The Spinster by Thompson, Tess

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The Spinster

Regular price $19.95
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“A story worthy of more than 5 Stars.” —D.M. Birt, Wild Sage Book Blog

The wholesome second book in USA Today bestselling author Tess Thompson's Emerson Pass Historicals historical romance series.

Her love died on a battlefield. He carries a torch for a woman he’s never met. Can the tragic death of a soldier entwine the souls of two strangers?

Colorado, 1920. Josephine Barnes wrote every day to her beloved fiancé battling in the trenches of the Great War. Devastated when he’s killed in action, she vows never to marry and buries her grief in the construction of the town’s first library. But she’s left breathless when she receives a request from a gracious gentleman to visit and return the letters containing her declarations of desire.

Philip Baker survived the war but returned home burdened with a distressing secret. Though he knows it’s wrong, he can’t stop reading through the beautiful sentiments left among his slain comrade’s possessions. Plagued by guilt, he’s unable to resist connecting with the extraordinary woman who captured his heart with her words.

When Josephine invites Philip to join her gregarious family for the holidays, she’s torn by her loyalty to a ghost and her growing feelings for the gallant man. And as Philip prepares to risk everything by telling her the truth about her dead fiancé, he fears he could crush Josephine’s blossoming happiness forever. 

Will they break free from their painful pasts to embrace a passion meant to be?


Author Bio:

Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly forty 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. 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.


Book Excerpt:

Chapter 1: Josephine

The letter from Phillip Baker came on paper as thin as our pond’s ice after a first autumn freeze. Perhaps that delicate paper should have been a clue as to what was to come. How my life would change. One could not skate on ice that thin. How right I was.

I read his correspondence twice, thinking through his offer. With a lightness in my steps that did not match my heavy heart, I walked to the window of my parents’ sitting room. A first snowfall had blanketed the valley where my father’s estate dwelt between two Colorado mountains. Our winter wonderland had come late this year. A brilliant, sunny, crisp fall had gone on for months. Given all that the last few years had bestowed upon us, we gratefully enjoyed every moment.

We’d survived the days and days of worry over my twin brothers fighting in France and the threat of the Spanish flu to the troops. Then, a second wave—the deadliest wave—of the Spanish flu had plundered the world. A third in the fall, threatening us once more. Emerson Pass had managed to remain isolated enough that we’d been spared.

Finally, though, it seemed as if the world would return to our lives before the war. Papa and Mama had seemed to be able to breathe again for the first time since the boys had enlisted, not yet seventeen, having lied about their age. Our dear friend Isak Olofsson had also survived. All three were home now. Not quite the same, but physically intact.

Not all of our boys returned to Emerson Pass. We’d lost Francis Lane. I hadn’t known him well, but he was part of us. A soul lost. Buried in a cemetery across the seas. A young man who would never know what it was like to marry, have children, grow old.

And I’d lost Walter Green. He was not one of us. No one but I mourned him here. I had enough grief for a whole town.

The first letter from Phillip Baker had come in the fall of 1918. I could remember every word.

My name is Phillip Baker. I’m not sure if Walter ever mentioned me in his letters, but we knew each other for a brief time when we were children and then, by coincidence, were assigned to the same unit for basic training and sent to France together. I’m writing to tell you that Walter was killed in action last week. I was aware of your correspondence with him and that you would want to know. I’m sorry. He died bravely and without any suffering.

Just a month before the end, he’d been killed in action. The promise of our future together snuffed out before it began. I’d had only two weeks with him. Two weeks of bliss. Now I had only the memories. They would have to sustain me for the rest of my life. I would be a spinster. A librarian spinster and auntie to my six siblings’ children.

