Forever Safe (Beacons of Hope #4) - Jody Hedlund

Chapter 1

May, 1876

New York City

“I still can’t believe that in less than six weeks I’ll become Mrs. Nathaniel Winthrop III.” Victoria Cole exhaled a blissful sigh and lifted her face to the glorious spring sunshine as she rounded a bend on the park pathway. The bright rays warmed the cherry blossoms overhead so that the sweet scent mingled with that of the tulips and forsythia to create a fragrant potpourri.

“You’ll finally be in Mrs. Astor’s elite circle,” Theresa said with a tad of jealousy shading her voice.

With arms looped together, they’d already strolled most of the paths within Gramercy Park. Now their steps slowed and Victoria patted her friend’s arm in sympathy. She and Theresa had been dreaming for years about making Mrs. Astor’s official list. Victoria’s own father had come close. At last, Victoria’s marriage to Nathaniel Winthrop would secure her a place in the coveted upper echelons of New York society.

“I daresay, you’ll join me very soon,” Victoria said, smiling at her friend. “Especially since Philip Smith has asked to call on you.”

“He has such a plain last name.”

“Theresa Smith.” Victoria tried the combination. “It isn’t as fancy as Theresa Fontaine, but you can’t keep your maiden name forever.”

Theresa pursed her lips into an exaggerated pout. “If only he didn’t look like a shaggy sheepdog.”

Victoria bit back a laugh. “That’s unkind to say.”

“It’s true and you know it.”

“Perhaps you can suggest that he shave his eyebrows.” Victoria earned a tiny smile from her friend. “At the very least, you won’t have to worry about maintaining eye contact since he won’t be able to see you from underneath the bushy mounds.”

Theresa nudged Victoria with her shoulder. “Fiddlesticks. You’re much too silly.”

“That’s why you love me.” Victoria nudged her friend back, grateful for Theresa’s undying friendship. Though they shared many of the same friends, aspirations, and tastes, Theresa was about as different in personality and appearance from Victoria as any one person could be. Unlike Victoria, who had fair hair and light brown eyes, Theresa had raven black hair and eyes as dark and bold as coffee. While Victoria considered herself an easy-going, positive person, Theresa was decidedly more pragmatic and realistic.

For a moment, they walked in silence. Victoria relished the vibrant green leaves of the artfully shaped trees and shrubs. Gramercy Park was always such a peaceful and pretty place in the spring. Besides the twittering of a family of birds somewhere in the meticulously groomed garden, their footsteps along with her bodyguard’s were the only other sounds. Thankfully today, in the safe confines of the park, Arch was giving her some leeway. The giant of a man followed a discreet distance behind them.

The private Manhattan park was completely fenced in and closed to the public. In fact, only the residents who lived in the buildings surrounding the sprawling stretch of greenery had keys to the gate that led inside the wrought iron. Even so, Arch always insisted on accompanying her.

“Come on.” She tugged Theresa toward the entrance. “I know you’re anxious to see the new corsets I bought yesterday, the ones decorated with orange blossoms.”

“Yes, I’m just dying to see them,” Theresa said in her usual flat, sarcastic voice.

“You’ll love them.”

“Probably not as much as Nathaniel will.”

“Theresa!” Victoria nearly tripped at her friend’s bold insinuation. The corsets were for her trousseau, which was steadily growing with each passing day of shopping and fittings for the wedding and honeymoon.

Her saucy friend lifted her gloved hand to her mouth and pretended remorse. But her eyes were mirthless. “Oh, that’s right. We mustn’t speak of what happens after the wedding. It’s supposed to be a big secret for all of us debutantes.”

Victoria glanced over her shoulder toward Arch and prayed he hadn’t heard a word Theresa had spoken. Even though her loyal bodyguard was bald beneath his hat and old enough to be her father, he had excellent hearing. Rarely did anything escape his attention. He was tall and burly and wore an attitude that said, “If you bother me, I’ll crush you like a bug.”

Her father had hired Arch after a frightening incident four years ago when she’d returned home from a trip to Michigan. An erstwhile enemy of her father’s, Big Al, had gone to jail many years previously for attempting to have her father murdered. Once he was released from prison, he’d sought revenge against her father. As part of his scheming, Big Al had decided to target Victoria, kidnap her, and demand a ransom. Fortunately, he’d been captured