The School Mistress
Emerson Pass Historical Series, Book 1
Emerson Pass Historicals · Old West · historical romance · Colorado · 1900s love story
An untested teacher. A wealthy benefactor. When their attraction becomes undeniable, will they open their hearts to each other?
Colorado, 1910. Quinn Cooper can’t help feeling uneasy. But securing a job as a schoolmarm in a tiny frontier town was the only way to save her family from starvation back in Boston. And her nerves aren’t eased by a stray gunshot that spooks the sleigh horses, casting her into the snow… until she’s rescued by a handsome stranger.
Lord Alexander Barnes knows better than to believe any pretty young woman would willingly become a mother to five children. But the lonely widower finds himself charmed by the lovely newcomer and her easy rapport with his offspring. And after his disgruntled nanny quits, his heart melts at the sight of her joyfully taking over the role.
Determined to prove herself in the schoolhouse and as a governess, Quinn fears her near-poverty will prevent any possible courtship with the affluent Englishman. And between their age difference and prejudicial violence in the town, Lord Barnes is certain this second chance at happiness just cannot be.
Will their love go unspoken, or will their persistence reward them with a lasting passion?
The School Mistress is the delightful first book in USA Today bestselling author Tess Thompson's Emerson Pass Historicals historical romance series. If you like gallant nobles, resilient heroines, and hints of mystery, then you’ll adore this Edwardian adventure in the Old West.
— scroll down to read book sample —
“Sometimes we all need to step away from our lives and sink into a safe, happy place where family and love are the main ingredients for surviving. You'll find that and more in The School Mistress of Emerson Pass. I delighted in every turn of the story and when away from it found myself eager to return to Emerson Pass. I can't wait for the next book.” —Kay Bratt, Bestselling Author of Wish Me Home and True to Me.
“I frequently found myself getting lost in the characters and forgetting that I was reading a book.” —Camille Di Maio, Bestselling Author of The Memory of Us.
“I loved this book!” —Karen McQuestion, Bestselling Author of Hello Love and Good Man, Dalton.
“This book is a feel-good historical fiction story that somehow takes elements you may have read in other such books but puts a new spin on everything. It's well written, the characters are extremely well developed, and it left me wanting more.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“There is so much to love about what is between these pages that I don’t even know where to begin!” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“This was such an amazing heartwarming story! I absolutely loved every minute spent in it!” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“…a heartwarming historical romance that would melt anyone’s heart! When you mix a handsome widower with children, a beautiful schoolteacher, and an amazing, majestical setting of Emerson Pass together, what more could one expect but a work of art? I was drawn in from the first page and refused to stop reading until I read the ending ! A five plus read with a mixture of love, murder and little mystery thrown into the mix, I am excited to read the next book in this magical new series!” —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly 40 published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on, Hometowns and Heartstrings.
She’s married to her prince, Best Husband Ever, and is the mother of their blended family of four kids and five cats. Best Husband Ever is seventeen months younger, which qualifies Tess as a Cougar, a title she wears proudly. Her Bonus Sons are young adults with pretty hair and big brains like their dad. Daughters, better known as Princess One and Two, are teenagers who make their mama proud because they’re kind. They’re also smart, but a mother shouldn’t brag.
Tess loves lazy afternoons watching football, hanging out on the back patio with Best Husband Ever, reading in bed, binge-watching television series, red wine, strong coffee and walks on crisp autumn days. She laughs a little too loudly, never knows what to make for dinner, looks ridiculous kickboxing in an attempt to combat her muffin top, and always complains about the rain even though she chose to live in Seattle.
She’s proud to have grown up in a small town like the ones in her novels. After graduating from the University of Southern California Drama School, she had hopes of becoming an actress but was called instead to writing fiction. She’s grateful to spend most days in her office matchmaking her characters while her favorite cat Mittens (shhh…don’t tell the others) sleeps on the desk.
SAMPLE FROM THE SCHOOL MISTRESS
Chapter 1: Quinn
Had I known of the ways in which Emerson Pass would test my character, I might not have had the mettle to step off the train that autumn day in 1910. Then again, perhaps I would have. The path to our true places, our northern lights, are circuitous. We cannot predict the joys and sorrows that await us on this journey through life. Courage is our only map.
