Sisters of the Porcelain Doll, Book 2
Life rips away hope and sweeps her along…until she finds a future worth fighting for.
On the day her mother passes away, Heather Keeton weds a neighbor who promises to provide for her. They journey along the Oregon Trail, but tragedy strikes again. Widowed, alone, and far from home in Oregon Territory, Heather needs work. But where? She determines to use her cooking and baking skills at a logging camp to earn enough to remain independent and, eventually, reach her Porcelain Doll sister, Rebecca.
Land surveyor Zeke Bradley misses being part of a family. A surprise inheritance might open the way for him to settle down and begin a courtship, but he tries to come to the aid of an injured man only to be accused of murder. One wrong move, and he could unjustly swing by his neck from a rope. He flees and hides in a logging camp, waiting for his name to be cleared.
Nothing comes easy at Camp 13 Logging Company, where the work is hard and hazardous. Heather hopes to move on soon, and Zeke longs to be free from his worries. Can these two survivors learn to trust each other before their pasts destroy their future?
Just before dawn, Heather had kissed her ma’s cold dead cheek for the last time. Now, only two hours later, she stood frozen while her new husband kissed her cheek. Her soul nearly caved in on itself with the weight of emotion and the strangeness of it all as the two moments converged into one. The sadness of the funeral and death-touched morning, with what was supposed to be a happy wedding day.
Guilt churned heavy in her belly. Riley, faithful neighbor and friend—and now husband—was rescuing her, and here she was crying all over his boots. She needed to get out of this church, away from all the watchers, and out of town.
“Sorry, Riley.” A woman shouldn’t be sobbing on her wedding day.
Riley took his family Bible from her and put a hand on her back, offering support. “I understand. This was my idea. I’ve had weeks to get used to it. You’ve only had since last night. I should have asked sooner. But your ma…”
Ma hadn’t been awake enough to talk to for weeks.
So many things had changed as Ma’s declining health finally got the best of her. Four long years of sickness, struggling as the lump in her belly—having grown large enough to tent her dress out—consumed her. Then, in the wee hours this morning, Ma had gone.
The smell of wood polish the pastor’s wife must’ve used to clean the church mixed with the lingering smell of the herbal poultice Heather had used to ease Ma’s pain. The clock in the back of the room sent shudders into her heart with each tick.
Ma had no ticks left.
Heather tried to swallow her tears as she and Riley remained standing before the pastor. They’d already spoken their promises to be man and wife. Before a handful of friends gathered around ready to cheer them on, they’d recited their vows to forever love each other. But instead of a warm glow, she felt cold. Numb.
Closing her eyes, Heather tried to fix a younger, healthier image of her mother in her mind rather than the sick-ravaged face and form of Ma’s last moments. Her mother wouldn’t want her dwelling on such things at her wedding.
Riley had been nothing but a good neighbor to them both since Pa left them to fend for themselves. He was older than her and willing to help with the chores that needed a man’s strength. Heather had been fourteen when Pa left, and Riley seemed more older brother than sweetheart. She was nineteen now and no more prepared to make her way in this world than she was back then. But that didn’t stop the fact that she couldn’t afford to stay in her home anymore. She had no way to support herself, and farmer Hershey was already moving his foremen into her home. Now, she didn’t even have Ma to advise her.
Heather raised a hand to rub the back of her neck, fingers brushing the ribbon she’d woven through her coiled braid. Ma’s ribbon, one of a pair made of sky-blue satin with tiny roses down the center. It told of another life—another love—another time. Ma had been happy once. Happy with her husband and then happy with her, their only child. The weight of the ribbon, the weight of real love and better times, wore on Heather’s head like a crown of brick and stone. Heavy and unbending.
The ribbon brought her hope, though. Its match lay resting inside Victoria, the doll Heather and her three best friends used to seal their sister-pact a year ago. When they’d opened the back of the doll’s soft body and hidden their treasures inside, they’d made a deeper promise to witness each other’s lives as best they could. They’d solidified their pact for every day they hadn’t yet lived. The promise she, Cora Mae, Rebecca, and Rose made was the only thing that kept Heather from crumbling to a heap on the spot.
