Will their love change the past, or secure it?
On a steam train trip to publicize her firm’s proposed high-speed rail link, Penny Barton meets Fletcher Dawe, a historical actor playing a Coshocton dry goods merchant and railroad investor. She’s fascinated with his period costume—and more—and is thrilled when he tells her he’ll call. But when she’s ordered to find him again for a client—or lose her job—it’s like he never existed.
Equally determined, Fletcher Dawe will complete his rail link on time despite sabotage and broken equipment. Yet when he tries to keep his promise to call on the beautiful stranger, he discovers no one in town has ever heard of her.
Frustrated with her inability to locate Fletcher, Penny finds a photo of him in a local restaurant—dated 1855. He existed all right, a hundred and fifty years ago. When she digs into the history of the railroad, she learns that things were not as idyllic as they seem, and that his lockmaster, Dan Hudson, died trying to stop the train. And that not everyone was excited to welcome the fledgling railroad to town…
Chapter OneDarkness descended, sudden and complete. Penny Barton shivered as fear wrapped its coils tight and squeezed her chest. Eyes wide, she strained to pierce the black wall around her.Water? No, no water. Her sweaty palms slipped against something smooth and hard. Heart racing, she stretched out a hand and touched wood, not rough rock.As those impressions registered, someone coughed, and her panic subsided. She pressed against the wooden seat, glad for its firm, reassuring presence. Trotman’s Cave loomed only in her past, not the present. She had nothing to fear from it or from Gerald. Here she faced the overwhelming memories, but not the reality of the black, rising waters that had once sought to envelop her.Gradually, daylight seeped back into the railroad car as the train emerged from the tunnel and sped into the light. Her breathing slowed, and she unclenched fingers that ached from the sudden release. Indentations showed on her palms where her nails had dug into the flesh. She rubbed her hands together, anxious to hide the evidence of her momentary panic. To her vast relief no one in the crowded railroad car paid her the least attention.She smoothed the skirt of her silk dress. The sales clerk at the costume shop had assured her the misty blue taffeta represented the prettiest and most stylish of the shop’s mid-nineteenth century stock. The matching feathered hat covered her short auburn hair, obviating the need for a heavy wig. She had refused the confining corset. Blue photographed well, too, the clerk had observed.Relaxing, Penny surveyed her fellow passengers. Mostly men and middle-aged, they came from various railroad clubs. They had the money to indulge in an expensive hobby, and well-to-do men meant potential investors for HyperTrans. She had planned this trip to use the nostalgia of the old steam engines to promote HyperTrans’ new high-speed rail link. This trip should do just that. But, Penny promised herself, she would make sure they used a route without tunnels next time.Yes, her boss, Jim Whelan, would be very pleased, and he couldn’t give the credit to her father for this one. Whelan persisted in his belief that the CEO had only hired her as Vice President of Marketing because of her dad’s role as a major investor. He conveniently ignored the HyperTrans anti-nepotism policy. Hard work and creativity had won her a place in a male-dominated business, and she would not let a man like Whalen ruin it. He came from the old school that preferred to see women as assistants or low-level subordinates rather than decision makers.The success of this trip could provide HyperTrans with a rosy future. If the company didn’t recruit more investors, the line would fail and Penny would have to find another job. She wouldn’t give Whelan that dubious satisfaction.“Hey, Penny.”She looked up as stocky, redheaded Ryan O’Connor, president of the Coshocton Railroaders’ Club slid onto the oak seat beside her. She pulled her voluminous skirt a little closer to give him room.He lifted the long tails of his frock coat as he settled back. “Great job. We’re having a super time. You know, I could almost believe we’re really riding the original Steubenville and Indiana Railroad.”Penny smiled, gratified that someone as knowledgeable as Ryan appreciated all her hard work. “Thanks. Your advice and the equipment from Magna helped make it authentic—almost too authentic.” She shifted her weight to get some circulation back in her legs.“Yeah.” Ryan grinned. “The railroads of 1855 didn’t waste money on frills for their passengers.”Penny shifted again. The hard oak seats, suspiciously like Puritan church pews, gave little comfort. With every mile traveled, the bench grew harder and more uncomfortable. Why hadn’t she thought to bring a pillow? “Magma should at least have provided upholstered seats.”