Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Release: Autumn Falls (Paradise Pines, Book 3)

A special message from my friend Delia Latham.......

 
I had a book release on the 1st...and I've been so busy I didn't even think to raise a noise about it. My very bad! lol 

Anyway, AUTUMN FALLS is now available on Amazon. Yay! So excited. This is Book 3 in the 4-book Paradise Pines series.


Autumn Warren and her friend Cecily determine to have one last hurrah before the crazy whirl of planning Ceci’s wedding. Autumn reluctantly agrees to lay off the barbed comments about her friend’s imminent move to Italy—for no better reason than that she fell in love!—and the girls rent an apartment at Cambria’s Paradise Pines Lodge for the entire fall season.

Autumn’s agreement to silence her outraged protests in no way indicates a change of heart about letting a man into her own life. She’s watched enough friends get married and divorced to sour her forever on the subject of love and the sanctity of marriage. If she ever does fall in love, it’ll be forever…and she's seen absolutely zero evidence of that kind of devotion even existing. Autumn doesn’t believe in divorce, and given the current statistics, why even risk it?


Then she meets Russ Amundsen and his adorable daughter, DeLyn, and finds herself in danger of losing her carefully guarded heart. And what is it about the mysterious Miss Angelina Love—who may or may not own Paradise Pines—that makes Autumn believe her heart never stood a chance once she set foot inside the lodge?

Purchase links:

Pelican Book Group

And a special message from me, Mary Manners:

I will be giving away a copy of Autumn Falls on Monday, September 11. Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing. Good luck, stay safe, and check back on Monday to see if you are the winner!

Week 36: Crystal Wishes by Mary Manners




Blurb:

As a clothing-buyer-turned-seamstress with an eye for fashion, Skylar Lannigan’s hands whisper tender ballads over fabric. She fills a sketchbook with flowing and whimsical designs—including versions of a to-die-for wedding dress for her own wedding day—if she’d only find Mr. Right. She’d once imagined a bright future with Adam Caldwell, until he took off with no explanation.
 
Adam Caldwell’s life has been a series of hairpin curves since the night a tragic accident claimed both his parents and nearly the life of his sister, Faith, as well. When Faith, who's still recovering from her injuries, asks for help selecting a wedding dress, Adam accompanies her to Diamond Knot Dreams. He's soon reunited with beautiful and lively Skylar Lannigan.
 
Adam would love to rekindle a romance with Skylar, but will events from their past rise up to destroy any hope for a future?
 


1st Chapter:

“Skylar, do you have a minute? I could use some help.”

            Skylar Lannigan lifted her gaze from the sketchbook on her desk to find Claire Kendrick—it had taken some practice to drop the surname, McLaughlin, since Claire had married architect Ryan Kendrick last April—standing in the doorway.

“Sure. What’s up?”

            “Faith Caldwell is here for her fitting, and we’re having a bit of trouble with the dress she ordered.” Claire strolled into the room. Her deep blue eyes radiated happiness. She splayed one hand to her growing belly as the life blossoming inside kicked and squirmed. “The bridal gown that she ordered months ago—that’s what she’s come to try on again today—is too tapered and snug to conceal her bulky leg brace. And, she’s a bit self-conscious of the sleeveless bodice, due to scars that are continuing to heal.”

            “She was in that terrible car accident a few months ago, wasn’t she?”

“Yes…along with her parents.” Claire paused as she reached Skylar’s desk. “Unfortunately, her parents didn’t survive.”

“Oh, how awful. I remember the news report.” Skylar’s heart tugged as the segment flashed through her mind.

            “Two people are dead, another seriously injured as the driver of an SUV traveling north along I-75 lost control and breached the median, barreling head-on into the oncoming lane. All traffic is being rerouted and an investigation is underway…”

            “The wedding was postponed to give Faith time to recover. She’s still got a way to go, but the nuptials are back on track again.” Claire reached for the sketchbook, glanced at Skylar’s detailed drawing, and gasped. “Oh, what a gorgeous dress!”

“Thanks.” It was an elegant ball gown style that sported a scoop neck adorned with a delicate mesh overlay, tastefully embroidered with tulle at the bodice and then tapering along the whimsical sweep train. Skylar melted at the thought of it. Now, if only the brides she catered to might feel the same. She mentally crossed her fingers.

“Are you going to spotlight it on the Diamond Knot Dreams website?”

            “Avery already took care of it.” Avery Lakin—now Ingram, since she’d married Jason Ingram the previous year, Diamond Knot Dreams’ marketing genius and best friend to Claire and Skylar. “She’ll have all of the dresses posted to the site within the next few weeks.”

“That’s fabulous.”

“I know. June seems like a long way off, but it’s never too early to prepare for the summer rush.”

            A trill of excitement danced along Skylar’s spine. Her dream of designing bridal gowns for a living was quickly coming to fruition.

            “The skirt on that dress is just what Faith Caldwell has been looking for.” Claire rounded the desk and eased in at her side. “And I think the flowing train—”

“Yes, it’s a sweep train,” Skylar explained.

“Right. I believe that particular style, coupled with a sheer overlay at her shoulders, would heighten Faith’s comfort level and make her feel like a princess.”