The pastor finished talking. Riley moved his hand to her shoulder, turning her, before dropping it again. They walked side by side, but not arm in arm, out the back of the white church. Heather’s boots clicked the fresh, polished floor as her skirts pressed against the foot of each pew they passed. The wedding was over.
Over for a moment. Married for a lifetime.
Heather couldn’t look into the eyes of the people who stood with smiles on their lips. They were either concerned about her well-being or, worse, overflowing in pity. These generous folks were the same ones who’d carried her mother’s simple pine coffin to the graveyard this morning. A coffin Riley had built without Heather knowing. Again, he protects me. I should love him.
At the back of the church, a crowd of ladies waited—their hems wet with the morning dew from the journey between the grassy graveyard and the altar where she’d just pledged her heart.
Cora Mae came as close to Heather’s right shoulder as Riley had her left. Their eyes met and held. There was strength in her gaze, and a wealth of compassion. Heather drank in both, grateful for her friend’s presence. Their other two friends hadn’t been able to attend on such short notice. Rebecca was in Eagle Creek, Oregon Territory, with her new husband. Rose was stuck at the mercantile working, per usual. Heather understood, of course, but their absence only made her more grateful Cora Mae was here. She wouldn’t have made it down the aisle without at least one of her friends present.
Heather, Riley, and Cora Mae stepped in unison down the church’s front steps.
“I left the wagon ready,” Riley said. “Everything is in order.”
Heather nodded, content to walk past all the people watching, all the way to the wagon Riley was leading her toward. It would be their new home for this trip across the Oregon Trail. Riley had contacted a reputable guide. They’d followed his advice to the letter and would continue to do so as they found their way to Oregon Country along with the many others doing the same.
Her mother’s ribbon, the one in her hair, blew in the breeze and tapped her cheek, mocking her—continuing to press down with all that used to be, and all that could have been. All that would be.
“Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow is chocked-full of its own troubles.”
Ma’s voice whispered in her mind, a one-sided conversation encompassing snatches of chats from years gone by. It had happened several times during the last few years as her mother quit speaking, each time bringing with it an ache in Heather’s heart.
Riley helped her climb into the wagon and settle on one side of the buckboard bench.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The ribbon tickled her cheek. Heather was glad she’d woven it into her hair, even though it came with the burden of her parents’ true love. It was also a reminder of the sisters she’d chosen and the sister-pact they’d made. Riley might have helped her find her seat, but her sisters were the ones who truly settled her heart.
All the memories of meeting with Rebecca, Cora Mae, and Rose during sewing bees came back to her. Precious times when they were all still together. When they could see each other, witness each other’s lives…when Ma was still alive—before Rebecca had to leave.
Tears began anew. Rebecca had left a year ago. Now Heather was leaving. Would the four of them ever be together again, sharing in each other’s lives?
The wagon rocked on its traces as Riley put something in the back. Then, thoughtful as always, he reached up to wrap a blanket around her shoulders, bracing her from the cold March wind.
If only it would warm her on the inside.
At least she could pretend she would be meeting up with Rebecca since she was heading that way. She’d never see her Ma again.
Riley placed his family Bible on the wagon seat beside her. It was important to him. His mother had been gone long before their families had met. The Bible carried the names of many generations that came before. Riley was only two years older than Heather. They’d need every scrap of their shared wisdom to get through this time. Riley’s pa was around, but no one wanted a pa like him. Did he even know his son married today? Heather was too tired to ask—weary deep in her bones.
Riley adjusted the Bible and let his hand slightly brush her skirts as he did so. He always seemed to know the quiet ways to lend her strength, ways found during the last five years. Ma’s declining health and Heather’s need for assistance had given Riley plenty of reason to avoid his own home. And father.
Could a man like that even be called by such an endearment? Could hers?
Pa left them five years ago, his wife’s pain and struggle too much to watch when he loved her so deeply. Heather understood his reasons. Even while hating him for it, there had been many times she’d wanted to do the same. It was exhausting on so many levels standing by, day after day, as a loved one wasted away, but she would never trade those last sweet days and years with her ma. Not for anything, not even a moment’s reprieve.