I touched my fingertips to the cold glass. Snow fell steadily outside the windows. In Colorado, we had at least a dozen words to describe snowflakes. Today it was a dry, fat flake. Good for skiing, according to Flynn and Theo. A new sport they’d fallen in love with after their time in Europe. They’d come home determined to bring skiing here to Emerson Pass. The sport of the future, Flynn had declared. A way for our town to continue to grow and flourish. Shops would be built around the visitors. They’d seen it in the Alps. It would work here too, they’d told Papa. He’d agreed to let them use part of their trust for the investment in their future. They were now happily planning away for the new version of our town. They’d cleared trees on the northern mountain for runs and built a lodge from the logs. In the spring, they would complete the rest of the needed details. By next winter, if all went well, skiing would have come to us for good.

I returned to the letter, reading the neat handwriting.

November 20, 1919

Dear Josephine,

I hope this letter will find you well. I’m also hopeful that you’ll remember who I am. If not, I’ll be mortified. Since returning from the war, I’ve been in New York City. Unfortunately, I became very ill last year with the Spanish flu. While convalescing, I remembered your descriptions of Emerson Pass from the letters you wrote to Walter. (He often read passages to me and the other men.)

Your descriptions of the wildflowers, sky, and trees have convinced me to travel west in pursuit of my own place of belonging. I’ve decided to take a leap of faith and come to Colorado, perhaps to settle for good. I’m writing to see if I might visit you and your family? I ended up with your letters and the books you sent. I feel guilty that I haven’t sent them to you before now, as I’m sure you’d like to have them.

My request and trip may sound strange to you, but there’s nothing or no one keeping me here. I grew up in an orphanage and have never truly had a home.

We all looked forward to your letters, as Walter shared many stories of you and your family with the rest of us lonely boys who, sadly, had no one writing to us. From your stories, I feel as if I know you all. I’d be honored to bring your letters, novels, and photograph and to meet you and your family.

I’m also hopeful that your father and brothers might have ideas for me in regard to work. Before the war, I apprenticed with a cabinetmaker. If they know of anything, I’d be pleased to hear of it.

If you’re amenable to my visit, I thank you kindly and look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Phillip Baker

His request to visit wasn’t the strange part. I found it odd that he made no mention of Walter, other than to say he’d shared my letters. An image of Walter laughing during one of our picnics flashed before my eyes. His sunny head of hair and light blue eyes had transfixed me from the start. He’d had an infectious smile that made me feel dizzy. I’d met him in Denver while I was attending a librarian conference. He’d been passing through on his way to report for duty. Our meeting had been pure chance. He happened to be out that warm evening while I walked in the park with colleagues. I’d thought at the time it was destiny. I now knew it was the day that led to my broken heart. Did I wish I’d never met him and be spared the pain of losing him? I couldn’t answer that question.

I pressed my forehead against the glass. If only the coolness would numb the rest of me. Even for a few minutes. To feel like my old self instead of a worn-out, dried-up spinster. I would be twenty-three on my next birthday. Most women were married with a child by this age.

“What is it, Jo? Why did you sigh?” Papa asked from behind his newspaper.

I hadn’t realized I’d sighed. Papa knew me too well. After everything we’d been through together, it was no wonder. I turned from the window and stepped nearer to the couch where he and Mama Quinn were having their tea. “It’s a letter from Walter’s friend. The one who wrote to tell me of Walter’s death.”

“Yes, we remember.” Mama’s eyes immediately softened with sympathy. “What does he want?”

“He wants to come out here for a visit and possibly to stay. My letters were a travel brochure, I guess.”

Papa lowered the paper onto his lap. “How interesting.” His English accent, according to my friends, remained as strong today as it had been when he came to America so many years ago. I, however, could not hear it. He sounded only like my beloved Papa.

“Does he have a wife and family?” Mama folded her hands together on her lap. I’d pulled her from reading. The novel, My Ántonia, was face-open on the couch next to her. Her fair hair was arranged in waves pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck. Younger than my father by fifteen years, she was blessed with delicate, even features and a heart-shaped face.

Just over ten years had passed since she’d arrived to open the first school of Emerson Pass and my father’s heart. Almost immediately she’d become the heart of our family. All five of us thought of her as our mother. Since their marriage, two little sisters had come, bringing our total to seven. Papa called us “The Lucky Seven.”