            “Every bride should feel like a princess.” Skylar believed that with all her heart. She prayed to one day know first-hand what it felt like to walk down the aisle to a man who would become her life partner…her husband.

            Only in your dreams, Skylar.

            She brushed aside the thought as Claire continued. “Yes, this design would most definitely afford a princess-like feel for Faith despite the bulky leg brace she’s required to use.” She tapped the sketch, nodding emphatically. “The therapist said Faith will have to continue wearing it for at least another month, past the date of her wedding, which is merely three weeks away.”

“Three weeks?” Skylar’s voice squeaked. “Did you say Faith’s wedding is only three weeks away?”

“I did. December seventeenth. She’s here today to make a last-minute attempt to avert wedding day disaster. She held out so long because she hoped…she really, really hoped she’d be out of the leg brace by now. But she’s not, so that mermaid-style, strapless number she chose last spring just isn’t going to work.”

“Yikes. This is an emergency. We need a miracle.”

“You can do it, Faith. I have complete confidence in your abilities.”

“I hope I don’t let you—or Faith—down.” Skylar closed her sketchbook and stood to stretch a nagging ache that had set up along the base of her spine. “Did you say she’s waiting by the dressing rooms?”

            “Yes.” Claire slung her purse strap over one shoulder. “I have a doctor’s appointment in half-an-hour, so would you mind if I bowed out and let you take things from here?”

            “Of course not.” Skylar’s gaze drifted to Claire’s ballooning abdomen, covered in a maternity shirt that was stretched to the hilt. “How’s little Abby doing today?”

            “She’s kicking up a storm.” Claire patted her mounded belly. “I believe she’s trying to somersault her way out.”

            “It won’t be long now until you’re a mommy in addition to Ryan’s wife and sister-in-law to Caleb.”

Caleb was Ryan’s step-brother, about to turn fourteen. He lived with Claire and Ryan since his mother had taken off to points unknown and his grandmother, who had been his primary caregiver, had passed away. Both Ryan and Claire had become Caleb’s legal guardians.

            “That’s a lot to take on, but this little one still has a while to go. Her due date is December twenty-fourth—Christmas Eve.”

“I know. Do you think you’ll make it that long?”

            “Today, I don’t think so. It’s a race to see which will happen first—Faith Caldwell’s wedding or Abby’s birth. I’m hoping Faith wins, because the doctor says every day that passes gives Abby a chance to grow stronger.”

            Claire had endured a few complications during the course of her pregnancy, so Skylar sent up a quick prayer that Abby would stay put for the time being.

“Go on to the doctor and then head home to prop up your feet. I’ll make sure all your upcoming cake orders are organized and order any supplies you need.” Claire had jotted a list during lunch. “Lila, Avery and I will make the kitchen sparkle.”

            “Thanks. I left my list for everything I’ll be needing to finish the holiday orders on the kitchen countertop, and Mrs. Burchett is supposed to call with last minute details for her granddaughter’s reception.”

“I’ll field the call and take notes. No worries.”

“I owe you, Sky.”

            “No, you don’t.” Skylar gently squeezed Claire’s shoulder. “This is what friends do—we take care of each other.”

            “Thank you.” Claire smiled through a sudden flurry of tears. “Goodness…oh my…here I go again, spouting waterworks. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Lately I get weepy at the drop of a hat. I’m just so…”

            “Happy?” Skylar finished for her. “Yes, those are happy tears. The joy radiates from your core, Claire.”

            As they neared the dressing area, Claire turned to Skylar. “I’m so glad you decided to come to Diamond Knot Dreams.” She hugged her hard. “Now we’re all here—you, me, Lila and Avery. It’s a blessing to work with such good friends.”

            “Yes, it is a blessing.” Skylar returned the hug, warmed by the thought that, despite the detours she’d taken to get here, God had seen her through. She sniffled and handed Claire a tissue. “Now, go take care of that baby of yours and then head home for a breather.”

            “Ryan’s been a gem. He and Caleb cooked dinner last night and they even washed all the dishes and tidied the kitchen. It was sweet to watch them roll up their sleeves and fumble through the kitchen cabinets, searching for pots and pans and mixing spoons. And, the spaghetti was delicious.” Claire dabbed at her pretty blue eyes. “Abby is all Caleb talks about. He’s excited to be an uncle. I’ll have plenty of help when my sweet little baby finally makes her grand entrance into the world.”

            “You’re a lucky woman, Claire, to have found a man who loves you so unconditionally. I hope I’ll be as fortunate one of these days.”

            “Oh…never fear, my friend.” Claire patted Skylar’s cheek. “God has a plan for you.”

            “Hopefully, He’ll reveal that plan before I turn eighty.” Skylar rolled her eyes. “These days, I’m not so sure.”

            “Never fear. Great things are in store for you.” Claire balled the tissue and stuffed it into her purse. “Now, enough of this babbling. I’m off to the doctor. I’ll call you later with a full report.”

“You’d better.”

“In the meantime, good luck helping Faith. I know you’ll find a way to please both her and her brother.”

            “Her brother?”

“Yes, Adam.”