But that part of her life was over. Now it was time to leave. She needed to unfreeze her heart. She needed to be out of the house and home where every corner held precious memories.
“To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. I think He wrote that one just for me.”
Ma’s sweet voice inside her memories was only an echo of the real sound. She doesn’t hurt anymore.
Jesus was holding her now. That was what Heather needed to be thinking on. Not the fact that neither of her parents were here to hold her. She wished she knew where Pa was, though. Wished she could tell him about Ma’s passing. She’d written a letter for him and left it at the post office. He would find it if he ever returned home.
Her trunks were already in the back of Riley’s overly stocked wagon—their wagon.
He fussed with a few things. Cora Mae stood at her side with one hand resting on Heather’s leg, continuing to offer silent support. She’d offered to have Heather live with her, and save her this marriage, but Heather couldn’t accept. Cora Mae lived with her father, who was intent on getting his daughter married to a man of his choosing the day she turned eighteen. Heather would only be a burden.
Riley returned to his side of the wagon. “Let’s go find Rose. She’ll want to say good-bye.”
Heather swallowed more of Riley’s goodness. “That would be good.” Tears continued to pour down her cheeks and drip from her chin.
Cora Mae squeezed Heather’s thigh and stepped back when Riley climbed on board. His thick legs and shoulders bunched on his stocky frame as he settled on the seat and flicked the reins to set them moving. Cora Mae walked beside them.
Heather didn’t look back.
“Don’t cry for me, child.”
Ma’s often repeated words of the last months caressed her like the brisk March wind on her damp cheeks. She let the words and the winds dry her face to match her withered soul. She would obey. Not another tear would splash down.
She wouldn’t look back toward the square-built cabin that she’d been born in—that she’d experienced everything in her life to date in. She wouldn’t look back to Meramec—this town, the little church, her mother’s grave—the place that branded a hole in her soul clearer than the seared scar on the oxen’s rump that rocked back and forth with heavy treading steps ahead of them.
That was the only thing she could dwell on that didn’t make her feel pulled and weighted. Forward was the only way to move. There weren’t any reasons to cry in tomorrow.
Riley sat silent beside her, solid and strong—leaving his only home too. He’d never been anything but kind, and simple, and quiet. He would keep her safe from harm on the outside and the inside, as best he could. He would provide for them both—she was sure. A twinge of guilt fluttered where love should reside.
It didn’t matter. Riley knows I don’t love him. Likely he didn’t love her either. Not like that. She cared for him, and he her, and she would let herself cry if she lost him. But that was where the emotions would stop.
Riley was familiar and worn, like a broke-in pair of leather boots—a good fit with no rubs. A simple love might grow from respect, but it would never turn into the raging flames her parents knew.
That kind of love killed you and wrecked you when it was lost. No sir, Heather never wanted to love Riley so much—or anyone else for that matter. Love like that was a living death sentence.
The wagon rolled slowly down the main street. Bumping heavily in the puddles left from the last rain.
She looked at the side of Riley’s square face, not far above her own, as they rolled past first the doctor’s office and then the blacksmith’s. The wrinkle lines creasing his brow already carried deep concern for her. She would be a good wife to him. She knew how to do that. Knowing how to keep house and home was one of many gifts Ma had given her. Using those gifts would become her new purpose—her way to still feel connected and whole.
The farther they pulled down the main road, the more sucking grief clutched at her chest. The force was so great she wished she could fold into the same dark ground she’d buried Ma in this morning. She bit back a sob—no more tears—but Riley must have heard anyway. He reached over his mother’s Bible and touched her hand with the back of his. She jolted at the merest brush, but quickly relented and let her hand settle close to his—only bumping when the wagon hit more ruts and puddles. He was her reality. The grief would lead her nowhere—nowhere good anyway.
His voice was soft, just above a whisper. “I understand, Heather. Better than you think. Don’t forget this wedding was my idea. Leaving and going to Oregon Country—mine as well. We both need a fresh start. We just hafta keep going until we get to the other side of the Trail. Take each concern as it comes.”
