Home » , , , , , , » Impersonating the Teacher Series:Birthstone Brides By Mildred Colvin

Impersonating the Teacher Series:Birthstone Brides By Mildred Colvin

You want me to do what?” Tabitha Ryan stared at her father-in-law and half rose from the chair in her in-laws’ parlor. She froze in place before pressing the back of her hand against her forehead and sinking to the plush softness of the cushions with her eyes turned toward the ceiling. “I can’t believe you would say such a thing.”
Impersonating the Teacher Series:Birthstone Brides
Impersonating the Teacher Series:Birthstone Brides By Mildred Colvin

“Oh, Tabitha, your theatrics are so unbecoming.” Harriet Ryan frowned. Her hands fluttered on her ample lap. “There is nothing wrong with Harrison. Why, of our two sons, he is probably—”

“Don’t you dare say Harrison is a better man than Adam was.” Tabitha straightened, her fingers gripping the armrests on either side. She didn’t know why she goaded her in-laws with, as her mother-in-law called, theatrics, any more than she understood how she could stand up to them as if she had no fear. Because the truth of the matter was, the two people sitting across from her scared her to death. The runaway pounding of her heart confirmed her fear of their latest scheme to control her.

“Adam was a good son, but he’s gone. Nothing we say or do can bring him back, Tabitha.” Paul Ryan spoke in a tired sounding voice. “You need a husband and Harrison needs a wife. Virginia needs the firm hand of a father. We’ve discussed this enough.”

“You are right.” Tabitha looked around the well-appointed room from the piano against the far wall, past the brocade embroidered sofa, to the man sitting across from her. “We’ve discussed this to its death, but I don’t see Harrison bearing gifts of love and asking for my hand. Where is your darling younger son?”

“Harrison had an important meeting at the plant. He said he wouldn’t be home until late.”

Tabitha glared at her father-in-law. “Adam had been gone less than a month when you let Harrison step into his place at the factory. We are still in mourning for him. How could you forget so quickly?”

“Ryan Buggy Works is our livelihood, Tabitha.” Paul stood and paced the Oriental rug spread before the fireplace. “I’m unable to take the reins anymore. Thanks to Adam, you have—”

“Paul, we don’t need to say anything more.” Harriet quickly rose and went to her husband’s side. “Why don’t we let Harrison talk to Tabitha about this? I’m sure he can convince her marriage is the best for everyone involved.”

When Harriet took his arm, Paul nodded, but his shoulders slumped. He turned to Tabitha. “Will you do that, girl? Will you listen to him and consider this union? That’s all we ask.”

Tabitha saw the gray pallor to his skin and pity replaced the anger and fear he’d stirred within her only moments before. She stood and nodded. “All right. I’ll listen to Harrison. I’ll think about what you’ve said, but I have to do what’s best for Virginia and myself. Please understand that.”

“Marriage to Harrison is what’s best for you and Virginia and everyone else, too. If you weren’t so stubborn, you’d see that.” Paul’s posture straightened and his voice rose into a frightening roar. His face became an unhealthy red as he glared at Tabitha.

She held her position as she shrank inside from his anger. She tightened her fists, hidden in the folds of her black taffeta skirt, and pressed them against her legs. She couldn’t stay here much longer. But for now she needed to placate her in-laws.

“Oh, please, Paul, think of your heart. There’s no cause for anger. You took me by surprise suggesting I remarry even before my year of mourning for Adam is complete.” Tabitha congratulated herself that her voice sounded steady and sincere. “Why don’t you tell Harrison I will gladly speak with him tomorrow evening? I have committed myself to volunteering at the library tomorrow, so will be gone over the noon meal, but should be home before evening.”

“I also have an engagement tomorrow. Who will watch Virginia?” Harriet frowned at Tabitha, as if she made a habit of leaving her five-year-old child unattended.

Tabitha smiled. “Oh, Virginia will be going with me. You know how much she enjoys books. The library is having a reading for the children during the time I’ll be there. She’s looking forward to playing with the other children.”

“All right, I’ll tell him.” Partially mollified, Harriet took Paul’s arm, and they walked together out the door.

Tabitha’s breath rushed out in a relieved sigh. What had she done? Bought a little time to make plans? Where would she go? How could she support herself and her daughter with no income and no skills to secure employment? Although she had a good education, she had no experience outside of the home. She’d been raised to marry well and take care of a home and family. Her husband should be supporting her and Virginia. But he couldn’t. How ironic that Adam had been killed by the very thing he loved.

