Newton’s Boarding House, the small town of St Jute’s Valley, Colorado
Josie dreamed of the fire again.
She sat bolt upright, the smell of smoke still in her nostrils and the flicker of flames behind her eyes.
It was still dark, the kind of grayish-light that comes right before dawn. Light streamed in through the crack in Josie’s ragged curtains, but it didn’t make things better. Instead, it cast shadows around her tiny room.
This was her safe place. This was where Josie could be herself and not worry about fire or vengeful guardians, or any other sort of nightmare. That’s all they were now, nightmares. The thing about nightmares is that you can only wake up in a cold sweat and tell yourself it’s not real if it actually isn’t real. The things that plagued Josie’s dreams were, unfortunately, very real indeed.
Starting with the fire, the flames that painted the walls and licked along the ceiling of her mind, hungry and unstoppable. And waiting, always waiting. There’d be an opportunity if she wasn’t vigilant. A careless candle, a lantern knocked over, or an unattended fire. Anything.
Josie closed her eyes, forcing herself to breathe deeply and evenly.
It’s alright, she told herself, as she had night after night whenever the nightmares happened. There’s no fire. You checked everywhere last night and blew out every candle. There’s no fire.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t actually possible to check everywhere. The boarding house had plenty of rooms, and aside from trying to see whether candlelight was seeping out from under the bottom of the doors at night, Josie couldn’t do much to check for possible fire hazards.
Still, she did what she could and had to be satisfied with that. The kitchen and the parlor fireplace were the places that worried her most, and she checked them over and over again before bed. The kitchen fire was definitely out, and the parlor hadn’t even been used today, so the grate was cold and empty.
If their guests noticed Josie’s strange behavior, they kept it to themselves. Not that Mr. Newton would ever have listened to any complaints about Josie. Not his favorite employee.
Newton’s Boarding House was well-known as a comfortable and reasonably priced place, although some guests did complain that they were stingy with their candles. That was Josie’s fault, of course, as well as Mr. Newton’s for indulging her. He was a kind man, and Josie knew she’d fallen on her feet.
She sat up in bed properly, shivering in the night-time chill. There was no point trying to go back to sleep, not now. The dream would be waiting for her, just a doze away. Even if she did decide to sleep, there wouldn’t be much time. Josie knew from bitter experience that an hour of sleep could sometimes be worse than no sleep at all. She’d wake groggy, feeling as though she’d been awoken in the middle of the night instead of snatching up a few more hours’ sleep.
What time was it? Three o’clock? Four? The sun rose early at this time of year, and the guests tended to rise with it. That meant Josie ought to be getting up in an hour or two to get a start on breakfast. The nightmare had woken her up completely anyway, and the kitchen fire would need to be started. Since it had to be cold before she went to bed – Josie never allowed a fire to smolder all night, no matter how secure the fireplace or how cold the night was – it always took a while to warm it up again the next morning. Anita would complain if it were left to her.
She sighed. “No rest for the wicked,” Josie mumbled to herself, a phrase she often remembered hearing her mother say. She hadn’t known what it meant, then. Whenever she’d asked, her mother had chuckled and said she would explain it all when Josie was older.
She hadn’t, of course. There’d been no time.
Josie threw back the blankets briskly and got up. She dressed in the dark, something she was well used to. She had a stub of a candle beside her bed but preferred to save it for emergencies. They’d never been permitted candles in the orphanage, so Josie was quite used to doing without.
Besides, she knew the damage a single neglected candle could do.
Gray pre-dawn light streamed in through the thin curtains, providing enough light for Josie to dress. She knew her way around her room in the dark in any case. If she needed to get up in the night to use the outhouse – which she rarely did – Josie felt her way there and back in the dark, refusing to light up a candle. She could find her way around the boarding house with her eyes closed.
She’d done that once to see if she could really do it. Besides one stubbed toe on a step she’d forgotten about, Josie learned that she could get anywhere in the boarding house without the use of her eyes. It was a little experiment and an interesting one at that.
The boarding house was silent at this time of the morning, and Josie always enjoyed the peace and quiet. It wouldn’t last, though. In an hour or two, people would start to stir, wanting their breakfasts and wanting attention. It would be Josie’s job to take care of them.
She dressed quickly.
She turned back dirty, frayed sleeve cuffs and swung a shawl around her shoulders to hide a missing button that she hadn’t gotten around to repairing. There was always too much work to do.
And then she was ready. Josie stepped out of her room – a tiny box room with a bed, washbasin, small chest of drawers, and a minute nightstand, which still seemed like a wonder of luxury compared to the conditions at St. Ignatius’s Orphanage.
Another day begins, Josie thought, smothering a yawn, and went to work.
“I like my eggs over-easy,” Mrs. Something-or-other said, looking aggrieved. “I was quite clear that I like my eggs over-easy. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for you to understand that. I can’t possibly eat my eggs like that. At home, my maid always makes my eggs to perfection, and she is quite an empty-headed little thing. Are you more empty-headed than my maid, then?”
Josie bit back a sharp retort and took back the plate with a smile.
“No, madam. I’m very sorry that your eggs aren’t to your taste. I’ll see to it at once and make sure that they are over-easy.”