“He has no family of any kind,” I said. “In fact, he was raised in an orphanage. I have the feeling he’s in need of a fresh start and work. He thought Papa might have ideas for him.”

“How sad. We’ll help him in any way we can.” Mama set her teacup onto its saucer and fixed her kind brown eyes upon me. “Unless there’s a reason you wouldn’t want him to come here?” The anxious way she looked at me lately filled me with guilt. Papa, Mama, and my sisters had been worried about me. I hated knowing I caused them concern. My job was to be the responsible, steady eldest, not the sad, mopey mess I’d become.

“No, not at all,” I said. “Should we invite him to stay with us? Just until he can figure out what to do next?”

“Yes, we’ve room for him if he doesn’t mind bunking with the boys.” Papa drained the last of his tea and set aside his cup. “I’m keen to help any man who fought in that terrible war.”

“He says he trained as a cabinetmaker.” I hugged my middle as I walked over to the fire that roared in the hearth, crackling and snapping. “He says Walter shared the contents of my letters with him and the rest of the boys. I find that…perplexing.”

“Which part?” Mama asked.

“That he shared them. My letters were intimate, meant for only one pair of eyes.” I looked down at my hands to keep from crying.

“Darling, it doesn’t really matter,” Papa said softly. “If your letters brought them some relief, isn’t it an honor?”

“I suppose.” I sat in one of the armchairs and watched the fire. One end of a log looked like the nose of a fox.

Mama smoothed her hands over the top of her day dress made of crimson organza. “Phillip must stay for Christmas.”

“Yes, I agree,” Papa said. “He shouldn’t be alone for the holidays. We’ll take care of him until he can get on his feet. The boys can show him around town, do a little carousing.”

“Alexander, carousing?” Mama raised her eyebrows and looked properly mortified. “Our boys do not carouse.”

Papa didn’t answer, but his eyes twinkled as he gazed at her. My chest ached with both gratitude and sorrow. Their love pleased me. Yet it also brought to light what I’d lost. I’d hoped Walter and I would share a life as they had.

Mama returned her gaze to me. “Jo, what’s troubling you?”

“We don’t know Phillip,” I said. “What if he’s awful?”

“I doubt he will be,” Mama said. “He was so kind to write to you about Walter’s death.”

“That’s true. If he’s Walter’s friend, he must be all right,” I said.

“We didn’t really know Walter,” Papa said.

I sucked in my bottom lip to hold back a retort. Never in my life had there been any discord between my parents and me. However, they hadn’t approved of my whirlwind courtship with Walter. Which was in no way his fault. He hadn’t had time to come home with me and meet my family. “He was here such a short time. There wasn’t an opportunity for him to court me properly. He planned to, when he returned from the war.”

“Yes, of course, darling. We understand,” Mama said in a soothing voice.

“Yes, yes, quite right.” Papa followed up too hastily. No one wanted to upset me these days. I missed when my family treated me normally. Now it felt as if I were a fragile piece of china no one wanted to break.

“May I read the letter?” Mama asked.

I nodded and handed it over the tea set. She unfolded the letter and began to read.

“Sweetheart, have a biscuit,” Papa said to me. “You’re looking much too thin.”

I obeyed, not having the energy to disagree, and put a cookie, which Papa called a biscuit, on a plate. He poured a cup of tea and set it on the table front of me. He believed most problems could be solved after a cup of tea. Given my troubled mother’s death when I was nine, I’d known differently for a long time.

Mama folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. She had a strange look on her face, somewhere between puzzled and intrigued. “I think it might be good for you to have him here.”

“You mean to tell me stories about Walter?”

“Not that exactly,” Mama said. “He’s someone of your own age group. Perhaps he will become a new friend?”

Mama and Papa exchanged a glance I couldn’t decipher.

