Tracie Peterson - [Heirs of Montana 04] (7 page)

BOOK: Tracie Peterson - [Heirs of Montana 04]
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He heard her giggle as the screen door slammed behind him.

What was that Lawrence woman up to?

“I’m glad you’re at least open to the idea of coming to New York,” Christopher Stromgren said as he walked with Ardith.

“I’m open to whatever will be most beneficial to myself … and to Winona.”

“She’s a beautiful little girl.”

“She is that.”

“I notice some darker … features.” His voice was hesitant, as if prodding a wound gently.

“She’s half Sioux,” Ardith said without hesitating. She might as well confess all of her skeletons. “I was raped by a Sioux warrior, one of the men at Little Big Horn. Does that put an end to our relationship and possible business venture, Mr. Stromgren?” She stopped and stared at him hard.

Though his eyes widened in surprise at her bold statement, he said, “Not at all. If anything, it gives me an even higher regard for you. How terrible that you should have borne such misery at the hands of savage captors. How did you come to be with them?”

Ardith sighed and began walking again. “It really isn’t relevant. It is sufficient that you understand that it happened. I wouldn’t wish for the information to come out later and then shame you and your company.”

“That kind of thing might only serve to bring in bigger crowds. Curiosity seekers, if you would. Custer’s battle still works audiences into a fervor. It might be quite interesting to use that as a billing tool.”

“No. I don’t want to be seen as such,” Ardith declared. “I have lived with that since being rescued. People have been kind but also guarded and uncomfortable. I would much rather be seen for my ability to make music.”

“But of course,” he said, seeming shocked that she would suppose it to be otherwise.

“If we cannot keep my secret, then I would rather not consider this proposition any further.”

“My dear Mrs. Sperry, you have nothing to fear from me. My lips will be as silent as the grave concerning your past.”

CHAPTER 5

A
RDITH WAS UNCOMFORTABLE WITH THE RELATIVE EMPTINESS
of the house after Morgan moved on with his travelers and Zane headed back to Butte. She thought constantly of Christopher Stromgren and his ideas for promoting her piano talents. She wondered if it were the best choice for her life.

Living in Montana didn’t seem to be the best for her. She’d known nothing but misery in Montana. She finished making her bed and continued to brood.

If I go to New York,
she thought,
I cannot take Winona
. The child was precious to her, but she was also testing Ardith’s patience with painful questions and memories of Levi.

Levi. She couldn’t even speak his name aloud. She had been so convinced that theirs was a love that would last a lifetime. And it was. She just didn’t count on Levi’s lifetime being so short.

She plumped the pillows and stacked them neatly at the head of the bed. Her anger toward God kindled with new intensity.
If you hadn’t taken him from me, I might be happy now. I wouldn’t have to consider going to New York
. Yet it wasn’t an unpleasant contemplation. Ardith had listened to Stromgren’s stories of the city that seemingly never slept. She found it amazing to hear of parties that would last well into the wee hours of the morning. And not parties for the riff-raff or hoodlums, but fashionable society. Upper-crust matrons and their powerful husbands. These were the people, Stromgren related, who made the rules of society. Ardith found it all quite fascinating.

She opened the door and slipped downstairs, hoping that no one would come to pester her. When breakfast was over she had hurried upstairs to avoid any discussions with Mara and her brother Joshua. But she had promised to do the breakfast dishes after she tidied her room, and now that task lay before her.

With Dianne and her family gone, it was like a great silence engulfed the house, and yet it wasn’t quiet at all. She could hear Winona in the front room, chattering at a rapid pace with someone. Probably Mara. Ardith’s daughter found it curious that Mara was sewing a wedding dress. Ardith thought it merely silly.

Ardith noted that all of the dishes had been washed. Apparently Mara thought to do her the favor, but frankly Ardith would have rather had the work to keep her mind occupied.

“Can I be of help?” Joshua asked as he came into the kitchen.

