Boston Harbor, July 1850
To Bridget Murphy's way of thinking the voyage to America was more than a thrilling journey across the vast Atlantic Ocean. It was the beginning of a new life. For her and her two sisters. But especially for her.
From the moment she'd boarded the Annie McGee, Bridget was simply Bridget, the soft-spoken Irish lass earning her way to America as a stand-in nanny for the Atwater family.
No more humiliation hanging over her head. No more whispers trailing in her wake. The past had finally become the past.
And now the wait was over. Today she would begin her new life in earnest. Endless possibilities awaited her in her new countryher new home.
Bridget leaned over the ship's railing for her first glimpse of America, the ribbon streamers at her elbows billowed in the breeze. A gasp of delight flew past her lips, not only because she felt very smart in her new green sateen dress, but at the sight that met her gaze. Chaos, utter and complete chaos, met her gaze. The air vibrated with seagull shrieks, calls for carriages, laughter and commands.
Caught up in the madness, she took a moment and simply watched the activity below. Passengers disembarked the ship with hurried steps. Workmen staggered under the weight of their cargo. Carts full of wares were scattered everywhere. Children darted headlong past the lopsided piles.
Although she recognized many of the people already on the docks, none noticed her.
More the better.
A sudden movement in the distance caught her attention. She narrowed her eyes. A man, alone, worked his way through the crowd with methodical grace. His tall, lithe form stopped every few moments to speak with one of the passengers. There was something about him
Something that tugged at her very core.
She couldn't tear her gaze away.
He moved with the kind of steps only a man confident in his own worth could pull off. Bridget placed her hand on her forehead to shade her eyes from the sun and continued watching him. He had broad shoulders, long legs and lean hips. Even though she couldn't see him clearly from this distance, she knew his eyes would be a vivid, piercing blue. The kind of color that turned silver in the light.
A little shocked at herself, at the fact that she was admiring a man when her heart was still so tender, she tried to pull back, to duck out of sight. But she found herself leaning forward ever so slightly.
As if sensing her eyes on him, he looked straight in her direction.
Her breath caught in her throat and she pulled back from the rail. Surely he hadn't seen her watching him. The distance was far too great.
Torn between embarrassment and a sudden wish to see the man up close, to discover if his eyes were truly the color of the sky, she hesitated a moment longer. She'd tarried long enough.
Joining the rest of her fellow passengers, she hurried across the ship's main deck. She'd told the Atwater siblings farewell earlier this morning. Pamela, the youngest, had been the saddest over their parting. Well, besides Bridget. Laurel and Hilary had been too busy arguing over a treasured bonnet to care overmuch that they'd never see their temporary nanny again.
Bridget sighed to herself. The journey hadn't been long enough to win over the older two girls. If only
No. No more regrets. No more if only. Bridget was finished trying to fix the unfixable. Never again would she dwell on things she couldn't change.
Increasing her pace, her boot heels struck the weathered planks in perfect rhythm with the rapid beating of her heart.
She'd lost sight of her older sister, Nora. No matter. Nora, being Nora, had prepared for this very contingency and had set up a common meeting place near the gangplank.
Not wishing to hear yet another lecture on setting priorities and keeping to timetables, Bridget increased her pace. She resisted the urge to look over the railing at the wharf below. Was he still there? Winding his way through the thick knots of people and cargo, looking for someone in particular? Someone special?
Who? she wondered.
Without breaking stride, Bridget tossed a jaunty wave at the widow Mrs. Fitzwilliam, who had befriended the Murphy sisters on the journey. With her was her attendant Stillman and the three McCorkle brothers Mrs. Fitzwilliam had taken in as her wards. Good-hearted, gracious souls, getting to know them all had been a real blessing. Already running late, Bridget did not stop to speak to them.
She'd already fallen behind. What would be the harm in saying one more goodbye to her new friend and those darling boys?
Just as she changed direction, a throng of passengers surged from behind, shoving her back on course at an even greater speed. She would have to catch up with Mrs. Fitzwil-liam and the boys later.
Nearing her destination, Bridget wrenched free of the crowd and slid into another small, unoccupied spot along the ship's railing. At the precise location she'd been told.