She closed her eyes and let his words soak past her fears. A new beginning. It was what they both needed. Her and her new husband.
Husband. Riley. The two words together sounded so strange, much like his chaste kiss on her cheek from the wedding. She’d made the right choice, she knew that, but would it ever stop feeling so awkward?
They were almost to the mercantile—to Rose.
She would miss her porcelain doll sisters that still lived here in Meramec. She would miss them almost as much as she would miss her mother. Her heart felt like it could quit beating at any moment with the losses that piled on. They were heavier than the flour sack in the back of their wagon. She hoped and dreamed the Oregon Trail would take her close to Rebecca. Her brave friend had left on a similar start-over journey.
She was glad a letter from Rebecca made it back last fall, before Heather had to leave. She knew where her friend was, sort of. Well, she had an address. If life turned out half as blessed as Rebecca’s with a new home, Heather could stand tall in the face of losing everything.
Riley gave her his hankie. Heather fingered the sturdy tick fabric, grateful, again, for his quiet care.
They rolled to the mercantile doors and pulled up. Rose came rushing out, her long legs easily closing the distance to the side of the wagon where Cora Mae was. She thrust a packet of papers into Heather’s hand, clinging when Heather would have let go. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with both you and Rebecca so far away. I can’t stand this.”
Heather bent over the side of the wagon, blanket slipping from her shoulders as she gave Rose the biggest hug of her life. Then, sitting back up, she clutched the papers to her chest and smiled at her two friends. The first real smile of the day—wedding included.
“I never could forget. It’s part of me. You’re part of me. Forever.” She didn’t think it possible to bury her mother and smile in the same day but her friends had always been precious to her. “Victoria holds all our secrets now; she will hold all to come.”
“No matter what?” Rose asked. She grabbed Cora Mae’s hand.
“No matter what,” Heather promised. “I’ll write like Rebecca. I won’t keep anything back. If you guys don’t witness my life, who is there to care?”
Before either of her friends could answer, Riley’s father stormed out of the mercantile, slamming the door and making the windows of the building shudder.
He shook his fist in their direction. Heather put a hand on Riley’s family Bible—the one thing he’d asked her to carry on their wedding day—her way of trying to protect Riley from this new onslaught. Could she give him strength she didn’t have?
“Get down off that wagon seat this minute, boy! You ain’t leaving! You have responsibilities—chores back at the house!”
Riley stiffened beside Heather. The oxen balked at his tightening of the reins. Riley clicked them forward, ignoring the curses his father spat at him.
Heather turned to her two friends, jogging to keep up beside the wagon. This was her last time seeing them. She couldn’t let Riley’s pa take that from her. “Thank you for this,” she said, waving the papers.
Cora Mae’s face was flushed red with more than the fast pace. Tears glistened in her friend’s eyes. “We’ll write back as soon as we know where you are.” Her voice wobbled.
“Yes,” Rose agreed. “I filched the paper from my brother’s supply box. He’ll never miss it. He’s too worked up about the last town meeting. Not a single person listened to his chest-puffing.”
“I’ll write. I promise.” Heather hugged the papers Cecil had unknowingly donated, careful not to lose her seat in the swaying wagon that was rolling faster and faster as Riley tried to leave his father behind.
“I know you already have it, but I put Rebecca’s address in there too. We can’t be too careful. We need to keep in touch as much as possible. We have to.” There was so much concern and longing in Rose’s eyes, it almost brought another round of tears.
Heather had cried so many times during the last year—even more in the last day. Tears never seemed to help much. She sniffed and let the frigid breeze dry her lashes as she clutched Riley’s hankie in her fist. The wagon pulled ahead.
“We are sisters. I won’t forget it,” she called to them, waving.
Riley’s pa caught the oxen’s reins, tugging them sideways. “I told you to git home. Stop and face me like the man you think you are.”
Confused, the oxen stopped. The wagon rocked and wobbled.
