Authors: Alexis Harrington
Text copyright ©2010 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
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
For the lads
Powell Springs, Oregon
As the 9:10 train chugged into the station at Powell Springs, Jessica Layton strained to see through the smudged window.
Home. This was her hometown, even though she’d once sworn never to return.
As the train stopped, the sounds of cheers rose. Jessica peered through the dirty glass at a crowd of people milling under the morning sun. Saturdays were always busy in town, but this was something more.
Flags waved from hands, from poles, and from building fronts, and placards of a stern-looking Uncle Sam stared out over the happy mob. Some carried placards painted with slogans such as BEAT BACK THE HUN!
Children laughed. Women smiled and waved handkerchiefs, while horses, wagons, and humanity all jammed together for a good look at a spectacle coming down the street.
Clutching her black leather bag, Jess stepped down to the railroad platform just as the local grange band struck up a rusty but loud rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” almost blasting her back onto the train.
Despite her ambivalence at being back in familiar surroundings, her heart flooded with nostalgia she had not anticipated, enhanced by the tang of autumn in the air and the scent of the clean, fresh breeze after she’d been confined in stuffy Pullman cars for a week.
Her sister was supposed to meet her here, but her telegram to Jessica had said nothing about a parade; of Amy, there was no sign.
She paid an ancient porter to have her luggage sent to the hotel, then managed to make her way through the spectators, jostling and bumping like chickens in a crowded coop. Jess looked up in time to see her sister go by, waving and smiling at everyone as if she were a queen on a sedan chair instead of an ordinary citizen on a sturdy farm wagon. A few other people Jessica didn’t recognize sat on the wagon beside her. Astonished, Jess found herself waving back, although she was sure Amy didn’t see her. The parade’s route took it past the depot, around the horse trough that now featured a clumsy replica of the Statue of Liberty, then turned left up Main Street.
She leaned over and asked the woman standing next to her, “What’s this all about?”
When the woman turned, Jess recognized Susannah Braddock, her face glowing with a happy grin. “Jessica!” With her was a tall, rangy man of about thirty, and two young boys.
“Susannah, you look wonderful.” Actually, Jess thought she seemed thinner and a bit weary around the eyes. She still wore her glossy black curls long and unfettered by more than a pair of tortoiseshell combs. Her dark hair and eyes gave her a slightly exotic look.
“It’s so good to see you,” Susannah said, then gestured at the street. “This is a Liberty Bond parade to raise money. Mayor Cookson’s son, Eddie, is already in uniform and he’s the guest of honor.”
“Really?” Little Eddie Cookson, old enough to be a soldier?
Susannah clasped Jess’s gloved hand. “I’m glad you’re back, even if it’s just for a while. We really couldn’t spare the time to come to town today, but it’s been weeks since I was here and it’s good to get away from the farm. Anyway, the boys wanted to see the parade.” She nodded at the two youngsters, who had wormed their way to the front of the group to watch the passing spectacle. Then she turned toward the man who accompanied her. “Jess, this is Tanner Grenfell. He and his two nephews came to work for us a couple of years ago.”
Tanner, a sandy-haired, wiry man of medium build, tugged on the brim of his hat. “Ma’am.”
“We’d just be lost without him, now that Riley is away at war. Tanner’s a wonder with the horses. Even Cole says so, and you know he can be pretty picky.”
Jess knew, perhaps even more than Susannah realized.
“Now, Miss Susannah—” Color rose in Tanner’s face, but Jess could tell that he basked in Susannah’s praise. In fact, he looked at her with a genuine devotion that Jessica did not miss.
Singing “Over There,” school children peddled past on bicycles with crepe paper streamers woven in the spokes. They led the rest of the floats, which included a woman pounding out “You’re a Grand Old Flag” on a piano from the back of a farm wagon, assorted mounted riders, and a squeaking Conestoga full of suffragettes. All the music clashed, but from farther down the line of onlookers, Jessica heard a swell of cheering that drowned out the discordant notes and just about everything else.
“Here comes Eddie!”
“I see him! He makes a grand soldier!”