Ardith had her back to him and scowled. Why couldn’t he leave her alone? He seemed compelled to practice the religion he felt was so important. But frankly, his counsel was not something she desired. Yet she knew he’d offer it.

“I thought maybe you’d like to talk about Mr. Stromgren’s proposition. I sensed that your brothers were very opposed to your leaving. Perhaps there is some merit in their concerns.”

She turned to face him. “I think there is better merit in minding your own business.”

“Perhaps your thoughts are clouded on the matter and it would help to discuss it with someone,” he offered.

He was hardly more than a boy at twenty-two. Ten years her junior. Who was he to suggest she didn’t know her own mind?

“I’m merely thinking of your daughter,” Joshua said as he pressed his point home. “She needs you here with her. Not in New York City. Do you even have any idea what that town is like? I do. I’ve been there.”

“Good for you,” Ardith said, finally losing her patience. “I suggest you go back there or leave me alone. Either way, I don’t want to hear any more about this. You are hardly the one to be giving me advice.” She picked up a damp dish towel and started to fold it.

He frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

“You’re barely a man. I had lived a hundred lifetimes by the time I was your age.” She held his gaze with a hard stare of her own. “You have no idea what I am capable of doing or not doing.”

“Maybe not, but I know that little girl. She spends hours each day with me because you won’t!” Joshua said sternly.

He came to where Ardith stood, dish towel in hand. She was glad she didn’t have hold of a plate or she might have busted it over his head. “How dare you!” She leaned forward until she was nearly nose to nose with the man. “You aren’t even a father. You know nothing about parenting.”

“I’m beginning to wonder if you do.”

She had never been treated in such a manner. Levi had always been so careful and tender with her, and even Dianne avoided upsetting her. Ardith’s throat ached in that awful way it often did when she couldn’t cry and she couldn’t calm herself. She tried to speak but the words stayed lodged deep inside.

“Look,” Joshua began, his tone more gentle, “I just don’t want you to make a mistake and throw away the most important person in your life. If you go away, things will never be the same between you two.”

Still she could say nothing. She backed away, twisting the towel in her hands. She wanted to run and leave this conversation, but Joshua stood between her and any means of exit.

“Winona talks to me about her father,” he said. “She misses him. She wants to know that she’ll see him again. She wants to know that you won’t die and leave her too. She has a million questions to ask you, but you avoid her. Why?”

“Because she has a million questions.” Ardith barely squeaked out the words. She looked to the towel and realized she’d nearly knotted it in her frustration.

He nodded and stepped back. “I know you’re struggling. I can see that you’re still in pain, even after all these years, but you can’t make the pain go away by ignoring your child.”

Ardith regained a bit of her composure. “You’re twenty-two years old. You’ve spent the last few years studying to become a pastor. You’ve been preaching God’s Word and saving souls. I suppose it’s natural that you think you have all the answers—that you can save me too.”

“Only Jesus can do that,” he said with a smile. “I can’t be your savior or Winona’s.”

“I’m glad you realize that. I feel bad that I cannot answer Winona’s questions or comfort her. However, do not think to give her false hope or to put ideas in her head that might be better avoided.”

“Ideas?” he asked. “What ideas are you talking about?”

She cast the towel to the counter. “Ideas about replacing Levi. She’s looking for another father—for someone to fill the void in her heart. I’m not. I don’t want another husband, and I certainly wouldn’t consider a child such as you even if I were.”

Joshua’s mouth dropped open, clearly stunned by her words. Ardith took that opportunity to push past him and run for the sanctuary of her bedroom. In her heart she harbored bitterness toward Joshua for his interference … and Levi for his desertion. But most of all, she reserved her rage for God—the one who could have kept it all from going so terribly wrong.