“I don’t need friends. I have Poppy and my sisters.” Poppy and I had grown up together. Their parents had died when Poppy was young and her older brother, Harley, had raised her while acting as groundskeeper and gardener. Poppy had been away for the better part of two years, working as an apprentice to a veterinarian in cattle country. I’d missed her more than I’d thought possible. She had just always been there and now she was off to her own adventures. “Poppy will be back in a few weeks. But I shall be a good hostess, don’t worry.”

“Regardless, we can’t let a hero be alone during what’s supposed to be the merriest time of the year.” Mama had the biggest heart in the world, rivaled only by my sister Fiona, who seemed to think it was her job to look after every single person in the world.

“I’ll write him this evening and ask if he’d like to stay with us,” I said.

All four of my gaggle of sisters rushed into the room. Those who thought only boys were loud had never met my sisters. Harley had taken them into town in the sleigh to ice-skate for the afternoon. The pond in the center of town had frozen solid for the first time this season just last night.

“You won’t believe what Delphia did,” Cymbeline said, without concern over interrupting the adults.

Delphia, in preparation for the admonishment, tore a cap from her mushroom of blond curls and glared at her older sister. “I didn’t do it.”

At sixteen, Cymbeline lorded over the younger ones. Fiona, thirteen, was the protector. Adelaide, or Addie as we called her, was quiet and shy and obedient to bossy Cymbeline’s wishes. Four-year-old Delphia, bless her, had the same fire as Cymbeline. From the time she could talk, she was having none of the dictatorship.

“She challenged a boy twice her age to a race,” Cymbeline said. “And when she didn’t win, she knocked him to the ground.”

Delphia’s bottom lip trembled. “I didn’t.”

“The whole thing was an accident.” Fiona placed her hand on Delphia’s head. “She slid into him because she was going so fast. Anyway, she learned it from you, Cym. You’re always racing boys.”

“That’s different.” Cymbeline’s color heightened, making her even more beautiful than the moment before. God help us all, she was stunning and looked more like a woman than a girl. Mama always said we only had two types in this family. Fair and blond, like her, me, and the two youngest girls. Or dark hair and deep blue eyes, like Papa, the boys, Cymbeline and Fiona.

“Come here, little one,” Papa said to Delphia.

She trudged over to him. He pulled her into his lap. “Tell me what happened.”

She looked up at him with angelic eyes. “It’s what Fiona said. I was going fast, pretending that a monster was chasing me, and then I ran into him.”

“Did you say you were sorry?” Mama asked.

“Yes, that’s not the problem,” Cymbeline said as she grabbed a cookie from the plate. “She said she was sorry and then she planted a kiss on him. On his cheek.”

I had to cover my mouth with my hand to hide my smile.

“His cheeks looked like an apple,” Delphia said. “I just had to kiss one.”

I caught Mama’s eye. She seemed to be trying not to laugh but kept it together enough to say, “Delphia, you mustn’t ever kiss a boy.”

“But why?” Delphia blinked her big blue eyes.

“Because it’s not proper,” Mama said.

I noticed Addie was shivering. “Come here, doll. I’ll warm you up.” I tucked her into the chair next to me and rubbed her cold hands between mine. Addie was quiet and serious like me. I adored her.

“Mama and Papa kiss all the time,” Delphia said.

“They’re married.” Cymbeline plopped into an armchair next to me. “You don’t understand anything about how the world works.”

“Cym, don’t say it like that. She’s just a little girl.” Fiona went to stand in front of the fire with her hands behind her back.

“I’m your baby,” Delphia said as she gazed up at our father. “Right, Papa?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to kiss boys.” Papa put his chin on her head and looked over at me with eyes that danced with humor. Mama always says it was his dancing eyes that drew her to him. I knew exactly what she meant. “You’re my baby, which means you can’t love any boy but me.”

“I won’t do it again.” Delphia let out a long-suffering sigh, as if all the fun in the world was taken from her.

“Besides the unfortunate incident with the apple cheek,” Mama said, “what else happened?”

“That ridiculous Viktor Olofsson was skating with all the girls, one after another.” Cymbeline shook her dark curls. “He had the nerve to ask me.”

“What did you say?” I asked, knowing the answer, but teasing her anyway.

