Timbleton Manor was known for its grand parties. Just like the grandeur of the house’s name, the inhabitants and the parties that they threw were at odds with the developing town that they were sequestered in.
Perhaps that was why everyone who was anyone, and many who weren’t, always showed up to such affairs, dressed to the nines and intent on enjoying themselves. It was certainly a part of why everyone attended. The guests swanned around one another amid the laughter and gaiety.
A passerby who happened to peep in through the windows without any context could even be forgiven for mistaking the small, western society that filled the halls with that of one from a much larger, more settled town—or maybe even across the ocean in London.
Gertrude Timbleton couldn’t.
She’d grown up in the town before it had even been a dot on any actual map, and was more than fond of it. She was practically beaming, dressed in a pretty, pale pink dress with her hands on her skirts as she looked around herself in wonder despite it being her home.
She’d be forgiven, surely, given just what night it was for her.
“Darling,” an amused voice said from behind her, a warm gloved hand coming to rest on her elbow, as a particularly well-dressed man parted from the crowd. He stepped considerably closer to her than one might with someone who was just an acquaintance. “I was wondering where you had gotten to,” he continued, his accent falling on Gertrude’s ears as smoothly as it had the first time they had met.
Her answering grin was large, and the pink infusing her cheeks were another indication of the happiness that she just couldn’t seem to stop bubbling over as she placed her hand softly over his on her arm.
“Oh, I got carried away,” she confessed with a giggle.
John always seemed to enhance her happiness, making her feel as if the very air she breathed was somehow just better by him being there.
He was a handsome man, more than handsome even. He stood nearly half a head taller than Gertrude, at nearly five-foot-ten, and his looks were what novelists wrote about. Square and dashing, he looked like the hero right out of some storybook, what with the way his blonde hair was sculpted so elegantly to his scalp. Even his blue eyes seemed to shimmer like diamonds as he grinned back down at her in return.
“You got carried away? By the wind? By the music? Really, my love, you must be more specific,” he teased charmingly, bending down to brush a soft, chaste kiss against her cheek.
Her blush grew even more heated, her dimples carving themselves out on either side of her lips as she leaned into his hold on her.
He could kiss her like that in public now, after all.
The diamond ring she wore as a promise on her left hand ensured as much. This very party, with all its finery and guests, was to celebrate that very thing.
“By how happy I’m,” Gertrude answered easily, laughing at his jesting, as she caught sight of her parents winding through the crowd to come over and stand with them.
“I do love to hear that, my dear,” John whispered, bending down close to her so that he could say it for her and her alone, his breath gusting over her ear as he tightened his hand ever so slightly. The accent that clung to his words seemed to deepen with the emotion in his voice and Gertrude felt her heart flutter in her chest.
She wasn’t remiss in being aware of just how lucky she was.
“Gertie!” her father boomed, towing her much smaller mother behind him as if he were a blockade to keep her from getting lost in the crowds, or maybe to allow her to get through them at all. “There you are. And John! I’ve had so many congratulations that I’m beginning to feel as if I’m the one getting married myself,” he joked, clapping John on the back affectionately and grinning down at his daughter.
Mrs. Timbleton laughed gaily, the blue gown she was wearing fanning out around her as she turned to playfully hit her husband on the chest. “He means to say that everyone is so very happy for the both of you,” she admonished with a grin in her voice.
“As I keep reminding everyone congratulating me, I’m the lucky one,” John smoothly interjected, smiling at the Timbletons with that same magnetism that had first captured Gertie’s attention all those months before.
He was so charming, so ethereal in his goodness. Gertie found herself questioning all the time her luck in finding him, in him falling as desperately in love with her as she’d with him. What had started as gentle conversation made among mutual friends had become something so much more. From the time he’d begun calling on her, to his asking her parents for permission to court her, and coming for the weekly dinner at her house…
She could scarcely imagine a time without him in it now, or what her life had been like before, now that she’d him.
And they were to be married.
She knew that her face matched the hopeless romanticism beating in her heart, her smile so wide that it hurt her cheeks. She could see her parents’ happiness at seeing it there, see the secret smile of understanding her mother shot her.
