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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
300 pages
Oct 2004
Steeple Hill

Wild Rose

by Ruth Axtell Morren

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Chapter 1

Haven's End, Maine, August 1872

Geneva felt the push from behind, a blow between the shoulder blades. The next instant she lay flat on her face against the rough, gray wharf, her toes caught in the spaces between the worn wood slats, her brimming baskets wrenched sideways. Helpless, she watched their contents scatter. The fruits and vegetables she'd taken such pains to arrange that morning in neat, concentric circles tumbled across the sun-bleached planks.

Heads of cabbage rolled like croquet balls off the edge of the wharf to land with a plop into the awaiting tide. The smaller items the precious raspberries she'd handled so gently to prevent bruising and the bright green string beans disappeared down the cracks to join the bobbing cabbages below. The shriek of gulls mingled with the cackle of laughter around her, as the birds were alerted to the treasures floating on the sea.

"Salt Fish Ginny! Salt Fish Ginny! How come you're so skinny?" The teasing chant resonated above the laughter. "Salt Fish Ginny! Dirty as a hog, mean as her dog!"

Geneva glared at the trio of village boys stampeding by her, shouting the hated words that described her occupation, fishing for cod.

She forgot the boys as the thump of footfalls farther down the wharf reached her ears. Her glance passed the pranksters to the group turning down the wharf from the street. Rusticators! Her face flamed in humiliation as she watched the smartly dressed ladies and gentlemen on holiday, the very ones who bought her produce, stroll down the pier from the quaint, white clapboard village.

Before she could do more than pull herself to her knees, they had reached her, and stood hesitating as if looking for a way to pass through the mess. Wrinkling their noses, the ladies lifted their skirts to avoid soiling them.

Only one gentleman moved. His boots resonated against the wood, but as soon as Geneva saw who it was, her heartbeat muted the sound. She stared openmouthed as Captain Caleb Phelps came and knelt beside her. She had never been in such close proximity to him before.

Geneva found herself looking straight into the bluest pair of eyes she'd ever seen. They were the blue of the open ocean off Ferguson Point after the morning fog burned off and when the noon sun hung high overhead. Not a cloud diminished the hue of the vast, flat expanse of sea then, but its inky blue depths sparkled with a thousand lights and depths from the reflecting sun.

Captain Caleb's eyes danced with a mixture of concern and amusement. It wasn't the sly amusement of the onlookers, she realized, but a companionable sort, as if he and she were sharing some private joke. His eyes' wry twinkle was telling her that he had been in a similar predicament in another time and place, long ago enough to look back with humor.

Geneva blinked to break the spell. Don't be a fool. Captain Caleb didn't care what she was thinking. His world was so far removed from hers, it might as well be across the sea. She needed to get back on her feet and quick. There'd been enough damage done already, and she had to see what she could salvage.

But her commands didn't reach her legs. Geneva caught sight of the untidy patchwork on one threadbare knee of her overalls and suddenly became conscious of her appearance. She cringed in shame at the contrast between the man's easy elegance and her own homespun looks. The seams of her pa's old flannel shirt were visibly frayed, the color faded from numerous washings.

Geneva glanced down at the hand the captain placed on her forearm. Despite the tanned skin, it was the hand of a gentleman. His fingernails were clean and neatly trimmed. She curled her own hands into fists to hide the broken nails, traces of garden dirt still clinging to them.

"Are you all right, miss?" After a cursory glance over her as he asked the question, his gaze returned to her face.

Miss. It sounded so respectful. He might be talking to a fragile, young lady.

Geneva nodded and mumbled something, hardly believing what she was experiencing. For the first time, a man wasn't undressing her with a look. No matter how oversized her pa's old shirts or thick the bib of her overalls, they never did enough to flatten her bosom. Everywhere else she was bone thin, an unfortunate circumstance that only served to make the fullness of her chest more apparent.

Geneva flushed, meeting the intense indigo gaze focused on her. Captain Caleb scarcely gave her body a glance. He seemed to look beyond her features to the person within.

Although the captain's face was one she recognized, she'd only seen it two or three times in her life, from afar. "Cap'n Caleb," as he was known in these parts, hailed from Boston and rarely came to port in Haven's End.

Geneva couldn't help staring at it now, from the deep chestnut-colored hair brushed back from the bronzed forehead, to the strong jaw and rugged cleft chin, every feature in perfect proportion as if the artist's hand hadn't faltered once in executing his work.

Not like her uneven features: too-sharp nose, eyebrows arching like bird's wings across her brow, stick-straight dark hair and eyes black as pitch, attesting to her half-breed status.

She broke away from his grasp and pushed herself to her feet. Taking a step away from him, she forced herself back to the situation at hand. Her heart sank as she contemplated the wreckage around her. Well, it would do no good to cry about it.

She stooped to gather her baskets, but was stopped by Captain Caleb's firm grasp. He spoke with a tone of authority so different from the one he'd used with her, she had to look twice to make sure it was the same man speaking. "Come here, lads, and rectify the damage you've inflicted on the lady."

The boys hooted at this. "But, Cap'n Caleb, that ain't no lady," one of the boys protested. The others doubled over in amusement at the very thought. "That's Ginny. Salt Fish Ginny!" Their laughter was joined by the discreet titters of the ladies and gentlemen still standing there.

Geneva wished the planks beneath her feet would widen enough to let her through so she could join her vegetables on the incoming tide. Of all the people to witness her disgraceful fall and hear that odious nickname, why did it have to be Cap'n Caleb? "Young men " the voice grew softer " if I have to repeat my request, you'll find yourselves floating alongside those lettuces down there."

"Yessir," the trio mumbled, shuffling forward.

"Wait," he added. "Apologize to the lady first."

Their eyes looked just about ready to pop out of their heads. Under other circumstances, Geneva would have laughed out loud at their amazement.

The boys bobbed their heads, each in turn. "Sorry, Ginny."

"Beg pardon, Ginny."

"No offense, Ginny." Then, their natural exuberance restored, they bent to collect what remained on the dock. Geneva, stunned by what had just occurred, stood motionless. When she recovered from her surprise and moved to help, the captain's grip tightened on her arm.

The boys finished quickly. Proudly, they handed her the two baskets, only half full now, the bruised and battered fruits and vegetables a jumble. Geneva took them without a word, anxious to be out of sight as quickly as possible. She'd forget her deliveries in the village today, and continue on up the coast, where no one would know of the incident.

But she wasn't allowed such a quick retreat.