If only she could use the income he’d provided for her. With her and Virginia’s stock in Ryan Buggy Works, she should have enough to keep her comfortably for the rest of her life but all she had was in their joint account at the bank. Somehow, she was sure the Ryan’s would find a way to keep her from using the stock.

She sank back to the chair so she could think. She had to get away. If she stayed here, they’d have her married to Harrison as soon as her year of mourning had ended. When that happened, her new husband would own her stock. As if a lamp illuminated her mind, she understood the urgency behind Paul and Harriets’s demand that she marry their younger son. They were afraid her stock would leave Ryan hands in case she remarried. They didn’t care about her and Virginia. They only wanted her stock. In the event of her death, the stock went to Virginia first and then to her father. Adam had made sure of that. But if she married Harrison …

Her hands shook so she gripped them in her lap. Letting fear take control wouldn’t help. She had to calm down. The Ryans were not murderers. She and her precious child were in no danger other than being forced to accept their remaining son as their husband and father. No need to borrow trouble when more than enough had just been handed to her.

She rose and walked quickly to the wide stairway leading to her rooms above, thankful when she didn’t encounter anyone in the halls. She found Virginia still playing with her dolls in the playroom.

Tabitha stood in the doorway watching her five-year-old daughter set her baby doll in the miniature high chair and pretend to feed her. The doll’s porcelain features remained fixed and unresponsive to its mother’s care. Virginia didn’t seem to mind as she continued to press imaginary food against the doll’s painted lips.

Tabitha dropped to her knees beside her daughter. “Hi, sugar. What are you doing?”

“Sarah Jane didn’t eat her dinner when we did. Don’t tell Grandmother.” Large brown eyes so like Adam’s searched Tabitha’s face. “She won’t like it.”

“Grandma won’t like what?”

Virginia’s eyes moved upward and she shook her head. “You know. If you don’t eat at the table with everyone else, you don’t eat at all.”

“Oh, yes. That rule.” Tabitha laughed at the totally annoyed expression on her daughter’s little face. She gave her a quick hug and kissed her cheek. “Why don’t you and Sarah Jane finish so we can get to bed?”

“All right, Mommy.”

Twenty minutes later, Tabitha snuggled her little daughter in the big double bed with her and told the story of Isaac blessing his twin sons. She told of how the younger son had deceived his brother and his father so that he could receive the birthright and the best blessing. Jacob had to leave his home and all that was familiar to go to a strange land because he lied and stole what was not rightfully his. There he prospered as he followed God and eventually made peace with his brother.

Long after Virginia slept, Tabitha thought of the Bible story and wondered if she could make a new life for her child in a strange land as Jacob had. She slipped from bed and knelt at the open window where she looked out at the stars above. A gentle breeze lifted the hair from her neck, cooling her.

“Adam, I don’t suppose you can hear me. You are probably too busy walking those streets of gold to notice what’s going on here, and that’s all right. I don’t want you troubled. It’s just that your family can be such a trial.” She gave a short laugh that ended in a sob.

“Lord Jesus, I love You. Thank You for Your comforting presence this past year since Adam went home to live with You. Without the sustaining strength of Your spirit, I would crumple from the load of grief and hurt. I ask now for Your direction and help as I try to find a new life for Virginia and for myself. I don’t have the details planned out, but we must leave here soon. Please direct us to the place you want us to go. Show me an acceptable way to make a living for Virginia and lead us to others of our faith.”

~*~

“Yes, I’ve telegraphed Gloriana.” Dan responded to his mother’s inquiry. “In fact, I’ve already received her answer.”

Mom paused her sweeping as her eyes brightened. “Well, are you going to tell me what she said?”

He grinned. “She’s arriving on Thursday afternoon. I’m to meet her at the train station and take her to the cabin.” His grin turned into a grimace. “Don’t know how that will work out. Her living next door may become more burden than I can handle, but it’s close to the school where she’ll be teaching.”

“Oh, your cousin isn’t so bad, Dan.” Mom’s eager smile became a pointed look pinning him where he sat at the table nursing a cup of coffee. “All you have to do is get along with the girl.”

Get along with Goriana who blew everything he did out of proportion? Not an easy task under the best circumstances. He looked up at his mother and shrugged. “Sure, I’ll do my best to get along with my dear cousin.”