John was a fairytale, and one that she got to actually experience outside the written words on the pages that she’d poured over so happily as a girl.
“Is that not right, Gertie?” her father asked suddenly, reminding her that she’d been mid-conversation before she’d become so distracted with her own thoughts.
“I’m sorry, I must’ve been daydreaming,” she admitted with a faint blush to her cheeks, smiling back at her father and feeling the slight tightening of John’s hand on her with an amused, yet apologetic, pull of her lips.
“As you should be,” her father boomed, his teeth flashing from beneath his mustache with his near-permanent grin. “I was just telling John here that we were lucky to find someone as well-traveled and well-read as he’s in this town, from such a good family and with such impeccable manners. It was almost predestined!”
It was true, that was certainly only the half of it though. With wealthy grandparents that he was the only heir to on top of all else, he’d been well sought-after both by the women around town and their families. Gertie knew that her family cared as little about all that nonsense as she did, but she wasn’t ignorant of the whispers that had gone around town before their engagement had been finalized.
“Yes, Father.” Gertie laughed. “I count myself the lucky one as well. Isn’t that what any marriage should be made of, though? Two people who fancy themselves the luckiest and aren’t happy without being in one another’s presence?”
“Good marriage is made of compromise and faith.” Mrs. Timbleton laughed back, reaching out to take Gertie’s hand in her own, fingers pressing into her hand lovingly. It was a soft touch, full of the affection and care that she’d always known from her mother, and short, for her father moved to leave.
“Don’t hasten reality for them, wife,” Mr. Timbleton cautioned teasingly, leading her back with a jaunty wave at both Gertie and John. “Let them at least enjoy their honeymoon period and let us greet their guests, so that we can allow them to do the same! There is a man that I wish to speak about cattle with as well. And you have Mrs. Eldridge to speak with about the shipment of dress fabrics.”
It was a happy, brief farewell, his laughter trailing even after he’d dragged his wife from where she’d been standing in front of John and Gertie, leaving them laughing in their wake.
“I think that was a subtle reminder to attend to our guests.” John chuckled as her parents wove themselves back into the crowd.
“Or not so subtle.” She grinned back. “Though I believe we can easily use our honeymoon period, as he called it, as the excuse for not following such directions.” She found the way her father had phrased it funny, seeing that she’d never known her parents to be in anything but, no matter what they said. They were a happy couple, a fairytale of their own made out of a mail-order bride ad and prosperity found in the west.
“I’m not so willing to get on his bad side, if he even has one,” John rejoined quickly, his eyebrows raised. “Not after the trust he has shown me tonight!”
Gertie felt her grin widen, leaning into John’s touch only briefly. She knew of what he spoke of, and it was more than just the allowance of her hand in marriage. Her father had spoken to both her and her mother earlier that evening, before the party was set to begin, about showing John the family vault that they kept hidden behind the painting of their family crest in his study.
It was a sacred sort of thing, an acceptance into their family different from any other.
“Then away with you,” Gertie teased, pushing his hand off her and taking a jesting step back. “Go attend to your guests and let me do the same.”
No matter how she tried, she couldn’t keep the smile from her face; it seemed permanently etched there as he playfully rolled his eyes and took a step back. “To prolong this honeymoon period your father spoke of, I suppose I should follow your orders to the letter,” John answered, bowing as if he were doing so at her will.
Gertie almost giggled, watching as he bowed his way out, her grin hidden behind her hand at one point to keep from being too obscene. She was too happy, she figured, to do anything else.
She hadn’t even realized that she was staring at her fiancé’s departing back until she heard a soft clearing of a throat behind her.
Daisy and Hal Williams stood side by side, their faces wreathed in well-wishing smiles that Gertie instantly returned.
Daisy was tall for a woman, standing only a few inches below her brother at her side, and he was easily six feet. She was a beautiful girl, with lovely golden curls and dimples that displayed her easy disposition, but it was Hal who was closer to Gertie’s age.
Hal and she’d been friends both before and throughout school, having grown up so close to one another and with similar interests. He was more understated than his sister, with the dark hair of his mother and hazel-green eyes that were partially obscured by the glasses always perched on his nose. He was bookish, but adorably so, and Gertie reached out to him instantly.