“Jo, don’t be daft,” Cymbeline said. “I would never let that big oaf touch my hand.”

He was a large man but most certainly not an oaf. Although his shoulders were thick and wide like a Colorado mountain, he was a gentle, intelligent soul who I suspected had a deep and long-lasting crush on Cymbeline. “I think he’s like a hero in a storybook. Brave and strong.” I’d once seen him pick up a wagon off a man’s leg when the horse had bucked and broken free, leaving his owner under a wheel. With almost white hair and light green eyes, he looked like the Vikings in one of the history books I had in the library.

Cymbeline’s eyes flashed as she stuck out her plump bottom lip and scowled. Strangely, her sour expression did nothing to disguise her beauty. “He’s such a show-off, doing tricks on the ice.”

“You do tricks on the ice,” Fiona said, not unkindly but more as a fact. “All the same ones Viktor does.”

Her observation was correct. If Viktor learned a trick on the ice, Cymbeline practiced until she’d conquered it.

Mama had confided in me more than once that she was afraid Cymbeline would never be satisfied living in a man’s world as we do. If she’d been old enough, I had no doubt she would have volunteered to be a nurse in the war effort overseas.

“Well, be that as it may,” Mama said, “we have exciting news. Jo’s acquaintance, Phillip Baker, is coming to stay with us for the holidays.”

“The one who wrote to you about Walter?” Fiona asked.

“The same,” I said. “How did you remember?”

Fiona shrugged. “I remember everything about my family. Anyway, it wasn’t like I could ever forget that day.” Her eyes glistened. “I shouldn’t like to ever see you that way again, Jo.”

I held out my hand to her. “Come here, sweet sister.” She sat on the arm of my chair and I patted her knee. “You don’t have to worry. I’ll never give my heart to anyone else. I’m the spinster of the family.”

 

Chapter 2: Phillip

The train chugged up a slope so steep I was certain we would not stay on the tracks. Across from me, a baby in her mother’s arms cried. To distract myself from my fears of falling into the abyss below me, I pulled out the letter from Josephine. I breathed in the faint smell of her perfume that lingered on the paper. My imagination? Perhaps. Regardless, this one was to me, unlike the stack I’d read too many times to remember. Letters that were not written to me. By a girl who didn’t belong to me.

It’s a terrible thing to hate a dead man.

Yet I knew him for who he truly was. When I’d known him as a child in the orphanage, I’d recognized immediately how he used his charm to get what he wanted. Even the nuns fell for his act. When he ran away at age twelve, I genuinely think their hearts were broken. Women, even ones sworn to love Jesus, couldn’t help but fall for Walter Green.

Hope lurked inside me, goading me into this fool’s errand. After cheating death a second time by recovering from the Spanish flu, I would not rest easy until I came west and told Josephine the truth about the man to whom she’d pledged her eternal love. If not for me, I knew she would love a ghost, possibly forever. Josephine Barnes was a loyal woman. Nothing would deter her unless she understood what kind of man he really was under all that golden-haired, blue-eyed charm. I couldn’t bear the thought of a woman like her spending the rest of her life remembering a man who never really existed. Walter Green was not the man she thought he was. I was the only one left alive to tell her the truth.

He hadn’t loved her. There were other women who wrote to him. All who believed he would marry them when he returned from the war. All targeted for their wealth. Playing the odds, he’d said to me one time. The more he had waiting, the more likely he would marry into money. Those were to secure his future. Countless dalliances with nurses were just for fun.

Yes, I wanted her to know the truth. But it wasn’t for purely altruistic reasons. I wanted her for myself. As I’d convalesced after the flu, I’d read the letters she’d sent to Walter hundreds of times. I’d stared at her photograph until I memorized every detail of her pretty face. The stories of her close family and the beautiful mountains where she lived had moved me more than they should have. In truth, I’d fallen in love with her. Was I lonely? Yes. I’d been lonely all my life. This was something else entirely. In addition to my yearning for a family and my romantic nature, I had this odd sensation of a deep connection between the two of us. The idea of fate, even soul mates, had crossed my mind. Was there a reason beyond mortal comprehension that I’d been the one who ended up with the box of her correspondence?

