Read Her Dearest Enemy Online

Authors: Elizabeth Lane

Tags: #Romance

Her Dearest Enemy (8 page)

BOOK: Her Dearest Enemy
7.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“What is it, Helga?” he asked, attempting a more
civil tone.

“You have a visitor. It’s
Fraulein
Smith, the
schoolteacher.”

Brandon groaned. Harriet Smith was the last person
he wanted to see, especially in his present condition.
“Tell Miss Smith that I’m…indisposed,” he
snapped.

“But
Herr
Calhoun, she knows that—”

“Tell her I’m dead, then. Tell her anything you
want. Just get rid of her.”

“I heard that, Brandon Calhoun.” The door swung
open. Harriet strode past the protesting Helga, into
the room. She appeared to have just finished her
day’s teaching, for she was primly dressed in one of
her drab gingham frocks, this one navy blue with a
plain white collar. Her hair was pulled back into its
schoolmarm bun and there was a smudge of chalk
dust on her cheek. “You look very much alive to me,”
she said crisply.

“Do you always make a habit of storming into
men’s bedrooms without an invitation?” he asked,
conscious of his unshaven face, his uncombed hair
and the rumpled condition of the bedclothes.

“If I waited for an invitation, I’d never get in,
would I?”

“Why don’t you try it and see?” He was still a bit
muzzy from the dream and the tone of his voice lent
a none-too-subtle innuendo to the words. Her copper-
flecked eyes widened, contrasting nicely with the
warm pink blush that crept into her cheeks. He ought
to try embarrassing her more often, Brandon mused.

His memory of that stormy night in the narrows was
spotty at best. But something, Brandon sensed, had
happened between himself and the proper Miss Harriet
Smith. If only he could remember what it was….

“How can I help you, Harriet?” he asked with
forced politeness.

She took a sharp breath. “I’ve come for some of
Jenny’s clothes. The girl has nothing to wear except
for what’s on her back, and I was hoping—”

“Take anything you like,” Brandon cut in gruffly.
“I have no use for anything of hers.”

“Not even her child?”

“Don’t.” He glared at her. “Don’t even start on me.
You came for the clothes. They’re in her old room.
Go ahead and take them.”

“Don’t you even want to know how your daughter
is doing?”

“Helga told me she’d moved in with you. I’m assuming
she must be all right or you’d have told me
right away.”

She sighed. “Jenny’s fine, except for the morning
sickness, and that’s to be expected. But she was devastated
by what happened between the two of you.
She loves you, Brandon. And nothing would make
her happier than to heal this breach that’s opened up
in your lives.”

“Fine. All she has to do is come home—without
her husband.”

Harriet stared at him as if he’d struck her across the
face. “You don’t know what you’re asking!” she exclaimed.
“Jenny and Will love each other! For all their
poor circumstances, they’re so happy together and so
excited about the baby, it’s a joy to be around them!”

“But for how long?” Brandon felt the old bitterness
welling up inside him, like the festering of a
wound that had never healed. “How long will it be
before your brother begins to feel trapped—before
he starts to dream of all the things he’s missed by
being saddled with a family at eighteen? How long
before he begins to resent his dependent little wife—
maybe even to hate her? How long before Jenny discovers
how he feels?”

The color had faded from Harriet’s face. Her hand
crept to her throat. “Is that what this is about?” she
asked in a strangled voice. “Are you judging my
brother by your own measure? How dare you? You
don’t even know him!”

Brandon leaned back into the pillows, studying her
through narrowed eyelids. “Maybe not. But I know
how life plays out when two people have to get mar
ried. And I won’t have any man putting Jenny through
the hell that her mother went through with me.”

The silence in the room was absolute, as if the air
itself had frozen. Harriet’s fingers trickled down the
front of her dress as if her hand had lost the strength
to control them. Brandon had not meant to tell her
so much, and he certainly had no plans to tell her the
rest of the story. But he wasn’t sorry for what he’d
said. Maybe now, at least, she would understand his
objection to the marriage.

“Does Jenny know?” she asked softly.