“A little early for that.” Ryan laughed. “Anyway, the one amenity the railroad provided was a stove for winter, not that we need it today.” He pointed to the squat potbellied fixture at the front of the car. “Besides, most folks only rode between towns, less than an hour for the most part.”“And I had to plan a four-hour trip.”“Hey, it’s great. I’m a rail buff, remember? I love these old trains. Nice of Magna to offer us costumes—not that we needed them,” Ryan continued. “They should know reenactors already have that stuff. Anyway, I guess they wanted us to look the part for their filming. Still, it isn’t every day we get to ride a steam train, or be in a movie.” They both laughed.“How’d you get HyperTrans to fund this trip anyway?” Ryan asked, a quizzical smile on his face.Penny grimaced as she remembered Whelan’s shout when she proposed the project and showed him the likely cost. “Hard work. My boss had a few doubts, but when Magna Productions offered to supply the equipment and then agreed to share the costs, how could he refuse?”“He couldn’t. Anyway, we get the benefits.” Ryan undid the buttons of his vest and rubbed his paunch. Pulling out an antique gold pocket watch from his vest pocket, he flipped it open.“I told him the publicity would help us get investors and influence the State Legislature. I hope you and your club members will support the draft bill to open the state-owned right-of-ways to private investors.”“I’m thinking about it.” Ryan grinned. “A couple of our fellows plan to buy stock in HyperTrans.”“Good. Be sure to let me know their names.”He nodded and snapped the watch shut. “Still three hours to Gnadenhutten and that high tea of yours. I’m getting kind of thirsty. Maybe when we stop for water, I’ll pick up coffee.”“I could use one, too.”Ryan got up and stretched. “Coffee it is. See you later.” He strolled toward the back of the crowded car, stopping to chat with club members as he walked.Gazing out the window, Penny concentrated on the scenery. At least on this steam train, it didn’t pass in an indistinct blur. Magna insisted they not overtax the engine, so they traveled at a leisurely twenty miles per hour. The view through the train window offered a real sense of the rural nature of Eastern Ohio, where prosperous farms and dairy cattle dotted the rolling landscape.The steam engine, picturesque as she remembered it with its bright green paint and its yellow inverted bell of a smokestack, made slow, chugging progress through the hilly countryside. Sounding a repetitive shoosh-shoosh, it wended its way west from Steubenville, Ohio, toward Gnadenhutten, past tall stands of oaks and birches and wide fields of grazing cattle. When they passed an Amish buggy, Penny could almost believe they had traveled back to 1855.To please Magna, a stickler for authentic details, she had even bought a facsimile leather-bound edition of Brontë’s Jane Eyre. She picked it up and began to read. The scenery outside the carriage window passed by without further notice as she absorbed first one chapter and part of the next.Then, the train began to slow. A loud hiss of escaping steam heralded a stop. Peering out the window, she glimpsed the engineer leaning out of his cab. Outside, a small village of barely more than a few white houses and two stores nearer the tracks filled the view. Trees stood like silent sentinels on the hillside behind the buildings. Leaves, long gone, left bare limbs to brave the cold. Why stop here? She saw no station.Worry niggled Penny as she reached for her briefcase only to remember she had opted for a velvet reticule as befitted a lady traveler of 1855. She pulled out the folded map of the line from the drawstring purse. Only four wood and water stops had been planned before their final destination, and they had refueled no more than half an hour ago. The next stop lay almost two hours ahead.She leaned forward in her seat for a better view. Hopefully the boiler hadn’t sprung a leak, or whatever it was that old engines did. She shook her head. A mechanical problem would ruin the trip. Being stranded in rural Ohio would not make for contented clients nor would Magna Productions get the film footage it needed. No footage, no funding. She could almost hear Whelan’s laughter at that.The wheels sounded a scratchy grinding noise and then jerked to an abrupt halt. The engine belched a hissing jet of steam. The passengers in the crowded car craned forward and leaned out the windows for a better look.Frowning, Penny watched a tall man dressed in a dark frock coat atop cream-colored trousers step aboard the carriage. He hesitated at the entrance of the packed car, his top hat held in his gloved hands. His eyes widened as he surveyed the many passengers. The period costume suited his lean frame. Not quite Tom Cruise or Pierce Brosnan she decided; his nose looked a trifle too prominent for either. He had to be an actor hired by Magna.The stranger worked his way into the car and stopped next to her seat. He gazed down at Penny with a dazzling smile and eyes the color of dark chocolate. Dazed, she gaped back. That intense regard drew her with him to some private place. Her cheeks grew warm. Suddenly conscious her gaze had turned into a stare, she glanced down to hide her embarrassment.