Nora was nowhere in sight.
More relieved than annoyed, Bridget took a deep, steadying breath. And promptly wrinkled her nose in chagrin.
Throughout the month-long journey across the Atlantic, she had created vivid pictures of America in her mind. She had not accounted for the smell.
She raised a gloved hand to her mouth. One moment passed. Two. On the third she drew in another tentative gulp of air. Her eyes immediately filled with water. The stench was truly, truly awful. A mixture of rotting fish, animal sweat, burnt tar and something else entirelygarbage, perhaps?
Another jostle from behind and Nora wiggled in beside her.
"There you are," Nora said, familiar frustration in her tone. "You weren't here earlier."
Bridget ignored the gentle reprimand and smiled at her sister. She, too, wore her new dress, a gift from fellow passengers Ardeen Nolan and her aunt, Mrs. Kennedy. "Don't fuss, Nora. I only just arrived."
"Well, that explains it, then."
With her dark chestnut hair parted in the middle and contained in a tight bun, Nora should look severe. Instead, she positively glowed. Perhaps it was the vivid blue of her new gown. Or the paisley shawl. Or perhaps Nora glowed for an entirely different reason.
They had arrived safely in America and had added a new member to their small family.
Smiling, Bridget lowered her gaze to the squirming infant clutched possessively in her sister's arms. "I see no one has come forward to claim baby Grace."
Nora's pretty blue eyes narrowed to tiny slits. "Not a single person."
Bridget bit her lip to keep from stating the obviousthat Grace had likely been left behind for good. She'd suggested it before, but Nora refused to believe it. Sometimes Nora was the wisest person she knew, and sometimes surprisingly naive. Baby Grace had been abandoned days after her birth. Nora had found her shortly after the start of their journey, and had cared for her ever since.
"I suppose she'll have to make do with us for the time being." And Bridget wasn't completely sorry for it, either. The baby had become a part of both their lives, Nora's more than hers, even if only on a temporary basis. Grace wasn't really theirs, no matter how much they wished it to be so, but for now, they were all she had.
Nora looked out in the distance, her eyes taking on a troubled look. "I'm sure there's been a mistake." She lowered her gaze to the child in her arms. "Who could abandon such a precious little girl?"
In Bridget's estimation anyone who walked away from their own baby didn't know the first thing about love. Every child deserved to be loved. Even the difficult ones.
Familiar stirrings of regret filled her. She had so wanted to turn all three Atwater girls into friends, as much as charges. She'd almost succeeded. With a little more time.
She was doing it again. Trying to change the unchangeable.
"We'll have to report her situation to the American authorities as soon as possible," Nora said only halfheartedly.
It was, of course, the right thing to do.
Though Grace's mother had left her behind, there may well be other family with a claim.
"I suppose we must." Bridget reached out and touched the baby's flawless cheek. Large blue eyes stared back at her. "She's really quite beautiful, isn't she?"
Bridget couldn't argue with that bit of truth. All children were a gift straight from the Lord. One day Bridget wanted at least five tiny blessings for herself.
A space opened up along the gangplank and she started forward, then stopped and looked back at Nora. "Are we to meet Maeve here or on the docks below?"
"Below," she said. "Flynn had a few last-minute details he needed to address before he could leave the ship. Maeve chose to stay behind with him."
Of course she had. Bridget's younger sister adored her new husband, as did they all. The ship's doctor was now a part of their family. Best of all, Maeve's shipboard romance had restored Bridget's faith in the possibility of finding love again for herself.
Love. Romance. Marriage.
Were they still possible for her at the age of four and twenty? Had she missed her chance when Daniel had decided he didn't want to marry her?
She ignored the pang in her heart and reminded herself anything was possible with God. Despite the thirteen years between their ages, Flynn Gallagher was a perfect match for Maeve. Their union was a blessing and a testimony to the power of love.
Finished feeling sorry for herself, Bridget tossed her shoulders back and stepped away from the railing. "Right, then. Here we go."
Without looking back, she moved onto the gangplank. For once Nora allowed her to take the lead.
All the planning, prayer and gathering of meager funds had brought them to this glorious day. The moment Bridget's feet touched the wooden dock, her le...