She took both of their hands in her own, her grin nearly breaking her face in half. “Oh, you made it!” she exclaimed happily as she stepped close to them. “I’m so glad!”
She hadn’t seen either of them much of late, so engrossed was she in her time with John, but she remembered a time when it would have been odd for her to go more than a day without being seen about town with them.
“Of course, we made it!” Daisy smiled back, her green eyes glittering. “We couldn’t miss such a party, and certainly not for such a happy occasion!”
“We weren’t trying to tie you up,” Hal interjected, more subdued. “We only wanted to be sure to offer our congratulations in person.” His eyes ran over Gertie’s face in a way that she didn’t fully understand, a question behind them that she couldn’t fathom.
“I’m so happy you did,” Gertie promised, squeezing both their hands once more, before letting go. “I should have invited you before, really, after this you’ll have to remind me to have your family over for dinner one night!”
“Oh, like you’ll have time with all the wedding planning,” Daisy teased, glancing as a line had begun to form behind her of other well-wishers.
“I’ll make time,” Gertie reassured her, lips twitching. “And you can help me with the planning! Although we’ll have to find something to occupy Hal with.”
Both girls laughed at that, and Hal nudged his sister as he too glanced at the waiting crowd behind them.
“Oh, I see them, you spoilsport.” Daisy laughed, pulling a face at Hal, before smiling once more at Gertie. “We won’t keep you any longer, but a visit would be welcome, surely! Whenever you have time. Yes, I see Hal,” she cut off again, muttering as she rolled her eyes and trounced off once more on her brother’s arm.
Gertie laughed at their exit, turning to the next person walking up to her and pasting a smile back on her face in greeting. Her father was right, there were many who still wanted to give their congratulations, and still more besides who would want to be talked to.
Gertie couldn’t even imagine having an issue with it, though, as happy as she was. She’d do all her greetings and accept congratulations until it was time for her to steal another dance with her betrothed, and then she’d relax in his arms once more. Her heart sang joyfully at the thought.
She couldn’t imagine being happier.
Gertie was flying, soaring really. Even in her dreams she carried with her the aftermath of her glow from her engagement party, reliving every dance and caress from John, and every congratulations as well.
It had been only shortly before midnight that she’d finally climbed into bed, still riding the highs of her night and awash in the radiance of her new love. Sleep had come quickly, the exhaustion of having danced and spoken to so many people for so long catching up to her quickly, and it was all that she knew until a short time later.
She didn’t know how much time had passed, or what exactly was happening. One moment she was deeply asleep, dreaming still of the party, and the next she was being shaken awake from her bed.
A strange, acrid smell filled the air, her vision blurry as she forced her eyes open to stare at the maid that was bent over her bed.
Tilda shook her all the harder for her lack of movement, her face wreathed in a worry that Gertie couldn’t begin to comprehend. “Gertie,” Tilda begged, her voice raised. “Miss Gertrude, please, you have to wake up! You must hurry, Miss Gertrude, please!”
Gertie made a choked noise in the back of her throat, half being lifted from the mattress by Tilda as she tried to sit up. “Tilda, what—”
“There’s no time, Miss Gertrude!” Tilda cried, tears streaming down her face. It was only then that Gertie could see the soot on her face, streaked with the tears she’d already cried. “There’s no time! You have to grab your dressing robe, we must hurry!”
Yelling from elsewhere in the house finally broke through Gertie’s consciousness, and she blinked blearily again, following the directions she was given and reaching blindly for her dressing robe even as Tilda grabbed something from the table.
Gertie wasn’t given any time to question it, having only just cinched the belt of her dressing gown about her waist before the blanket was thrown over her head. As the water dripped from it and onto her head, she realized also that it was wet. Her brain felt sluggish, as though it were struggling to keep up with the changes as they occurred, and not for the first time since being woken up she questioned if she were even awake.
There was no use for a wet blanket over one’s head unless…
The truth hit her like a freight train, her feet stumbling over one another as Tilda rushed to hurry her from her room. Out in the hallway the sounds of yelling were louder, voices calling back and forth to one another in a panic, and beneath that a kind of roaring grumble that reminded Gertie of a fireplace, only much larger.