Skylar’s throat went dry as a vision of Adam Caldwell’s light brown hair and denim-blue eyes leapt to mind. Though it had been more than eight months since they’d last seen one another, the vision was crystal clear. “I didn’t know he was in town.”

“Sure he’s in town. I thought you knew…he’s rented a place on Bradford Street and has been commuting from Clover Cove to Knoxville for work since Faith came home from the rehab center. I heard through the grapevine that he’s considering relocating to Clover Cove permanently.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. It all hinges on a surgical position at the hospital. He’s been consulting there.” Claire’s lips curved in a knowing smile. “You mentioned the two of you met a while back?”

“We…sort of met.” Skylar turned away, because she knew Claire had the ability to read her emotions better than a forensic scientist reads fingerprints. “But you’re right…it’s been a while ago.”

“And?”

“It was a disaster, so I never expected to see him again…and especially not like this.” Skylar fisted her hands as her throat tightened. “Never mind. It’s all water under the bridge…a lesson learned the hard way. But I suppose I can understand why Adam might want to join Faith here today, given the fact that…their parents…oh, my.”

            Skylar pressed the fingers of one clenched hand to her lips, unable to finish. Her heart swelled with sympathy for the orphaned bride-to-be. With her father gone, who would walk Faith down the aisle to meet her groom?

            Suddenly, the scent of roses flooded the room. Skylar pivoted, looking for the source. Faith’s voice murmured down the hall as she spoke with Adam. Perhaps she’d splashed on perfume.

            “You’re being very cryptic, Skylar, but I’ll get to the bottom of things.” Claire nodded to affirm. “I always do.”

“You’d better get going.” Skylar nudged her toward the door. “The baby…your appointment…”

“Nice little two-step, my friend.”

The floral scent grew even stronger. Skylar lifted her gaze to the second floor staircase, which seemed to lead to the source. Perhaps Lila had ordered a few floral arrangements to freshen the upstairs offices, and the scent had found its way to the first floor.

Claire continued, “Maybe you and Adam were meant to see each other again…to pick up wherever the two of you left off.”

“We left off in disaster, so there’s no point in that.”

“There is a point in everything—and a future—where God is involved.” Claire patted her belly as if to emphasize the thought. “But, I suppose there’s nothing more to Adam’s visit today than the fact that Faith covets his support, seeing as their mom is…gone.” Claire sniffed the air and suddenly shifted topics. “She’s at it again…Ellie and her mischievous antics.”

“Ellie?”

“Yes, our spirited visitor from the past. And if I know anything about her, I know she’s come for love.” Claire winked conspiratorially. “And, if she has her way, I’m sure that soon we’ll both have news to share.”

 

****

 

“Don’t worry, Faith, we’ll find—” Adam paused as a shadow crossed the doorway, casting a reflection along a three-way mirror that lined one wall of the dressing area. His gaze swept toward the source, and his breath caught as his pulse cartwheeled.

            “Good morning, Faith.” Skylar Lannigan strolled toward them, her movements every bit as fluid as Adam remembered. Her hair was quite a bit longer than the last time he’d seen her, now a fountain of rich chocolate that tumbled to the middle of her back. A sweep of bangs framed smoky gray eyes while her lips were washed in a soft pink color. His heart to stammer through several painful beats as his mind replayed one thought…

            I’d like to kiss her.

            “Skylar.” Adam rose from his chair and took a step toward her. “I didn’t expect to see you here. But I had hoped—”

            “Hello, Adam.” Her voice clipped like a honed pair of sewing shears. She nodded curtly as she made a beeline for Faith, who stood on the circular dress-fitting pedestal, frowning at her reflection from the three-way mirror.

            “This just isn’t going to work at all,” Faith groaned as she tugged at the skirt of the mermaid-style dress, trying her best to coax the fitted, narrow skirt over her bulky leg brace. The fabric refused to cooperate, and Adam grimaced because there was nothing at all that he could do to fix the problem.

But Skylar could, he thought with a ray of hope as he settled back into his chair and ordered his heart to find a respectable cadence. He shifted his attention to Faith. “It’s going to be OK, sis.”

“No, it isn’t. I can’t get married looking like this!” Tears filled Faith’s eyes and Adam’s heart splintered. Hadn’t she been through enough with the accident and losing their parents, then months of recovery? “Oh, what am I going to do?”

            “You’re going to step down and take a breath.” Skylar rounded the pedestal. She drank in the metal brace that ran thigh to ankle along Faith’s right leg. Scars, finally beginning to fade to a pinkish-white sheen, crisscrossed along Faith’s collarbone, now fully revealed by a sleeveless neckline. “Listen to your brother. What he says is true. Everything’s going to be OK.”

            “Really?” Faith swiped at her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry to act like such an ungrateful bridezilla. It’s really not my nature to stress like this. It’s just—” She smiled weakly as she took the tissue Skylar offered and mopped her eyes. “Are you a miracle worker?”

            “No. I’m Skylar Lannigan…Diamond Knot Dreams’ dress designer and seamstress. I’m here to customize a new dress of your dreams. The sky’s the limit.” Skylar placed a notebook in the empty chair beside Adam and offered Faith a hand. “I won’t quit until you feel every ounce the beautiful bride.”