Dan’s sister, who had seemingly been ignoring them while she washed dishes at the dry sink, snickered and looked over her shoulder. “This should be fun. You and Gloriana living so close together.” Lena’s eyes danced as she looked at her brother.

“Yeah, for you maybe.” He grinned at his little sister. “Tell me, is it just me she rubs raw with her wonderful disposition?”

“Seems to be that way.” Lena turned back to her dishes. “I’ve never had a problem with her, and I don’t think Frank does either.

“You two must be saints.” Dan winced when he noticed his mother’s frown. He stood and held up both hands. “Sorry, Mom. I’ll do my best. Now I’d better be getting back to the store before Jason sells something for less than I paid for it.”

Lena swung around then. “He wouldn’t do that. Jason is a good man who’s smart and honest. He probably knows the workings of your feed store as well as you do by now.”

“Sure he does.” Dan smirked at his little sister. Obviously, she was more interested in his new helper than he’d realized. “He knows the store inside and out after only two months on the job. But I still need to get back to work.”

He walked across the floor where his mother was leaning the broom in the corner. He placed a kiss on her cheek. “I’ll let you know when I’ve picked Gloriana up on Thursday. Bye now.”

“Bye, Dan.” Mom smiled as he went out the back door.

~*~

Tabitha breathed a sigh of relief and laid her napkin on the table. In the instant it took for her brother-in-law to step behind and grasp the chair to help her stand, her muscles tensed again. Virginia had eaten earlier and was waiting upstairs in their rooms for her to return. The time had come for her walk with Harrison.

She rose and turned the best smile she could form on the man who offered his arm. Slipping her hand in place, she almost missed seeing the pleased expression on her mother-in-law’s face. She turned away before the urge to be contrary won and sent her scurrying from the room with the excuse of a headache. No, she’d go through with this walk. She’d even listen to everything he had to say, but he’d never convince her to marry him. All the talk in the world wouldn’t do that.

He opened the door then stepped back as she went through into a moonlit night. “This evening is quite pleasant, don’t you think?”

She looked at his handsome face, feeling nothing but apathy. “Yes, it’s very pleasant, but I understood you have business you’d like to discuss with me.”

A snort erupted. Or was that suppressed laughter? “Business? With so charming and beautiful a woman? I would not waste my time. No, I’d much rather spend my time speaking of love and marriage. You aren’t ignorant of my feelings toward you, I’m sure.”

“Ignorant?” Tabitha turned an amused expression toward him. “Probably not. I’ve been told you and your mother want my promise to marry you. Is that what you’re speaking of?”

His eyes widened and his hand spread across his chest as if she had wounded him. “How can you speak in such a callous way of a union I would hope is filled with love and mutual respect? Yes, I’d very much love to have your promise of marriage.”

“Ah, but there is the problem. Love is not an emotion either of us feels toward the other.” Tabitha stopped under the overhanging branch of the old oak tree in the center of the backyard, stepping barely into its shadow. She released his arm and faced him. “I hope you understand, Harrison, my love for your brother was far from trivial.”

“My half-brother.” His eyes narrowed for a moment before settling on hers. “I’ve waited patiently for your time of mourning to end. The time has come for me to speak what is on my heart. Adam has been gone almost a year.” He touched her sleeve between finger and thumb. “You’ll soon be discarding these dreary rags for new clothing to celebrate your life. There will be no more reason to hide behind convention and a grief that is long past. You’re young. You’ll want to marry again, provide a father for your child. Where could you find anyone better than me? I will care for you in the manner you’ve been accustomed to. You won’t even have to move. Eventually, when my parents are gone, we’ll inherit this estate as well as the business.”

As Harrison talked, Tabitha’s spirit shrank from him. The words were not wrong, but she sensed a motive below the surface she couldn’t understand. What did he really want? When he paused, she spoke. “Ryan Buggy Works is a family business. You have an uncle and cousin with an interest in it. How can you inherit a business that has so many others involved?”

Harrison looked past Tabitha as if seeing more than their surroundings. His eyes shone in the bright light from the moon. “When Grandfather Ryan started the works, he gave shares to both of his sons. Equal shares were also given to each grandson as he was born.” As if something stopped him, Harrison blinked and met Tabitha’s gaze. “But I mustn’t bore you with the details of business. Let’s just say when my father passes on, I will be given the majority interest in the company. All the more reason you’d be wise to marry me. Will you? Please, Tabitha, say you’ll marry me.”