My journey began when we lurched to a stop at the train station with a terrible roar and release of steam from the engine. As I had during the entire way from Denver to Emerson Pass, I wondered if the passenger car would remain in one piece. During our trek higher and higher into the Rocky Mountains, through tunnels and over tracks built on stilts over deep canyons, I’d feared we’d never reach our destination. My wild imagination had run amok envisioning the train falling from the track and killing us all. Would I die in the unforgiving mountains after making it all the way from Boston to Denver?
I cleaned the window and pressed close, hoping to catch a glimpse of the former mining town that was to be my new home. I’d expected golden leaves of the famous aspens this time of year. Instead, I saw nothing but snow flurries so thick it was as if I were peering into a closely knitted white blanket.
I slipped into my wool coat, frayed and tattered from withstanding six Boston winters, and squared my shoulders. Courage, just then, was a shadow buried deep within me. Even more so than the day last week when I’d pressed this same nose to a different window to catch one last glimpse of my mother and sister as the train pulled from the station.
Next to me, the baby asleep in her mother’s arms woke and began to howl. Her diaper was full. The odor mixed with that of human perspiration and the greasy hair of my companions might have turned my stomach, but I was too tired and hungry to care. Third-class was not for the fainthearted. I gathered my suitcase and rose unsteadily to my feet. I waited for the couple with the baby to exit first, then the two men dressed in overalls and heavy work boots with whom I’d been sure to avoid eye contact. For a woman, traveling alone was not wise. For those like me, without funds or a companion, I had no choice but to set out alone.
I held my long skirts high and stepped from the train down to the platform and lifted my face toward a sky the color of smoke. Daylight was nearing its end. Snowflakes as big as quarters caught in my lashes. Grime and soot swirled about me as I tromped onto the platform. The covered area was a relief, although the wooden planks were icy. Behind me, the train groaned as if it too were happy to have arrived. Here at last, it seemed to say.
The trip had taken almost a week to get from Boston to Denver. Long days with the scent of oil and unwashed men. When we reached the plains, blizzards, ice storms, and harrowing wind that howled like a tortured animal had chased us all the way to Denver. “Unusual this time of year,” the porter had said to me, probably in response to my terrified expression. After a night spent in Union Station in Denver, unable to sleep for fear of being murdered for my meager possessions, I’d boarded the train that took us up the mountains to my final destination.
A gust of wind swept under the train station’s awning and threatened to lift my hat from my head. I gripped the brim between gloved fingers. This hat with its wide black bow was no match for the gusts of wind and snow. It did not matter. I was off the godforsaken train. I was alive, despite nature’s relentless attempt to make it otherwise.
I would have dropped to my knees and kissed the ground if I hadn’t been concerned with decorum. Truly, with no thought to my only gloves and second-best dress, I’d have dug through the snowdrifts that were as tall as my five-foot-two-inch frame and given the ground a big smooch as if it were my beloved. Instead, I sighed with great relief and stuck a pin through my hat, fixing it more securely into my masses of honey-blond hair.
My thick, silky hair was my only vanity. Some women needed wigs to make their buns appear thicker, but mine needed no enhancements. I’d once hoped my golden tresses compensated for my lack of figure. Even with my corset pulled tight, I had no curves. My hips were narrow and my chest flat. Combined with a quick mind that suffered no fools, and a teaching degree instead of a dowry, my fate was clear. Spinsterhood.
Alexander Barnes had written that he would send a man to fetch me and take me to the boardinghouse in town where I was to live. Clutching my suitcase, I searched the platform but saw no one. I exhaled, long and slow. My warm breath made a cloud in the frigid air. Only a few seconds off the train and I couldn’t feel my toes. Dizzy and light-headed, I felt as if I were drunk. Was it the altitude?
What if no one came for me? What if coming out here all alone to this place that was truly the Wild West was a terrible mistake? Emerson Pass was a town of prospectors, mostly men and probably heathens. One tiny woman named Quinn Cooper who had never set foot outside of Boston until a week ago was sure to fail.