Like the brush fires that they lit sometimes in the summer to burn the land; Gertie connected the dots all too slowly, her eyes widening as Tilda led her toward the stairs.
“There’s a fire,” she said suddenly, in disbelief, as if saying it might make it somehow untrue.
Tilda didn’t disagree though, her crying only becoming louder as she lifted the blanket just enough for Gertie and her to better see where they were going. “Yes, Miss Gertrude,” she sobbed, her words broken up by the fear in her voice. “Your father and mother sent me to get you, we have to hurry, the whole east wing…” She cut off with another choked sob, forcing Gertie to go faster.
An action that, they both realized as they came to the top of the stairs, was pointless.
The stairs were already covered in the orange and red flames that leaped from below, the heat so intense that Gertie’s face felt as if she’d bent too far into the oven. It wasn’t stationary, like she’d have thought, either. The flames crept up each step in a matter of seconds, growing closer and closer to where the two women stood, and Tilda jerked her back, turning them in the opposite direction.
Gertie could feel the flames licking at her heels as they ran, away from her room and down the hallway in the other direction. They needed to get to the servants’ staircase around back for another chance to escape the second floor, but it was clear across the other side of the house.
“The study!” Tilda yelled, readjusting their path. “We can cut through the study!”
Gertie was all too eager to accept the offer, turning with Tilda and rushing for the door of the study with renewed gusto as she swore she felt the flames tickle the back of her dressing gown. Sweat beaded her forehead, spurring her steps faster, and she reached the door first.
Without pause she reached for the handle, going to throw the door open and gasping in sudden pain only after she’d done so.
It was too quick, she’d been too quick, and her hurry had distracted her from the heat of the doorknob, and it registered much too late. She pulled back reflexively, grabbing at her hand, even before the door had fully opened.
It was a mistake.
While the doorknob had been hot, what lay within was even hotter, flames bursting out of the study and reaching toward her as if offering a fiery embrace. Suddenly the pain of her hands seemed to pale in comparison, her face heating to the point that she felt as if the flames might as well have melted it.
It took only a few scant seconds, Tilda closing the door from the other side once more and gathering her to her as she forced them to run again.
It took only a few seconds, but even moving once more it was all Gertie could do to stay on her feet and continue moving with Tilda’s help. She could still feel the flames, both on her hands and her face, as if they had never been removed at all, and her cries were rival to that of the screaming taking place throughout the house.
Several of those screams were so much louder and so much more pained that Gertie couldn’t bear to think of what they must be going through in order to utter them.
“Oh, Miss Gertrude, we have to keep moving,” Tilda cried. “The servant’s stairs are just around that corner, there we go. They’re right there. Oh, hurry, Miss Gertrude.” Tilda kept up a running commentary as she rushed Gertie down the stairs, leading her as Gertie tried to cope with the pain of her new injuries.
All Gertie could think about was the fire, leaping at her as if it had a mind of its own and wished to harm her. She’d never been afraid of fire before—she’d never been given reason to be—but even through the rush of adrenaline and all of her worry, the pain of the flames on her face felt as if they were still there, her hands clenching uselessly in front of her as she was led into a room that she couldn’t even identify through her tears.
“Tilda,” she cried, her voice choking between her emotion and fear. “My parents?”
Tilda didn’t answer her, opening one of the large bay windows on the far side of the room they had just entered and all but forcing Gertie through it as the flames continued to wreak havoc on the house. The smoke didn’t clear even as they stumbled out onto the lawn and down it, though it did lessen considerably.
“My parents?” Gertie repeated, her worry breaking through her pain as the wet blanket was cast off her and Tilda’s heads and surrounding onlookers rushed to assist them. There was a blur of faces all at once, both because of her tears and the speed with which they ran, but even the familiar ones weren’t the two that she was searching for.
“Mama!” she cried out, turning against the hands that were pulling her further away from her childhood home. “Mama! Papa!” Her voice was thin and frail against the yelling and the commotion going around them, the fire brigade already hard at work despite the late hour.
Tilda and Gertie were led past the bucket line, neighbors streaming from the nearby houses and even from down the street in all states of dress in order to join it.
