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Authors: A Family For Carter Jones

Ana Seymour

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10
TH
ANNIVERSARY
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A Family For Carter Jones
Ana Seymour

For my daughters Kathryn and Cristina with admiration, pride and love

“Perhaps it’s just the brandy,” Jennie said aloud.

Carter looked down at her in surprise. “Perhaps what is just the brandy?”

She made a little twist with her mouth. “Nothing.”

“Oh.”

In a minute they would be at their rooms. He would open her door and say good-night like the gentleman he promised to be. Suddenly she blurted out, “I was wondering if it was the brandy that was making me remember the night you kissed me.”

She could feel him stiffen beside her. It was a relief to have let it out. Now he’d probably laugh and tell her that she was perhaps a little tipsy, and then they could part and get some sleep.

Instead he said in a voice that had grown slightly hoarse, “I haven’t needed brandy to remember it, Jennie…”

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A Family for Carter Jones
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Prologue

Vermillion, Nevada

May 1881

U
nlike most girls who blossomed into womanhood at the same sedate pace they used to walk across the room at their first adult social, Jennie Sheridan reckoned that she’d pretty well completed the process at a gallop within the space of six weeks.

Sitting on the porch swing with a lump in her throat the size of a rolled-up pair of socks, she looked away from her sister and counted backward. Six weeks. The first snowdrops had already started appearing on the hills outside of town the week they’d lost first their mother, then their father two days later. Her entire world had turned itself inside out within six short weeks. And now this.

“When?” she asked Kate, forcing the word out and avoiding her sister’s eyes.

Kate’s voice was almost inaudible. “Well, it’s nine months, right? That would make it sometime around Christmas.”

“Some Christmas present, huh?” Jennie tried a smile, but her lips threatened to quiver, so she tightened her mouth again.

“Oh, Jen, I’m so very sorry,” her sister murmured.

Jennie’s unshed tears drained back down her throat as she looked up to see Kate’s eyes filling. Jennie reached to take her younger sister’s hand, then changed her mind and slid across the wooden slats of the swing to enfold her in her arms.

Kate put her head down on Jennie’s shoulder and began to sob. “I never thought I could be so wicked, Jennie,” she said, taking big gulps of air. “It almost makes me glad that Mama and Papa are gone.”

Jennie straightened up at that and took a firm grasp of her sister’s shoulders. “That’s nonsense. You’re not wicked and you’re certainly not glad that our parents are dead.”

Kate gave a little jerk at the harsh sound of the last word. “Can you imagine what they would have felt, Jen? What would they have said to discover that their unmarried daughter was about to have a child? I was always supposed to be the perfect one, you know.”

Jennie gave a sympathetic nod. Her sister’s bright blue eyes were full of anguish. And she was right. Their parents would have been devastated by this news. Jennie had always been headstrong, allowed her stubborn ways and occasional childish tantrums. But Kate had been the perfect one.

Well,
nothing
was perfect anymore.

“Isn’t there some way you can contact him?” she asked.

Kate looked up in horror. “To tell him about the baby? I wouldn’t even think of trying. He
left
me, Jennie. Without so much as a goodbye. You can’t
know what that means after you’ve…you know…
given
yourself to a man…”

Her voice trailed off and the tears started flowing again. Jennie gave a deep sigh. She would not be afraid to confront the blarney-talking Irishman who had swept in and out of town like a cyclone, scattering her sister’s reputation and pieces of her heart in its wake. But perhaps this wasn’t the moment to pursue the subject. “I suppose this is a silly question, but…are you sure, Katie? You haven’t been to see Dr. Millard.”

Kate moved away from her sister and set the swing in motion with a push of her heel. “I’m pretty sure, Jen. I haven’t had…you know. And it was always every fourth Sunday…like clockwork. Now I’ve missed twice. And I’m…ah…tender up here, like the womenfolk say.”

Jennie nodded, miserable but not embarrassed by her sister’s frank description. She and Kate, just sixteen months apart in age, shared even the most intimate details of their lives with each other. At least, they used to share, Jennie amended, until Kate met up with that scoundrel. “Well, the first thing is…you have to see the doctor.”

Kate took a deep, jagged breath. “I’d die first. It would be almost as bad as telling Papa.”

Gentle Dr. Millard had taken care of their childhood hurts and illnesses since they were born. The week her parents had died, he’d stayed at the Sheridan house day and night, even though there were other influenza cases in town. “Sweetie, you have to tell him,” Jennie said. “You’ll need him to take care of you and…and the baby.”

Kate looked down at her lap and shook her head
firmly. “I’m going to take care of myself. Mama had us without any doctor helping.”