“Excuse me, madam. Is this seat taken?”She stared up at him, caught by the rich sparkle in his dark eyes, his generous lips and strong, smooth chin. Fantasies of that mobile mouth on hers and those arms holding her to his broad chest made her heart race. Shocked, Penny pinched her wrist and forced herself to return her attention to her book.Get a life, girl, she almost muttered. After Gerald, she had sworn off men. All men and especially tall, handsome ones. With stiff resolve, she focused on his costume. His wool frock coat covered broad shoulders and framed a cream-colored shirt in fine linen with a high, stiff collar. Every detail had been executed to perfection, even to the impeccably positioned black cravat. Her gaze traveled downward to rest on his polished leather boots.The man shifted his tall hat in his hand, drawing her attention back to his face. He looked at her with eyebrows raised, a quizzical smile on his lips. Flustered by the amused gleam in his eyes and her own wayward thoughts, Penny quickly looked away again.“Is this seat taken?”“Uh, no, it’s not.” She shifted closer to the window. “Please, sit down.”He folded his long frame into the seat and crossed one leg over the other, then straightened the crease in his trousers. “I apologize for interrupting your solitude.” The man grimaced. “But all other seats in this carriage have already been taken. While I welcome the increased revenue, I’m not used to seeing so many travelers. Rail travel is so new, some people still mistrust it.” He sighed. “Too often, the drivers are unable keep to their established schedules and travelers must perforce seek other means to complete their journeys.”Blinking, Penny folded her hands. This man had to be an actor.Turning slightly to face her, he captured her gaze with those liquid brown eyes. “My name is Fletcher Dawe. I am a dry goods merchant from Coshocton.” Pulling a rectangular case from his pocket, he handed a large card to Penny.She looked at it briefly, glad of the distraction from his too intense scrutiny, and rubbed her finger over the raised script, smooth and bold against a flat white surface. Magna had really taken authenticity to the extreme.“How do you do, Mr. Dawe? I’m Penelope Barton from Columbus.” She tried to match his formality. Playing the part of a prim and proper lady amused her, but she had to fight the temptation to just stare at him. To cover her confused state, she fumbled for a moment in her reticule and pulled out one of her own cream-colored business cards.As Fletcher Dawe took it, his fingers brushed hers, sending an electric tingle through her hand and up her arm. He stared down at the card.“Miss Barton.” The warmth of his smile lighted his features and made his dark eyes shine. “It is a distinct pleasure to see one of the fair sex use this mode of transport. My aunt remains one of the few ladies in Coshocton brave enough to chance the rigors of rail coach.” He slipped her card into his vest pocket.“My father’s a partner in the railroad, so I could hardly do otherwise. He says we should set an example for others. I take the train whenever I can.”He studied Penny, his face filled with avid interest. “Ah, then we have something in common. I invested in this line and am endeavoring to complete the westward link in a timely fashion. Once finished, goods from the east will reach us more promptly, and we can ship our grain and cattle east more cheaply. Travel to Columbus will be faster and more convenient than by road or canal.”“You’ve invested in HyperTrans?” Penny studied his face again, but could not identify him. She prided herself on knowing the major investors.“HyperTrans? I cannot say I have heard of that line. No, I mean the Steubenville and Indiana Railroad. This line.”“Yes, of course.” Penny pressed her lips together to keep from laughing. Whoever had written his dialogue had worked hard, or he had a talent for improvisation. She paused a moment, unsure what to say, but the silence worried her even more than her uncertainty. “We have excellent rail access in Columbus. That’s one of the advantages of living in the state capital.”He nodded. “I envy you that, but my home is in Coshocton and opportunities for business abound. With the railroad finished, we can only expect more.”