Riley flicked the reins out of his pa’s hands. “No, sir. I’ve answered to you for long enough. I ask for nothing that’s yours. I take nothing of yours. Kindly get out of the way. I’m leaving.”
His pa spat and then uttered another string of curses. Heather’s cheeks flushed as folks on the boardwalk stopped and stared.
Heather was glad when Riley ordered the oxen to move again and the wagon rolled forward. This town would always hurt, even with Cora Mae and Rose in it. Leaving was best. The only solution left for her was forward and away.
She called out reassurances to her friends and to herself. “It will be all right. I assure you. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but I know Riley will see me safe.”
Riley’s pa heard her words and bellowed his own reply. “Riley won’t see you safe. He’s dumber than a sheep fallen over in a ditch.” His face mottled and spit flew with each harsh word. “Too stupid to figure his numbers or his letters, that boy is, and too stupid to travel half a mile without help. You’ll see. You’ll regret sharing his saddle before the sun sets.”
Riley kept his face forward. His hands were white on the reins as he answered back, directing his words to her not his pa. “Those things are true, about the learning, Heather. I’m sure that’s no surprise to you. I don’t pretend to be what I’m not.”
Before he could shrug or make any more excuses, she put a hand on his arm. “It’s a hard day to be happy, Riley, but I’m content. I don’t regret my decision.” She turned back to her friends, waving a final goodbye. “I’ll miss you!”
They both waved their own good-byes. Heather sealed the image of them clinging to each other as she held on to the thought of the porcelain doll and all their sister-promises.
She waved until they were nearly out of sight.
The town shrank behind them as they made their way toward Independence, the starting point of the Oregon Trail. Heather couldn’t picture what her future home would look like. She tried to remember how Rebecca described her new place. The more Heather thought about it, the more it didn’t really matter what her new home would look like. If she had any say in the matter, they would aim to get as close as she could to Rebecca.
That was the name of the town. She would keep going until she was close to that. She would do her part to cover as much ground as possible, each day, before the wheels on the wagon stopped turning. Would her new husband agree?
She glanced back into the wagon bed, at the slim pallet that covered most of the floor between the barrels and boxes of supplies. She swallowed, refusing to even look at Riley.
What had she done?
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Auburn, Oregon Territory
David Vickner sat straight in the oak chair across from the lawyer. He smoothed a callused free hand down his freshly manicured, red beard. Every resource of strength was required for him to sit and look content and settled—nothing out of place—all poised and under control.
He drew up every rich tone he was capable of and added it to his voice. “Thank you for making time to see me. I’m willing to make a cash offer on the estate of Mr. Price. I’d hate to see such a stately home fall into disrepair. Price Mansion has stood as a testament to this town’s strength and tenacity to survive for far too long to let it slip into decline.” He waited and watched the lawyer’s jowls and ruddy face to see if he held his attention.
This is the last apple to be plucked before my basket is full.
This project needed to fall into perfect place, or all the other apples would topple and fall. He’d used every trick in the book to land his current bank job. After a year of scrubbing his nose on the backsides of this city’s people of prominence, he’d found a way to serve himself. His groveling was nearly over.
My future secure.
Price Mansion would be his crowning jewel—the leverage he needed to finish his masquerade—a plan constructed and built to last generations. He’d never be looked down on again.
David studied his groomed nails, and then went back to watching the lawyer. He wiped his face clean of expression—no better poker face than his, and no one was on to him. He was smarter than Auburn’s smartest. His goal within reach. I’ll never want again.
He already owned two businesses in Auburn to prove his skill at duping the idiots that trusted their money so easily.
Nothing too hasty.
Slow and steady, as he’d done before, only better. He liked the challenge of bending the town’s leaders until they thought nothing about trusting him as if he was as long standing and generous as Mr. Price himself.
He could see himself in Price Mansion, glass of malt liquor in hand, as he surveyed this town from its upper balcony. His kingdom. He would decide which pawn to move and where to move it next.
He would win.
The lawyer’s voice intruded his musings. “It’s not for sale.”