Could I pinpoint the exact moment I decided to write to her and ask if I might come to visit? Not really. It was more of a gradual thing, an expansion in my mind of what might be possible. Even though I knew her affection toward me was unlikely, I had to try. A man like me didn’t win a rich, beautiful girl like her. I was poor and uneducated. My only skills were those of a cabinetmaker. Yet I had hope. I’d escaped the war and then the flu. I had to take a chance.

I glanced down at the letter, reading it one more time.

Dear Phillip,

My family and I would very much like you to come for a visit. Whether you decide to stay permanently in Emerson Pass or not, we’d be honored if you’d spend the holidays with us.

I hope you won’t find my large and somewhat obnoxious family too overwhelming. I’ve asked them all to be on their best behavior, but that’s not a guarantee. You’ll bunk with my twin brothers. They also served in the war. I’m sure you’ll all become fast friends.

Papa and my brothers will be happy to help you find employment if you decide to stay.

I shall look forward to meeting you soon.

Sincerely,

Josephine Barnes

I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope, then traced the letters of my name, written by her hand.

Walter, I thought, you lucky, conniving bastard. He’d held that hand in his own.

The train had made it to the top of the peak. I looked out the window to snow that sparkled under the sun. Josephine hadn’t exaggerated about the piercing blue hue of the sky.

The baby stopped crying. Her mother, a pretty blonde woman wearing a gray traveling suit and matching hat, apologized to me for the noise. “The altitude hurts her ears.”

“No need to apologize, ma’am. We were all babies once.”

She peered back at me with obvious curiosity. “Do you know someone in Emerson Pass? Most people who head our way either live there or are visiting family or friends.”

“I’m visiting the Barnes family.”

Her face lit up with a bright smile. “The Barneses. They’re very close friends of mine. I’m Martha Neal. I was the second schoolteacher in Emerson Pass, but now I’m married to the town doctor. He was an outsider who moved to town to take over the practice of our last doctor and somehow managed to make me his wife.” She indicated the baby with a dip of her chin. “This one is named Quinn, after our first teacher in Emerson Pass, who is now married to Alexander Barnes. But you know all that, I suppose?”

How much should I say? My natural tendency was to remain taciturn. When one’s lived the kind of life I have, sharing too much led to either pity or fear, as if being an orphan or poor were contagious. “I served in the war with Josephine’s beau, Walter Green. When he died he left a few items that I thought she might like to have. It’s taken a while to get out here. My name’s Phillip Baker.”

Her eyes widened. “You’re a friend of Walter’s?”

Not exactly a friend. “That’s correct. Did you know him?”

“No, no. I’ve only heard about him from Josephine. Those of us who attended school together are quite close. We meet for tea at least twice a month to discuss books and gossip. Oh dear me, where are my manners? I’m happy to meet you, Mr. Baker, and I’m terribly sorry about Walter. We lost one of our boys and the whole town cried for a week. What you must have seen, I can’t imagine.” Martha bounced Quinn on her lap. The baby babbled and chewed on her fist.

“Thank you. He wasn’t a close friend. We served together, that’s all.” The car jerked, causing both Martha and me to sway slightly. I gripped my seat with both hands.

“Our poor Josephine. His death broke her heart. We all hoped she’d move on, but so far she hasn’t.”

“How so?” I couldn’t help but ask. What luck to meet Martha. I’d gather as much information about Josephine as I could. The nuns often told us that the more we knew about a subject, the better we could make a decision or persuade others to our cause.

“She’s sworn herself to spinsterhood and running the library. Which is disappointing to the eligible bachelors in town. Given half a chance, most of them would snatch her up if they could. She’s remarkable. Did you know she brought the library to us with funding from Andrew Carnegie?”