“Someone once called the railroads the engines of progress.”Smiling at her words, he nodded. “Yes, that is just what we hope. An astute observation, Miss Barton. You like Columbus?”Again his intense gaze rattled Penny and made her hurry her words. “I wouldn’t give up my view of the bend in the Scioto River for anything. To the north I see the Broad Street Bridge.” Conscious of his continuing scrutiny, she struggled to make small talk. “Living in the capital provides plenty of entertainment. Have you been to Columbus?”“I travel there sometimes on business, but I have not traveled there for almost a year. I must remedy that and soon.” He raised one eyebrow as he gave Penny a broad smile.A warm glow suffused her heart and spread outward. Could he mean that? He’s an actor, she reminded herself. She wanted to know more about him, but a sudden unaccustomed shyness restrained her.Fletcher Dawe glanced out the window. Released from his gaze, perplexity assailed her. She had long ago passed the giddy stage, but her instant response to this man disturbed and puzzled her. After Gerald, she had vowed not to be misled again. Determined to get a firmer grip on her emotions, Penny picked up her book.“Ah!” Fletcher beamed, looking from her book to her face. “You and my aunt must have common interests. She is a devoted reader of the Bells.”“Bells?” Penny blinked at him, then she remembered the Brontë sisters had originally published under the name Bell, and her book had the name Currer Bell embossed just below the title. “Oh, yes. I particularly like Currer.” She dredged up memories of her college English Lit classes. “Ellis is also a favorite.”He nodded. “My aunt agrees, but she prefers Jane’s practicality over Cathy’s willfulness. I should like you to meet her. My aunt, that is.” His eyes looked wistful.Penny closed her book, wondering just what he meant by that. “Your aunt?” Did he even have an aunt?“Yes, Mrs. Emily Dawe. She lives with me and makes my life interesting and ordered.” He grinned, reminding Penny of a mischievous boy. “May my aunt and I call upon you on our next visit to Columbus?”Studying his face, Penny wondered if he meant to visit, or whether he merely played a part? His steady gaze surprised and thrilled her. It had been a while since any eligible man had caught her attention. Now, for the first time in ages, Fletcher Dawe triggered a delicious sense of excited confusion that muddled her thoughts, but in such a pleasant way. Best to stay in character and not read more into his flirtatious manner than was there. An actor had no trouble playing many roles.Penny lowered her lashes in a suitably modest response. “Of course.”“However, I must warn you, my aunt has a very independent turn of mind. She is an ardent advocate of property rights for women and counts Amelia Bloomer, Frances Gage, and Harriet Beecher Stowe among her dearest friends.”“Amelia Bloomer?” He really had gone too far. He must be joking. Well, she could joke, too. What had she learned in her Women’s History course? “Yes, she devised some garment or other, didn’t she?” Let’s see him top that.Fletcher Dawe sighed. “Indeed, Turkish pantaloons, although some call them Bloomers. My aunt, I am sorry to say, favors this mode of apparel.”Suppressing a laugh, Penny gave him a sideways glance. “Now, Mr. Dawe, surely you can appreciate their practical nature.”“Um, well, perhaps, but I cannot say they flatter the female form, not as much as your lovely gown.”Penny glanced down at the blue taffeta, pleased she had chosen it. The color is so right, the sales clerk had said. Self-conscious, Penny brushed the feathers of her hat with her hand, knowing it framed and softened her face. It also heightened the blue of her eyes.Fletcher Dawe continued to study her. She read approval in his direct gaze and, perhaps, something more. She wanted to explore that, but at the same time wondered if she really wanted to know where it could lead. She didn’t need any more failed relationships. Besides, an actor could turn the charm on and off and likely had dozens of willing partners tucked away.Nonetheless, her pulse accelerated, and the silk of the dress clung to her back. She reached up to finger the small buttons at the neck of the dress. His eyes followed her hands. Suddenly conscious of the direction of his glance, she pulled her hand back. What was the matter with her, anyway? Stick to business. Distract him.What had he last said? Harriet Beecher Stowe. Something about her. “Have you read Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin?”He grimaced and nodded. “My aunt insisted. A degree too sentimental for my taste and perhaps overdrawn, but slavery as an institution is difficult to defend.” His face grew solemn. “I can only believe that it must fall of its own weight. In my experience, free men are more productive than slaves.” “I’m glad to hear you say that. This country must support its declaration and its constitution, liberty and justice for all, including—” She gave him a sly glance. “Women and Afro—I mean slaves.”