Still Gertie looked over their heads, struggling despite her own injuries and weakness against the strong hands that held her back as if she planned to run back into the flames.
Her parents weren’t there. Her parents were nowhere to be seen, and though there were plenty of voices trying to soothe and calm her down, no one had an answer to give her as she continued calling for them.
“She needs a doctor,” Tilda yelled over the noise, indicating Gertie’s hands and face with worried, flapping hands. “The flames–they were behind the door, and she opened it,” she fretted, her own soot-streaked face focused only on Gertie.
Gertie, who still tried to search for her parents. Tilda had said that they sent her to her, hadn’t she? She remembered that much at least, she heard her say it. Which meant that they should have already been out there.
So, where were they?
“Tilda,” Gertie whispered, her voice suddenly quieter than it had previously been. “Tilda, my parents, you said they sent you…”
Tilda’s tears streamed harder down her face. She took Gertie’s shoulder along with the man who had been dragging her further away from the house. She shook her head, swallowing thickly. “They might just have gone out the other side of the house, Miss Gertrude. You know, out the way we were trying to go before the fire stopped us. You’ll be of no help to either of them injured like you are.” She spoke quickly, though her fear and horror still layered her every word.
Gertie didn’t want to listen to her, but she knew that Tilda made sense, so begrudgingly she allowed herself to be pushed to sit down, as a woman with her apron pulled up and sagging from what had been loaded into it came running up.
It hurt to keep her eyes open, a truth that she didn’t want to face. Amid all the adrenaline and the rushing about, her pain had been easier to ignore. Stationary like she was without the distraction of imminent death it crept up on her like a fog that she couldn’t quite get out from under.
“Oh, Gertie,” Tilda muttered, speaking under her breath, as the neighbor who had come up began tending to Gertie’s hands and face. She slathered a mix of honey and cold water on Gertie’s burns, while the man that had first escorted them ran for the doctor.
“I’m fine,” Gertie lied through clenched teeth, her throat bobbing with the effort it took to withhold her cries of pain.
Tilda shook her head, pressing her hand into her lips as she watched Gertie being worked on and Gertie knew that she must be a sight indeed.
“Really, Tilda, you did so good in getting me out of there. It would have been so much worse if you hadn’t been there,” Gertie reassured her, fighting to keep her voice calm and collected.
“Oh, Miss Gertrude, I’m supposed to be the one comforting you!” Tilda exclaimed, putting her hand gingerly on Gertie’s shoulder as if afraid that she might harm her by doing so. Her agony was clear, her tears falling harder as she stared at whatever mess had been made of Gertie’s face by the fire.
Gertie shook her head, glad that the woman was working on her hands then and not her face. Tilda had been her maid for as long as she could remember, watching her when her parents needed to go out when she was a child and attending to her needs. Her heart ached to see the guilt in the older woman’s face.
“Tilda,” she said sternly, despite everything going on around them. She waited until Tilda lifted her gaze to meet hers, her expression softening marginally. “I’d be dead if it weren’t for you,” she reminded her, her smile tremulous as she fought to bring Tilda out of the state she was quickly slipping into.
Tilda took a shuddering breath, swallowing thickly before she nodded.
Again, Gertie felt her attention slip as she looked off to see if there were any sign of her parents. The longer that it took for them to show up, the more that her throat felt as if it were going to close up on her.
“I’m sure they’re fine, Miss Gertrude,” Tilda offered comfortingly, though even she didn’t sound sure of the words. “As soon as you’re all together, I can go look ‘round for them and bring them back to you…”
“I’m fine,” Gertie reassured her again, the lie easier the more she said it. “Please, Tilda…”
Tilda nodded tremulously, taking a step back and turning with purpose before she could talk herself out of it.
Gertie watched her disappear into the crowd surrounding her still burning house and kept a stiff upper lip as the woman finished on her hands, muttering in a language that Gertie didn’t understand. It sounded like German, which would make her one of the Mikkerson’s maids, but Gertie couldn’t be sure.
The only thing that she could be sure of was a reality that she didn’t want to face.