            “Thank you.” Faith’s sigh of relief seemed to release every ounce of tension she’d been harboring. She straightened her shoulders. “You’re very kind. When I heard you’d come to Diamond Knot Dreams I knew I had to see you. Channel Ten said you’re the best of the best, and the Clover Cove Times did that feature on you last week. Finding you here is fortuitous. By all accounts you’re…amazing.”

            And you’re also positively gorgeous, Adam thought as guilt stabbed him straight in the heart. He’d hurt Skylar. The evidence resonated in her wideset eyes and the tiny clench of her jaw that he sensed she was trying very hard to control.

            She avoided eye contact. Was her heart racing as much as his? Did she entertain any warm—he’d even, at this point, settle for lukewarm—feelings toward him, cloaked by the resentment clearly evident in her eyes? He could only pray…

            “Well, I’ll do my best to live up to all the pomp and circumstance that’s been built through the media.” Skylar rounded the pedestal, scrutinizing Faith from all angles. “Let’s see here…I’m imagining several ideas, but don’t have much time to bring them to fruition. So we’re going to have to work at lightning speed.”

            “I’m ready. Things have been moving slowly for too long now. This wedding was supposed to happen last August, but…” Faith sniffled as fresh tears sprouted. “By the way, Adam came with to…help me.”

            “I see.” Skylar refused to look his way, though she smiled readily at Faith. “I suppose he’s the one who told you about my designs.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“I’ll have to thank him for that.” She said the words as if they had a sour flavor. “In the meantime, I’m so sorry about your parents.”

            “Thank you.” Faith squeezed Skylar’s hand. “I wouldn’t have bothered you with my problem. After all, I did buy this dress last spring before the accident and before I knew I could find you here. I only came here today in an attempt to have it re-altered, because when I saw you on the news Adam mentioned that he’d met you in Chicago and that it’s true you are amazing when it comes to bridal gowns. He positively gushed when he told me about you, and…and I thought maybe you could help. He insisted you could—and you would—even though the wedding is only weeks away and it’s hardly your fault that this dress no longer works for me.”

Faith rambled on, and Adam figured the verbal flood was better than a waterfall of tears, so he let it go. Skylar seemed to sense the same as she stepped back, folded her hands—bare of an engagement ring, he noted with an odd mixture of relief and anticipation—and waited oh-so-patiently for Faith to talk herself out.

“I put off making any changes to the dress because I was hoping…” Faith slapped at the brace. “I was hoping I’d shed this contraption like a snake shedding old skin. But it’s not going to happen soon enough, so here I am.” Faith blew out a breath and her blonde bangs danced above pretty green eyes. “I don’t expect you to make an exchange, but Adam cajoled me into coming for the fitting anyway, insisting that perhaps there’s something you can do to the skirt so it will fit over this.” She patted the bulky brace once more. “And add a shrug of some sort to conceal these scars.” Again, she motioned to her shoulders with a flourish. “He said—”

            “Adam was right—about you returning here today, at least. We are going to make this right, Faith, if it takes every moment right up until the Wedding March begins.”

“But, as I told you before, my wedding is in less than a month. So how on earth—?”

“Prayer—especially coupled with faith and hard work—can move mountains. You just leave the worrying to me.” Skylar nodded curtly as she took Faith’s hand and helped her from the platform. “So, let’s get started, shall we?”

“Of course.” Faith’s eyes lit up like a child’s, and Adam could hardly fathom that in less than a month his younger sister—the only immediate family he had left in the world—would become a wife. It seemed incomprehensible. He still thought of her as his baby sister, since at barely twenty-four she stood a full six years younger than he.

“Come with me.” Skylar turned toward the doorway. Her hair caught the overhead light, and for a moment she seemed to be crowned by a shimmering halo. The slight scent of roses drifted, filling the room with a breath of warm, sweet anticipation.

As he had on so many occasions the past eight months, Adam wished he could take back the hurt he’d caused Skylar. But it was too late to turn back time. He could only move forward.

As Skylar and Faith exited the room, Adam knew he had to make things right again, no matter how long it took. He had never been a quitter. Now, if only he could prove that to Skylar, they’d have a chance.

A chance for what, Adam wasn’t quite sure. He simply knew he had to press forward, starting today…starting now.
 

 

Thanks so much for joining me this week. Hope you have enjoyed this peek into my Diamond Knot Dreams series. Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing. Winner will be announced Monday, September 11.  Good luck!

 
 
 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Week 35: A Changed Agent by Tracey Lyons

 
 
 

Blurb:

 
When schoolteacher Elsie Mitchell meets rugged William Benton on a train platform in Albany, it appears they have nothing in common. He isn’t the sort of fellow a proper young woman of the 1890s would ever speak to, much less become involved with. But when she arrives at her small town in the Adirondack Mountains, Elsie is offered a job as caregiver for this mysterious out-of-towner’s niece and nephew, who’ve been tragically orphaned. Heartbroken for them, she accepts.
 
Unknown to her, William is an undercover Pinkerton agent posing as a lumber-company foreman. He’s never wanted family—his work is too dangerous. Yet as Elsie transforms his house into a home and he spends time with the children, he feels drawn to family life—and to Elsie.
 