The trip to Kansas hadn’t been an easy one. The boys constantly wanted to roam the train and talk to everyone on board. John, especially, seemed prone to getting into trouble, while Luke and Micah worked just as hard to keep him under control. Lia found train travel made her sick to her stomach, which in turn made her tired and grumpy. Between chasing after her sons and cleaning up after Lia, Dianne was ready to forget the entire trip and return home.

Of course, I was ready to do that before we ever set out,
she reminded herself as she rocked Lia in her arms. The train lurched and bounced as it made its way ever closer to Topeka. They were supposed to be in the city limits very soon. After that, the conductor assured them it would only be another few minutes before they could exit the train. Dianne sighed. It couldn’t come soon enough.

Cole had barely talked to her during the trip. His mind was clearly preoccupied with what he would find in Kansas. She knew he worried that his father would already be dead—that he’d have no chance to show him the children or to say goodbye. She knew, too, that Cole worried about his mother. He’d already mentioned not knowing what she would do after his father passed on. Dianne had suggested she move to the Diamond V, but Cole had quickly put that idea aside, reminding her that if their old house were still standing that might very well work, but his mother couldn’t live in a rustic cabin.

She had then suggested his mother could live in the Virginia City house when they moved back to the ranch. Cole hadn’t responded immediately to this, and she thought for several miles that the idea merited some positive reaction. Then he up and declared that his mother would never want to leave his sisters and be separated from her grandchildren.

Dianne didn’t remind him that their children were her grandchildren as well. She simply didn’t care enough to press the issue. She was tired and dirty and more than ready to leave the train.

“Look, Mama, the city!” Luke declared, his nose pressed to the glass. They’d had the window open earlier only to find the ashes from the smokestacks more unbearable than the humid heat.

“I see it,” Dianne said, trying hard to match the excitement of her ten-year-old son. Everything was an adventure to him, while to her it was just one more reminder that she was very far from home.

“Do you see it, Pa?” Micah questioned.

Cole nodded. “I do.”

Lia stirred in Dianne’s arms. “Are we there yet?”

“Yes,” she assured, smoothing back her daughter’s damp hair. “We’ll be getting off any minute.”

“And then we’ll see Grandma and Grandpa Selby, right?” Luke asked.

“Grandma and Grandpa Selby,” John parroted.

Dianne thought Cole might respond, but he just turned within himself and frowned. “Yes, but remember, Grandpa is very sick,” she told them.

The boys nodded solemnly. Dianne encouraged Lia to sit up. “We’re nearly there. Let me fix your hair.”

“I wired Ma that we’d rent a team and buggy,” Cole said as though he’d not already told this to Dianne.

“I think that’s a wise choice,” she murmured. Dianne sensed a growing distance between her and her husband. She knew she was mostly responsible for it, but now it seemed Cole was adding to it.

“I’m sure they can extend the lease for as long as we need,” he said.

Dianne supposed it was his way of warning her that they might be here for some time, but she refused to let herself consider that.

With Lia’s ribbon readjusted, Dianne helped her daughter onto the seat, then turned to her husband. “I know you’re worried about what you’ll find, but please remember that I love you and I’m here by your side.”

Cole patted her hand. It was really the first sign of affection he’d given since their trip began. “I know. I know this is hard for you as well. I’m grateful that you’re here.”

Dianne cherished the moment and in an uncharacteristic show, she leaned over and kissed Cole on the cheek. A matronly woman from across the aisle gave a loud “harrumph” at this public display, causing Dianne to almost giggle out loud. If a woman nearing forty, mother to four children, couldn’t give her husband a little kiss on a train without raising eyebrows, Dianne didn’t know what the world was coming to.

Still, all across the western mountains and prairies, Dianne had seen the world civilize itself more and more. She saw the fancy traveling suits of other women. Heard the refined speech of a couple’s conversation. She knew her children were considered to be complete urchins, with one woman even suggesting Dianne give them a healthy dose of laudanum to ease the journey for all.

BOOK: Tracie Peterson - [Heirs of Montana 04]
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