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Authors: Tracey V. Bateman

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BOOK: The Heirloom Brides Collection
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“I think we should offer Betsy your sister’s old room.”

The very idea sent waves of horror through Stuart. “Ma—”

She held up her hand. “I don’t know what you have against her. I have my suspicions, but this is my decision.”

“I don’t have anything against Betsy Lowell, Ma. But what will people say about an unattached man and woman living under the same roof? Do you think it might hurt Betsy’s reputation?”

Ma scowled, waving away his concern. “Heavens, I’ll be right there as chaperone. And you can move down to your father’s study so that you’re not sleeping on the same floor of the house.”

“You’re kicking me out of my room to give Betsy a home?” He grinned. They’d been discussing his moving downstairs for a while.

Shaking his head, he grabbed their coats from the storeroom. When he returned, Ma was working her way to her feet. “You’re not doing so well today. That hip giving you trouble?”

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine. Don’t fret, and don’t change the subject.” She slipped her arms into the coat he held out. “Now, about Betsy—”

“Do what you think is best. I’ll move my things downstairs tonight.”

If he knew Betsy Lowell, she’d never accept the room. She was even more stubborn than his ma.

Betsy sat next to her grandpa’s bed, grateful for each shallow rise and fall of his chest. Despite Mrs. Avery’s insistence that she take the other bedroom in this vast house, Betsy refused to leave his side. But two nights of sitting in the chair at his side was beginning to wear on her. Doc had come into the room several times through the night, as he had the night before, and now as the sun began to rise, she heard his familiar footsteps on the stairs. A moment later, the door opened, and he walked in.

“Good morning, Betsy.”

Betsy nodded, too weary and worried for pleasantries. “He made it through another night. That’s a good sign, right?”

The doc shushed her and listened to his patient’s heart. He straightened up with a sigh. “His heart isn’t as strong as I’d like to hear it, but as you said, he made it through the night again. Your grandfather is nothing if not a fighter.”

The words did little to comfort Betsy. “Is he going to make it, Doc?” Her voice broke with the question.

Doc Avery looked at her with kind, sympathetic eyes. “Only God knows that. But I can promise I’ll do my very best with the abilities He’s given me. The rest is up to Him. But you need to prepare yourself just in case it’s Old Joe’s time. The cracked ribs, the broken bones, a weak heart. We’ll have to watch for pneumonia.”

He’d said all this to her before. “I know. I’m not closing my mind to what might happen. It’s just…” She wanted to give in to the threatening tears, wanted to beg the doctor for more reassurance than he was able to give. But if Pops died, she’d be all alone. At least she’d have the cabin and the stock. Pops had taught her everything she would need to know. She could cut her own wood for the fire, fix a fence, put a new roof on the cabin. She’d been doing most of the work around the place for the last two years anyway. But without Pops, she had no family, no one to talk to at night. She would miss him dreadfully if God chose to take him. Swallowing hard, she squared her shoulders and faced the doctor. “It’s just we can’t leave the stock alone much longer. I’m going to have to go home today and take care of them. I might not make it back for a couple days.”

The doctor frowned. “Betsy, there’s something you should know. I can’t imagine why Old Joe hasn’t said anything….”

Betsy frowned. Was there even more wrong with Pops than the doc was letting on? Before she could question him, Mrs. Avery came into the room, bringing with her the scent of coffee brewing and ham frying. “How’s he doing this morning?” she asked, a little cheerier than Betsy had the stomach for this early.

“Not much different than last night,” Betsy said.

Doc Avery patted Betsy’s arm. “But I’m hopeful he will wake up today.”

“Well, I have breakfast cooking.” Mrs. Avery looked at Betsy. “Honey, why don’t you go and wash your face and then come eat something?”

Betsy nodded. As much as she’d love to stay by her grandpa’s bedside until he awoke, she had to keep up her strength in order to take care of him once he came to.

