Authors: Alexis Harrington
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Alexis Harrington
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake are trademarks of
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Cover design by Kerrie Robertson
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014909530
love to squeeze in everyone who is a big boost to me and my job but space won’t allow.
Thanks always to Lisa Jackson, Margaret Vajdos, Penny Lainus, and my cerebral party buddies, the Book Club Babes.
Thanks also to Amazon editor Helen Cattaneo for her infinite patience, and most especially to my development editor, Charlotte Herscher. Charlotte has magic in her keyboard!
NMK and WAB,
Thanks for bringing Amy and Bax to life on the page.
Powell Springs, Oregon
Bax Duncan bounced along in the county-owned Model T, trying to see through the rain and mud splattering the windshield, wondering if his kidneys would be jarred loose. Under his breath he cursed both the weather and the motorized contraption. At least on horseback a man’s hat kept some of the rain out of his eyes. But on the glass there was no way to wipe it off unless he pulled over and dragged out the same wet, muddy rag h
already used more times than he could count today. A horse didn’t need nearly as much tending. But h
been sent out on official business this morning, which included a trip to the county courthouse in Portland, and that was too far to go on horseback. He hated the courthouse visits. He was certain that everyone in the building was staring at him and saw through his flimsy disguise.
The same train that came through Powell Springs also went to Portland, but there were too damn many stops in the getting there. When he wasn’t working in his official capacity as deputy, he still reported to Sheriff Whitney Gannon and served as kind of a law clerk for both Whit and the circuit judge who passed through town from time to time.
Court was a pretty informal rural event—when the judge came to Powell Springs, he commandeered the City Hall, which consisted of only Mayor Cookson’s office, a small room where the town council conducted its meetings, and the corner of the building where Birdeen Lyons ran the town’s switchboard and managed Cookson’s doings.
Wind lashed the rain across the road and over the plowed fields where it gathered in runnels between the rows. The only birds that lacked the good sense, or maybe the fear, to seek shelter were crows. They perched on the power lines overhead, squawking at him with rough, strident voices as he passed. Now and then the temperature would drop, and lightning would sizzle in the southern sky, followed by deafening thunderclaps. The storm was rolling in this direction to cross the Columbia River and head to Camas in Washington.
Though trying his best to avoid them, Bax thumped into an especially deep pothole, clacking his teeth together and splashing mud on the windshield again. This time he did have to pull over and wipe it off. In the process, he got nearly as much mud on his coat as he did the rag. He sighed. Even though the trees were leafing out and the sedge along the roadside loved the wet, except for a few nice days here and there it would be gray or raining until the middle of June. It was almost noon, but without good light it was hard to tell. H
grown up with this weather, but that had been a lifetime ago in Cedar Mill, twenty-five miles west of here. That Bax Duncan was gone. Now the rain would always make him remember standing knee-deep in water, huddled against sandbags or wooden timbers in the trenches of western France, bullets whizzing close enough to make his ears ring. H
been a sergeant then, a battlefield promotion that made him proud, until November 11 . . .
Back on the road, he peered ahead, and in the distance he saw a figure walking ahead of him. Though the person was obscured by the veil of rain, he thought it was a woman, based on the clothes and the umbrella bobbing over her head. She carried some kind of bag or suitcase.
What a day to be out on foot, he thought. The low-slung clouds were heavy with what had been an endless downpour.
As he pulled alongside her, the true misery of her situation became more obvious. Her gray coat was thin and wet where her umbrella had failed to cover it, she was muddy from her shoes to the hem of her navy skirt, and she trudged along like someone who had walked every step of a long journey. From beneath a sorry-looking hat, her hair straggled in dark-blonde hanks.
“Ma’am,” he called, slowing to a crawl.
She trudged on.
only look up, sh
see the county name painted on the Ford’s door and know that he wasn’t just some skirt chaser, or worse.
I’m headed to Powell Springs. I work in the sheriff’s office. I can take you there.”
No response, but she stiffened.
He tried again, louder now. “Do you want a ride?”
At last she lifted her head and looked at him from beneath her umbrella. He felt a catch in his chest—h
seen that resigned, world-weary expression before. H
worn it himself for a long period in his life, and still felt the cause. Then her features hardened into a mask of superior detachment.
