San Francisco 1872
Diana ran quickly, clutching her son in her arms as she ducked down a deserted alley. Too terrified to look back, she pressed the baby’s head as firmly against her chest as she dared to steady him while running. She must make it back to her husband’s house before he found them. Jonathan would know what to do. She must make it there. She must.
Unfortunately, ladies of her caliber did not spend much time traversing the slums of San Francisco, so in record time, she was lost. It all looked the same to her. She was cursing herself for not paying better attention to her surroundings and allowing her traitorous coward of a driver to lead her to an unfamiliar part of the city.
He must have bribed him, the dark, exotic looking man whom she had never seen until last week. Why did he want her so badly? The barbarian had already tried once before to take her, but she had escaped his clutches, only to fall back into them, she thought bitterly. Her terror was increased substantially this time, however, because now she had her son to protect as well. When she had looked out the window of her carriage and seen where she was, she had jumped out and run at the first stop her driver made.
Panting, she ducked down another alley she hoped would take them back to one of the main roads. From there she could find her way home and to safety. Up ahead, she could make out the signs of a busy intersection. She wished she had not laced her corset so tightly this morning; it was restricting her breathing so much that black spots were starting to appear before her eyes.
If she could just make it to the street ahead of her, she knew she would be safe. As if they had heard her thoughts, two rather large men materialized in front of her, blocking her path to salvation. Quickly, she skidded to a halt on her heels and spun around, hoping to find another alleyway that maybe she had passed. But no, that way was blocked too, by a handful of men this time, all of them leering at her.
There was no escape, but she couldn’t just let them take her and her son without putting up more of a fight.
“Help!” she screamed. No one, save her would-be captors, stirred. If anything, her feeble attempts to delay her fate had only amused them. They advanced slowly, closing in on her.
“No, please! You can take me, just let my baby go,” she pleaded, though her cries fell on deaf ears. They were a mixture of murderers, thieves, and hired mercenaries. One savagely ripped the child from her clutches, causing her to shriek again. He shoved her hard onto the ground and passed the child to another smaller man, who held him more gently.
Her elbows skidded on the filthy ground, and she hissed in pain. She thought her heart was about to explode from beating so hard, and she willed herself not to faint. She needed to be completely alert so she could escape with her son. If only she could take a deep enough breath. Her panic was making it doubly hard for her to breathe, and she saw black spots in front of her eyes again.
“Aw hell, Mitch,” one of the men complained to the man who had taken her son, “she’s gonna’ faint.”
The bigger man glared at him and growled. “Ain’t my problem. Pick her up and get a move on. Boss won’t like it if’n we’re late.” He glared at her, obviously blaming her for their potential tardiness. He turned and motioned for something. A bottle was handed to him with a dirty stained cloth.
Her panic magnified at this point because she recognized the substance. She hastily tried one more futile attempt at escape only to have a heavy boot planted on her chest pinning her to the ground. Her air completely blocked off now, against her will, the blackness consumed her. The last thing she heard was one of the men’s voices.
“Well, she’s done gone and fainted. I guess we don’t need that stuff after all.”
* * * *
The first thing Diana heard when her senses slowly came to her was the muffled sound of footsteps. Her heart thudded in her chest as she grew aware of her surroundings. She appeared to be on a boat or ship of some kind by the way the room seemed sway gently. She bolted to her feet and scanned the room for her son, but he wasn’t there.
Where was he? Her panic threatened to overwhelm her again as she contemplated the horrible things that might have happened to him. Her stomach rolled, and she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to remain calm. Her attention was diverted when the door swung open and an unfamiliar man walked in, not bothering to close the door behind him. Like a cornered animal, she leapt at him shrieking and clawing his face.
She obviously took him by surprise because he lost his balance and landed hard against the floor with a grunt. Without looking back, she bolted through the doorway, frantic to find any sign of a child. A large Asian woman was unfortunate enough to be leaving a room at the same time Diana happened to be barreling up the hallway. Nothing could stop her though, and she shoved the woman into the wall as hard as she could and left the outraged female in a squalling heap on the floor.
She had already sprinted up one flight of stairs and knew then that she had been in the hold. As she looked ahead to the second set of stairs, hope blossomed in her chest. She determined she would jump right over the edge of the ship if she had to. She didn’t know how to swim, but she was willing to take that chance. God only knew the horrors her captors had planned for her. Most likely it would be a fate worse than death, the kind her mother had always warned her about during the war.