I gave myself a stern lecture as I stood shivering on the platform. What was needed were the skills of a fine actress and the courage of a lion. For Mother and Annabelle. Images of their thin faces wavered before me like apparitions. Under my gloves, there were cracks between my fingers from the frigid nights without heat. I was their remedy and their hope. This work would save them. I’d live frugally with the barest of necessities and send everything else to them. Soon, I would have enough to send for them. We could all be together. Or I would return home.
No looking back. I can do this. I will do this. I was a young, educated woman about to teach at a newly built school. Lord Barnes had written of its brick construction and shiny wood floors. A dozen students, he’d said, who needed an education. I might be headed to spinsterhood, but I was a good teacher. Having my own school was a dream. Remember how blessed you are, I reminded myself.
I’d be plucky, like the characters in the novels I loved so much.
Please, someone come. Don’t leave me to freeze when I’ve finally reached my destination. As if I had conjured him, a young man appeared from the curtain of snow. He had dark eyes with thick lashes and a red mouth, which smiled at me. Brown curls sneaked out from under the back of his newsboy cap.
“Yes, yes.” Relief flooded through me. I was saved.
“It’s Harley, Miss Cooper. I’m sorry to be late.” I detected a slight accent. French, perhaps? “This storm came out of nowhere this afternoon and made traveling slow. Our horses don’t like it. We have a twenty-minute drive to town in the sleigh, but I have blankets.”
Harley took my suitcase, and I followed him outside where a sleigh waited, hitched to two brown horses. One whinnied and grinned at me with his large teeth. “Hello, lovely.” I stroked his nose. He nudged at me, most likely wondering if I had an apple. If I’d had one, despite how much I loved animals, I would not have shared it with him. I hadn’t eaten since the morning. Although my room and board would be covered, I’d had to leave most of the traveling money Lord Barnes had sent with Mother. They needed it to survive until I could mail my first paycheck. Which meant that I’d had to get by on one meal a day.
“Careful now,” Harley said, helping me into the sleigh. “We’ll have you there by suppertime. Mrs. Winslow makes a fine stew, and the boardinghouse is warm.” Had he hesitated before the adjective warm? What else was it besides warm? Was warmth all it had to brag of? And Mrs. Winslow’s stew? I thought of Mother’s meals. Although made of meager provisions, somehow, they always tasted delicious, if not altogether filling. Bread filled the spaces between our bones, my mother sometimes said when the soup was mostly broth.
I ached with a sudden homesickness. They would be sitting by the fire by now with their knitting or needlepoint. I was not there to read to them as had become our custom since my father passed two years ago.
No, I must not succumb to self-pity. This was an adventure. An opportunity. Traveling across the country to this beautiful, uninhabited land. A newly built schoolhouse and children who craved learning. I’d read the letter from Lord Barnes so many times I had it memorized.
The children here need education and refinement. The West lacks in proper guidance for young ladies, especially. Our hope is for your good breeding and manners to influence and educate a new generation of Americans. These are children born of adventurous and hopeful men, who have longed to provide better lives for their children. Alas, with this effort comes the wild.
Five out of the dozen children in town were his own. He was the board of education for their community, he had written. Not because I’m fit for the vocation, but because there was no one else. He did not mention a wife in his letters. I felt certain she was dead, as he’d referenced a nanny who cared for his children, but never a mother.
It was how he’d spoken of education that had touched my heart.
We raise them to be tough here, but at what cost? Surely culture and art must be taught, no matter that the gold rush has given birth to a new West?
“Please take off your hat or you might lose it,” Harley said.
I undid the pins and stuck them into the band, then handed the hat to him. He set it under a blanket in the back, along with my bag. “And wrap this scarf around your head and face.”
He tucked several blankets around me. On top of those, he laid a fur of some kind that smelled of oil. I lifted my scarf over my nose, which still carried the scent of home, and tried to relax. Bells around the horses’ necks made a merry song as Harley drove us away from the station. It was slow going for the horses through the high snow, but they clopped at a steady pace.
“Thank you for picking me up,” I said.
“It’s my pleasure, miss. I work for Lord Barnes. I take care of the animals and the garden, and whatever else needs doing. My little sister, Poppy, and I live in the servant’s cottage on his property.”
“I thought the train station would be closer to town.”
“Back during the gold rush, the train stopped at the mining site,” he said. “As the town grew, they realized building in the valley between the two mountains made more sense.”
“Have you been here long?”