1st Chapter:

 
1890s Adirondack Mountains New York State
 
“My trunk!” Elsie Mitchell watched in horror as her trunk fell off the over packed porter’s wagon, spilling its contents onto the platform at the Albany train station. Grasping at her skirts, she ran along the damp cobblestones to rescue her garments. The porter rushed to right the trunk while Elsie knelt in the cold drizzle and began stuffing her skirts and blouses back inside. “Thank you for your help.”
Steadying the trunk, he said, “I’m afraid I got caught up wanting to get everyone to the train on time and I overloaded the cart.” The rotund man looked at her in dismay. “There won’t be another train heading up to the Adirondacks until next week.”
Elsie cast a furtive glance at an older well-dressed couple who scur- ried by her. A plume of black smoke belched from the great engine. She had to be home later today. After a two-week break, she needed time to prepare for the upcoming school session. She gathered up another blouse and a lace petticoat, cramming them inside the trunk. “I must be on this train.” Needing the porter’s help, she reached into her reticule, retrieving a coin from the last of her travel allotment. She gave the money to him.
An older woman stopped by and whispered some words to the porter, who shook his head. Then she opened her hand to show off not one but two coins. Giving Elsie a brief “Sorry, miss,” he hurried off to earn the tip.
If she was to make this train, there wasn’t a moment left to give the porter’s desertion another thought. She knelt among her things, praying she’d be able to leave today.
The answer to her prayer came in the form of a Good Samaritan who bent down next to her, handing her a pair of white pantaloons. Ever so grateful for the extra help, Elsie took them and then gasped in shock when she realized the hand helping her belonged to a man ruggedly dressed like a lumberjack about to head up the mountain. A thick, reddish-brown beard covered most of his face, making it hard for her to discern what he really looked like.
“Thank you, but I don’t need any help.” Embarrassed that this stranger had a full view of her underthings, she avoided meeting his gaze, quickly putting the garment in the trunk.
“The train will be pulling out in a few minutes. I’m thinking you mean to get on board before then,” he said.
Deciding it would be better to accept this benevolent stranger’s help than miss the train, Elsie gave him a brisk nod. Past his shoulder she spotted two young children standing a short distance behind him, a boy and a girl, similar in height. Elsie guessed them to be about seven or eight years old. Safely under the cover of the platform canopy, the boy held the girl’s hand snugly inside his while she had her free arm wrapped securely around a rag doll with golden hair that was a near match to the child’s. Elsie straightened for a better look at them, her heart thudding against her rib cage.
 As a schoolteacher in the Adirondack mountain village of Heartston, New York, where she was returning, Elsie prided herself on how intuitively she knew the needs of her students. And now captivated by the expressions on these little ones’ faces, she couldn’t take her eyes from the pair.
The children seemed to be watching them, their expressions lost and forlorn. She swung her gaze back to the man helping her, asking, “Are those children with you?”
“They are.”
When a moment passed and he offered no more explanation, her natural curiosity had her wondering where he’d come from and where he would be heading with the children. They looked so alone. What had happened to them? There didn’t seem to be anyone other than this man accompanying them. She wondered where their mother was. She said, “I can handle the repacking of my trunk. You should get back to your children.”
“The children are fine, and I’ve no doubt you can finish this on your own.” The stranger’s mouth quirked upward, and then he said, “But if you don’t get a move on, you’re going to miss the train. So why don’t you let me be of service?”
Much to her vexation, he began again to hand her odds and ends of undergarments. Shaking his head, he asked, “How can one woman possibly need all these things?”
She thought surely his wife must have all these basics in her ward- robe. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw him pick up a pair of black stockings. These were one of the few things she splurged on with her schoolteacher’s salary, and she didn’t want him to ruin them. She forced herself to stand stock-still as they slipped through his worn fingers into her outstretched hand.
Elsie put the stockings in the trunk, then pushed the lid down, only to be met with resistance. Leaning her full weight into it, she let out a very unladylike grunt. When that didn’t work, she sat on top of the trunk, trying to push the bulging mess closed.
She gave one last little wiggle, hoping that would do the trick. She felt the gentleman’s hand on her shoulder. She stood, stepping aside to give him room to try his luck. Laying his large hands on top of the stubborn trunk, he pressed down hard. The top resisted his strength, too.
“I think I see the problem.” Settling the open lid back on its hinges, he reached in and pulled out a small pistol that had jammed itself in the hinge when the trunk was upended.
He dangled the butt of the gun between his forefinger and thumb. “The derringer was a gift from my father.” She’d pleaded with him
for the chance to travel unchaperoned, and he had finally given in, agreeing to let her go unaccompanied only if she carried the pistol for protection.
She took the gun from the stranger’s hand and confidently placed it in the only empty space left in the trunk.
“And this?” He held up the black leather-bound Bible with a questioning look.
“If you must know, my mother insists I travel with one of our family’s Bibles.”
Now he didn’t hide his wide grin. “You sound like an interesting woman, one who travels with petticoats, a pistol, and the Good Book. Though it seems to me the book and the gun won’t do you any good locked away in your trunk.” “There wasn’t room in my travel bag for any of it.”