She stopped, and he stepped on the brake. “I’m going to—”
“No. Thank you.” Her voice was almost girlish, but like tempered steel. Though she was plainly a grown woman.
He gestured at the road ahead. “It’s another mile and a half. I can take you into town so you don’t have to walk, especially in this weather.”
She looked at the road ahead, then she raked him up and down with her eyes. Under her insulting, distrustful gaze, Bax felt his face redden. “Thank you, but
. I’ll manage.”
She lifted her chin and began walking again, showing him a haughty profile that could have curdled the milk in a cow’s udder. It was almost distracting enough to make him forget that she looked as worn as a washerwoman from a hospital laundry. But not quite.
“Suit yourself, lady,” he called. “Maybe that high horse of yours will grow legs and carry you into town.” He jammed the car into first gear with a loud, grinding protest from the gearbox. The Model T lurched forward and he went on, giving her a wide berth when he passed.
Amy Layton Jacobsen watched the car splash off down the road, her legs unsteady and her insides quivering along with her lower lip. It had taken every bit of what little acting ability she had to show that man an imperious demeanor, which she knew was at glaring odds with her appearance. It was certainly the complete opposite of the terror she felt. She dared not trust anyone in her present situation, and when she saw
painted on the car’s door, her stomach had dropped. She had no idea if Adam would inform the authorities that sh
gone. Given his own circumstances, she wouldn’t think so, but there was no way of knowing what he might do.
She adjusted her hand on the grip of the suitcase and let her shoulders droop as she watched the Ford grow smaller in the distance. If someone else had stopped, someone not affiliated with the sheriff’s office, she might have accepted the offer. In fact, sh
looked wistfully after the few cars that had passed her during this wretched trek. Sh
been able to spare only enough money for a train ticket to Twelve Mile. She had been walking for almost two hours, and still had nearly another hour ahead of her. Except for a short nap in the gently swaying rail car, sh
been awake since early morning yesterday.
No one in Powell Springs knew she was coming, not even her family. Almost four years earlier, she and Adam had left town under the dark wing of night to avoid scandal and ostracism. She had been a pampered, privileged innocent then. Since that night, she had seen things—the stinking underbelly of life—that she never could have imagined existed, not even in a nightmare. Now she forced herself to keep putting one foot in front of the other to return.
Amy Jacobsen was a frightened woman with a broken spirit. But beneath her fear and within the fragile husk of the person she had once been, a small flame of determination gleamed. It had burned brightly once, and it would again.
“Right now the house has two lodgers living in it. I’ve been collecting their rents since Laura Donaldson passed away four months ago, as she requested. My fee is coming from a fund she set up for that purpose. You are the only heir designated in her will. She must have been very fond of you.” The lawyer pushed some ledger sheets and a check across his polished desk toward Amy. Daniel Parmenter was a pleasant-looking man. Although gray dusted his temples and lightly sprinkled his hair, his brows were still dark. Behind him, journals and leather-bound law books lined glass-fronted shelves. “The house on Springwater Street and its contents were all she had.”
All she had.
It was a king’s ransom to Amy. Her gaze riveted on the check made out in her name alone. Money, and it was hers, only hers. She wouldn’t have to give it to anyone or account for how she spent it. It was all she could do to keep from swooping up the piece of paper and jamming it into her pocket. Instead, she leaned forward and looked at the itemized debits and credits without really seeing them. At the same time, she did her best to maintain a semblance of dignity, despite her appearance. She had changed clothes in the ladies’ room at the rail station before coming here to the attorney’s office with the letter he had sent her. Her muddy skirt was in her suitcase, but she owned just the one coat and a single pair of shoes. Her wet feet were numb with cold. To distract herself from that discomfort, she explained to him why she knew Laura Donaldson.
“I boarded in her house for two or three years after my sister had to sell our childhood home to pay the property taxes. Mrs. Donaldson was like an aunt to me. And she was my only link to Powell Springs after I left. She had no other relatives, as far as I know.”
He continued. “I’ve hired a woman to do the cooking and cleaning. She looked after Mrs. Donaldson until she passed away, too. Deirdre Gifford—maybe you remember her?”