She heard shouts behind her that spurred her to move even faster. As she clawed her way up the stairs to the first deck, sunlight hit her, temporarily blinding her. She forced her eyes to adjust quickly, afraid this was the moment her captors would need to catch her off guard. Blinking in surprise, she looked around and saw only one old man who looked alarmed at the sight of her bedraggled state. He began yelling, apparently for help, and she lost no time in running across the deck to the railing.
She was flooded with relief as she noted that the ship was still docked. She choked back a sob at the thought of leaving her baby behind, but if she could only get help, then maybe there was a chance to save him. It was difficult to walk steadily in her high-heeled boots, and as she descended the plank, she lost her balance and landed hard. Biting back a cry of pain, she looked up and saw him, the man who was responsible for her current distress, standing ashore about a hundred feet away, surrounded by some of the men who had taken her.
He saw her trying to escape and ordered his men to stop her. He looked upon her with a dispassionate stare from that distance, and she leveled an enraged glare at him. She recognized him at once as one of the Chinese immigrants. Like the others, she had never once given him a second thought. A lady would never stoop to speak to one of them. He, however, was dressed far better than the others she had seen in San Francisco. Most of the men were dirty wretches, and the women were equally horrid, horrible creatures that were not even allowed to enter through the front door of any reputable establishment.
Of all the Chinese she had seen, however, this one was the least likely suspect to have caused her harm. To look at him, one would never think he was so evil. His face was exquisitely formed and unlined. Onyx eyes, framed by dark lashes, shined brightly, only enhanced by his dark ornate clothing and straight, silky, black hair that was pulled back high on his head and through some sort of hair piece. His hair was left hanging from it like a horse’s tail. To be so richly attired, she knew he must be wealthy in his country. Why was he here then? she thought angrily. Why didn’t he go back to his own country and leave her alone?
Because he is going to do horrible things to you, and you were too stupid and clumsy to properly escape, she told herself. She rose to attempt one more escape and limped to the other side of the ship, knocking over some empty barrels to slow down her pursuers. The old man who had called for help earlier was still there now, pointing a gun at her. She was afraid, but not nearly as afraid as she was when she thought about where she was going if she didn’t make it off this boat. Calmly staring at the old man, she backed up against the railing and slowly turned her back to him. If he was going to shoot her, her only regret would be that she hadn’t been able to save her son.
Almost daring him to fire at her, she hiked up her skirts and gingerly climbed on to the edge of the railing, using a hanging rope to help her balance. Her right ankle still throbbed persistently, and she tried to shift all her weight onto her left leg. She stared belligerently at the man who was in a quandary as to what to do with her.
He could not let her escape, but neither could he shoot her. His master had given him explicit instructions, and he supposed he was going to sell her in Shanghai once they reached that city. Blonde hair was an unusual attraction in the Orient. He scratched his head, thinking. It wasn’t as if she was a virgin though. He had seen her little boy when the others had brought the two of them on board. He knew virgins by far were worth more at market than any other, so maybe it didn’t matter as much if he maimed her temporarily.
Loud shouts behind him relieved him of his dilemma, and the man backed up a ways to give the others more room. She looked down at the icy water that lay beneath her and wondered if she would survive it. Well, not with a tight-fitting bodice cocooning her in and making it almost impossible to move her arms freely. The corset had to stay, however. There was no way she was removing that in front of all these men like some dockside whore, even if it would save her life. The master of the ship had boarded quickly yet silently and now walked over to the group who was trying to coax her down. He said nothing, only silently stared at her, his eyes unreadable.
She ripped off the bodice and decided to try one last time to beg for the life of her son. She shivered in the brisk wind that was billowing around her, chilling her body without the minimal protection of her blouse. Looking down at the man, she pleaded with him.
“Please, Sir. Please let me go. Give me back my son, please,” she begged, trying to fight down rising hysteria.
He merely cocked an eyebrow and said something in his native tongue to a man standing next to him. It was apparent he was denying her request. She’d assumed that he would.
“Fine,” she spat, and with one twirl, she was over the edge.
She had not been prepared for how cold the water was. It hit her like knives and made it impossible for her to breathe, even as she rose up and broke the surface. She flailed her arms in a poor imitation of those she had seen swim before as a child. She made it barely a few feet when her skirt became so entangled she couldn’t move her legs freely anymore. It was three times as heavy with the weight of the water soaking it and helping drag her down.