Finally able to slam the trunk shut, she secured the lock and motioned for the porter to put it on the train. Turning, she quickly thanked the man who had helped her, hiked up her skirts, took one last look at the children, and boarded the train.
****
Shaking his head, William Benton watched the young woman disappear into the train car. Wrangling with the pretty young lady with the astonishing violet eyes had been the one bright spot in his week.
He glanced over at the two small children in his company—the little girl who hadn’t spoken to anyone other than her brother since the day of their parents’ death and the boy who protected her. Seven-year- old twins, Minnie and Harry Harper were the children of his late sister and brother-in-law, Amelia and Jason.
Mustering up a smile, Will made his way over to them. He’d been preparing for this trip from Albany to Heartston while recovering from a gunshot wound. The relocation had been planned. The hole in his shoulder and taking in the children had not. As a Pinkerton agent, William Benton’s life was a secret. Even his family had no idea how he’d been making a living. They thought he was a drifter. Which was why he still couldn’t believe his older sister, Mary Beth, had arrived on his doorstep earlier this week expecting him to take in these children with no more than a mere minute’s notice.
Helping the children gather their belongings, he led them to the steps where they would board the train.
Looking down at the two little ones, Will felt a heaviness settle in his heart. He couldn’t begin to imagine the changes these children had had to bear over the recent months. And now they were dependent on the likes of him.
Squatting down to be at eye level with them, he asked, “Have you two been on a train before?”
“Nope. I read about them in a book Ma bought me for Christmas last year,” Harry replied. Scuffing his toe in the dirt, the boy looked downright dejected. “Aunt Mary Beth threw it away. She said it was too tattered to keep.”
Swallowing hard, Will forced down the anger he was feeling toward his sister. “Looks like we’ll just have to find you a better book.”
 “Okay,” the boy replied, even though he didn’t sound very convinced. “Uncle Will, how long is this train ride going to take?”
“We’ll be there before sundown.”
A fleeting look crossed the boy’s face as he gave his sister’s hand a quick squeeze. Will didn’t have time to discern what all that could mean because it was their turn to board. As he escorted the children onto the train, he couldn’t help what came naturally to him. He cautiously scanned the space around them to find some empty seats.
Seated to their right was an older couple. Up ahead was a young man slouched down with a cowboy hat pulled low over his brow, and in the row behind him sat the young woman with eyes the color of spring violets. Will noticed she’d gotten herself in order and her black hair was now tucked up under her plain brown bonnet.
He couldn’t resist tipping his hat to her when they walked by. He barely made eye contact with her before she turned her head to stare out the soot-stained window. He gave a slight shake of his head, amused by how set she was on ignoring him. He settled the children in some empty seats five rows past her. Minnie and Harry shared the inside seat while Will took the aisle one. Stretching out his long legs, he crossed his feet at the ankles, staring ahead at the seat back in front of him.
He liked to use his travel time to think about his next assignment. According to the updated dossier he’d received last week, there was intelligence reporting that the thief the agency had been tracking could be making his way to the mountains with stolen railroad bonds worth thousands of dollars.
Masquerading as a foreman for the Oliver Lumber Company, Will had let his hair and beard grow long as part of his disguise. He swept his hand down the length of his scraggly beard in frustration. How was he going to be able to do his assignment and care for these children at the same time? Would he be able to provide a decent home for them once they arrived in Heartston? At least he’d had the wherewithal to send a telegraph to his Pinkerton contact in Heartston two days ago informing him of his change in circumstance. The reply had been simple . . . his charges would be looked after.
Not knowing what to expect, Will was certain of one thing: his priorities had changed. He’d gone from a loner to a man who had two children trusting him with their lives. He would not leave these children in the care of just anyone. Trust and faith had never come easy for him, and now both were being tested. The sharp twinge of pain in his arm reminded him that things could go wrong in an instant. Getting shot hadn’t been in his plan when attempting to capture the pickpocket, but he was dedicated to his job and what it stood for. He knew full well that once a Pinkerton’s real identity was discovered, he was rendered useless.
They were two hours into the train ride when it became apparent to Will that something was drastically wrong with Minnie. Her face had become as white as a sheet, and the poor girl was clutching her brother’s hand so tightly her knuckles were bleached. The hairs on the back of Will’s neck prickled as a sense of unease settled over him like a dark storm cloud. Leaning forward in his seat, Will whispered to Harry, who looked as scared as he felt. “Harry. What’s wrong with your sister? She doesn’t look well.”
The boy’s lower lip trembled. Turning toward him, the boy whispered, “I think it’s her stomach. She gets sick whenever we travel.”
Suddenly Will remembered the look the two of them had exchanged before boarding the train. He had a feeling that sooner rather than later Minnie would be emptying her stomach.
He spotted one of the wrappers that had held the sandwiches they’d eaten when they first boarded the train. Minnie made a strange sound. Just as her mouth opened, Will shoved the wrapper underneath her quivering chin. Who knew that small of a stomach could hold so much food? Will thought grimly as he opened the window and tossed the offending wrapper out. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he did his best to wipe her face and hands.