“A few years, yes. My parents were French. They came out here chasing gold, like most. They died three winters ago from the flu, and so now it’s just Poppy and me.”
“Poppy? What a sweet name.”
“She’s thirteen. Same age as Miss Josephine, Lord Barnes’s oldest daughter. She can’t wait to start school. Until my parents died, we spoke mostly French, so she’s anxious to learn to read in English.”
“Does Lord Barnes live in town?” I asked.
“No, his estate’s a few miles from town.”
Estate? Estates were large with servants and fine meals. What did I expect from a man with the title Lord in front of his name?
“Lord Barnes owns at least a thousand acres, including the land in town. There was a fire in the late nineties and most of the residents left. Lord Barnes bought up all the property and rebuilt the town. This time in brick.”
“He owns everything?”
“That’s right. He rents the buildings to local businessmen for a fair price. His aim is to civilize this place.” Harley laughed, clearly fond of his boss. “If anyone can, it’s him.”
Normally, I would have been fascinated to learn more. I’m curious bordering on nosy. People are like books. I can’t wait to turn the next page to learn what happens next. But I felt sleepy, lulled by the rhythm of the sled across snow. I blinked to try to stay alert, but between the falling snow and dimming light blocking the view, in combination with the warmth of the fur some poor animal had sacrificed, I drifted to sleep.
The sound of a shotgun jarred me awake. Both horses jumped and neighed and then began to run. Harley called to them and tried to rein them in, but to no avail. They were afraid. As was I. Another shot rang out. The horses ran faster. The sled seemed to be several inches above the snow, as though we were flying. We were out of control. I could feel it in the way the sled shimmied. One of the horses reared back, and the sled yanked hard to the left. We flew over an embankment. A large tree loomed close. I screamed as I flew from the sled. Everything went black.
Chapter 2: Alexander
A pounding on my front door pulled me from a particularly moving passage in a Henry James novel. Startled, I looked at the clock in the corner of my library. Six on an evening? Who would call without notice? The children were all upstairs with Nanny Foster having baths. My belly was full of Lizzie’s hearty stewed chicken and potatoes, and I’d just settled in with a glass of whiskey for a deep read.
The knocking turned loud and fierce. I rose from my chair, alarmed. This was not the typical timid tap of tradespeople or visitors, but urgent, almost frightened, as if something was terribly wrong. A shiver crept up the back of my neck. Jasper’s efficient footsteps passed by the door of the library, all click-click on the hardwood floors.
I crossed the room and into the hallway just as Jasper yanked open the front door. Wayne Higgins stood on the steps, holding his hat in his hands. Behind him, snow dumped from a hidden sky.
“Mr. Higgins, are you all right?” Jasper asked.
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry to bother you.” Wayne nodded to me as I came to stand next to Jasper. “Lord Barnes, Harley’s had an accident. He and the schoolmistress were coming from the station.
Someone fired a gun and the horses got spooked and somehow the sled got unattached and it went over the embankment just yonder.” He pointed toward the road. “Clive and I saw the whole thing. We hauled them up from the bank, sir.” A layer of snow had already covered his white-blond hair and glistened in the lamplight.
Harley had gone to get Miss Cooper an hour ago. “Are they hurt?” I asked.
“Harley’s all right. We dropped him at the cottage so his sister could clean up a gash on his hand. He was bleeding pretty good. The teacher hasn’t opened her eyes or made any noise. We thought it best to bring her here so we could call the doctor.”
“Of course, yes, come in,” I said. From the darkness, Wayne’s brother, Clive, appeared, carrying a woman in his arms. She was a tiny slip of a thing, not much bigger than my thirteen-year-old daughter. Her boots were well-polished, but the soles were thin, and the sleeves of her dark coat tattered. Fair curls had come loose from her bun and dangled over Clive’s arms.
“Evening, Lord Barnes.” Clive shared the same light blue eyes with his brother. Tall and broad, made from German stock, they owned the butcher shop in town. The Higgins Brothers Butcher Shop was clean and well-run. They sold their cuts of meat at a fair price. I’d known them from the first day they move here. I happened to know, too, they gave away scraps and day-old meat to the hungry.
“I think she’s bumped her head real good.”
I stepped forward. “I’ll take her.”