When she entered the kitchen a few minutes later, feeling better but still more weary than she could remember, Doc and Mrs. Avery stopped their conversation abruptly. Betsy could only surmise they were discussing either her or Pops, but she didn’t pry. Mrs. Avery stood and went to the stove. “Have a seat, Betsy. I’ll get your breakfast.”

“You don’t have to wait on me, ma’am. I can get my own.”

“Nonsense. You look about dead on your feet. Let me pamper you a little.”

Grateful, Betsy dropped into her chair. “Doc, I appreciate everything you’re doing for Pops. I don’t know how we’ll pay you, but I promise it’ll get done. Even if I have to sell off stock to settle up.”

The doctor looked away and picked up his cup.

Mrs. Avery spared him an answer as she set a plate and cup in front of Betsy. She patted Betsy’s shoulder. “There’s plenty of time to worry about that. You just eat your breakfast and let’s concentrate on getting Old Joe back on his feet.”

Betsy frowned. “I don’t want you to think I’m not going to pay my bills.” Unlike Pops. Guilt worked through her like a cord at the very thought of being so disloyal to Pops. But he was as cheap as they came, and he hadn’t plowed or harvested in two years, leaving the fields fallow and wasted. Until then, Pops had worked hard every day. The change in him had confused and angered her, but he wouldn’t tell her a thing. Betsy had tried to rouse him. Had tried to do the farming herself. But it had been an impossible task for one woman, what with all the other work to do. And no harvest meant no cash money coming in, so of course they had basically lived off the charity of the town.

“Doc, do you think Pops is going notional?”

Doc Avery sat back and touched his chin. He drew and released a full breath. “It’s possible. He’s more than seventy years old. Why do you ask?”

Betsy shrugged. “He’s been different the last couple years.”

“I wouldn’t add worry to worry,” he said. “Let’s just take one day at a time.”

“But there has to be a reason he just stopped working a couple years back.”

The doctor’s eyes met hers as though scrutinizing her.

“If you know something, please tell me.”

“He should have told you long ago, but he came to me complaining of pains in his chest and shortness of breath.”

“When?” But she already knew the answer.

“Two years ago, Betsy. His heart was weak even then, and I’m not positive he hadn’t already had a heart attack. I suggested he hire someone to help in the fields and stop doing the hard work.”

“He did stop working, but he never told me why and wouldn’t hire anyone.” Placing her elbow on the table, Betsy rested her chin in her palm. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with the farm now that it’s gone so long without planting.”

Mrs. Avery shoved the basket of biscuits toward her. “There’s nothing for you to do for now except let me take care of you while you watch over your grandfather.” She smiled. “Now, eat up. Tomorrow will take care of itself, and the day after tomorrow, and so on.”

“Thank you both.” Betsy dug into her ham and eggs and biscuits. She barely heard a word either of the Averys said during the meal. When it was finished, Mrs. Avery waved away her attempt to clean up.

She checked on Pops, who remained exactly the way she’d left him before breakfast. The doctor had gone to make his daily rounds, and she heard Mrs. Avery humming as she washed the breakfast dishes. Not wanting to bother the kind woman, she quietly slipped into her coat and hat and walked out onto a wet, muddy road. The ice had melted under a bright sun, and the temperature seemed to have risen at least ten degrees above freezing. Betsy made her way to the livery, where Junior Mahoney had kindly offered to board the horses. The sweet smell of hay combined with the more pungent smell of horses greeted her when she entered.

“Morning, Junior.”

The liveryman looked up from scooping out one of the stalls. “Hey there, Betsy. How’s Old Joe today?”

“About the same.”

“Well, don’t you worry none. He’s about as stubborn as they come. Doc’ll pull him through.” He set down the shovel and wiped his hand with a towel as he walked toward her. “What can I help you with?”

“I just need to collect my wagon and horses.”

Junior frowned. “Going somewhere?”

Obviously.
Betsy tucked back the sarcasm and nodded. “I have to get the supplies home and check on the animals. We missed chores the last two nights, the cow alone is probably about to burst.”

“But don’t you know what went on there yesterday?”

Betsy gave a short laugh. “Not much considering we’ve been in town.”

