon to bring a smile. Hester looked down upon the sleeping man. Earlier, Bea had cut away the old dress he'd been wearing to facilitate her work. He lay now on the cot, chest bare but for the white bandages encircling his ribs. Hester had seen a man's bare chest only two or three times in her adult life, but even she knew Bea spoke truth; he was indeed handsomely made. The chest appeared sculpted, the arms and shoulders powerful.
Bea's voice broke her reverie when she asked, "Hester, who is he?"
Hester looked quickly to Mr. Wood, who gave an almost imperceptible nod of "no" in response. Hester wholeheartedly agreed. Bea was a long-standing conductor on the road and could be trusted, but for now, the less people knew of the Black Daniel's presence, the safer it was for everyone. "He's simply a friend in need."
Bea nodded understanding and did not press. "Keep him warm, Hester. The needlework may be damp for a time, but should hold. He'll have to stay off that leg for a while, though."
Before she left, Bea gave a few more instructions and told Hester she'd be by in the morning to check on him again when she dropped off her weekly basket of eggs. Mr. Wood also promised to stop by in the morning before making the long trek back to Ann Arbor.
After their leaving, a quiet settled over the small hidden room, broken only by the man's labored breathing. Hester looked around wondering where she might be able to sleep since Bea had suggested Hester keep an eye on him at least for tonight. The draught he'd been given would ease some of the pain and more importantly, help him sleep. It was doubtful he'd awaken before morning, but if he needed someone in the middle of the night, Hester had to stay close at hand.
However, the cot he lay upon offered the only real bed. Hester was left with a choice of the old hardback rocker in the corner, or the packed dirt floor. Deciding on the chair, she pulled it closer to the cot and unearthed another few quilts from the chest. She'd gotten a good soaking transferring Daniel from the wagon. In her haste to see to his well-being she'd forgotten her own. Only now did she notice the cold dampness clinging to her dress and the slips beneath. Shivering, she cocooned herself in the chair. Common sense told her to go to the house and change into dry clothing. The arrival of tonight's guests and their need for a safe haven meant she would need all her faculties. She would be of little help to anyone if she became sick. But she didn't want to leave her patient.
She searched through the big chest again and brought out a long-tailed flannel shirt and a pair of long drawers. Both articles were sized for a much larger man, but they would have to do.
Shirt and leggings in hand, she moved over to the old black-belly stove. Despite the stoking she'd given it earlier while awaiting Bea's arrival, the underground room had only now begun to echo any heat. Hester shot her guest a quick glance. The draught seemed to be working. Comfortable that he wouldn't awaken, she stripped down to her well-worn muslin shift and drawers. The cold air in the room felt even brisker against her bare skin, motivating her to dry herself as swiftly as possible with the driest of her slips. That done, she quickly donned the long-sleeve shirt and ankle-length underdrawers. The damp dress and slips were laid out on a small bench near the stove so they'd be dry by morning.
Hester turned back to the chair and froze. The Black Daniel had been watching her. His one good eye made him appear kin to Cyclops. He was obviously fighting the draught and its effects because the lid refused to stay open. Again he opened it and again it slid closed. When the lid fluttered down for what seemed the last time, Hester gratefully thought he'd given up. But again he proved her wrong. To her amazement he tried to get up off the cot. When he tried to speak, Hester hastened to his side, telling him, "You must lie still."
When she began to bathe his fever-hot forehead and cheeks with the now-tepid water, he grabbed her wrist with such force she cried out. The eye opened and for a space of time she looked down into the gaze of a lucid man. She could see the questions and confusion there as he peered at her face. His attention shifted to her captured hand and she saw his surprise. She stiffened, damning herself for not remembering the gloves. He studied her for a moment. Then, as if he were somehow satisfied, he relaxed, released her wrist, and went back into the arms of the draught.
Hester exhaled the breath she was holding and rubbed her sore wrist while her heartbeat slowed to a normal pace. Under her assessing palm, his face still felt unnaturally warm. Remembering what Bea said about keeping him cooled down as much as possible, Hester resumed bathing his face. She just hoped he didn't grab her again.
While she worked to bring his temperature down, she sang softly: hymns, lullabies, popular tunes, songs she'd heard at rallies. All the while he continued to fight against Bea's medicine and seemingly his own demons; tossing and turning, murmuring fitfully in what sounded to Hester like French.
"Lie still," she cautioned softly. "You're safe here."