“Yes, sir.” Clive transferred her to me. I gazed down at the lovely face that belonged to Miss Cooper. This was not the old lady spinster I’d expected. For one, she was a young woman. And my, she was a beauty, with alabaster skin and delicate bone structure. Her cheeks, flushed from the cold, were the color of cherry blossoms in the spring. She had long dark eyelashes and hair the color of wheat. A small mouth suited her small oval face.
Clive and Wayne hovered by the front door, holding their hats in their hands. “We sure hope she’s not hurt too bad,” Clive said.
“Would you like to come in?” I asked. “Lizzie can get you something warm to drink before you go back out in the cold.”
“No, sir. We best get back into town and send the doctor out,” Wayne said.
“This time of night he’ll be at the saloon,” Clive said.
“Thank you. It’s very kind of you,” I said, holding back from making a comment about the doctor’s gambling and whiskey habits.
“One more thing before we go,” Clive said. “The shots sounded like they were down by the Coles’ place. It might be best to send someone out there in the morning to make sure they’re all right.”
Samuel Cole and his family lived on the other side of the creek that separated our property. He and Rachel were good friends and neighbors. I doubted there was anything amiss. Samuel knew these parts better than anyone. The shots were most likely from him. He hunted or trapped almost all their meat. Deer were particularly abundant this year.
“Thank you. We’ll take care of it,” Jasper said as he clasped his hands behind his back. A habit from the old days when he’d been trained as a footman on my father’s estate.
“Yes, sir,” Clive said, without making eye contact.
At first glance, one wouldn’t have thought Jasper to be intimidating. He was quite ordinary-looking—tall and slim with sandy-colored hair and light blue eyes. It was the unfortunate way his lips often puckered, as if he smelled something foul, and his posh British accent that made him seem haughty and disdainful.
“Thank you. That’ll be all,” Jasper said to the Higgins brothers.
The young men put their hats back on and inched backward before escaping into the night.
Jasper shut the door as I headed toward the library with Miss Cooper.
My cook, Lizzie, appeared, poking her head out of the door that led downstairs to the kitchen, bringing the scent of garlic and butter with her. “What’s all the commotion?” She placed her flour-covered hands over her round cheeks. “Who is that?”
“The new schoolteacher. Harley had an accident on the way back from the station,” Jasper said. “Don’t worry, he’s all right.” He often anticipated a question before it was asked. “But he’s got a gash on his hand. Can you send Merry over to check on him?”
Merry, who had appeared from downstairs before she could be summoned, nodded and scuttled to the closet for a coat. “Yes, yes. I’ll go right away.” Not that I would have discussed such a topic, but I assumed I wasn’t the only person in this house who’d observed young Merry’s crush on Harley. In fact, the only person who seemed oblivious to the pretty Swedish immigrant’s devotion was Harley himself. If he didn’t come to his senses soon, I couldn’t imagine the strong, tall woman with golden skin and hair would remain single for long. The town was full of men only too happy to entertain her.
As Merry bounded out the door, I headed into the library, Lizzie and Jasper close at my heels.
I set Miss Cooper on the east-facing couch. In the lamplight, she looked even younger. She couldn’t have been much older than twenty. In our correspondence, Quinn Cooper had never mentioned her age, but I’d assumed she was an old maid—a spinster with a silver bun and a long nose with a wart.
Jasper had already fetched a blanket. I grabbed one of the square pillows from the settee and placed it under Miss Cooper’s head.
Lizzie, never exactly calm in normal circumstances, stood over Miss Cooper, tutting and fussing. “Is she breathing?” Short and round with curly brown hair that was forever springing from her bun and freckles that covered her fair skin, Lizzie looked very much like her Irish mother. Both her parents had worked for my father at our country estate. When I left for America, she and Jasper had asked to join me. Initially, I brought only Jasper but sent for her as soon as I was settled here in Emerson Pass. She’d been making delicious meals ever since.
I knelt at the side of the couch and picked up one limp arm to feel Miss Cooper’s pulse. “Strong,” I said.
“Shall I fetch tea?” Lizzie asked, looking as if she were about to burst into tears. “For when she wakes?”
“Yes, and smelling salts,” Jasper said. “We need smelling salts.”