 The poor girl was shivering. He didn’t know what to do. He reached out to her, but Minnie shrank back toward her brother. He felt all thumbs and realized with a tug in his chest that his efforts were woefully inadequate. If he couldn’t handle an upset stomach, what was he going to do when something major happened?
*****
From her seat Elsie heard the retching sounds. Peering around, she saw the gentleman who’d helped her earlier trying to comfort the little girl. Her heart went out to the child, for she knew firsthand how terrible motion sickness could be. Reaching into her reticule, she saw the large envelope her former fiancĂ© had entrusted to her care a few days ago. He’d asked the favor of her taking it to Heartston for safekeeping until he could come for it. She paused, remembering their awkward meeting in Albany, then pushed it aside. Groping around the bottom of the bag, she found the peppermint stick lodged at the bottom.
Brushing the nasty coal cinders—which seemed to seep in from every nook and cranny in the train car—from her skirt, she rose. The motion from the train jostled her to and fro, threatening to send her spilling onto the floor. Grabbing hold of the seat back in front of her, she steadied herself. And then Elsie gingerly made her way down the narrow aisle to the family.
Stopping at their seats, she said in a gentle voice, “She is suffering from motion sickness. I’ve some peppermint she can suck on. That should help soothe her queasiness.”
The man turned halfway around in his seat to look at her. The flat brim of his well-worn black hat tipped back on his brow, which gave Elsie a full view of his dark eyes. She caught the flash of recognition when he saw her. Thin lines surrounded the corners of his eyes. Now that she had time to take a closer look at him, she could see the clothes he wore looked clean. Yet his duster coat had wear marks at the elbows and his trousers were thin at the knees. In sharp contrast, the children were dressed in what looked to be brand-new coats. There was nary a wrinkle on them, the fabric crisp and clean.
The children looked so tired. The poor little girl’s face had turned a chalky white. Her shoulders hunched together as shivers overtook her. The little boy patted her on the shoulder.
“I’ll give her the peppermint.” The man spoke calmly as his brooding gaze briefly met hers.
The same unnerving feeling Elsie had had when she’d taken her stockings from him on the train platform settled over her. It was as if in that one quick glance, he’d taken in every detail of her face right down to the smallest freckle. He held his hand open, and she placed the peppermint stick in his palm. His fingers tightened around hers.
A frisson of awareness snaked its way along her spine. Elsie didn’t want to think about her physical reaction to this stranger. She’d given her heart to Virgil Jensen, and he’d abandoned her without any regard for her feelings. Ever since then she’d devoted her life to the young children who crossed the threshold into her classroom. The work left her without any time to fall in love again.
“Thank you” was all he said.
Elsie swallowed, forcing out a response: “You’re welcome.”
As he turned his attention back to the children, she offered up one more bit of advice before heading back to the safety of her seat. “She should be sitting on your lap. It will help to improve her stamina if she can see out the window.”
“Might I know your name now?” he inquired. “Elsie Mitchell.”
Tipping his hat to her, he said, “I’m William Benton.” “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Benton.”
“You, too, Miss Mitchell.”
Then, in a rustling of skirts, she rushed back to her seat.
*****
The weather began to change on the trip north. As the engine chugged along the Hudson River, the steady rain became a light but persistent drizzle. When at long last the train pulled into the Heartston station, Will helped the children off. They were met by the sight of fat spring snowflakes and a tall beanpole of a man.
“Mr. Benton? I’m Roy Wells. John Oliver sent me to fetch you and the youngsters.”
Will shook the man’s hand, then gathered the children to wait for their trunks to be unloaded. Out of the corner of his eye he watched for Miss Mitchell, wondering if this would also be her stop. Then he saw her step down from the car onto the platform. Wells approached her, too, tapping her on the shoulder to get her attention. Pulling his hat low, Will observed them, listening in on their exchange with interest.
“Miss Mitchell, we were hoping you’d be on this train!”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Wells. And who might this we be that you’re talking about?”
“Mr. Oliver. He needs to see you straight away.”
Will knew he was expected to report in to Agent Oliver, but why did he need to see Miss Mitchell?
“Can’t he wait until I’ve had time to settle in?”
With a fervent shake of his head, Wells replied, “No, miss. He said you are to come as soon as you’ve arrived.”
“I have to wait for my trunk.”
“I’ll fetch yours and Mr. Benton’s and bring them over to Mr. Oliver’s office. You have to go now.”
Will looked up to find Miss Mitchell standing with her hands grip- ping her reticule, watching him with those clear violet eyes. He knew she had the same questions he did: What was so urgent that John Oliver required both of them? What did they have in common other than being on the same train? And the most troublesome question for him was, would she somehow become a part of his mission? He hoped not. Will preferred to work alone. He began to formulate a plan in the event Agent Oliver suggested Miss Mitchell become part of his assignment.
“I guess we’d best get moving,” he said, keeping his thoughts to himself. With a gentle nudge of his hand, Will urged the children for- ward, following Miss Mitchell down the planked walkway.
The train station was at one end of town, which had been settled in the midst of thick pine forests and craggy mountains. Drenched in thick gray clouds, the distant high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains were barely visible. The pungent scent of freshly milled lumber mingled with the acrid coal smell coming from the train and made his nose itch. Trying to keep pace with the young woman who was charging down the main street as though a pack of wolves were nipping at her heels, Will hurried the children along.
