Authors: Ashley Merrick
Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Fiction, #Forever Love, #Victorian Era, #Western, #Fifth In Series, #Saga, #Fifty-Books, #Forty-Five Authors, #Newspaper Ad, #Short Story, #American Mail-Order Bride, #Bachelor, #Single Woman, #Marriage Of Convenience, #Christian, #Religious, #Faith, #Inspirational, #Factory Burned, #Pioneer, #Indiana, #Sisters, #South Bend, #Widower, #Two Children, #Burn Scarred, #No Romance, #Name-Only Marriage, #Financial Security, #Best Friends Daughter, #Mother Disappointed, #Adversary, #Community, #Family Life
ichard was in a foul mood
. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and he was sitting in his office at the factory surrounded by a stack of papers, all urgent matters that needed his attention as soon as possible. He had been too busy to stop for lunch and he knew he was as grouchy as a bear when he wasn’t fed regularly. His secretary, Elda, who was an older woman in her mid-fifties, had knocked on his door at half-past noon to see if he wanted her to get him something for lunch and he’d just barked at her that he was too busy to think about food. He wasn’t hungry enough at that point. He felt badly for a moment, because he rarely raised his voice, but she’d worked with him for over ten years now and knew him well. Sure enough, at 3:15, the door opened and it was Elda carrying a tray with a bowl of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, both from the pub around the corner. She had a no-nonsense look upon her face as she set the tray down on a file cabinet by his desk and then faced him head on.
“I know you too well, Richard. You’re starving by now and you’ll eat. I’ll leave you to it.”
She turned to go and he called after her, his voice much softer than before. “I’m sorry I was such a grouch earlier. Thank you. You’re too good to me.”
She smiled as she backed out of the office and prepared to close the door. “You’re welcome. Now take a break and eat.”
He did just that, shoving some papers to the side to make room on his desk for the food. He was on his last bite of the sandwich when there was another knock on the door. He knew it wasn’t Elda this time. She wouldn’t be back to bother him any time soon, and the only people she would let by her would be one of his brothers or his father.
“Come in,” he called.
Ed walked in and made himself comfortable in a leather-backed chair that faced his desk.
“What do you need? I’m busy,” Richard said.
Ed yawned. “You’re always busy. Besides, you’re taking a break now. I picked a good time to pop in.”
Richard frowned. He had him there.
“What going on?” he asked again.
“I met a girl,” Ed began.
Richard sighed. Ed was always meeting someone new.
“That’s nice. Is it anyone I know?”
Ed thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. She moved to town recently with her family.”
“How old is she?”
“She’s old enough. Twenty-two.”
That was fine. Ed had only recently turned thirty, so it was a respectable age difference.
“Thing is, her father was promised a job at the new mill, but they lost a big account and they can’t bring him on now.”
“You want us to find him something?” Richard asked.
“Well, with Rick Spooner being out for a few months with his leg, we are down a man.”
“That’s true.” Richard thought for a moment. He knew what a blow it must have been to that man to move his family here for a job and then have it not materialize. He’d always been a believer that things happened for a reason and with Rick out, they could use an extra pair of hands.”
“Have him stop by tomorrow and ask for Jim. He’ll figure out where to use him.”
Ed grinned. “I was counting on you to say that.” He stood and prepared to go.
“You really like this girl?” Richard asked.
“She’s nice. Pretty little thing, like your India. I told her if she ever gets sick of you to come see me. I was only half-kidding. She seems like a great girl. Good for more than just watching your children.”
Richard felt his cheeks redden.
“I need to get back to work,” he said and turned his attention back to his paperwork. He didn’t look up again until Ed had left the office and closed the door behind him. And then he sighed.
He actually had allowed himself to consider pursuing something romantic with India. He’d gotten it into his head that she might possibly be interested and was thinking that maybe, possibly he could be in a real relationship again. That someone could find him interesting and even attractive. The very day that he’d made up his mind to speak to her about this, to possibly even surprise her with a kiss, was the same day his face had made a small child scream and cry. The effect was like a bucket of cold water, dampening any thought he’d have that India could ever really be interested in him that way.
after the women’s group meeting, Kay agreed to watch Sammy for the afternoon while Laura and India went to the hotel to finalize the appetizer menu and discuss the decorations. The charity event was only two weeks away. It was being held on the second Saturday in December, when everyone would be in the Christmas spirit and feeling generous. At least that was the hope.