“Listen, I don’t know why no one has told you the truth.” He scowled. “I especially don’t understand why Old Joe left you in the dark about it.”

Betsy reached up and rubbed Ginger’s nose. “What are you talking about?”

“The bank called in your grandpa’s note.”

All the air left the room as Betsy turned and stared at the liveryman. “Wh–what note?”

“Old Joe took on a mortgage over a year ago. But he… uh… never paid it back. Now, I tried to loan him money from time to time, but he wouldn’t take it.”

Head spinning, Betsy leaned against Ginger’s stall. “I can’t believe Pops didn’t tell me. I could have found a position somewhere to help. Or taken in sewing and ironing. I could have done
something
.”

“I don’t know what he was thinking.”

“This must’ve been what Pops was trying to tell me.” And why he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

She gathered a breath. “I’ll have to go to the bank and see what’s to be done. I can sell off most of the stock. And Leo Blakely’s been trying to buy the back ten acres that connect with his land for as long as I can remember. Do you think that might be enough to hold things off until Pops is back on his feet?”

“Honey, that might have worked six months ago.”

“I don’t understand.”

He scratched at his beard and gave her a look of such dread Betsy’s stomach turned over. She held up her hand as he opened his mouth to speak. “You don’t have to say it. That’s why Pops wanted to get to town day before yesterday. Why he said we weren’t going home that night.”

Junior’s nod confirmed her words. “The auction was yesterday.”

Fear leaped inside of Betsy. “What auction?”

“The bank sold off the whole thing. Lock, stock, and barrel.”

“They just sold it? Just like that?”

“Didn’t you understand what I said? The bank called in the note. Then they gave Old Joe a little time to move out, then they set an auction date. That was yesterday.”

“But what about my books and pots and pans? They can’t have the things that belong to me, can they?” Ma’s treasured iron skillet that Betsy had cooked more meals in than she could count.

“I reckon if your grandpa had packed up and brought those things into town, there’d be nothing the bank could do about it. But I’m sorry to say, it’s all gone now.”

Old Joe’s watch! Where was his watch? She hadn’t seen it in his clothes when she emptied his pockets so Mrs. Avery could toss them. They were ripped too badly from the fall to be fixed.

“Junior, did you find Pops’ watch in the street? You know the one. It’s gold and fit in his pocket.” The watch had been given to the oldest Lowell son on his wedding day since her grandpa’s own pa had been a groom. When Betsy’s pa died, Pops had taken the watch back, promising to give it to Betsy on her wedding day. It was her promise from Pops, the hope that she would inherit something from her pa and pass it down to a son.

Junior shook his head. “I know the watch you’re describing. Everyone has seen Old Joe looking at it, but I didn’t see it in the street.”

Betsy’s stomach sank. Pops had been vain enough about his prized possession to display it often when they were in town, so she was sure someone had paid a pretty penny for it.

She sighed. “I suppose Mr. Blakely ended up with the place?”

“That’s what I heard.”

Anger ignited inside her. Most likely the greedy neighbor had her watch, too.

“All the stock is gone? Everything?”

“Lock, stock, and barrel. I’m really sorry, Betsy. The missus and I can’t offer you a place to stay, but we can pay for a few nights at the boardinghouse.”

Betsy shook her head. “What about the horses and wagon? D–do I get to keep them?”

He shrugged. “No one’s come for them, so I assume so. And there’s Job, too.”

Following his pointing finger, Betsy saw the culprit standing fat as he pleased in a stall, chomping on hay. She stomped over to him. “What’s he doing here? Why didn’t someone shoot him?”

“His leg wasn’t that bad. He ain’t even limping anymore.”

“I don’t mean because he was hurt, I mean because he hurt Pops!” Glancing around, she noted Junior’s shotgun hanging next to the office door. She headed straight for it, but the liveryman got there first. “Now, Betsy, I can’t let you shoot Old Joe’s horse. You wouldn’t want to if you were in your right mind, anyhow.”

BOOK: The Heirloom Brides Collection
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