“But only because they were living up in the mountains then. And besides, she had Papa.”

“Well, I have
you.

“Kate Sheridan, I don’t know the first thing about babies.” Jennie tried to keep her tone free from the desperation that was creeping over her.

Kate set the swing rocking at a more frantic pace. “Well, I don’t, either. But I’m afraid we’re both about to find out.”

The tears had ended, and suddenly there was determination in Kate’s tone. Jennie let out a long stream of air. Together they could do this. No matter how bad it got. They had always supported each other, and since the deaths of their parents, it had become something like a sacred pact between them.

When Kate had broken down at their dead mother’s bedside and refused to leave, it had been an equally heartbroken Jennie who had pulled her away and tucked her into the bed Kate hadn’t slept in for the previous five nights.

When Harmon Wentworth, the banker, had told them that their parents had left them virtually without funds, it had been calm, logical Kate who had kept Jennie from total despondency. They were capable, able-bodied women, she’d insisted. Not girls any longer. They would find a way.

Now it was Jennie’s turn to be strong again. And this time it appeared she’d have to be strong enough for the both of them.

Chapter One

August 1881

“I
’m sorry, ladies, but I don’t see how that particular task falls under my jurisdiction,” Carter Jones said crisply. “It’s a job for the sheriff.”

Mrs. Henrietta Billingsley, Miss Margaret Potter and Mrs. Lucinda Wentworth stood before him in a row, shirtwaists billowing. Carter looked down at the papers on his desk and shifted uncomfortably, creaking the leather of his chair.

“Sheriff Hammond won’t be back from visiting his sister in California for another three weeks, and by then that…that person’s shameful condition will be apparent to God and every man wearing trousers in this town,” Mrs. Billingsley insisted.

Carter looked up at the florid face of the town’s leading matron. “I reckon God’s aware of the problem already, Mrs. Billingsley. After all, isn’t he the one responsible for creating a new life?”

“Not this life, Mr. Jones. This was the devil’s work, pure and simple.”

Carter sighed. “Sheriff Hammond left your son, Lyle, as deputy, Mrs. Wentworth. You could get him to serve the papers.”

Margaret Potter stared down her long nose with a look that had been known to freeze truant students twice her size dead in their tracks. “He refuses to do it, Mr. Jones. He says we have to wait for the sheriff. Lyle has always been a difficult boy. And everyone knows he’s always been sweet on Kate Sheridan.”

Lyle Wentworth may be difficult, but he wasn’t a boy. He had to be at least, twenty-three, Carter reckoned. But in the few weeks since he’d arrived in Vermillion, he’d realized that Miss Potter continued to treat her former pupils as recalcitrant adolescents even though some of them had begun sprouting gray hair.

“Lyle’s not difficult.” Lucinda Wentworth defended her son in a voice so small it sounded as if she hoped Margaret Potter wouldn’t actually hear her.

“Sounds to me like Lyle has the right idea,” Carter said. “Let’s just wait until Del gets back to handle this.”

“Delbert Hammond will be no more eager to serve these papers than Lyle,” Miss Potter said with one of her chronic sniffs. “It’s your responsibility representing the interests of the territory to see that the decisions of the court are upheld.”

Mrs. Billingsley leaned over Carter’s desk, her formidable breasts perilously close to his face, and slapped down the sheaf of papers she’d been holding. “Those two Sheridan hussies have no business opening their home as a so-called boardinghouse in a respectable part of town. If they want to run something
like that, they’ll just have to go down to Tinkersville and hang a red lantern in front like the others.”

Carter grimaced. He’d not met either of the Sheridan sisters since he’d taken over the post of district attorney, but he’d caught glimpses of both young ladies, and they had not struck him as likely candidates for the tawdry streets of the notorious Tinkersville district.

Miss Potter continued, “It’s taken us a month to get the order to shut them down. And now that we’ve got the papers, we’re not willing to have that situation continue one more night.”

“Have they been disturbing the peace in some way, ladies?” he asked mildly.

“They’ve been disturbing the harmony of this community,” Mrs. Billingsley huffed.

“And twisting the minds of the innocent schoolchildren,” Margaret Potter added, her words punctuated by vehement nods from her friend.

Carter stretched his long legs under the desk, then picked up the bunch of papers and looked at them with distaste. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said.

As he walked toward the neat white clapboard house at the end of Elm Street, Carter went through a mental rehearsal of the speech he was about to give, with little enthusiasm for the task. He knew that the Sheridan sisters had lost their parents and fallen on financial hard times recently. And if it was true that the younger sister was bearing an out-of-wedlock child, as the town rumor mill had it, then Carter
would have preferred to stay ten leagues away from the entire situation.