The most elaborately decorated float of all came rolling into view, draped with bunting and several American flags. Nailed to the sides of the float were more Liberty Bond posters. The applause and shouting around Jess grew even louder. She would never have recognized Mayor Cookson’s son, a blushing, reedy boy of about eighteen, who looked bashful and very young despite his stiff army uniform. He stood with several others who’d been chosen for the honor of sharing the obvious grand finale of the parade. People rushed forward to shake his hand and wish him luck in Europe. He touched every hand extended toward him. The applause and to-do made him redden all the way to his cap. He must have been warm in his olive drab, because even from Jess’s vantage point she saw a sheen of perspiration gleaming on his features. Squealing girls on the sidewalk, abandoning decorum, threw paper flowers and the last of the season’s roses from their yards. He grinned sheepishly.
Sheriff Whit Gannon, on horseback, marked the end of the parade, and the onlookers poured off the sidewalks into the street to follow along and continue the festivities.
Tanner and Susannah began moving toward Eddie’s float, following Josh and Wade. Susannah called back, “Jessica, you’ll have to come out for dinner while you’re home!” Then she and Tanner disappeared into the crowd.
Jess mingled with a few people who stopped to say hello and welcome her back to town with warm greetings and expressions of hope that she’d come to stay.
Jess, unprepared for their enthusiasm, didn’t have the chance—or the heart—to tell them she would be here only for a few days on her way to Seattle.
Then from up the street, a wave of alarmed, concerned voices reached Jessica. The back end of the parade stuttered to a halt and Sheriff Gannon nudged his horse through the crowd of confused spectators to reach the spot. Taking advantage of his breaking trail, Jess followed, sensing urgency in the tones of raised voices. Someone was hurt or ill.
“Granny Mae! Someone get Granny Mae!” a dominant voice ordered, and Jessica swallowed hard against the tight knot in her throat, recognizing the voice’s tone. Cole Braddock. She’d known she’d have to see him, but thought she’d be more prepared.
“It’s Eddie,” someone else said. “He just toppled right off that float, like he passed out or something.”
Jessica pushed around someone who stood in her way in time to see Cole hoist Eddie onto his shoulder and carry him toward Granny Mae’s café on the other side of the street. She followed close behind, her grip still tight on her black bag.
As she went through the door, the familiar redolence of spices and savory aromas hit Jess’s nose.
Jess worked her way through the crowd that filled the tiny restaurant and caught a glimpse of Eddie, who was now on his feet, but unsteady.
Then her gaze shifted to Cole. In that moment, everything else around her faded to a blur and memories rushed over her like a swift-flowing river. Her focus fixed on him. The way he still wore his hair cut to chin length, the straight nose and firm mouth, the set of his shoulders.
“Mae!” Cole yelled. “Where the hell is Mae? Eddie Cookson passed out and fell off his float in front of my shop.”
Eddie, looking pale and stunned, had a gash on his forehead from the fall. Automatically, Jess’s attention shifted to the patient. “Let me look at him.” Cole’s eyes fell on her and a shiver rushed through her. His cold stare hardened into that of a stranger’s as he assessed her from hair to hem before dismissing her.
“Someone call me?” A weathered, slat-sided woman emerged from the kitchen in the back room. Her gray hair was pulled into a messy knot on the top of her head, and her long face bore more lines than a peach pit. She carried a raw beef roast on the end of a big cooking fork. “What in blazes are all you people doing in here?” Casually, she wiped one hand on the waist of her blood-spattered apron.
Cole turned his back to Jess, pivoting Eddie with him. “His legs just gave out, Mae. He folded up like a paper umbrella.”
“Maybe I only tripped over my own feet,” Eddie said, half-heartedly.
The old woman made a cursory examination of the young soldier. “Bring him on back so I can take a closer look at him.” Then, without regard for his privacy or dignity, she trumpeted, “He probably just needs a good healthy dose of Epsom salts to clean him out. It’s amazing what trouble backed-up bowels cause.” Mae, Eddie, and Cole headed for the kitchen.
“God in heaven, she can’t mean that,” Jess murmured. Ignoring the small, flyspecked “No Admittance” sign posted next to the kitchen doorway, she pushed her way through the swinging doors.
By the window, Mae gave Eddie Cookson a quick once-over while Cole steadied him, then she mixed two heaping tablespoons of white crystals into a glass of water. “It doesn’t taste so good but you drink that all down in one—”
“Eddie Cookson, don’t you do anything of the kind!” Jess interrupted, striding toward the trio. This close, he looked even younger than he had earlier despite his military trappings. Reaching out, she tipped his chin toward her and saw what the old woman plainly did not. Glazed eyes. Sweaty pallor. Damp hair. This could not be dismissed as “backed-up bowels.” The wound on his forehead trickled blood down the side of his face and his skin was oddly clammy under her touch. “How do you feel?”
