Murder on the Last Frontier (3 page)

She turned east, toward Michael's home and office. There was his sign, M
ICHAEL
C. B
RODY
, MD, at the end of the street across from the three-story federal building that held the post office and the U.S. marshal's office. Charlotte wondered if Deputy Eddington was inside. Remembering the rude awakening that morning, she felt heat rise on her cheeks. She hoped the deputy would forget seeing her in only a cotton nightgown during that introduction.
Charlotte climbed the stone step to Michael's front door. A window on the right showed a narrow view of his office through floral curtains; the one on the left was covered by a heavy shutter. She opened the door and stepped inside. A battered desk and bookshelves were tucked into the far right corner along with a plain wooden chair. Two more chairs sat on the opposite side of the desk. Cabinets along the walls held bottles and medical supplies. The interior door across from the outer door was slightly ajar. Voices murmured from beyond it.
Not wishing to disturb Michael and his patient, Charlotte closed the door and sat in one of the wooden chairs. She couldn't understand what they were saying, and she wasn't trying to be nosy, but the person talking to him sounded like a woman. Occupational hazard of being a journalist, eavesdropping on conversations. Charlotte picked up a thick book on the desk and skimmed pages as a distraction from the voices in the other room.
After a few moments, the inner door swung open. Charlotte looked up, meeting the eye of a petite blonde adjusting her hat. The other woman smiled and strode toward her with purpose.
“You must be Charlotte. You look just like your picture. Michael's told me all about you.” She stuck out her gloved hand. “I'm Ruth.”
Charlotte rose and grasped Ruth's hand. She glanced at Michael, who stood behind her. He winced, apologetic. Obviously Ruth was aware of Charlotte, but he'd never mentioned Ruth in his letters home.
“So very nice to finally meet you,” Charlotte said. She'd covered for her brother more than once. “Michael's writings didn't do you justice.”
Ruth blushed and looked over her shoulder at him, beaming. “He's such a dear.” She returned her gaze to Charlotte. “We must get to know each other now that you're here. Oh! Do say you'll be at the mayor's dinner tomorrow night. It'll be the party of the year.”
Michael laid his hands on her shoulders. “Charlotte's only just arrived and likely hasn't unpacked. She may be too—”
“I'd love to,” Charlotte said, grinning as widely as Ruth, but not for the same reason. Michael narrowed his gaze, knowing Charlotte had accepted the invitation just to irritate him. “I'll see what I have to wear.”
Ruth squeezed Charlotte's fingers and gave a small squeal of delight. “Wonderful. If you need to borrow something, just let me know. The Windsor is such a lovely venue when it's done up.” She released Charlotte's hand and pecked Michael on the cheek. Charlotte barely managed to stifle her surprise. Who was this young woman kissing her brother? “I'll let you two have your lunch. Mother and Father are expecting me back shortly.”
Ruth pulled on leather gloves as she strode to the door, waved, still smiling, and left.
Michael sighed and slumped into his chair behind the desk. “You just had to accept the invitation, didn't you?”
“Well, you obviously weren't going to tell me about it, let alone invite me, so yes.” Charlotte took her seat again. “Who is she?”
He avoided Charlotte's gaze for a while, rearranging the items on the desk. Charlotte settled back into the uncomfortable chair and crossed her arms. She wasn't so hungry that she couldn't wait him out. Finally, he looked up at her and rolled his eyes in resignation.
“Her name is Ruth Bartlett. Her father is the Reverend Samuel Bartlett, pastor of the Lutheran church.”
Charlotte stared at him. “And?”
She was sure there was an “and” in that statement.
Michael fidgeted. He straightened his straight tie and slicked back his neat hair. “And she is to be my wife.”
Shock brought Charlotte to her feet. “Your wife? You never mentioned anything about her. Not a word. When were you going to tell Mother and Father? When were you going to tell me?”
It hurt that he'd kept such an important part of his life from the family. From her. When had things gone awry? While Michael was in medical school? During his disturbing tenure at the hospital? Since her own life had taken a path she'd been too ashamed to discuss with him?