I nodded. She’d written in detail about the building and opening of her library. As if Walter had cared. I’m not sure he’d ever read a book. “Yes, Walter mentioned that to me.”

“May I ask what you’re bringing to her?” Martha adjusted Quinn to the other knee.

“The letters she wrote to him. There are stacks of them, and I thought she might like to have them. I wanted an excuse to come out here, too. I’m thinking of staying.”

“I hope you will.” She smiled at me. “We’re friendly in Emerson Pass. I think you’ll love it as much as the rest of us do. And how kind of you to bring the letters. Jo walked to the post office every Monday and Friday with a letter in her hand. Without fail, even though he almost never sent one in return. Do you know why he wrote back so seldom?”

He was too busy sleeping with nurses to reply to Josephine’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful letters. “I’ve no idea, really. He wasn’t the writing sort, I guess.”

“Have you brought the books she sent, too?” Martha asked.

She knew about the books? “Yes, I wanted to return them to her for the library. They gave me such pleasure during difficult times. I wanted to make sure others could enjoy them.”

“You like books?” Martha watched me with a more serious expression on her face.

“More than anything.”

“And Walter?”

“Excuse me?”

“Did he like books? Martha asked.

“I can’t say that he did, no.” He’d always tossed them over to me the moment he took them from the box Josephine had sent. The candy he’d kept for himself. He’d had a terrible sweet tooth.

Her glaze flickered to the window. “How odd.”

“Ma’am?”

“Josephine told me he’d written to her two times about how much he enjoyed the books, even mentioning specific plots and characters. She was thrilled, of course.”

I flushed. I’d told him what to write in those letters so that she continued to think of him as a scholar. Both times he’d tricked me into describing the plots. I couldn’t help myself but to discuss books with enthusiasm.

Martha peered at me through narrowed eyes. “May I be frank about something?”

“Of course.” Where was she going with this?

“I’ve suspected there might have been others. Women, I mean.”

I bit back a bark of surprise. Martha was no fool. I almost smiled with triumph. “What makes you think this?”

“When my husband was courting me, he was already a busy country doctor, yet he wrote me love letters at least once a week, and we lived in the same town. All he had to do to say hello was walk over to my parents’ store. All of which leads me to believe that Walter’s feelings weren’t what he’d professed them to be. What’s the old saying? Actions speak louder than words.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s not for me to say.”

“You shouldn’t play poker.”

“Poker?”

The baby began to fuss. Martha reached into a bag by her side and came out with a hard-looking biscuit and handed it to Quinn. “I can see by the look on your face that there was more to this Walter than Josephine knew.”

I moved my gaze away from her, flustered by this interrogation, and looked out the window. We were now on actual ground, passing through a dense forest of fir and pine trees. If Martha was an example of what I was to face in Emerson Pass, then I better get my story straight.

Given that I was only four when they died of yellow fever, I had only a few memories of my parents. One of them was of my mother scolding me for lying about taking a cookie without asking. Tell the truth, Phillip, even when you know you could get away with a fib.

However, Martha was a stranger to me. I didn’t want Josephine needlessly hurt. If she were to learn Walter’s true character, it should come from me.

“Mr. Baker?”

I returned my gaze to Martha. “Men don’t speak often of matters of the heart.”

“But what about men who face death daily? Don’t they confess their fears? Their loves?”

I was starting to feel rather sorry for Martha’s husband. “I’m not sure what you’re asking.”

“You are sure.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I’ll be clearer,” she said. “Was he in love with Josephine? Was he planning on marrying her as she thought?”

“Respectfully, Mrs. Neal, I’m not sure I know, even if it were for me to say.”

One eyebrow rose. “I see.”

I was afraid she did.

“May I ask,” I said, drawing the words out long, “if his intentions were not completely pure, what would you advise me to tell Josephine?”

She stared at me for a few seconds. Even the baby had stopped chewing on her cookie to focus on me. “I suppose that depends on your intentions. Have you come to hurt her?”

“Of course not. The opposite.”

She gave me a satisfied smile. “May I take a guess, Mr. Baker, about your actual intentions?”