Tabitha looked up into his smug face and wanted to walk away. Not the reaction he expected no doubt, but very tempting. Instead, she shrugged and slipped into her role as she smiled at him. “I must say you present a tempting argument, but I really need time to think. It just isn’t in my nature to do anything impulsive if I can help it. Surely, you can give me until the end of the week to make a decision.”

“Of course.” Harrison gave a stiff, barely discernable bow. “I will leave you alone until one week from tonight, but then I’ll expect an acceptance. You are a beautiful woman, Tabitha. I will be a very lucky man to have you for my wife. You’ll live in the lap of luxury and never have to fear losing your home and livelihood. Your child will be cared for as if she were my own. Do think carefully of that. I’ll walk you back to the house.”

“All right.” Tabitha took his arm as his carefully veiled threats ran through her mind. She’d be thinking this week all right—of a way to escape the Ryan’s clutches. At the kitchen, she released him. “I need to get milk for my daughter. I’ll find my own way to our rooms.”

“Fine.” He stepped away. “I’ll see you next week.”

Tabitha soon carried two glasses, each half filled with milk, through the house. She started up the stairs when the rumble of voices coming from the parlor caught her attention. Her mother-in-law’s rose above the other. “No, Harrison, we’ll hire the same man who took care of Adam.”

What? Tabitha pivoted and crept closer to the door, scarcely daring to breathe.

“I don’t know, Mother. She’s too beautiful to kill so soon.” Tabitha’s eyes widened at Harrison’s barely detectible whine.

“Huh! Better right away than waiting until she gets her hooks in and you forget what you’ve worked so hard for. You’re sure she’ll say yes?”

“Certainly. Why wouldn’t she? But I should at least be allowed to decide when your man makes his move. I’m getting a beautiful woman. Let’s wait at least until after the honeymoon. There’s no need to hurry, lest someone suspects.”

Tabitha’s heart fully skipped a beat as she understood his meaning. He planned to marry her and … His mother’s next words confirmed her fears. “Dalton is good at his job. No one will suspect it wasn’t an accident. And this time we’ll get two for one.”

Virginia! Tabitha’s hands trembled, making the milk slosh in the glasses. On silent feet, she ran up the stairs to her daughter as if she could protect her now. The only way to save her little girl’s life was to run as far away from Harrison and his mother as she could.





Chapter 2





“Yes, Mother Ryan.” Tabitha received little satisfaction in seeing the wince on her mother-in-law’s face this morning when she used the familiar but forbidden title. When the older woman didn’t remind her to say Mrs. Ryan as she had so many times before, she continued. “My friend, Jolene, has talked of little else all this month than having a quilting party. I’ll likely be gone all day, and you don’t have to worry. I’m taking Virginia with me.”

“That’s fine.” Harriet’s brows drew together as she waved a hand in dismissal. “If you want to eat this evening, you’d better be here on time.”

Tabitha pushed her breakfast plate back an inch and rose. “I don’t believe that will be a problem.” Of course, it wouldn’t. She had no intention of eating supper with the Ryans tonight or any other night. After today, she hoped to never step foot inside their house again. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll get the things I’ll need then Virginia and I will get out of your way.”

When Harriet didn’t bother to respond, Tabitha took Virginia’s hand and walked out of the room. She held her head high and strolled as if she felt no sense of urgency, but the truth was, her heart hammered and her blood ran quickly, urging her to hurry and leave this place of death and danger.

Upstairs, she pulled out her carpet bag and added a quilt top to cover the clothing she’d packed early that morning when she couldn’t sleep for worrying over what she should do. Really, there was no choice to make. They had to leave as quickly as possible, and cover their tracks so no one from St. Louis could ever find them again. Satisfied her bag appeared to hold no more than the quilt and maybe a few sewing supplies, she clasped the handles and lifted it.

“Virginia, get your baby so we can go visit our friends today.” Tabitha gave her daughter a gentle nudge.

Virginia lifted trusting eyes before running across the room and taking her dolly from the bed. “Are we going to see Lizbeth?”