Charlotte winced, mourning the loss of their childhood relationship, of their innocence.
Michael stood and began pacing the small space. “I was trying to find the proper way to explain it. It's happened rather suddenly. And I'm telling you now.”
“Only because I stumbled in on you. This sort of thing is to be shared and celebrated, not hidden away.” That was how more upsetting incidents were to be handled. Her train of thought went directly to that conclusion. “Is she pregnant?”
Michael's mouth dropped open, as if he were shocked she even knew the word. “What? No, of course not. She's a good girl.”
Charlotte's chest tightened, and her stomach knotted. A good girl. Of course she was.
“I wanted to tell you,” he continued, “but I knew Mother and Father would have a fit if I told them I was engaged before they could investigate her family.”
True enough. The Brodys were progressives, to a point. They'd been incensed with Charlotte's decision to become a journalist who wrote about feminism, equality, and unfair labor practices. Not because they didn't support the ideas, but because of the negative—and potentially dangerous—focus on Charlotte and the family. To appease them, Charlotte sometimes used a pseudonym for her more controversial articles. But anything that threatened Claxton Brody's business enterprises or punched holes in the moral fiber Frances Brody had woven was to be avoided.
Both she and Michael knew the ramifications of displeasing their parents. The elder Brodys, particularly Father, had a long memory for slights and insults. Marrying the “wrong person,” or other indiscretions, qualified as such.
“You won't tell them, will you?” The worry in his eyes, the fear she'd tattle, hurt her worse than his keeping Ruth a secret. Neither of them had been saints, and they'd protected each other from parental wrath on many occasions. This time would be no different.
She came around the desk and grasped his cold hands. “It's not my place to tell them, and I'd never go behind your back like that.”
Michael's cheeks pinked. “I'm sorry. I should trust that you'd keep it to yourself.” He gave her a wry grin. “And force me to hold my own feet to the fire.”
They both laughed.
“Come on,” Charlotte said, tugging his hand. “I want to hear all about this woman who's joining the family.”
Michael grabbed his mackinaw off the coatrack behind the door. “She really is a great girl. I think you'll like her.”
Charlotte gave his arm a squeeze and smiled at him. “I'm sure I will. By the way, I haven't had breakfast, so be prepared to lavish me at luncheon.”
 
On their way out of the restaurant, Charlotte took Michael's arm. “Thank you. That was the most delicious salmon I've ever had. Do you always eat that well?”
The afternoon had cleared somewhat, with patches of pale blue peeking through the clouds, though it wasn't quite warm enough to leave their coats open. A “sucker hole,” she'd heard another lunch patron call it—a temporary break in the foul weather that made you think it was over.
Michael's eyes were half closed, his face angled toward the sun. “I wish. No, I figured I'd treat you to a decent first meal. After this, you're on your own.”
“I can cook for both of us, you know.”
He gave her a sideways, dubious look. “When did you learn to cook?”
“Mrs. Cameron taught me at the end of last summer, when I stayed with Kit.” The moment she said it, Charlotte tensed. Kit's mother had given her tips and lessons, keeping Charlotte's mind off her “love woes,” as Kit had referred to them in the presence of her parents. Mrs. Cameron hadn't pressed for details, but Charlotte suspected the older woman knew the real reason behind her extended visit.
She hadn't meant to bring up last summer to Michael. Skimming over reality and creating details for letters was one thing. If he asked her about it, she'd have to lie some more.
“So I'm guessing you can now boil water and fry an egg?” he asked.
Charlotte laughed, covering her slip of the tongue. “Funny, but I'll have you know I'm quite the cook. It'll save us both money, and you won't have to worry about dinner or lunch during your hectic days.”
“The selection here is somewhat limited.”
She shrugged. “So it won't be exciting food. We won't starve.”
“And I often trade services for game or fish.” His eyebrow quirked upward. “Can you manage that?”
“Not a problem.” Charlotte wasn't quite sure what sort of “managing” would be required, but she wouldn't balk now. “What do you say? You provide the food, and I'll prepare it.”