David nearly came to his feet. He checked himself just in time. “Not for sale?” His face dropped its serene mask. If the lawyer was looking at him, then, instead of at his ledger, the game would be up. He swallowed and tried again. “Not for sale? I would imagine the town of Auburn would embrace the money provided by its sale?”
“I’m sure they would, if that sale was legal.” The lawyer smoothed a crinkle out of a paper on his desk, brushing a few stray crumbs to the floor.
“Legal?” Would the buffoon get on with it? David needed the facts. The chess pieces didn’t always move the way you expected. He needed the information that would set his next piece into motion. There were no other options for him. Price Mansion needed to be his. Now. He would have the house.
David rearranged his face back into normal lines before the portly lawyer was done coughing up what seemed like a week’s worth of road dust.
His mind spun, testing several options—to find purchase.
What had changed? He’d checked and double-checked for a will before he told Jasmine to increase the arsenic. It had to be for sale. “It’s my understanding that the estate is empty. With no will. There is no probate. The house will be sold at auction. Correct? Assuming of course, no one steps forward to stake a claim. Isn’t that what this town has done in the past?”
If it wasn’t for sale, how was he going to shape and influence the investors of this town without it? Unthinkable. They needed to see him in the grandest estate inside this budding city’s limits. He needed the town’s trust to finish building the structure of leadership and respect he’d started. The mansion is the cornerstone to the whole balance. He needed it to swing the deal with the mercantile in his favor. All his work pinned on things coming together. Sweat gathered at the base of his neck. He needed Price Mansion. He felt like he lived five days in the space it took the lawyer to begin explaining.
“Very right. That is the town policy.” The lawyer cleared his throat a final time, dabbed at his flushed cheeks with a wadded hankie, and then pushed the hankie in his breast pocket. “Never had a reason to do anything other than that, when there is no will.”
How could that be?
“You found a will?” David nearly groaned but held fast. I checked with Price myself. Had someone double-crossed him at his own game?
He thought of Jasmine. No. She isn’t that smart. She trusted David. He’d already put his mark on her, like Mother taught him. There was no way she would betray him. His mind made laps around all his options as he waited for the lawyer to spit out the next detail. He wanted to throttle the man and then shake him until he spilled all he needed to hear.
“Not only was there a will, the will was read a few hours ago. If you’d like to buy it, you’ll have to consult with the new owner. It’s off my desk.”
David put on all the false charm his years of being the bastard child of a prostitute taught him. “Interesting. I asked Mr. Price if he had a will just weeks ago, and he denied having one.”
The lawyer didn’t respond as he glanced at his lunch hamper in the corner and then proceeded to set order to his desk as if he was about to leave the office for an important meeting.
Nodding toward the hamper, David tried to rein in his scowl. “Don’t let me keep you from your lunch. I’m sure you have important things to do this afternoon and I wouldn’t want to be an imposition.”
“Nice of you. I think I will.” The chair groaned and creaked as the lawyer leaned to the side and snagged the food basket’s handle without getting up.
David wanted to squeeze all his frustration out on the lawyer’s fat neck. If he’d met the man in his office instead of here in the lawyer’s, it might have been a possibility. But now, too many people knew—too many people were watching.
This simply can’t be. Up until now, everything had come together beautifully. He had to find a new way. Price Mansion was supposed to be his.
He’d taught Jasmine how to play her part to perfection. She didn’t even object when he had her slowly poison the old man. What was it all for—now?
The house would be lost.
The lawyer scanned the contents of his basket. “Thanks be that you inquired about Mr. Price’s will. It must’ve made a difference.” He wheezed and coughed.
A difference in what? David wanted to grab the squab’s face and make him swallow his too-slow tongue. The lawyer was messing with him. Him. He was Scarlett’s son. “Pardon?”
David may have been born in the back room of an upstairs parlor in the house of ill repute and he may have spent many suppers tucked away with the cook, the maids, and whatever gutter rat was working off his tick while his mother plied her trade, but because of those experiences and what Mother taught him, he would and could bend any man, any situation until it suited his purpose. He’d learned from the best, and the best always began with patience. He would see this through. Again. He would see this through, now.