Only if they did what she’d led her mother-in-law to believe. Tabitha stifled the small twinge of guilt, reassuring herself she hadn’t lied. She’d only implied to protect her child. “I’m not sure who we’ll see, precious. But let’s be on our way. We don’t want to be late, do we?”

“No, Mama.”

While Virginia wrapped her baby in a small blanket, Tabitha scanned the room for anything else she should take. Little more would fit in her carpet bag. Just one small painting. It would have to do. She picked it up, and satisfied she had enough turned to the door. “Come along now. We mustn’t be late.”

Lord, please help us get away and find a place of safety. She’d spent most of the night praying, but still her soul cried out to her Father in heaven. Lead us in the way we should go.

Thankful that the walk to town wasn’t long, Tabitha headed toward the bank first. They were early and she didn’t recognize any patrons, still she feared to empty her account and only took out enough to last them a few months. Adam had left them with plenty, but the Ryans didn’t seem to be interested in her money. They wanted bigger stakes in the shares to the company. When no one seemed to pay her any mind, she breathed a sigh of relief and headed toward the train station.

The depot was just ahead when she noticed two men standing outside the door talking. Her heart seemed to catch in her throat. She didn’t recognize one of them, but a side view of the one closest to her had her pulling Virginia away.

What was Harrison doing here of all places?

“Mama, where are we going?” Virginia’s high pitched voice seemed to carry out over the sounds of banging and wheezing trains.

“On the train, of course. Please hurry and don’t talk.” Other voices floated on the air and a horse clomped past until she almost didn’t hear herself. Surely she was worrying too much. Harrison wouldn’t expect them to be here. He wouldn’t see or hear them. She had to have faith.

Still, she climbed the steps to the nearest train not caring where it was going. She balanced her carpet bag over one arm and held tightly to Virginia’s hand as she went down the aisle between seats with over half occupied. She spotted one on the side where Harrison stood. “Let’s sit over here.”

Virginia climbed into the seat by the window, and Tabitha gladly sat by the aisle. Harrison would not see them now as Virginia’s head barely came to the bottom of the window and she was far enough away, but she’d be able to watch him from her position. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw him half turned from them still talking to that man. Who was he? Someone who’d just come in on the train maybe. Probably a business man, although he didn’t wear a suit. Not that it mattered to her who Harrison met.

“Mama, look. There’s Uncle Harrison.” Virginia rose to her knees in the seat and waved out the window.

“Oh! Child, no!” Tabitha grabbed the little girl’s arm and pulled her down just as Harrison faced them. Holding her daughter down in the seat, she shrank back and watched as he stared toward the window, then shrugged and turned again to the other man. Only then did Tabitha breathe again.

Whooo! Whooo! The loud call of the train whistle gave warning before the jerk and roar of the engines announced they were on their way.

Tabitha relaxed, releasing Virginia, as the moving train left Harrison and his companion behind. They’d made it. He was none the wiser.

Virginia squirmed in her seat as Tabitha pulled her hand away. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes Lord, please be with us as You have so far. And of course, I know You will because You’ve promised never to leave us alone. Lead us to the place we need to be. Someplace nice where we can be safe. Please, don’t let any harm come to Virginia.

A weight thrust into Tabitha’s lap had her jerking forward as her eyes flew open.

Virginia stood at her knee a wide smile on her soft round face, her hands wrapped around the straps of an unfamiliar bag. “I finded something. Can I keep it?”

“Sweetheart, where did you get this?” Dismay filled Tabitha as she visualized her daughter crawling under the seats snatching someone’s bag. She turned and looked, but no one seemed to be paying the least attention to them. “Climb up in your seat while I look inside. If I can find a name, we’ll have the conductor return the bag to its owner.”

Virginia’s brows drew together as her lower lip protruded, but she did as she’d been told.

Tabitha settled the bag on her lap and spread the opening wide.

“Your tickets, Ma’am.”

She jerked her hand from the bag and looked up into the conductor’s face. “I … I don’t have …”

“Your ticket.” He repeated. “I see a corner of it there in your bag.”

Her ticket was in the bag? Without thinking, Tabitha reached into the bag and pulled out a ticket. She stared at it. Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. That would get her out of Missouri, and a long way from St. Louis. “Oh, yes.”

A gentle tug and the conductor slipped the papers from her fingers. “I’ll need one for your child, too.”

“Oh, but I haven’t got one for her.”