She fought her way back to the surface only to be dragged back down again. Unfortunately, she tried to take a gulp of air and instead received seawater. It filled her lungs and felt like fire burning her from inside before darkness came again. Out of nowhere, a large arm wrapped around her waist and snatched her up.
A hard thumping on her chest caused Diana to twitch for a second, and then she started coughing and choking up saltwater. She rolled to her side, let it all come back up, and coughed against the burning salty taste. Still coughing and exhausted, she rolled back over and wearily looked up into the angelic face of her captor. Her botched escape hadn’t moved him to break his mask, and she could see now how unfeeling and evil he truly was.
She wrapped her arms around her body and couldn’t stop her teeth from chattering. She was ten times as cold now with the wind whipping over her soaking wet body as she had been before. Her face turned red as she realized her top half was now completely exposed, for her thin white camisole left nothing to the imagination when wet. Her dark pink nipples were completely visible to the entire crew, and most did nothing to hide their leers of pleasure at seeing her. She feebly glared at them all. Only their leader and a couple of others seemed undisturbed by her half-nakedness.
The man with the beautiful face briskly said something to his crew, and they dispersed, though most walked away backward trying to get one last look at her. He crouched down gracefully beside her, and she closed her eyes, waiting for his retribution. But none came.
“There is no escape for you,” he said with an accent. He surprisingly spoke English very well and absently traced his full lower lip with a thumb before speaking again. “This time I will not have you beaten, but if you try to escape again, there will be consequences. Do you understand?” His black eyes immobilized her.
“What do you want from me and my son?” she rasped in a whisper, her throat still raw form the salty water.
“I have bought you. You are mine to do with whatever I wish. The child was not a part of the bargain I agreed to with your husband, but he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all the trouble I have gone through with you and others,” he added distastefully, “I am inclined to keep him as my slave also. Children make good slaves as they are easily trained.” He said all this without any apparent guilt or shame, and she paled. Icy shock washed over her heart.
Jonathan? Jonathan sold her to this man? She didn’t believe it, refused to believe it. Her husband loved her more than anything in the world, except maybe Colin. The thought of him selling her was preposterous and barbaric.
Diana could feel her captor’s eyes on her, staring as he waited with suppressed impatience for her mind to work through what he’d just told her and realize her husband was a selfish bastard. Her jaw tightened as she kept her eyes downcast. If he thought for a second she would believe his lies, he was wrong. He was simply a dirty slave trader who was trying to make her feel hopeless with nowhere to go. But something he’d said had given her a glimmer of hope. Her son had not been meant for this fate, only her. If she could somehow reason with him, maybe he would let him go.
Weak but desperate, she snaked a trembling white hand up to his sleeve and clutched his arm with all the force she could muster. “Please, if you let my son go, I will do whatever you want for the rest of my life. I will never try to escape again, I swear,” she begged as tears began streaming down her face.
He shrugged a shoulder, though he didn’t jerk away from her hand. “What do I care for the promises of one such as you? Your kind has no honor, and you value nothing but money.”
Diana frantically grasped tighter, mustering up more force than she thought she had. “I do. I value my child. I swear on the life of my son that I will keep my word. Just return him to my husband, and you can gut me like a fish for all I care.” She blanched at the thought but decided he hadn’t taken her just to carve her up.
His perfectly formed lips twisted into a slight sneer as he stared down at her. “I will hold your son’s life in exchange for your vow. If at any time it is broken, your son’s life will be forfeited. I come to America often,” he added. The thinly veiled threat hung in the air, and he stood and turned around swiftly.
She didn’t know what was happening. Was her son to be freed?
He barked out an order to a clean-cut white man standing nearby. “Take the boy back to his father. You know the address.” He eyed her meaningfully as he finished speaking, and the other man ran to do his bidding. She paled with the realization that they knew where she lived.
Diana wrapped her arms around her body and managed to get onto her knees, but she was so cold she couldn’t think properly. She fought to keep an eye out for one last look at her son and was rewarded with only a glimpse of his scared and confused face as he was carried off the boat. She stood too fast, trying to choke out some semblance of a good-bye, and promptly sank back to her knees. It was so cold, and her new master was apparently forcing her new status upon her. She would not be warm unless he wanted her to be. All she could think about as she passed out for the third time that day was her son’s face as he was hopefully carried to freedom.
Her baby’s sweet face.