The man across from him seemed to be out of breath from his coughing, like he’d run across the busy streets of Auburn and back rather than reaching for his lunch. “Without a doubt. You must’ve motivated him, where I could not. I’ve been trying to get him to write a will for the last five years. Without a will, his estate would’ve been scattered pell-mell. I’m so glad you persuaded him. This is 1847. Things have to be done legal, right and tight, so I keep telling my clients, wills are important. Things shouldn’t be left to chance.”
There is no such thing as chance in my life.
Did my questions really turn Price? Bile burned the back of David’s throat. If only I hadn’t asked. Was he his own trip up? Still close to the desk, David clutched the edge of the piece of oak furniture that matched the chair he was sitting on, making sure to grip the desk below the lawyer’s line of sight. If he squeezed hard enough, David could pretend it was the man’s jowly throat. Not that that would fix anything.
But it would feel good.
Price Mansion should have gone up for auction. His name at the top of the list—no contenders. He’d made sure of that. But now?
How could this have happened? “Who did the deceased name as heir again? What was his name? Did Mr. Price have any family to speak of?” David knew the answer with Jasmine feeding him inside information, but the lawyer didn’t know that.
The lawyer dabbed a little sweat from his forehead with the dratted hankie he’d just coughed into before he pulled out an orange from his basket.
One that probably cost the lawyer a pretty mint to have shipped in this time of year. Fool.
“He didn’t have much family. None he wanted to leave the mansion to anyway. That was why he wouldn’t write a will, at least that’s what he always told me when I tried to get him to.”
David asked, “Price had a couple single fellas renting rooms from him? Do they know of any family?”
The lawyer peeled his orange in one long strand—chubby fingers focused on the fruit before he went on. “It’s them, Price gave it to. The two fellas boarding with him got it all. One more than the other, for what reason I couldn’t tell ya. The first got a few odds and ends, a family Bible, and Mr. Price’s three smoking pipes.”
He slid a peeled wedge between his lips and chewed while he continued. “The other fella gets the house and all the furniture and assets. Though the house is pretty much the only asset. Not sure how the old fella intended to stay living in it—as big as it is—and its slowly run-down state. Lots of blunt required to keep up digs like that. Might be a mercy that he went on to be with the Lord when he did. Zeke, the new owner, might be willing to sell to you with all that to consider. I don’t know how flush in the pocket he is. But you’ll have to consult with him.”
David wanted to scream in the lawyer’s face. What did the lawyer care if the old man lost the house to death or to selling. The vein in David’s neck pulsed heavy. His mind figured faster than an accountant does math. There had to be a way through this. There had to be a way to get ahead of this. Maybe the roommate, Zeke, would give him something to work with.
David would go see him.
He would be made to come around. He knew who Zeke was around town. He knew most everyone. That was just good business. But what was Zeke’s character? Was he the dirt, truth, and hard work type? Those were the easiest kind to move out of the way. Maybe this would all turn out for the better. “You say Zeke, what was his last name, I didn’t catch it. You say he picked up his copy of the will this morning?”
“Yes, and the deed. Zeke Bradley. Nice fellow. He won’t have to move or anything, since he lives there already. Pretty convenient. He was heading home after he saw me, as far as I know. I still need to notify his roommate, Patrick, of his inheritance.” He laughed. “If you head over to the mansion and you see Patrick, would you let him know I’m looking for him. Save me a trip?” He stuffed a third of an orange in his mouth at one time.
“If I see him—”
The door to the office banged open. “Fire!” A man ran past in a blur, opening doors and shouting as he went.
David tensed. The lawyer started, dropping a hunk of orange he was about to shove in his mouth. Then, David beat the out-of-breath lawyer to the door and looked toward the commotion.
A dark cloud plumed. Men scrambled from every direction and women stopped to watch with a hand on their children’s shoulders. Snapping and popping and a pulsing wind could be heard above the din.