India’s jaw dropped when she stepped into the lobby of the Windsor Hotel. It was the grandest hotel she’d ever seen. Not that she’d seen many, but the Northbridge in Lawrence was quite nice. The Windsor was absolute luxury. The lobby floors were gorgeous marble and heavy gold drapes lined the floor-to-ceiling windows. When the hotel manager showed them the ballroom where the event would be held, she let out an audible gasp.
“I told you it was nice!” Laura said with a laugh.
Kendra, the hotel manager, smiled proudly. “Thank you. We feel that our hotel is the best in all of South Bend.” She showed them around and India took in the large dance floor, glittering crystal chandeliers and the gold-plated molding that lined the walls and ceiling. They sat down at one of the tables to discuss the menu and decorations.
“Fresh flowers are always nice,” Kendra said and then added, “Of course, we can’t get fresh ones this time of year, but we have some lovely dried arrangements that look very nice. And we can tie wide ribbons around all the tables to contrast with the white linens. Purple might look nice, unless you have another color you’d prefer.”
“No, purple is fine,” Laura said and looked at India, who nodded in agreement.
“And for food, we’ve agreed on cheese platters, sliced meats, bowls of nuts, and passed appetizers, which is what we need to decide on. We have stuffed mushrooms, spinach and cheese turnovers, shrimp cocktail, Swedish meatballs, cucumber sandwiches, and salami rolls. And of course there will be bread and our famous cheese spread.” Laura had explained that the hotel was famous for their creamy cheddar horseradish cheese spread. India’s stomach grumbled just thinking about it. The grumbling was quite loud and India was embarrassed, hoping that no one heard it.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Kendra said as a server arrived with a large tray filled with an array of hot appetizers. “There’s a sampling of each item, so you can try them and then decide which ones you’d like to have.”
India had no idea that they’d be trying the food. By the look on Laura’s face, it was a surprise to her as well.
“I’ll leave you two ladies alone for a few moments. Help yourselves and enjoy. I’ll be back in a bit to see what you’ve decided on.”
“Did you know they were going to feed us?” India asked as she popped a stuffed mushroom in her mouth.
“I had no idea. But how wonderful!” They tried everything and though it was all good, their favorites were the stuffed mushrooms, spinach turnovers and the meatballs.
Kendra approved of their choices when she returned. “Those are all popular items. You’ve chosen well. The hotel is also going to donate a platter of sliced ham, in case any guests would like to make sandwiches. There will be plenty of bread and other accompaniments.
“That’s so generous of you!” Laura exclaimed.
“The hotel likes to support local charities whenever possible. Of course, you’ll spread the word about our donation?”
India smiled. “Of course!”
When they left the hotel, Laura turned to her and said, “Are you ready for round two? Soliciting the silent auction items?”
India suddenly felt nervous. “Sure. What, exactly, does that entail?”
Laura smiled. “Follow me. You’ll see. We’ll do an easy one first.” India followed her into the mercantile and they walked over to the counter, where Irene was ringing up a customer. The store was quiet, so after she was done with that customer, Irene came over to them.
“What are you girls up to? You look like you are on a mission?” she asked them.
“We are. We’re making the rounds of local businesses to collect gift certificates and other items for the silent auction. You’re our first stop. Is there anything you’d like to donate?”
Irene thought about that for a moment and then a gleam came into her eye. “How about something fun? A year’s supply of bacon?”
“I love it!” Laura said.
India agreed. “It’s a wonderful idea.”
Irene wrote out a gift certificate for them, and then they walked up and down Main Street, stopping in all the shops, from Evan the butcher to Joe at the shoe store, and just about everyone agreed to donate something. They received gift certificates from local restaurants, bottles of wine and spirits, and a few people donated their second homes for a week’s vacation.
“I’m going to hit up Richard for the big ticket item,” Laura said as they climbed into the buggy, their arms full of auction items. They placed everything safely in the back seat and then Laura drove to the factory, which was a surprise to India. She had no idea that was on their agenda for the afternoon.
“Have you been to the factory yet?” Laura asked as she turned onto the drive that led to an enormous brick building that sat at the river’s edge.
“No, not yet,” India admitted.
“Well, prepare to be impressed. It’s quite something.” Laura led her into the main lobby of the building, where a gray-haired receptionist sat at the front desk and smiled at them when they walked in.
“Hello, how can I help you,” she began and then recognized Laura. “Oh, it’s you, Laura. I haven’t seen you in much too long. How are you?” She came from around the desk and gave Laura a big hug.
“Hi, Frances. It’s great to see you. This is India, Richard’s wife.”
“You don’t say?” Frances looked at her curiously and then held out her hand with a big smile.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, my dear. I’ve known your husband for many years.”