She had no idea if he understood, but she kept up the soft coaxing voice and her whispery crooning while continuing to soothe the heat in his skin with the cool cloth. At last, his breathing dropped to a more even pace and he quieted. Hester sighed in relief. When she was certain he would not reawaken, she placed the cloth beside the pan. She flexed her wrist, thinking that despite his condition, he did not lack strength.
After repositioning his quilts, she tossed more wood into the belly of the stove, and settled into the rocker as best she could. She wearily swathed herself in her own two quilts and closed her eyes.
Noises awakened Hester only a few hours later. For a moment she had trouble comprehending her whereabouts. A loud crashing sound rendered her wholly awake and alert. Her first glance swept the cot and found it empty. Alarmed, she looked around the small space and came face to face with the man called the Black Daniel. He stood by the shelf-lined wall which concealed the entrance to the room. The crashes she heard had been made by the falling of some jars of stored vegetables and fruit. In the dark he loomed like a giant, evaluating her silently.
She could tell he was in pain, but he didn't speak. A tremor passed through her under his scrutiny and she swallowed unconsciously.
She also saw that his strength did not equal his will. He was grudgingly using the edge of the shelf to support his weakened body. His shirt was unbuttoned and the bandages Bea had wrapped around his ribs glowed white against his golden skin in the shadows thrown off by the turned-down lamp on the floor. "You shouldn't be up," she stammered.
He didn't move. His gaze held her like a fist and she couldn't ease her racing heart or the shivers rippling her skin. She began to wonder if she'd made a rash decision letting him stay.
"Who are you?" he finally asked in a voice thick with strain.
She hesitated for a second then replied, "Hester Wyatt."
"Am I still in Michigan?"
She nodded, then said, "A town called Whittaker—"
"Yes. This cellar is beneath my home. You've been here since a few hours past midnight."
He thought a moment more then asked, "You do the doctoring?"
Hester wondered if he'd demand to know Bea's name, but he didn't. Instead he asked, "Is there some place a man can relieve himself?"
Hester turned away. "There's a pot over there," she said in a small voice.
"Outside," he clarified.
"You can't make it outside."
"If I can't, you'll be the only one embarrassed, I assure you."
Telling herself his attitude likely stemmed from his injuries, Hester bit back a retort, and threw aside her quilts. Clad in the long-tailed shirt and red underdrawers, she walked barefoot over to the wall where he stood. It took her practiced hands only a few seconds to release the latch. When it slid free, she pushed at the shelves and they swung out into the cellar. "Up those stairs and around to the back."
She waited smugly for him to fall on his face because of the injured ankle, but he didn't. He struggled, yes, and every step he took reinforced how weak one could become after being severely beaten and stabbed. However, he made it to the top of the stairs.
However, the big plank door above his head proved him mortal. That door was heavy and a man with broken ribs could not raise it. He did try though, making Hester worry about Bea's needlework and his sanity. Looking defeated and not liking it, breathing hard from the exertion, he turned and scowled at her.
Without a word, she joined him at the top of the stairs and pushed up on the cellar's door. He grumbled something which might have been a thank you, but she couldn't be sure.
Fifteen minutes later he hadn't returned, and Hester, still standing at the foot of the stairs, cold in the early dawn air, debated what she should do. Going out and making sure he hadn't fallen head first into the privy seemed to be the appropriate choice, however she didn't want to barge in only to find nothing amiss and wholly embarrass them both. She finally decided to give him a bit more time.
He returned a few minutes later and Hester noted that although his innards probably felt a lot better, on the outside he looked nearly as pale as he had in the wagon.
"I'm going to need your assistance, Hester Wyatt," he stated from above.
Hester went to his side. She groaned when his weight came down on her shoulder. This time she heard the thank you quite clearly.
The cords in Hester's neck were tight as bow strings from the strain when they finally made it back into the small room. He eased himself back down onto the cot and she stood beside it breathing hard.
Hester left him a moment to go back and close the cellar's big door, and when she returned she found him asleep. She felt his forehead; he was warm, but not as hot as he'd been at the beginning of his stay.
Reader Reviews (3)
Submitted By: homerlee on Sep 20, 2012Prequel to Vivid. More great historic facts, a great read and a delicious sounding recipe. I recommend this book.
Submitted By: nverde6 on Feb 25, 2012I LOVED this book. Thank you for introducing me to a new author. I really appreciated the tidbits of historical information woven into the story. The lead characters were very likeable and the romance was oh so sweet.
Submitted By: yveswms on Dec 22, 2011One can never go wrong with a Beverly Jenkins Historical Romance book. History, passion, laughter, passion, adventure, did I say passion?!