“Well, ma’am, except for a headache that I’ve had all day, I was fine this morning when I woke up. Then after the parade, well, next thing I knew I was on my face on the ground. I just feel…alloverish.”
“That’s what the salts are for! Alloverish!” Mae continued to stir the salts and water, now with fierce agitation.
Jess refrained from clenching her teeth too tightly. “No, they are not. This isn’t a digestive problem. He needs medical attention, Mae.” She knew that many physicians with medical school educations also subscribed to the blanket practice of purging, but she opposed the idea. She pointed at the can of Epsom salts. “That will just weaken him.”
Mae turned, her high-cut nostrils accentuating her sneer. “Oh, chicken feathers,
Layton. I was dosing and tending people before you arrived on this earth.”
“That’s not a good reason to keep doing it.” She took Eddie’s chin again and turned his face toward the old woman. “He needs a more thorough examination, not to mention a dressing for that gash.”
Mae exhaled a gusty sigh. “I didn’t back down from your father, missy, and I’m not about to let you tell me my business. Didn’t you see that sign at the door? Customers aren’t allowed in the kitchen.”
is?” Jess pointed at a flea-ridden, brindle-coated mongrel, lying in a pool of sunlight, gnawing on a bone. The animal sat up and scratched vigorously behind one ear, releasing a flurry of loose hair. “Where food is being prepared?” she added, with a shudder of revulsion.
Granny Mae gave her a sour look and thrust the glass into Eddie’s hand. “You drink this down. Now.”
In utter frustration, Jessica turned to Cole. “For heaven’s sake, Cole, you don’t agree with her, do you?” He smelled of wood smoke, horses, and burnished metal from hours spent at his blacksmith forge, just as she remembered.
Eddie waited for a decision. “My throat feels like it was scraped with an old rasp, and my head…”
Cole’s hard expression eased and finally he shook his head. “No. You should see to him, Jessica.” His tone was grudging.
Granny Mae straightened, huffy and insulted. Jess swore she could hear those old joints creaking like a rusty wheelbarrow left out in the weather. “Not in my kitchen, she won’t. You can just take all this somewhere else.” She snatched the glass from Eddie’s hand.
“Oh, damn it, Mae—”
“That’s fine, Cole.” Jessica eyed the dog again and the raw meat on the table. “It’s not sanitary in here, anyway.”
Mae turned up her nose and made an inarticulate, irritated noise.
The three walked back through the café, past the curious diners.
Amy had arrived and stood beside a table, her hands folded in a single, tight fist.
With no time for more than a cursory kiss on her sister’s cheek, Jessica was all business now. Patients came first. “Amy, can you think of anyplace I can use to take care of this young man?”
“Maybe Mrs. Donaldson will let us use her kitchen. She’s been so kind while I’ve been boarding there.”
Cole stepped closer. “No. I have the key to the doctor’s office between the blacksmith shop and the bank. It’s just standing empty, waiting for the new doc to get here.” He fished around in his tight front pants pocket and produced a brass key.
“That would do very well,” Jess said, conscious of the stiffness between them. “Thank you, Cole.”
His tough gaze bored through her, then softened a bit and he nodded. “All right, buck up there, son,” he said to Eddie. “Think you can make the walk back across the street?”
“Yeah. I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble. I don’t know what happened.”
Cole waved off his protests and steered him outside.
An unwanted picture paraded before her mind’s eye, one of Cole standing over his black and fire-reddened forge, shirtless and wearing only a heavy leather apron while he wielded a hammer. With each stroke of his hammer, sparks, like tiny fireflies, bounced off the hot metal he shaped on the anvil. As powerful and elemental as his task, she saw him as a beautiful incarnation of homely and lame Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalwork, and armorer to Olympus immortals. Oh, yes. Blond, muscled, rugged—that was Cole Braddock. Faithless—that was also Cole. Would she ever get him out of her head?
Jessica turned and picked up her bag, then said to her sister, “Amy, after I see to Eddie I’m going to the hotel. Meet me there for lunch?” She smiled. “We have so much to catch up on.” She hurried after Eddie, whom Cole was helping across the street. Amy trotted along beside her.