“Frances has been here since the beginning, when Jim started the company.
“Thirty-two years,” she said proudly.
“That’s impressive,” India said.
“Richard is in his office, if you want to head on up to see him?” Frances suggested.
Laura led the way and stopped to show India the factory floor where the wagons were made and assembled. What looked like over a hundred men were hard at work, sawing and sanding and welding metal to make the various parts that were needed.
Richard’s door was closed. Laura knocked and when he heard her voice, he sounded surprised as he told them to come on in.
“This is a nice surprise,” he said.
India looked around the office while Laura told him why they were there. The room reminded her of his den at home, without the fireplace. There were shelves filled with books, several file cabinets, a few colorful paintings on the wall, and a large wooden desk piled with papers on both corners and pictures of his children in the middle.
When Laura had finished telling him all about their latest fundraising project and the silent auction, he thought for a moment and then said, “So, you need something really big, that will get people’s attention?”
Laura nodded. “I was thinking maybe a gift certificate towards the purchase of a new buggy or carriage?”
“We could do that. Or maybe I have a better idea. I’ll need to run it by the others first, though. If you would excuse me for a moment.” Richard got up and left the office and India looked at Laura.
“What do you think he has in mind?” She asked.
“I haven’t the foggiest,” Laura said with a chuckle. They chatted for a few minutes and then looked up when Richard and his brothers all came into the room, looking excited.
“They all agree, it’s a wonderful idea.”
“What?” Laura asked.
“We’re going to donate one of our newest buggies, the one that we just released last month. The Eagle.”
“What? Are you serious?” Laura said and India’s mouth fell open. The Eagle was a sleek, expensive buggy, a two-seater that was light and fast.
“That’s incredibly generous of you,” India said.
“It’s good publicity for the company, too. It’s an advertising expense and it’s going to a good cause. So we’re happy to do it.”
“Well, I’m just so proud of you all!” Laura jumped up and hugged each of her brothers in turn. “All right, we’ll let you get back to work.”
“I’ll see you at home later,” India said as they left Richard’s office. Her head was spinning as she followed Laura out to the buggy. It was hard for her to fathom that they’d so easily agreed to donate an expensive buggy to charity. Having that kind of wealth was so foreign to her. But she was so glad that they were so generous. All of the donations they’d received should raise a significant amount of money for their charity.
few mornings later
, India had packed a lunch bag for Julia as she usually did and was surprised when she noticed out of the corner of her eye Julia opening her bag, looking inside, then cutting herself another thick slice of bread and adding it to the bag.
“Do you get hungrier at lunch, Julia?” India asked. She didn’t mind at all that she took the extra bread, but was surprised as Julia wasn’t generally a big eater.
“It’s not for me. It’s for Sylvia.”
“Who’s Sylvia?” India asked.
“She’s a girl in school. She’s a year younger than me and very quiet. I noticed yesterday that she didn’t have anything for lunch. She looked hungry, so I gave her half of my sandwich. She said no at first, but I told her that I really wasn’t very hungry.”
“So you want a little extra in case she doesn’t have her lunch again today?” India understood and got up to make another sandwich for Julia to bring in. She added it to the bag, along with an apple. “Now you can each have your own.” She frowned and then added, “See if you can find out why she’s hungry. Maybe there’s something going on at home that we could help with?”
“All right, I’ll ask her.”
Sylvia was on India’s mind as she and Sammy pulled up in the buggy later that afternoon to pick Julia up. She noticed a slight, blonde girl walk out with Julia and wave goodbye, and wondered if that was Sylvia. When Julia climbed into the buggy and they started on their way home, she asked her how her day had gone.
“It was good. I got a perfect score on my spelling test!”
“That’s great, honey.”
Julia chattered on about her day, but didn’t mention Sylvia until India asked if she’d brought her lunch in that day.
“No, she didn’t. So it was a good thing that I had extra.” She was quiet for a moment and looked as though she was trying to remember something. “I asked her why she wasn’t bringing her lunch in and she said her mother’s been really sick. She hasn’t gotten out of bed for two days now and there’s hardly any food in their house. She said her father should be home tonight, though, so he would take care of everything.”
India was alarmed. “Where has her father been?”
“He delivers wood. Rides on a big boat to take it there.” India realized she was talking about the river barges that transported goods across state lines. It made sense that he’d be gone for days at a time. Still, India worried that he might not make it home tonight and if he didn’t, there would be no food for his family and who knew how sick the girl’s mother was? India turned the buggy around and drove back toward the mercantile and to Dr. Simpson’s office which was right next door. She went inside with the children and asked to speak to the doctor for just a moment.