Abruptly turning to the right, they continued down a narrow alley- way where a black sign with an arrow and gold lettering hung off to one side of a two-story building, pointing the way to the lumber company’s office. They stopped in front of a door bearing the markings of the Oliver Lumber Company. Feeling the tingle of unease creep between his shoulder blades, Will sensed whatever was about to happen hadn’t been a part of the original arrangement. But then again, nothing in the past few days had gone accordingly, so why should this meeting be any different?
Squaring his shoulders, Will let the children and the young lady go ahead of him into a dimly lit room, an annex housing a small desk, some barrels with “Nails” stenciled in black on the lid, a stack of crates, and a rough-hewn counter area. No one was there, so he moved toward a closed door on the opposite side of the room. He knocked once.
“The door’s open.” A man’s rich baritone voice sounded from behind the door.
 Removing his hat, Will ushered the children and Miss Mitchell into a smaller room that served as the office. The space was sparsely furnished. Pausing in front of the oak desk, he said, “I’m William Benton.” “John Oliver.” Rising from his chair, Will’s superior came around to the front of the desk with his hand outstretched. They shook hands. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet my newest employee. And I see you and Miss Mitchell have already met.”
Will glanced at the young woman who stood with her hands folded in front of her. He saw movement beneath her skirt and realized she’d begun tapping her toe.
Taking a wide-legged stance, John Oliver folded his arms across his massive chest, looking from one of them to the other, sizing them up. Will thought himself to be tall at just under six feet, but this man had to be at least two inches over that in height. Because Agent Oliver’s dark hair was graying at the temples and wrinkles fanned out around his sharp blue eyes, Will guessed him to be about thirty-five years old. He’d heard of John Oliver’s adventures as a Pinkerton agent and knew the man could be a force to be reckoned with.
A feeling of unease worked its way along his spine. “How was your trip?” Oliver asked.
“My trip went well, sir.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Now he looked at the young woman. “I don’t know if you’re aware, Mr. Benton, but Miss Mitchell is Heartston’s schoolteacher. And a mighty fine one she is. I take it your trip to Albany was restful, Miss Mitchell?”
“I had a lovely visit with my aunt and uncle. But, Mr. Oliver, why did you need to see me in such a hurry? I would have liked time to freshen up from my trip first.” She managed to put a smile on her face. And though her smile seemed sincere enough, Will noticed her toe kept right on tapping.
“I beg your forgiveness for my ill manners, but I’ve a proposition for you involving Mr. Benton and his charges.”
The foot hidden beneath the skirts stilled. “I can’t imagine, other than the schooling of the children, what Mr. Benton and I would have to do with one another.”
“Hmm. That makes two of us,” Will mumbled, even though he knew full well where this conversation seemed to be heading as he watched Oliver grin from ear to ear.
“You see, Miss Mitchell,” Oliver said, “I’ve come up with a solution that will solve both of your problems!”
“I don’t have any problems,” she quickly countered.
“But you do. Mr. Benton needs someone to help him care for his niece and nephew while he begins his new job at my lumber company, and you”—he paused to point a finger at her—“you have made no secret of the fact that you suffer from a bit of wanderlust. Why, just the other day our friend Miss Amy Montgomery mentioned how you were going to be helping her out at the bakery so you could plan your next trip. This, in addition to the extra tutoring you’ve taken on. You’ve been scrimping and saving for months. I can’t imagine how you have any spare time at all, Miss Mitchell.”
He leaned closer to her, setting the snare. “I know how you yearn to expand your traveling horizons for the benefit of your students, and I’ve found a way for you to do just that.”
Will could all but see the wheels turning in her head as she put two and two together and came up with the four of them. Her delicate jaw, which only seconds ago had been clenched, dropped open.
And then she just as quickly snapped it shut and said, “You want me to help him care for his niece and nephew? I can’t imagine adding another job to my already full plate.”
“If you decide to help Mr. Benton with the children, it will enable you to drop one of those jobs. I’ve taken all of your needs into consideration. My grandmother’s house has been vacant for almost a year. Will and the children can live in the main portion of the house. There’s a small apartment attached that would be suitable for you to occupy.
 Really all you need to do is make sure the children have someone to watch over them when their uncle is working.”
“You have assumed an awful lot here, Mr. Oliver. I’m just not sure about taking on this extra responsibility.”
“The job comes with a decent salary, Miss Mitchell.”
Will could tell from the way she nibbled at her lower lip that she was thinking about taking the offer.
“I have been dreaming of a trip abroad,” she said.
“Imagine how much your students would love to hear about those travels!” Pouring on the charm, he ended with, “Taking on this job can help you get what you wish for.”
Her gaze settled on the children’s upturned faces. Will watched as her expression softened in sympathy. Then she turned to him. The look she gave him was clearly more cautious.
“You say there is an apartment attached to your grandmother’s house?” she asked Oliver.
Oliver nodded.
“I’ll just need to be there to help when Mr. Benton is unable to?” Again he nodded. “So you’ll take the job?”
 
As a good Christian, Elsie is troubled by William’s secrets…though she does find him intriguing. And when a sinister figure from her past arrives, Elsie and William will have to trust in faith and newfound love to protect their unlikely family from danger.
 
~~~~~
 

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