“Bow-ers-ville.” In a robust voice the conductor dragged out each syllable as he walked through the coach. “Bowersville, next stop.”“Oh.” Fletcher Dawe frowned and then rose quickly. “I must leave the train here.”Surprise and disappointment rattled Penny. She thought everyone had planned to take the entire trip. Why would Magna arrange for this stranger to join them for such a short time? “You’re not going on to Gnadenhutten?”He shook his head, regret in his eyes. “Not this trip. I have business with a merchant here in Bowersville.” He gazed down at her with his mesmerizing look. “But may I call upon you in Columbus? With my aunt, of course.”Holding out her hand politely, Penny wanted something more than such a formal leave-taking, but common sense, despite her fantasies, reminded her she hardly knew the man. “I look forward to meeting your aunt.” She lowered her lashes. “And to your visit to Columbus, Mr. Dawe. I would enjoy talking with an admirer of the Bells.” And you, she refrained from adding.“Good, you may count on it.” He held Penny’s hand just a moment longer than necessary, and his warmth, even through her glove, made her tingle. “It has been a particular pleasure to meet you. I look forward to renewing our acquaintance and soon. Good day, Miss Barton.”He tipped his hat and hurried off as the train started its repetitious chug-chug and began to move. He leaped from the carriage and ran a few steps alongside to the window where Penny sat. As the train gathered speed, he stood beside the track and waved to her. She waved back. She watched him standing there as the train pulled away, then he dwindled from sight.Would he call? Had his interest been real or had the entire meeting been an actor’s practice session? The man had seemed so sincere. She wanted him to call. If he had been Magna’s actor, she could quiz Tony DiCarlo, her assistant, about him. However, Tony didn’t need to know just how much the stranger had impressed her.Her perspiring palms and churning stomach disproved her outward calm. She only hoped the encounter disturbed him as much as it had her.Pulling out his card, she studied it. The name, engraved in raised copperplate, suited the elegance of his clothing and his manner. Inspecting the card again, she found no phone number, no fax number, and not even an electronic mail address. Puzzled, Penny looked out the window and down the disappearing line of track. Bowersville had melted into the horizon, taking Fletcher Dawe with it.She returned her attention to the card in her hand. His address, at the lower left on the card, read: 202 S. Second Street, Coshocton, Ohio, Purveyor of Fine Dry Goods. No zip code. Staring at the address again, Penny frowned and then slipped the card into her reticule. He said he would see her in Columbus. A delicious warmth crept over her from her toes to her fingers—anticipation.“Hey, who was that guy?” Tony DiCarlo, the newest member of the HyperTrans Public Relations Department, wore a smug look.He smoothed his cravat and tugged on the slightly-too-small frock coat as he plopped down beside her. Penny searched his face for a sign of his involvement in the charade. His expression reflected only sincere interest.“You tell me.” She raised a knowing eyebrow at him, trying to suppress a smile as she waited for his explanation.He paid no notice to her accusatory expression. Tugging at his tight collar, he shrugged. “No clue. Dressed the part, though, didn’t he? Probably an actor.” His tone and lack of interest in the stranger implied he knew nothing about Fletcher Dawe.Disappointment pricked at Penny. She wanted more, but if Tony couldn’t help, who could? She paused for a moment, considering the options. “Oh, did you get a list from Ryan O’Connor of the Coshocton Railroaders’ Club members? We might need it later.” She paused a moment. “Did Magna have any passengers?”“Not so far as I know. They would have arranged that with you. I’ll see O’Connor about a list.” Tony got up and ambled toward the back of the carriage.Satisfied Dawe’s name would be on the list and she could ask Ryan more about him, Penny again opened her book. Jane would keep her company until they reached Gnadenhutten. She began to read, but soon her attention drifted. She stared at the page, not seeing the meaningless words. Fletcher Dawe’s face appeared on every page, and she found herself pulled into those dark chocolate eyes that offered excitement and passion.She refused to be swept off her feet by good looks, but Fletcher Dawe had more than that. Much more. He exuded a sense of integrity and a confidence in his own abilities. A man who knew himself and had no insecurity about his own identity or his place in society. His promise to visit her in Columbus made her skin tingle with excitement.She gazed out the window, but saw only Fletcher Dawe. Fletcher Dawe and his compelling brown eyes.