He shook his head. “Jenny thinks she was born
prematurely. You aren’t going to tell her the truth,
are you?”

“No.” She looked uncertain. “No, of course not.
But maybe you should tell her yourself, now that
she’s grown.”

“Why? It wouldn’t change anything, and it would
only cause her pain. She’ll have enough of that without
my adding more.”

“More than you’ve already given her, you mean?”
Harriet’s voice had sharpened.

Brandon exhaled and picked up the ledger book
that lay open on the bed. Harriet Smith had collected
her pound of flesh for the day. He’d be damned if he
was going to give her his blood, as well. “As you see,
I have work to do,” he said. “Help yourself to Jenny’s
clothes. You know where her room is.” He
glanced up as a thought struck him. “Did you come
here on foot?”

“Yes, I came straight from school.”

“Then you won’t be able to carry much away, will
you?” Brandon made a show of focusing his attention
on the ledger. “Go ahead and choose a few things to
take with you today. I’ll have Helga box up the rest and
send them over in the wagon by the end of the week.”

Had he sounded uncaring enough? Brandon wondered.
Had he managed to hide the fact that even
thinking about Jenny’s empty room triggered a gnawing
sensation in his gut that never quite went away?
Well, fine. If he could convince Harriet Smith he
was nothing but an unfeeling monster, maybe she’d
stop coming around and sticking nails into his flesh.

And maybe she’d even stop haunting him like a
succubus in those maddening dreams.

He dipped the pen into the inkwell, aware that she
was still standing beside his bed, an oddly knowing
expression on her face.

“As I mentioned, I’ve got work to do,” he said
brusquely.

“So I see. And is it always your custom, Mr. Calhoun,
to work with your ledger upside down?”

Brandon glanced down at his lap, cursing under
his breath as the inverted numbers swam into focus.
She had just humiliated him soundly, and he wanted
to snap back with something that would cut her to
ribbons. But his sleep-drugged mind was not up to
clever retorts today, which was just as well since
Miss Harriet Smith had turned on her heel and
walked calmly out of the room.

Brandon lay back against the pillows, his face
burning as the brisk cadence of her footsteps died
away down the hall. Under most circumstances he
was a self-contained and rational man. So what was
it about the drab, plainspoken schoolteacher that
turned him into a blithering beast whenever the two
of them were alone together?

It was certainly not her allure, although she was
passably good-looking. As for wit, she possessed far
more than her share. Brandon liked intelligence in a
woman, but in Harriet’s case she used her sharpness
to irritate, not to charm.

So why wasn’t he simply indifferent to her? Why
did she have the power to rouse him to a froth of helpless
fury? And why was it
her
eyes,
her
face he saw
in those erotic dreams that had tormented him since
the night of the accident?

What was it about that night? About her?

Methodically, like a detective laying out clues,
Brandon pieced together the events that had led to
this debacle—Harriet’s disheveled appearance on his
doorstep; their desperate midnight foray into the
storm; the narrows, the crumbling bank and the
crushing weight on his shattered ankle; the fleeing
horses and the scream of the cougar that had sent her
plunging through the water to huddle beside him
under the overturned buggy.

Suddenly it all came back to him.

Lord help him, he had kissed the woman. And if
her ardent response was any indication, she had
liked it.

The devil of it was, he had liked it, too.

Chapter Eight

W
ill dipped a spoon into his bowl of beans and
raised it to his mouth. Jenny sat across the table in
the flickering lamplight, watching his expression as
he chewed, swallowed, then sighed.

“Jenny, darlin’,” he said gently, “these are right tender
beans, but they’d be a mite tastier if you’d remembered
to salt them before you put them on to boil.”

Jenny’s dainty features fell. Taking a taste of the
beans in her own bowl, she wrinkled her nose. “Oh,
dear, you’re absolutely right!” she exclaimed, putting
down her spoon. “They have no taste at all! I never
knew cooking could be so complicated! Oh, Will,
what a useless little ninny you married!”