She knew what it meant that her parents hadn’t already found her, what the truth must be, even if Tilda hadn’t yet been ready to say it aloud. Her throat bobbed again, the maid in front of her standing and brushing her hands down her skirts as she looked over at Gertie appraisingly.
“My fiancé, Mr. John Evan, has he been called? Could you… could you send someone for him, please?” Gertie asked softly, her voice breaking over the words even as she said them.
The woman nodded, turning to leave as well, and Gertie could only hope that she’d understood what she was asking of her.
Her first tear broke past her lash line, falling down her cheek as she struggled to catch the breath she didn’t even realize she’d lost. She’d made it out, and while she’d seen several servants that had as well, the two people most notably missing were her parents.
She’d made it out, but she knew in her heart that they hadn’t, and that they wouldn’t.
Sobs broke from her all at once, her body sagging forward as she pushed the unburned part of her forehead into her knees and let her grief finally overtake her.
She was alone. More alone than she’d ever been.
“Do they have it controlled yet?”
“Do you see the smoke coming up over those houses?”
“Do you think it’ll spread?”
“Did anyone even make it out of that?”
“I heard a servant tripped with a candle.”
“I heard Mr. Timbleton had too much to drink and tried starting a fire in the wrong fireplace.”
“Have you heard anything about the girl? Their daughter? Gertrude?”
The voices calling back and forth across the street were all raised, speaking over one another as all the people in their nightgowns or hurriedly dressed flooded the streets on the way to Timbleton Manor. No one stopped and gave any consideration, for even a moment, to the hastily dressed young man pushing through them, his glasses askew on his nose.
They spoke excitedly, as if it were some great London high society scandal and not a robbery of a well-off family in an up-and-coming western town.
Hal could barely breathe, wanting the answer to some of those questions more than others, and frustrated with how willing so many people were to bandy gossip back and forth rather than run to help. He’d barely heard his father’s words concerning the fire when he came to wake him before he himself had jumped out of bed to throw on clothes.
Have you heard anything about the girl?
The one line echoed over and over in his head as he pushed through the crowd, his heart in his throat. He’d never cursed the distance between his home and the Timbletons more than he did at that moment.
Things like this didn’t happen here, certainly not to girls like Gertrude Timbleton.
She was ethereal and magical, different from anyone else in town and somehow still humble and kind. There wasn’t a time in his memory that he hadn’t been friends with her, not a time that he could remember thinking anything ill of her either, even when he’d thought that she might actually be contagious considering she was a girl. Bobby Ilton had loved watching him jump any time she’d touched him.
But then, they had been seven at the time.
Hal had kept his distance when she started pulling away, seeing her on the arm of that John fellow around town. He’d kept his mouth shut and his head down because he wasn’t stupid. He knew that they were just friends, he knew that his feelings for her were unreturned, and yet…
Now her house had caught on fire, now he had no idea if she was even safe and well, and suddenly her getting married didn’t seem to matter. Her impending wedding was nothing in the face of the loss of her.
He had considered her getting married, losing her, but now he knew…
“GERTIE!” he yelled almost as soon as he saw her, pushing through the few people left in his way to find her hunched over on the grassy knoll some hundred yards from where black smoke still poured out of her house and up over the neighboring houses as well. For a moment, he almost believed that the fire was well and truly out, but then a shout went up and flames burst from another window.
The bucket line hurried on, people still rushing to join it, and Hal watched as Gertie’s broken gaze turned from the commotion to him, her calm shattering for a moment as she caught his eyes.
Her blue eyes watered, lips parting, but she said nothing, tears pouring down her cheeks. He hadn’t noticed, not even staring at her, that there was something different about her face at first. There were so many different things going on, the dark of the night still crowding in around the blazing inferno that came from Timbleton Manor.
“Gertie,” he said more softly, crossing the rest of the distance between them and falling to his knees in front of her.
It was easy to see that she had something slathered on her face from that close up, the angry, red puckered skin beneath starting to peel even under whatever thick salve it was. He’d been around enough men over the years with similar injuries in various places to recognize them as fresh burns, though the sight of them marring her face and her hands was almost too much to bear.
“My parents aren’t out here,” Gertie whispered, her voice lost and small in the cacophony that sang around them. “They didn’t… Tilda went to look for them, but—” She cut off, her voice dying as she swallowed back another sob.