Amy thought for a moment. “Deirdre O’Connell? Wasn’t she from Montana or somewhere like that? I think she married Charlie Gifford before he enlisted.”
Mr. Parmenter nodded. “He was part of the American Expeditionary Force sent to Siberia to help deal with the civil war after the revolution. He died there in 1919 and was never brought home. She was a vivacious young woman, but with Charlie gone, Deirdre might not be the same person you remember.”
Who was? Amy thought. She wasn’t the same. Who could have lived through the last four or five years and come through unchanged? Her own problems loomed large before her, and she had neither the time nor the energy to waste on those of others. Still, the lawyer’s veiled description of Deirdre sharpened her curiosity and her questioning. “I hardly knew her. Do you mean to say she is unhinged?”
A slight frown appeared briefly on his forehead. “No, no, certainly not. She is more than capable of the work she does around the house. She’s a bit timid.”
Amy nodded, satisfied for the moment.
“No formal notice is required, but it would be a courtesy to give Mrs. Gifford and the boarders time to find other living quarters.”
She looked up. “Other quarters—why?”
“I supposed yo
want to turn it into a private residence again.”
“No, I’m very grateful to Mrs. Donaldson for her bequest. She was the only person I stayed in touch with after, well, after Mr. Jacobsen and I eloped. But I plan to keep renting out the rooms for the time being—to honor her memory, you might say, unless someone should make an offer on the house or another opportunity presents itself.”
Daniel Parmenter sat back in his chair and considered her. His assessing gaze lasted so long, she was on the verge of squirming in her seat. Her last remark was a weak explanation—she knew it and she saw it in his face. Finally he said, “I confess that I’m a bit surprised by your decision to come back to Powell Springs after everything that preceded your elopement. To be frank, I thought yo
sell the property instead and maintain your distance.”
Amy turned a handkerchief she clutched in her fist. She had anticipated this sort of conversation. Of course, the subject of her leaving—and other matters—were bound to come up. But she needed a roof over her head
. No one had to know about her plans for the future, not that she had any. “I found that I missed my hometown, especially after living a somewhat transient existence.”
“So Mr. Jacobsen will be joining you shortly.”
“Oh, God, no!” She cleared her throat. “I mean I don’t believe he can get away from his current responsibilities in the immediate future.” She hoped desperately that he would not have the courage to show his face in Powell Springs. Although sh
left him no letter of explanation, she feared he would look for her. After all, she had something he owned, something h
want back. But not here, please, not here. At least not until she was on solid footing, both emotionally and financially.
“Lots of things have happened since you were last in town. The population has almost doubled and we have another hotel, too. Of course, I haven’t told anyone who Laura Donaldson named as her heir—if she did, I’m not aware of it. But I’m sure your family will be glad to see you. Did they know you’re coming?”
Amy felt her face grow hot and she began strangling the hanky in earnest, uncomfortable with this interrogation. “Not—no—really, Mr. Parmenter, I don’t mean to be rude, but could we finish our business here? I’ve been traveling since yesterday and
like to get settled. Aren’t there papers I need to sign or something?”
He opened the center drawer of his desk, from which he plucked a set of house keys. “Of course. I didn’t mean to pry. The deed will be transferred to you. I just need to have it filed with the county clerk’s office. There are one or two other minor details but I can take care of those as well.”
She bit back a relieved sigh and took the pen he handed to her to put her signature on a couple of documents.
Mr. Parmenter rolled a blotter across the wet ink. “It will probably take about three or four weeks for the final deed to come through. I’ll let you know when I have it.”
She thanked him and stood up to leave.
He saw her to the door and shook her hand. “Welcome back to Powell Springs, Mrs. Jacobsen.”
Amy stepped outside and eyed the street and the businesses that lined it in both directions. They were tidy and well-maintained, clean with new paint and the glimmer of the improving postwar economy. New concrete sidewalks replaced many of the old wooden ones. Some things looked the same—Bright’s Grocery; Tilly’s Soda Shop; the saloon that wore the laughably thin veneer of respectability to comply with Prohibition; the blacksmith shop and its next-door neighbor, her own sister’s office with its shingle,
Jessica Layton, MD
. Her throat tightened.
Some things looked different.
different. She was, certainly. What would life in this town mean for her now? She had run away to hide, and now she had run back for the same purpose.