“Useless? I wouldn’t call growing a pretty little
baby useless.” Will doused his beans liberally with
ketchup, took another mouthful and nodded. “There,
that’s better.”

“A cat can grow pretty little babies. In fact, she can
grow four or five of them at a time. But a woman
should know how to cook and sew and run a house.
And she should know how to make a living if she
needs to, or if she chooses to, shouldn’t she, Harriet?”
Jenny cast an adoring glance at her sister-in-law.

“You’ll learn all those things, Jenny. It just takes
a little time.” Harriet buttered a slice of the bricklike
bread Jenny had baked that morning. The girl’s need
for an older woman’s affection and approval was almost
staggering. What a shame Brandon had never
remarried, she thought. Helga had clearly lacked the
disposition to mother his lonely little girl. Perhaps
that was why Jenny, on the brink of womanhood, had
turned to a boy for the love she craved so deeply.

Brandon again—Harriet suppressed a sigh. She
had resolved to stop thinking about the wretched
man, but his rumpled and unshaven image still surfaced
in her mind at every unguarded moment.
Nearly a month had passed since the day she’d confronted
him in his bedroom, and apart from the promised
delivery of Jenny’s clothes, he’d had no contact
with her or with his daughter. But Harriet had
glimpsed him a few times on Main Street, going in
and out of the bank on his crutches. Every time she
saw him, or even thought about him, their last meeting
came crashing in on her with the impact of a
tidal wave.

Brandon’s candor about his own marriage had
shaken the very floor beneath her feet. It came as no
surprise that his wedding to Jenny’s mother had been
a hurry-up affair—he had obviously married very
young, perhaps even younger than Will. But his brutal
honesty about the relationship had left her in turmoil.
Why would he tell her such a thing? Had he
wanted to shock her? To repel her after that shattering
kiss beneath the buggy? Or had he simply wanted
to explain his vehement objection to Jenny and Will’s
marriage?

Never mind, Harriet told herself, taking a bite of
Jenny’s rock-hard bread. Brandon Calhoun was a
puzzle better left unsolved. If he wanted to steep in
his own misery, that was his problem. She had her
own life to live, and right now that life was as cluttered
as the space inside this crowded little house.

“How beautifully you’ve set the table, Jenny!”
she exclaimed, watching the girl’s eyes light up at her
sincere praise. With the burdens of teaching school
and raising an active boy, Harriet had never taken the
time to fuss over the appearance of the meals she
cooked. Jenny, however, had covered the scarred
wooden table with a red-checked cloth she’d unearthed
from the depths of an old chest. She’d added
prettily folded white napkins and had even ventured
out into the November snow to gather a little bouquet
of evergreen sprigs and bright red berries, which
she’d arranged in a plain white mug in the center of
the table. The mismatched plates, glasses and cutlery
had been polished until they gleamed in the lamp-
light. The effect lent a cheery glow to the drab little
house.

Jenny blushed modestly. “Making dinner look
nice is easy. Making it taste good, that’s harder.”

Harriet reached around the table and squeezed the
girl’s thickening waist. “Wait until Saturday. While
Will’s at work, we can make some meat pies together.
Maybe we’ll both learn a few things.”

They finished the meal in casual conversation
about the day’s happenings. Then, insisting that Jenny
get off her feet and rest, Harriet washed the dishes
while Will went outside to chop some firewood.

By the time she’d finished in the kitchen, Harriet
was worn out and ready for an early bedtime. Closing
the door of the small room that had once been
Will’s, she began to undress. Her sleep had suffered
from the none-too-subtle sounds of two newlyweds
through the thin wall until, just three nights ago, she
had pulled wads of cotton batting from an old quilt
and stuffed them into her ears. Since then she had
slumbered in relative peace, disturbed only by occasional
dreams of rushing water, screaming cougars
and Brandon’s rough, seeking lips on hers.