“If you haven’t yet purchased hers, I can take care of that right here. Little ones go for half fare.” The man pulled a pad from his pocket and started scribbling on it, apparently copying something from the other ticket.

Tabitha pulled a few bills from her pocket. She’d planned to use them for her fare as well as Virginia’s, but she’d better keep quiet and let the man think she was someone else. Eventually Harrison would realize she was missing, and she feared he wouldn’t stop until he’d investigated every possibility. Or more in keeping with Harrison’s methods, he’d hire someone to find her. Giving her name to the train company would be a sure way to let him know where she was.

“Mrs. Parker, could I have the child’s name to include on the list?”

“Yes, of course, it’s …” Parker? She’d need to use that name for Virginia too. The Ryans had always called Virginia by her full name if they spoke of her at all. She and Adam had fallen into the habit as well, but now was the perfect time to change that. “Ginny Parker.”

The man nodded and added more to his notebook, then he took her money and handed her a stub of the two tickets. I hope you and your little girl enjoy your journey.”

When the man moved on, Tabitha closed her eyes for a brief moment. Thank You, Lord, for helping me. Please stay with us all the way and confuse those who would try to find us and hurt us. Thank You!

“Mama.” A tug at her arm dislodged the bag and before it could fall, Virginia grabbed and pulled it to her. “Can I see what’s inside now?”

“Oh!” Tabitha’s heart expanded as if it were a dead weight in her chest. What had she done? She looked back in time to see the conductor disappear through the back door of the car. Had no one missed their bag? Surely not or they’d have been looking for it and the ticket. No one would replace a ticket and forget about the one they already had. Only four other women occupied seats in the car. Three were with men and never looked her way. The fourth was an elderly woman sitting alone whose eyes met hers. She lifted a hand, wiggling her fingers while a wide grin covered her plump face.

Oh, dear. Tabitha smiled and turned around. The bag surely didn’t belong to any of them.

“Mama, I want to see.” Virginia pulled the open bag toward her.

“All right, Vir—Ginny. We’ll see what’s inside.”

“You called me Virginny.” Big blue eyes sparkled above the little girl’s grin.

“How would you like to be Ginny from now on?” Tabitha lowered her voice to a conspiratorial tone and leaned close, hoping Virginia would agree. “Ginny Parker.”

Virginia giggled. “Okay, if you’ll still be my mama.”

Tabitha slipped an arm around her and hugged her close. “Of course, I’ll still be your mama. But to other people I’ll be Mrs. Parker or …” She straightened and reached into the bag. Surely there was something inside with Mrs. Parker’s given name on it. “Let’s see what we can find.”

After digging through the bag for a while, Ginny grew bored and turned to her doll for better entertainment. Tabitha pulled a letter from Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, addressed to Mrs. Gloriana Parker in St. Louis, Missouri, from near the bottom. Ah, now she was making progress. Feeling as if every eye in the train car was turned toward her, she glanced from side-to-side and found that even the old woman near the back was dozing. Wavering between guilt and desperation to find a place of safety, she slipped the single-sheet letter from its envelope.

There wasn’t much there, just an assurance that a man would be at the train station to pick up Mrs. Parker when she arrived on Thursday. Tabitha looked up. That was tomorrow. What had happened to Mrs. Parker? Her disappearance was strange—or a godsend. Somehow, she’d fallen into the other woman’s place without even trying. As she thought about it, the idea grew into the only logical solution for her needs. Mrs. Parker had obviously left the train for some reason, leaving her bag behind. The school in Cottonwood Falls needed a teacher, and Tabitha could do that. In fact, it sounded like a job she’d enjoy. Vir—Ginny, she needed to remember that name, could be one of her youngest students.

She sat back with a satisfied sigh. Her name was Gloriana Parker now. She repeated the name a few times and gave a nod. Yes, it would work. For some reason she felt safer at the moment than she had since before her husband died.

Ginny fell asleep and Tabitha tried to relax as the train sped on its way. She watched the rolling hills of home become flatter with the miles, and by the time they finally reached their destination on Thursday afternoon, she was ready to see what awaited them in Cottonwood Falls. Although Cottonwood Station was not attached to the town. In fact, it seemed to be a spot all its own with little more than the train stop, a few scattered houses, and the tracks running out of it in both directions. Since she and Ginny were the only ones getting off and no on climbed aboard to take their places, the train didn’t tarry long.