“And loosen her corset,” Lizzie said. “God knows that’ll help.”
Jasper coughed and turned red.
“Let’s try smelling salts first,” I said, almost laughing despite the gravity of the situation.
Lizzie nodded and flew from the room and down the stairs to the kitchen.
“I had no idea she was young,” I said to Jasper.
“It’s not proper for her to travel alone,” Jasper said. “Americans have no sense of propriety.”
At times, I found Jasper’s reluctance to accept America’s ways irritating, but this time I agreed with him. A wave of shame washed over me. Why hadn’t a companion accompanied her? It wasn’t proper. Every young woman should travel with a companion. I should have paid for someone to chaperone her. Dangers lurked around every corner on a train headed west. Not to mention here in Emerson Pass. Rough and lonely men would do terrible things to her if given the chance. How could I have possibly suggested she stay at the boardinghouse? She wouldn’t be safe there. Miners and prospectors stayed there, forever enraged that the gold they hoped for never appeared. They stumbled home at night from the saloon, drunk and violent. It would be fine for an older woman who had more than likely seen a thing or two, but this innocent woman would be in constant danger.
She would have to stay here in the house. We had more than enough rooms to accommodate her. I’d built this house with three extra bedrooms, hoping for family and friends from England to come for extended stays.
I heard the clamor of my children filing down the stairs. They’d come to say good night. Would seeing their teacher splayed out upon their couch scare them? I feared it might. Especially after what had happened to their mother. I glanced at Jasper, who uncharacteristically seemed as rattled and unsure as I. Before I could decide upon a diversion, the children burst into the library. All five of them. Wearing their flannel nightgowns, they looked clean and shiny and smelled of lavender soap. I loved them after their baths.
For once, the children seemed stunned into silence. They gathered around the prone body on the sofa and stared.
Flynn, one of the nine-year-old twins, not unusually, found his voice first. “Who is she, Papa?”
Before I could answer, Cymbeline, only six years old but particularly articulate, stepped closer to Miss Cooper and whispered, “Is she a princess from a faraway land?” Cymbeline’s dark curls, still damp from her bath, stuck to her rosy cheeks.
Nanny Foster, from behind, spoke in a sharp voice. “Cymbeline, don’t get too close. She might be sick.”
“No, it’s all right, Nanny,” I said. “She’s only bumped her head.”
“Is she a stranger, Papa?” Josephine asked in a voice much too old for only being thirteen. “Have we taken her in from the cold?”
“No, this is our new teacher. Harley had an accident in the sleigh.”
“The small sleigh?” Flynn asked.
“What does it matter?” I asked.
“I’m just wondering,” Flynn said, grinning. “Because if the larger one is wrecked, then we wouldn’t be able to go into town for school.”
“You’re out of luck. It was the small one,” I said.
Fiona, my smallest daughter, slipped her hand into mine. At three, she still looked like a doll, with dark ringlets and round blue eyes that could melt the heart of the fiercest man. Especially her father. “Papa, I’m scared.”
I lifted her into my arms. “No need to be afraid, my darling. Doc’s on his way. He’ll fix her right up.”
“What if he can’t?” Theo asked. The quiet, worried half of my twin set didn’t have to explain his question. He would be thinking of his mother, who had walked into a blizzard and died when Fiona was a baby. Theo had been the one to find her. The doctor had come then, too.
“Let’s not worry ourselves,” Nanny Foster said in her brisk, unemotional way. “This looks like a strong but rather foolish young woman.”
I wasn’t sure how a bump on her head made her foolish, but I’d learned not to follow up with Nanny Foster’s observations unless I wanted a few more paragraphs of her opinions.
The children all gathered close, inspecting our patient.
Fiona wriggled from my arms, forever worried she’d miss something her older siblings were privy to.
Jasper appeared with a piece of ice wrapped in a cloth and placed it gently on top of that mound of shiny hair.
Miss Cooper’s eyes fluttered open. I took a step backward, stunned by the beauty of those eyes, brown and shiny as polished stone. They widened with alarm as she took in her surroundings. Here we were, staring at her like she was part of the circus. “Children, step away. Give Miss Cooper some room to breathe.”
“Oh, dear,” Miss Cooper said. “What’s happened? Where am I?”