Hal knew what she was saying. He knew, too, that given the state of things and the state of the house and lawn that she must be right. He couldn’t bring himself to say as much though, not when he couldn’t fathom such a loss.
“Gertie, I’m so sorry,” Hal breathed, his voice pitched low.
He had no other words, no offer of comfort or solace. He was scared, even, to try taking her in his arms as he had when she’d fallen out of the orchard tree two summers past; afraid that he might hurt her further.
“Has a doctor seen to you yet? Do you need anything? I can go and search for your parents as well, or I can go and fetch a doctor, or anything else you might need,” he offered, rambling when he realized that he had no actual idea what he should offer at all.
“A man… Oh, I don’t know which man.” Gertie looked around, her face pulling into a wince from the sudden movement and her shoulders sinking. “He went to go fetch a doctor, and Tilda, my parents, but Hal…”
“I know,” he muttered, reaching forward, and touching her shoulder. He held her like that, his grip soft, his heart breaking for the picture she made, so hunched in her dressing gown, all alone on her lawn.
She was alone.
Her parents, he feared, had met a terrible end, and though he knew grief would hit him over it too, he was too concerned with her at the moment to notice as much. What stood out to him, instead, was the absence of anyone by her side. He understood people were putting out the fire, that Tilda and some unknown man had been dispatched to carry out duties, but where was John?
He’d expected to see him there; the boardinghouse he’d been staying in was closer to Timbleton Manor by an entire street than Hal’s own house was. He was almost afraid to ask though, his gaze moving to the burning house and worrying that her parents might have invited him to stay the night.
To think of Gertie suffering so much loss in one night…
Gertie sniffed, bringing his attention back to her, and Hal could see as she fought to regain control of her emotions, the grief on her face cutting rivets into her normally bright, beautiful features. Even the auburn of her hair seemed dull, the soot making it hang limply about her skull. Hal had never, in all the years of knowing her, known her to look so small.
“Is John helping put the fire out?” Hal asked gently, unwilling to overstep his boundaries or force the conversation, but knowing that Gertie needed something, any lifeline to cling to.
Her lower lip trembled, her head shaking back and forth as her gaze flitted again out to the crowd as if searching for him herself.
“I can go find him,” Hal offered suddenly, standing and letting go of her shoulder all at once, only too eager to do anything to help her, even find a man that he didn’t particularly care for.
“I sent the Mikkerson’s maid after him,” Gertie whispered, her voice breaking again as she glanced back at the house. A terrible groan rose up from where the smoke was billowing even more blackly now from within. “She left some ten minutes ago, I think…” she trailed off, her voice suddenly sounding far away.
Hal looked around, his feeling of unease growing once more. “Well, maybe she went to the wrong boardinghouse. Surely, I can double over her st—”
“Please,” Gertie whispered, cutting Hal off as effectively as if she’d screamed the one word instead. “Please, Hal—” Her voice cut off then, her tears working their way through it until she could draw in a shaky breath. “Can you just … sit with me?”
All the wind felt as if it had been knocked out of Hal at once, his lanky frame sinking back down to the ground, this time closer to her. Gingerly he lifted the arm that brushed hers when he sat, taking care to wrap it gently around her shoulders and allow his hand to rest over her dressing gown arm where it seemed she had no injuries.
He could hear the shuddered exhale leave her, her body sinking into his side as they watched the bucket line moving quickly, their voices raised in communication with one another.
He could sit with her.
Together, they watched as the orange and red arms of the fire were beaten back into the house, the great plumes of black that puffed after like exhalations of defeat from the very house itself. Slowly the different bucket lines slowed, dying out until there was only one, and then the buckets became less and less hurried as they were passed down the line.
Until, after Hal didn’t know how long, none were passed at all.
A cheer went up somewhere from the inside of the house, echoing out across the lines and yard, and even further out into the street below, relief sweeping through the town almost in tandem.
Gertie didn’t breathe that same sigh of relief though. If anything, she sank further into herself, her tears becoming more frequent, but quieter at the same time.