Welcome home, indeed.
Bax thumped around the sheriff’s small office in a frayed temper, opening and slamming cabinet doors and drawers. His own desk consisted of two barrels with a door for a writing surface. Whit had submitted a requisition to the county for something more substantial, but so far nothing had happened. Bax had a report to write about the theft of Merle Lloyd’s chickens, a job that he anticipated with groaning disinterest.
To top it off, Winks Lamont was sleeping off a two-day drunk in their only cell, and although the door to the holding area was closed, Bax could still smell him. H
known worse odors, but not on a living human.
He banged the last door shut, at a loss.
Whit turned his swivel chair to look at him. “What the hell are you up to? This crappy old furniture can’t take that kind of punishment.”
“I’m looking for a bottle of ink!”
“Here, come and get this one. I’m not using it.”
Bax stomped over and took the bottle.
“Got a pen?” Whit asked.
“No,” Bax grumbled.
Whit gave him a narrow-eyed once-over. “What’s stuck in your craw? All afternoon you’ve been acting like someone stole your lollipop and left a dog turd in its place.”
Bax gave him a sour look, then sighed. He hated to admit that his encounter with that puckered-up female on the road had put him in this lousy mood. H
been on the receiving end of that kind of treatment too many times . . . when people found out about the past he worked so hard to keep secret. But she couldn’t have known about that.
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
“That’s a lot of racket for noth—” Whit stopped midsentence and sat up straight to look at something beyond the window. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Bax followed his gaze just in time to see the same woman h
met coming into town before she disappeared from view.
Whit pushed his wiry frame out of his chair and went to the glass. “I can’t believe it.”
“You know her?” Bax asked.
“Yeah. She’s Dr. Jessica’s sister, Amy Layton—well, I guess Amy Jacobsen now.”
“She is, huh?” That explained a lot to Bax. H
been in Powell Springs for just three months, and the fierce scandal Amy Layton and Adam Jacobsen had stirred up in 1918 still surfaced now and then. He didn’t know many details, but the story carried enough sensationalism to keep it alive even to this day. He guessed that her years of exile hadn’t done much to change her high-handed attitude. “I talked to her on the way back here today. She was walking toward town with a satchel.”
Whit’s frosted brows rose. “Really?”
Bax told him about his conversation with her. “It was like talking to a porcupine with a toothache.”
The other man’s chuckle rose from deep in his chest. He went back to his own desk and tossed a pen to Bax. “I guess that accounts for your argument with the storage cabinet. It’ll sure be interesting to see how this is going to play out. I think we’re in for some stormy times around here.” At that moment, a clap of thunder rolled over Powell Springs, low and rumbling. “Uh-huh.” Whit nodded once and turned back to his desk.
Amy put down her suitcase and umbrella on the porch of the house sh
once lived in on Springwater Street. She had first stopped at the bank to open an account with the check Mr. Parmenter had given her. The whispering and sidelong glances had canceled any hope that enough time had passed to let her slip into town unnoticed. News of her return would probably be the topic of every dinner conversation tonight.
Glancing around, she noticed the yard looked a little straggly. It was still early in the season, but the shrubs were already budding with little evidence of shaping or trimming, and weeds were gaining a foothold in the flower beds. She supposed that gardening had been given low priority on the list of chores Mr. Parmenter was overseeing. She had the key h
given her but no one in Powell Springs bothered with door locks during the day. At least that was what she remembered.
She knocked and turned the knob. The door opened. “Excuse me,” she called from the entryway. “Is anyone home?”
No answer. Leaving the suitcase there, she tiptoed around, feeling like a trespasser. In the living room she saw the sofa where she had spent so much time wrapped in a shawl while she recovered from the influenza that had almost taken her life. This was also the place where Adam had begun his campaign to win her after—well,
A shiver ran through her at the memory—h
fed her his smooth, soothing charm and concern as if they were a spoon of warm honey laced with laudanum. His criticism and outrage over Jessica’s treatment of her had been his white steed and flashing armor to Amy’s ego. She had easily believed that his attentions were sincere, and sh
already thought that she had done nothing to deserve the condemnation of her neighbors. If only she had known then how much worse her life would become . . .