“I’m terribly sorry to bother you,” India said when the doctor came out to see her. She told him about Sylvia’s mother and her concern that she was too weak to get out of bed.
“I’ll head out there right now to see her. You did the right thing by coming in,” he assured her.
India drove home and was still worried about Sylvia and her mother. Even with the doctor visiting, there was still next to no food in the house. India had a huge pot of chicken soup resting on the stove and two freshly baked loaves of bread cooling on the counter. There was more than enough for all of them.
When she reached the house, she tied the horses up out front instead of taking them into the barn for the evening. The children followed her in, and she found an old pan that she didn’t need to use any time soon and filled it with chicken soup. There was enough to feed Sylvia, her mother and if he came home that night, her father, too, for the next two days.
She turned to the children. “Come back out to the buggy. We’re going to take a drive. Do you know where Sylvia lives?” she asked Julia.
“She’s on Mason Street, just down the road from the school. She took me there one time on our lunch break. Her mother is really nice,” Julia said.
“Good. Can you get one of those loaves of bread?” India asked. Julia got the bread and then she and Sammy followed India out to the buggy. She set the pan of soup on the floor of the buggy in the back and told Sammy he was in charge of watching it to make sure not a drop spilled. They all climbed in and twenty minutes later pulled up to Sylvia’s house. They passed the doctor on the way in and he stopped for a moment to fill them in.
“It’s a good thing you stopped by. She’s going to be all right, but she was very weak and dehydrated. I’ve gotten some fluids into her and gave her one of my herbal tonics that should help give her some energy. She probably has a few more days still before she’s going to feel better. I’ve treated her for this before.” He had a strange expression on his face and India hoped that it was nothing serious.
India knocked on the door and a young voice, probably Sylvia’s, told them to come in.
“Julia!” Sylvia said when she saw her and ran over to give her friend a hug. “The doctor came and he said my mother is going to be better soon!”
“That’s great news!” India said, and then added, “Sylvia, can you get some bowls from the kitchen? We’ve brought you some chicken soup and fresh bread for dinner.”
Sylvia ran to the kitchen to do as India asked. India set the pan of soup on the kitchen table and then went into the bedroom to see Sylvia’s mother. She was in bed, but turned when she heard footsteps at the door.
“Hello, I’m India Mitchell—I mean India Blake.” India automatically gave her old name at first. She still wasn’t used to the new one. “Julia goes to school with Sylvia and said you hadn’t been feeling well. I made a big pot of chicken soup today and brought some by for you both. I thought you might not feel up to cooking and we had plenty.”
“Thank you,” the woman said. Her voice was tired and weak, but she also sounded hopeful. “Are you the one that sent the doctor?”
India nodded. “It seemed like a good idea, just in case your husband was running late. Sylvia said she thought he might be home tonight.”
“Tonight or tomorrow,” the woman confirmed, and then added, “My name is Jane.”
“It’s very nice to meet you Jane. Are you hungry? Can I bring you some soup?”
“No, I’m not hungry. But I’ll try to eat a little.” She slowly eased herself up in bed. India found a kerosene lamp and brought it into the room so she’d have more light to eat by. She ladled soup into bowls for both Sylvia and Jane and cut thick pieces of bread for both of them. She only filled Jane’s bowl halfway, guessing that she might not have much of an appetite. She brought it into her, along with a spoon and the bread and set it next to her bed on a side table.
Jane broke off a small piece of bread and dunked it in the hot broth. She took a tentative bite and then another. She finished the bowl of soup much to India’s surprise, and she brought her in a little more and refilled her water glass.
“Thank you. This is a wonderful treat. I’ve been useless the past few days.”
“Do you think it was the flu?” India asked.
Jane smiled slightly. “It felt like the flu, but no, I don’t think it was. This happened to me once before, when I was expecting Sylvia. I was horribly sick for two solid weeks and then it eased up.
“Oh! Well, congratulations, then.”
“Thank you. We’re hoping for a boy this time.”
India was relieved that it didn’t appear to be anything serious and now she understood the strange expression on the doctor’s face when he said that he’d treated her for this before. India had no idea that it was possible to get so sick from that. She hoped that wouldn’t happen to her and then she realized that it wasn’t likely because in her current situation, there was no chance of that happening. She sighed at the thought and then gathered the children together. She quickly cleaned up and put the food away in the kitchen. They said their goodbyes and then drove home to have their own bowls of chicken soup.