And apparently no one was waiting to take her to the school and the cabin mentioned in the letter where she would be living. Tabitha grasped Ginny’s hand and both carpet bags then headed toward the small building that obviously served as the train station. Inside she breathed a sigh of relief when a man looked up from a sort of booth where he sat behind a barred window.

She stopped in front of it. “Can you tell me how to get to Cottonwood Falls? Perhaps there’s a place I can rent a buggy? I’m the new schoolteacher, but no one is here to meet me.”

The man opened his mouth, but the voice came from behind her. “Excuse me, but did I hear you’re the new schoolteacher?”

She turned to look into deep, chocolate-brown eyes. “Yes, I am. I’d like to find a way to get there. How far is it?”

“What is your name?” Why were those gorgeous eyes squinting as if he didn’t believe her?

“I’m Mrs. Gloriana Parker, the new schoolteacher. I expected someone to meet me. A Mr. … Uh, what did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t say.” Oh, the crooked smile on this man’s face was a perfect match for his eyes. Both beyond good looking. Come to think of it, she probably shouldn’t be looking, but turning away was harder than she’d expected. His perfect eyebrow arched. “But if you’re interested, it’s Daniel Vincent. Folks around here call me Dan.”

“Dan Vincent.” She repeated the name she’d read on the letter. “Yes, that’s right. You’re the one who’s supposed to take us to the cabin you mentioned in your letter.”

~*~

Dan shifted his gaze to the tiny girl clinging to the woman’s hand. Hmm, Cousin Glorianna had no children, and he’d never seen her look this good. Dark brown hair slicked back into a neat bun, perfect features on a beautiful face, with inviting lips that he shouldn’t be looking at.

He tore his gaze away. If Gloriana wanted to send a replacement, why use the same name? Yet this woman claimed she was the teacher and had probably even read his letter. Should he call her bluff or go along with it until she tripped up? She didn’t look dangerous. Desperate maybe, but not dangerous. He looked again at the little girl and met wide trusting eyes that seemed to beg for help. She was probably tired from her long journey. His heart softened toward her. Lord, what do I do? Call her deception or step out in faith?

Faith might lead him on an interesting journey. School didn’t start for almost two months. Surely in that time the truth would come out. He met the woman’s eyes and recognized the pleading in them. All right, he’d take her to the cabin and keep a close eye on her until he knew what was going on.

“I’m sorry I was late, but I didn’t know the exact time of your arrival. The buggy is outside.” He reached for the two bags she held and felt rewarded when she released them without a fuss.

As he pulled the buggy into the lane leading to the cabin, he pointed out his larger house several yards away. “I live there, so if you ever have a need, you can let me know. I own the feed store in town, so I’m there during the day, but should be available most evenings and on Sunday.”

“Thank you.” She flashed large blue eyes his way. “I’ll try not to be a burden, but it is nice to know someone is close by. Perhaps I could meet your wife soon.”

Was she fishing for information? He grinned at the thought. “I’m afraid that’ll be impossible since I’ve never been married.”

“Oh!” Pink spotted her cheeks, bringing even more beauty to her face.

Dan chuckled and helped her and the little girl from the buggy. Inside, he waited by the door while they looked around the small cabin. “Several of the men put in some spare hours on this place to make it acceptable to our new teacher. I hope it’ll be good enough for you.”

Her eyes sparkled when she turned to him. “Oh, it’s wonderful. Looks very homey with the curtains already in place.”

“Yes, the women helped too. Well, I’ll be on my way.” He nodded and backed out the door. First stop would be the telegraph office to try to find out what happened to Gloriana. They might not get along all that great, but he didn’t want her hurt. Then he needed to report to his mother.

After leaving the buggy at the barn behind his house, Dan saddled his horse, Cinnamon, and headed toward town. His mind was full of the schoolteacher and the problem she’d brought him. Everyone in town was expecting his cousin. Maybe he could pretend she was. No, it wouldn’t work. He could tell them his cousin wasn’t coming but had sent a substitute—and they both amazingly have the same name? Not likely.

Duffy Brown looked up when he closed the door. “I was getting ready to ride out to your place.” He lifted a telegram. “This just came through.”

“Thanks.” Dan opened the paper and read it quickly.

When he looked up Duffy met his gaze. “Need to send a reply?”

“Yeah.” Dan leaned against the counter. “Just say, ‘I understand. Don’t worry. Found someone else.’”





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