Being kissed was not exactly a new experience for
Harriet. At the time of her parents’ death, she had
been engaged to a promising young lawyer named
Jonathan Millsap. The relationship, though chaste
and somewhat formal, had not been without physi
cal affection. But when Harriet had insisted on keeping
and raising her young brother, Jonathan had
walked away. That was the last time she had allowed
herself to be physically close to a man—until the moment
Brandon had drawn her into his arms beneath
the overturned landau.

It was a moment Brandon had clearly chosen to
forget.

Harriet hung her dress in the wardrobe, unfastened
her corset and yanked the high-necked flannel
nightgown over her head. She had buttoned the collar
to her throat and had just sat down at the makeshift
dresser to unpin and brush her hair when she
heard a timid knock at the door.

“Come in.” Harriet turned, poised with the brush
in her hand, as Jenny slipped into the room, leaving
the door ajar behind her.

“Sorry, I know you’re tired, Harriet, but there’s
something I need to ask you.”

“Of course. Ask me anything you like.” Harriet
reached up with one hand and pulled the tortoiseshell
pins from her hair. Its natural waves uncoiled
from the tight bun that had imprisoned them, falling
to her waist in a glossy cascade.

“Oh, what lovely hair you have!” Jenny exclaimed.
“Would you let me brush it for you while
we talk?”

Without waiting for a response, Jenny took the
brush from Harriet’s hand and began working it
through her hair. Harriet sighed as she felt the tightness
easing away from her scalp, her neck, her shoulders.
Only now did she realize how tense she had
been.

“You could do so much with hair like this!” Jenny
said, twisting the dark mass in one hand. “Would you
let me pin it up for you tomorrow morning? It’ll only
take a few minutes, I promise! Please say yes!”

Harriet hesitated, wondering how her students
might react to an overly fancy hairstyle. Then she
laughed as the truth struck home. In the eyes of the
youngsters, she was just the teacher, hardly a real
woman at all. They wouldn’t care how she looked.
They probably wouldn’t even notice.

“All right,” she said, wanting to please Jenny. “Just
be certain you don’t make me late for school.”

“I promise. And if you don’t like what I do with
your hair, I’ll never bother you about it again.”

Jenny brushed away in silence, until Harriet began
to wonder if she should remind the girl about the unasked
question that had brought her here. Her pretty
face wore a troubled look. Harriet could only hope
it didn’t have something to do with Will.

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
Harriet asked gently.

“It’s…my father,” Jenny said, and Harriet felt her
heart lurch.

“Has something happened, Jenny?”

“Not really. But today before I went outside to
look for the red berries, I put on the dark blue coat
he’d sent over with the rest of my clothes. As I was
buttoning up the front, I felt something heavy in the
pocket. When I reached inside, this is what I found.”

Jenny put the brush down on the dresser, reached
beneath her apron and held out her hand. In her palm
was a gold coin—a twenty-dollar double eagle.

Oh, Brandon
, Harriet thought.

“After I came back in the house, I went through the
rest of the clothes Papa had sent over. I found nine more
of these in the pockets. Two hundred dollars in all.”

Harriet felt her knees go watery. Was Brandon
taking the first step toward reconciliation with Will
and Jenny? Was he trying to buy her back? Or did he
just want to make sure his daughter was not in need?

“Does Will know about this?” she asked.

Jenny nodded. “We talked it over. As long as Papa
refuses to accept Will into the family we don’t want
his charity. But two hundred dollars is a lot of money,
Harriet, and we know how hard you’ve worked to
help us. That’s why we want you to have it.”

Jenny slipped her hand into her apron pocket and
pulled out the rest of the coins. She thrust the handful
of money toward Harriet. “Take these. Otherwise
I’ll take them outside and throw them into the creek.”

Looking up at those blazing blue eyes and determinedly
thrust chin, Harriet had no doubt that Jenny
would carry out her threat. How like her father she
was, neither of them willing to yield an inch.

With a sigh she took the coins from Jenny’s hand
and laid them on the dresser, concealing them beneath
a well-worn copy of
Shakespeare’s
Complete
Works
. “I’ll take the money,” she said, “but there’s
only one thing I intend to do with it—give it back to
your father.”