“Of course.” Despite the chill of the train’s car, my shirt clung to my back.

“You’ve fallen in love with her photograph. And perhaps you’ve read her letters, which made you aware of her intelligence and good heart. You most certainly are the one who told Walter what to write about the books.”

I coughed and returned to the view of the landscape.

“You’ve come to get to know her,” Martha said. “To see if your instincts about her are correct.”

“What if I have? Will you rat on me?” I turned back to my interrogator.

She gave me another satisfied smile. “How fortunate that we were to meet today.”

I swallowed and waited for the blow. Was there any other way for her to interpret my actions? Traipsing across the country because I thought I was in love with a girl I’d never met would not be greeted with approval.

“Josephine is my dear friend whom I love very much. However, I also have excellent instincts about people, and I’ve thought from the beginning that something wasn’t quite right with this Walter character. Josephine has been practical and steady her entire life, but in this particular instance, I think she was taken away by the idea of love.”

“Don’t underestimate his charm,” I said drily. “He’d perfected it over time.”

“How long had you known him?”

I drew in a deep breath. I was in too far now. “I knew him for a brief time when we were children. We were at the same orphanage for a year or so. Until he ran away.”

Both eyebrows raised this time. “Ran away? To where, I wonder?”

“In all truthfulness, I don’t know.” He’d run away at twelve, unable to abide by the nuns’ rules. Even during all the hours we’d spent together during the war, he’d not filled me in on exactly where he went or how he survived during the time before he joined the army. I had a distinct feeling that he’d been involved in criminal activity.

“Were there other women? Is he a charlatan? Did he want her money?” Martha asked. “Please, Mr. Baker, tell me the truth.”

“I believe all those things to be true.”

“Believe or know?”

“Know.”

“And the others?”

“All from wealthy families. He was ensuring his future upon his return.”

She was quiet for a moment. Her cheeks had flushed red and she repeatedly tapped her foot as if she wanted to bore a hole through the floor. Finally, she turned to look at me.

“This is what you’re going to do, Mr. Baker. Give it a few days before you tell her of Walter’s true intentions. I’m afraid it’ll drive her away. Kill the messenger, if you will.”

“Yes.”

“Spend time with her. Maybe use a little charm of your own to thaw her out, perhaps show her how much life there is to live.”

“Being charming’s not really my strength. I’ve nothing to offer, really.”

“But you’ve come anyway?”

“Ever hopeful.”

“You’re handsome. That will help.”

I almost laughed. “I am?”

“Yes. Have you not seen yourself in the mirror? Strong jawline. High cheekbones. Sapphire-colored eyes. Enough hair for three men. My husband will be jealous of that, I can assure you.”

“Walter looked like the god of the sun or the like,” I said. “All golden.”

“Yes, I can imagine the type.” She wiped drool from Quinn’s chin with a handkerchief before looking back at me. “One piece of advice. If you win over her family, that’s half the battle. They’re as tight a clan as they come.”

I nodded. “That much was clear from the letters.”

She made a noise somewhere between a yelp and yap. “You did read them. I knew it.”

“I’m ashamed to admit it, but yes. He’d stored them all in a box. I took them with me after he was killed.”

“Did you not have letters of your own?”

“No. There’s no one. Never has been.”

“There should be.”

It was my turn to study Martha. “What makes you think I’m any different from Walter?”

“My parents own the dry goods store in town. I’ve spent my whole life watching people from behind the counter. I can tell an honest man when I see one.”

I had no idea what I’d done to make her think I was honest, but I didn’t ask. She’d figured out everything else rather quickly.

“Her family invited me to stay for the holidays,” I said. “Which astounded me.”

“Get ready, Mr. Baker. That’s just the beginning. In Emerson Pass no one’s allowed to be a stranger for long. Before you know it, you’ll feel like you’ve been here forever.”

As if the train agreed, it slowed as we approached the station.

“Welcome to Emerson Pass,” Martha said. “Where you can belong if you only ask.”

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