Hal knew she was focusing, not on the house or the salvage of it, but on the fact that there were still two missing figures that despite what she’d known she’d to have been wishing would appear.
The cheering died down, from inside the house first, and then swept like a cloud of the smoke that still filled the air outwards, a hush falling in its place instead.
There was no more yelling as news was passed out, cries filling the air instead, and the whispers that were passed out from the interior of the fire to the street were so heavy that Hal almost wished that he could put his hands over Gertie’s ears to protect her from hearing them.
Not that it would have mattered.
Tilda stumbled toward them, supported by the sheriff’s arm as he led her with a solemn face to where Gertie and Hal sat.
Hal didn’t think he’d ever seen Tilda look so old. The woman’s body practically sagged forward from the weight of the sobs wracking her body.
“Miss Timbleton,” Sheriff Branson greeted her, his tone so hesitant and somber that again Hal was struck with the urge to cover Gertie’s ears for her. “Miss Timbleton, I uh—I don’t know how to tell you this, but—” He cut off, clearing his throat, clearly at a loss for how to deliver the news he needed to an already distraught woman.
“My parents,” Gertie croaked out, her voice sounding somehow very far away and too close at the same time. “They found my parents…”
“Yes.” Sheriff Branson coughed, his gray eyes full of sorrow. “They found your parents near the back entrance… They…they didn’t make it out of the fire.”
Whatever Hal had been expecting, it wasn’t the sudden keening wail that left Gertie at the news. She fell further into his side, shaking as she curled in on herself, and it was all Hal could do to keep her upright without touching any part of her that might be injured.
Tilda, across from them, slid from the sheriff’s arm, her own arms wrapping around Gertie and pulling her into a half-embrace that Hal was caught between. She treated Gertie just as gingerly as Hal did, but she also cried just as hard as Gertie was.
Sheriff Branson glanced down, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he cleared his throat again, a look of grief entering his own eyes.
Things like this just didn’t happen in this town.
Hal didn’t know why he kept going back to that, or how he could feel so desperate to make it so and still be unable to do anything.
Gertie’s chin dug into his side, Tilda’s tears soaking his arm as she too leaned down, and Hal stared over both of their heads, the reality of what all had just occurred sinking into him like a lead ball.
The Timbletons were dead. Timbleton Manor was burned to who knew what extent, and Gertie was likely irritating her injuries by having her face in the fabric of his shirt. He couldn’t bear to try and remove her though, his heart breaking for her all over again as he stared at the smoke and the wreckage of what was left, so many eyes on their small group full of that same grief and loss of what to do.
Things like this just didn’t happen in this town.
And yet it had. It had happened, and at his side was the one most affected by all of it. Gertrude Timbleton. And he’d never felt as hopeless as he did then, not knowing how to help and watching the scene unfold around him like a badly written scene from some play.
Without the glow of the fire, under the haze of smoke that it had left, the entire landscape suddenly looked as dark and gray as the surrounding area felt.
And the crowd was just as hushed, as if they all felt it too.
“Healing Her Aching Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Gertrude Timbleton had the picture-perfect life in a small, booming town out West. She had a rich family, a social lifestyle, and the most handsome fiance she thought she could ever have. Until it was all swept away from beneath her feet in one foul evening. After a devastating fire takes everything she has ever loved, Gertie is left scarred, scared, full of questions and with no idea of who she can trust. All she has left in the world is her childhood friend and his family, but will they be enough to fill her hollow heart?
Hal Williams has always been in love with Gertie. From the time they were children, until well into their adult lives, he always knew she was the one for him. He always put those feelings away as one-sided though, burying and ignoring them as best he could. Now, with fate bringing them together in the most desperate of times and Gertie living in his house, he’s forced to confront those emotions head-on. In the midst of his own turmoil, can he help her heal from the scars encasing her, both her body and her heart?
Even in darkness, hope can rise like a phoenix from the ashes of a shattered life…
Gertie and Hal are left to grapple with more complications than just the intrigue and mystery of the fire though. They will need to face their own hearts, and then one another. Can a delicate love, kindled by the strings of fate, survive the embers of the flames that swallowed Gertie’s past? Or will the ghosts between them keep them apart forever?
“Healing Her Aching Heart” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.