The house was well kept up with a flourishing vegetable garden to one side and neat rows of geraniums along the front. No one could say that the Sheridan boardinghouse represented an eyesore. But, of course, that had nothing to do with the court’s ruling. Nor did the unwedded state of Kate Sheridan.

The ruling was based strictly on the town ordinances that had been passed not a year ago carefully separating the business part of town from its prosperous homes. It was the latest idea in city planning. Carter had never seen much sense to it, himself, but he was an ambitious man, and if zoning regulations were popular with the people, he would not be the one to argue against them.

As he mounted the front steps, he tried to get a picture in his mind of the sisters as he remembered seeing them about town. One had been striking, blond and tall, willowy. He wasn’t as sure about the other. She’d been shorter, he thought, with mousy brown hair. Rather nondescript, if memory served.

It was neither young lady who opened the door to his knock, but a young lad of about twelve. “Who are you?” the boy asked without a smile.

“The name is Carter Jones. I’d like to talk with Miss Kate or Miss Jennie Sheridan.”

“What about?” The boy had intense brown eyes that looked old in the middle of his youthful face.

Carter hesitated. It was absurd, but he almost felt as if he owed the boy an explanation. “I’ll state my
business to the Misses Sheridan, if you don’t mind, lad,” he said finally.

“Come back later. Miss Jennie said I wasn’t to let anyone ‘sturb Miss Kate.”

To Carter’s amazement, the boy began to swing the door shut in his face. He put a hand out to hold it open. “Well then, I’ll talk with Miss Jennie.”

“Can’t. She’s gone to the store.” He paused and held up a hand to shade his eyes from the sun. “Oh. There she comes now.”

Carter turned to look down the street. Walking toward them with an almost childlike skip to her step was the Sheridan sister he’d dismissed as “nondescript.” Carter’s mouth dropped open.

He knew he’d been working too hard since he’d come to Vermillion, but up to now he hadn’t thought that the overwork had struck him blind. Had he actually seen this girl in town and not paid her any attention? He ought to make an appointment with Dr. Millard that very afternoon to have his eyes examined.

Granted, her sister with her statuesque blond good looks had drawn his eye, but this girl was exquisite. She was not as tall as her sister, but her figure was perfection, with curves that were tantalizingly outlined by the worn spots in her faded green dress. Her hair was not the least bit mousy, but a rich mahogany brown that glinted in the morning sunlight. And her face would stand out in the portraits of
Godey’s Lady’s Book.

He closed his mouth and swallowed away the dryness. Busy with his fledgling career, he’d been without
a woman for too long. And under normal circumstances, the delectable Miss Sheridan would have seemed to be a perfect victim for his well-developed skills in the art of seduction. Suddenly his present duty seemed more than unpleasant—it seemed downright inconvenient.

“This gentleman’s looking for you, Jennie,” the boy yelled to her. “And I wouldn’t let him ‘sturb Kate, just like you told me.”

The young woman’s pace became more sedate as she approached them. She smiled first at the boy, and said, “Thank you, Barnaby.” Then she turned the smile toward Carter, causing his heart to skip a beat. But her smile died as she glanced at the papers in his hand. “What can I do for you, sir?” she asked. Her huge brown eyes had grown wary.

“Ah…” Carter fished about for an opening gambit. It was an uncharacteristic hesitancy for his normally glib tongue. He prided himself on always knowing what to say in every situation. The consummate politician. Someday he hoped the skill would take him to the heights he had secretly dreamed of since he was a boy not much older than the lad who stood in the doorway staring at him.

The sudden childhood memory restored some of his power. The Sheridan girl was beautiful, but that didn’t mean he had to lose his wits talking to her. “Perhaps we should go inside and discuss it,” he said smoothly.

Jennie looked from Carter to the boy. “Barnaby, you go on in and see if Kate needs anything.” Then she mounted the four steps to the stoop to stand directly
in front of Carter. She was several inches shorter than he, but somehow it seemed as if her eyes were level with his as she said gravely, “My sister is…indisposed. I’d rather talk right here, if you don’t mind, Mr. Jones.”

The sound of his own name surprised him. “Ah, you know who I am, Miss Sheridan. I apologize for not introducing myself immediately.”

“This town does not keep secrets, Mr. Jones. Everyone knows about the new young prosecutor from the fancy law school back East.”

“Harvard,” Carter put in with a smile.

“Harvard,” Jennie agreed with no softening of her own expression.

