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.
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?”
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 fiancé 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.
“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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