“That’s your choice.” Jenny picked up the brush
and, before Harriet could rise, began brushing her
hair again. “At least we can say we offered it. We do
appreciate your letting us live here, Harriet, and all
the other things you’ve done.”

“Having you here has been a joy,” Harriet said,
and realized it was true. Then, because the moment
seemed right, she found herself asking the question
that had been on her mind since her last clash with
Brandon.

“Jenny, what was your mother like?”

The stillness in the room was broken only by the
muffled thud of Will’s ax in the backyard and by the
crackle of the brush as it glided through her hair.

“I loved my mother,” Jenny said at last. “And in
her own way, I think she must have loved me. But she
was the unhappiest woman you can imagine. Nothing
I did could make her smile. Nothing Papa did
could make her smile. All she wanted was enough
brandy to get her to sleep at night.”

Too dismayed to speak, Harriet reached up and
squeezed the girl’s thin arm.

“I used to think it was my fault,” Jenny said. “I
thought if I could just be a better girl, maybe she’d
stop drinking. But Papa told me I wasn’t to blame,
and I tried to believe him.”

The brush kept stroking, stroking, as Jenny collected
her thoughts. “I was eleven when she died. It
was after dinner. Papa was helping me with my
schoolwork at the dining room table and Helga was
in the kitchen. Mama had been drinking in her room.
I heard her come to the top of the landing, shouting
something at Papa. Then she screamed and we heard
the sound of something falling down the stairs. When
we ran to the entry hall, she was lying there…”

Jenny’s unsteady hand laid the brush on the
dresser. “She was only twenty-nine, Harriet, and still
so pretty. As far as anyone could tell, she just lost her
balance and tumbled down the stairs. But Papa
blamed himself, I think, because he hadn’t been able
to make her stop drinking.”

“So he tried to make it up to you.” Harriet thought
of the exquisite pink bedroom, the canopied bed, the
dolls, the beautiful dresses in the wardrobe.

“Papa spoiled me,” Jenny said with startling candor.
“He wanted to make a perfect life for me. But
I’m not his little girl anymore. I have the right to
choose my own life. When he accepts that—if he
ever does—maybe we’ll be able to talk to each other
again.”

“But, Jenny, dear, if you won’t give him a chance—”

The sound of the back door opening cut off Har
riet’s argument. A draught of cold evening wind
blasted through the house, blowing the bedroom door
back against the wall as Will staggered into the kitchen,
carrying a small mountain of firewood in his arms.

With a little cry, Jenny flew into the kitchen to shut
the door behind him. Harriet could hear the two of
them laughing together as she got up to close her bedroom
door against the noise and the cold. Her conversation
with Jenny was over for the night, but the
problems the girl had raised were bound to go on and
on. Jenny clearly loved her father, and it was just as
evident that he loved her. But this stubborn clash of
wills over her marriage had opened up a chasm that
could keep them apart for a lifetime. Something had
to be done—and only she, Miss Harriet Smith, cared
enough to try.

Tomorrow after school she would stop by the bank
and return the two hundred dollars to Brandon in his
private office. She could only hope he would give her
a chance to plead for reconciliation. She would tell
him how kind and patient Will was with his bride.
She would tell him how happy the two youngsters
seemed together. Brandon would have to listen. She
would
make
him listen. After all, he could hardly
throw a respectable woman out of the bank with so
many townspeople looking on.

Overcome by weariness, she turned down the narrow
bed, plumped up the pillow, slid between the
sheets and pulled the covers up to her chin. As she
closed her eyes, Brandon’s words flashed through her
memory with the heat of summer lightning.

I know how life plays out when two people have to
get married. And I won’t have any man putting Jenny
through the hell that her mother went through with me
.

BOOK: Her Dearest Enemy
7.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Summer of Sloane by Erin L. Schneider
The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney
Spellbound by Sylvia Day
Cinderella in the Surf by Syms, Carly
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Tip Off by John Francome
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
Son of a Duke by Jessie Clever
In Love With A Cowboy (BWWM Romance) by BWWM Crew, Tasha Jones