Carter blinked, trying to concentrate on the business at hand instead of the way the morning light brushed Jennie Sheridan’s high cheekbones with the faintest blush. Irrationally his heart was beating a tattoo inside his chest. Yes, it had been too long since he’d been close to a woman. At least a woman the likes of the older Sheridan sister.

He tried another of his politician smiles and willed his voice to sound smooth. “Nevertheless, it was remiss of me. We’ve never been formally introduced and perhaps you—”

“Mr. Jones,” Jennie interrupted. “It’s been some weeks now since anyone in this town has bothered to observe good manners with me or my sister. And this is heavy.” With her free hand she gestured to the basket of groceries hanging over her arm. “If you would be so kind as to state your business, I’ll let you be on your way.”

Carter tried to take a step back to distance himself from the intensity of those brown eyes, but his heel hit the edge of the stoop. He stopped himself just in time to keep from tumbling backward onto the ground. Jennie Sheridan watched him without blinking.

“I could come back if this is an inconvenient time.” His smile was not quite so self-assured.

“I guess that would depend on the nature of your business. Recently, my sister and I have had to deal with a lot of things that aren’t much convenient at any time. Is this that kind of business, Mr. Jones?”

Carter hid his chagrin at the coldness of her tone. With his tall good looks and practiced charm, Carter had been able to soften the hearts of the haughtiest of debutantes in Boston society. But he had a feeling that Jennie Sheridan was regarding him with no more interest than she had in the black ant that was crossing the wooden stoop at their feet.

“I guess you’d put this in the category of inconvenient,” he admitted, giving the papers in his hand a shake.

“It’s the court ruling, isn’t it?”

Carter met her eyes and nodded. She held her head stiffly, her delicate chin up, as if she were waiting for a blow. “They’ve turned down your petition. You’re not allowed to have a business in this part of town,” Carter said gently.

Jennie closed her eyes for just a moment, but when she opened them, they held anger, not resignation. “Three renters. That’s all it is. Three people to fill out the bedrooms in this big place.” She gestured to
the house behind her. “Why, it should be a crime
not
to let the rooms out, with the silver boom in town. People need places to stay.”

Carter ruffled through the papers in his hand. “You have an employee, it says…” he began.

“Barnaby?” Jennie gasped in disbelief. “He’s twelve years old. And he had nowhere else to go—”

“That boy is the employee?” Carter interrupted.

Instead of answering the question, Jennie backed down the stairs to the wooden walkway and pointed up the street. “You see all those fancy houses, Mr. Jones? There’s not a one of them that doesn’t have a servant of some kind. Gardener, maid, livery man. We have Barnaby. One boy and two women. We run this place. We muck the horses and grow the food. When the pump broke out back, I was the one who fixed it. When the roof leaked this June, I was the one on a ladder patching it up.”

She seemed to gather steam as she continued to talk, her features becoming more animated. Carter was so entranced that he found himself losing track of what she was saying. When she paused, evidently expecting a reply, he could only manage to say, “It does seem a bit unreasonable to classify that boy as a business employee.”

“Well then, tell that to your precious courts, Mr. Jones.” She marched up the stairs past him, her basket nearly knocking the papers out of his hand. “And tell them that if they want to force two orphan sisters, one of whom is ill, to leave their home, they’ll have to come in here with the sheriff and a passel of deputies and carry us out.”

As Carter tried to formulate an answer, she wrenched open the door, stalked inside and slammed it in his face.

“Well, what was he like?” Kate asked.

“Who?” Jennie was kneading bread dough. Lord, it seemed as if she spent half her time kneading bread these days. She couldn’t understand how just three men and a boy could go through so many loaves each week. Goodness knows, she and Kate hardly touched the stuff. Jennie was always too busy or too tired to eat, and Kate had had no appetite since she’d started getting sick early in her pregnancy. Her face had grown gaunt and, except for her now obviously protruding stomach, she was alarmingly thin. Jennie had pleaded, alternating tears and threats, but Kate still refused to be seen by Dr. Millard, which was not only dangerous to her health, but pointless, since by now everyone in town knew that she was with child.

“The new district attorney,” Kate said with slight exasperation. “What’s he like?”

“I don’t know…he’s…he’s just a man. Who cares?”

Kate sighed. “Just because he’s a man doesn’t eliminate him from consideration as a human being, Jen dear. There
are
good men in the world. Not all of them disappear leaving…problems in their wake.”

“Not all of them are like Sean Flaherty, you mean.”

As usual, her sister’s eyes chilled at the mention of her erstwhile lover’s name. Jennie hated that look.

“Think of Papa,” Kate said after a moment. “He was a good man.”

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