Horses were being let out of the livery one at a time. People cleared the street to stay out of the way of the animals’ wild exit. David stayed on the wood walkway and watched as the red glow ate the livery that he’d fronted money for just weeks ago. Money he’d gleaned from his fellow bankers without their knowledge or permission. Would this knock a leg off the chair of his carefully constructed life? His mind shifted and planned and replanned and shifted, running through options with the same speed as the frightened horses found their way out of town. Only he wouldn’t let the terror of it all show in his eyes as the horses did.
Down the street, the blacksmith shop, next to the livery, was barely visible through the smoke filling the area. David’s feet stayed rooted to the boardwalk. He wouldn’t budge until he knew what to do. Flames chewed away across the street, consuming their way from the livery toward the meat house. The butcher shop was also an investment property that he’d managed to wrangle since he and Jasmine came to town. The longer he stood there the more folks showed up to work on putting the fire out. They would have it in hand soon, but would the second leg of the chair he was standing on burn to ash too?
While his mind whirled, light, booted steps ran down the boardwalk and stopped beside him. “What are we going to do?” Jasmine’s hand fluttered in the direction of the fire.
The quiet whisper was only for his ears, but he checked for eavesdroppers anyway. “Shh. I don’t know yet.” But if the livery and the butcher shop went for long without an income, then they wouldn’t have enough money to land the mercantile. If they couldn’t claim a piece of the mercantile then there wouldn’t be enough income to rebuild the livery after this—assuming the butcher shop didn’t need to be replaced as well. And Price Mansion was the pinnacle—the glue that would hold his whole façade together. The town needs to trust me long enough for all the income to catch up with what I have borrowed.
“If they do burn, can you get more money the way you did last time?”
“I can’t skim that much without being noticed, and it doesn’t make sense that we muddy the waters of the town we want to stay in. This is where we want to live.” He wiped sweat from his brow. “You better go. We shouldn’t be seen talking.”
“But if you don’t have any money, then I won’t be able to stay at Mollie’s for much longer. Maybe we can finally let go of this pretense, and I can come to you.”
“None of that now. Stick to the plan.” He sliced his hand down but didn’t look at her. She would be wearing the same black dress he’d stolen off the clothesline as they crossed the miles to get to this town when they began their plans. The fine fabric was beginning to fray at the cuff. No one seemed to pay it any mind, but it bothered him. If she wore through the dress, he’d have to buy her another or let her come out of mourning. He couldn’t let that happen. She was his.
If she wasn’t in mourning, then the fellas would come around. He clenched his fist and let the length of his neatly trimmed nails bite into his flesh.
The crackling from the fire grew louder and the scent of the smoke on the wind started to smell heavily of burnt meat—was it coming from the butcher shop or the livery? What move should he make?
Jasmine stepped past him, letting her elbow graze his stomach. He wanted to grab her to his chest and hold on until the worst of this chaos passed. Was he doomed to forever be surrounded by an upset apple basket? Would he ever be still and at rest—without having to watch his back and move the pawns in front of him?
Not now, it seemed, not when all they’d fought for, all they’d killed for was given to Zeke Bradley or burning up in the fire alongside beef and pork. It was his move. He was the only one with all the pieces. He would win the board, but he had to get out from under this. He had to think faster and smarter than all the others, like he always did.
A wagon rolled by, heading away from town. Unnoticed by all but him.
David grinned. He had it—an answer sweeter than a secret night with Jasmine presented itself, and he wasn’t a man to pass up a divine gift. A near miss but not a checkmate. God bless his mother for teaching him how to think outside the lines.
He whispered to Jasmine. “Watch where I go and follow me in ten minutes. No more and no less.”
David took a few steps down to the bank office. Jasmine matched his steps. “You have to wait here.” He bent down and hefted one bar of the loose railing from the handrail where he worked. Two yanks and the wood dowel fell from its place with a crack. He looked around. No one noticed or cared. All were running to or away from the flames.
The rounded wood looked like every other railing lining the town’s boardwalks. It would do perfectly.
He knew what to do. He tucked the doweling under his coat and looked at Jasmine directly. “I’ll take care of us. I promise. Ten minutes.” He won’t know what hit him.
She stepped to the side.
This time he made to leave and let his arm brush across her front as he passed.
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