After a moment's hesitation, he grinned and gave a nod. “All right. We can work out a list for McGruder's later.”
They walked on, and Charlotte breathed in the salty, low-tide-scented air. In the distance, a steam whistle announced the train's approach to town from the north. A pleasant late summer day, for the far north.
“I stopped in at the café before coming to your office,” she said as they turned the corner toward the rooming house.
“Decent place. Don't eat the soup on Fridays.”
“Thanks for the warning. I spoke to Marie while I had my coffee.”
His eyebrows drew together. “She asked about Darcy again, didn't she?”
Charlotte moved aside to allow two racing boys to thunder past them on the boardwalk. “She's worried. I told her I'd talk to you. Will you please go see Darcy today?”
“Yes, I will,” he said after a moment. “I'm sure the girl is merely suffering from some minor affliction. Perhaps a cold or a touch of exhaustion. They tend to overdo it, staying up during the longer days of summer, and not realizing how late it is.”
Charlotte had little issue with ladies of the evening plying their trade, but that didn't mean she wanted to dwell on what “overdoing it” meant. “Thank you. I'm sure it's nothing, but Marie was very agitated earlier.”
“Marie is a kind soul, and she and Darcy are close.”
They stepped onto the Main Street walk and came face-to-face with Deputy Eddington. The three of them stopped just short of bumping into each other, surprised expressions all around.
Eddington was the first to recover. He touched the brim of his hat and nodded to them. “Excuse me, Doctor. Miss Brody.”
Michael glanced at Charlotte, then back to the lawman. “Deputy. Fine day we're having.”
“For the moment, anyway.” Eddington replied to Michael, but his blue eyes held Charlotte's. The scruff of beard on his chin hadn't been so obvious earlier that morning. It gave him a dark, dangerous look. “How's your first day in the wilds, Miss Brody?”
She smiled. “Much more civilized than I'd anticipated. Nary a rampaging beast to be had.”
Eddington laughed. “It's early yet. Rampaging doesn't start 'til evening around here,” he said with a wink. Touching his hat again, he stepped aside to allow them to pass. “Good seeing you again, Miss Brody. Afternoon, Doctor.”
The deputy strode up the side street the way Charlotte and Michael had come.
Michael resumed walking, and Charlotte had to pay attention to her footing rather than the retreating figure or trip her way down the street.
“How does Eddington know you?”
Heat suffused her cheeks as she recalled standing in her nightgown in front of the deputy earlier that morning. Would she ever get over that encounter? “He came to the rooming house looking for someone and questioned me.”
Michael grunted in reply.
“What do you think of him?” she asked. She was gathering information for her article, she told herself.
“Eddington?” He shrugged. “A decent sort. I don't know him well, but he seems like a fair fellow.”
They crossed the street to Sullivan's. Michael opened the front door and stepped aside to allow Charlotte in.
Mrs. Sullivan bustled out of her room. Her white hair was in a neat bun, her long-sleeved, high-collared, navy-blue dress appropriate for her matronly figure. “Doctor, I'm glad you're here.”
“Is someone ill?” he asked.
A scowl added more wrinkles to Mrs. Sullivan's face. “No, but my boys may need your services for cracked heads when I get to them. They were supposed to bring your sister's trunks in from the shed, but instead they snuck out and went duck hunting for the weekend.”
Charlotte and Michael grinned as they exchanged glances. Mrs. Sullivan held up a key, an expectant look in her bright eyes.
“Not a problem,” he said, taking the key. “I'll go get them.”
“I'll help.” Charlotte hurried after him, ignoring Mrs. Sullivan's protest that a lady shouldn't be hauling heavy bags.
The path around the back of the house was, unsurprisingly, muddy. Michael's heavy boots protected his feet, but Charlotte's thinner leather shoes were soon soaked.
“You'll need real boots around here,” Michael said as they reached the shed. It was a solid, roughly twelve-by-twelve-foot square building, painted the same white as the rooming house.

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