The woman gave a triumphant huff, clearly feeling that she’d won the battle. Her husband, a wisp of a man with a receding hairline and his nose buried in a paper, didn’t so much as glance at his wife and her victory. Since it was apparent that she wouldn’t get any attention from him, the woman glanced around the dining room, obviously expecting to be showered with admiring glances and nods of approval.
She did not, of course, get them. Josie rarely had problems with her guests and found that they often liked her very much. A few locals had come in for breakfast, and they were glowering ferociously at the woman.
None of it really served to cow the woman. Her sort of person never seemed to feel ashamed. The triumph faded, apparently dulled by the lack of attention, and she gave Josie a brief, dismissive nod.
Josie was relieved to get away from the hectoring woman. As she headed towards the kitchen, she could hear the woman’s shrill voice again, telling her husband off for something or other. The man seemed to be shrinking down into his seat, attempting to hide behind his newspaper.
People watching was very entertaining, but strictly a spectator sport, in Josie’s opinion.
Still, she was proud of how she’d conducted herself. The woman would have no cause to complain about Josie’s attitude or response, regardless of how richly she’d deserved a sharp retort.
Mr. Newton had always impressed on her how important it was to be polite and accommodating, back when Josie was a fragile teenage girl who’d never had to serve guests or wait on tables, let alone deal with aggressive and dissatisfied customers.
“People say that the customer is always right,” he’d said once, wincing. “Well, that’s obviously not true, but one spiteful customer can do irreparable damage to a business. We aren’t the only boarding house in the area, so we need to keep up with the competition. Grit your teeth and laugh about the customers later, but for heaven’s sake, keep them happy.”
And Mr. Newton had been good to Josie, so she was willing to swallow her annoyance and keep the customers happy.
The cook glanced up inquisitively from her place at the stove when Josie came in, clutching the untouched breakfast plate.
“What’s the matter?”
“She wants her eggs over-easy.” Josie sighed, setting down the plate. She contemplated telling Anita about the unpleasant woman but decided against it. Anita had a red-hot temper and might well decide to go storming back into the dining room and throw the plate of inadequate eggs into the woman’s face.
That, of course, would be very wrong. Funny, but wrong. There was a reason Anita worked in the kitchen, not out there with the guests.
Speaking of kitchens, the breakfasts were almost completely finished, ready to go out and be served to the last of the guests. Anita was a marvelous cook, and the delicious, savory smell that filled the kitchen made Josie long to take a bite. Her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t felt hungry when she first woke up, and by the time she did, there was no time to eat her own breakfast. Now, she’d have to wait until the guests had eaten. That was the problem with working in a boarding house. You couldn’t eat until your guests had eaten; you couldn’t sleep until your guests were asleep. They expected you to be awake when they were and ready to wait at their convenience at all times.
Josie liked working in a boarding house, but not all the time.
The cook sighed, shaking her head. “They’re so picky these days. I’ll remake the eggs, so you just try and keep the rest of the plate warm. I’m not redoing all that bacon and the sausages.”
Josie chuckled. “I’ll do my best.”
Anita Ryan was a local girl who came in to cook twice a day. At the boarding house, breakfast and supper were provided, and the guests had to get lunch for themselves. At eighteen, Anita was a year younger than Josie, but she was already taller and more confident.
In moments of jealousy, Josie thought that Anita’s self-confidence and easy, graceful manners were thanks to her family. Her parents loved her, and she had plenty of siblings. They were all red-haired, all of them, and Anita had brown eyes to match. Her skin was too pale for the summer sun, and Anita would burn horribly if she ventured out without a parasol or some sort of shade.
Anita was commonly considered one of the prettiest girls in town. Of course, in a small town like St. Jute, that was hardly a high bar. Josie loved her friend too much to envy her. Josie herself had deeply tanned skin, even in winter, inherited from her dark-skinned, dark-eyed mother, who always claimed that she had Indian heritage. Josie’s hair was jet-black and curly, always fighting its way out from whatever knot or braid she’d twisted it into. Her eyes were pale green, and a startlingly light in her face.
They were a good-looking pair, but Josie knew that Anita would soon be married, and that could spell the end of their friendship.
She tried not to worry about it.
“Are you busy today?” Anita asked, concentrating on the frying pan, oblivious to Josie’s rising levels of anxiety.
The fat from the pan could splash anywhere, Josie thought. Anita could be burned. It could set fire to…
“Josie?” Anita said quietly, not turning around. “I’m not going to burn myself. I’m not going to start a fire.”
Josie colored. “I’m sorry, I’m being silly.”
“You aren’t being silly. So, are you busy?”
“Yes. I have to deep clean two of the guest rooms upstairs, and of course, the hall and dining room need a good sweep and dust. I want to find time to water the plants downstairs, too.”
Anita chuckled. “You and your plants. Mr. Newton’s a saint, letting you take over the garden and bring all those plants inside.”
Josie had to smile. “He likes them too. Besides, you know how awful that garden was before I started working here.”
“That’s true,” Anita admitted. “It’s hard to believe that you’ve only been here just over three years. It feels as if you’ve always been here.”
Josie said nothing. She wished she could feel as though she’d always been here, with her friend and her comfortable room all to herself, and kindly Mr. Newton. But the memories of the orphanage were just behind her. Memories of cold, damp rooms, gnawing hunger, and fierce beatings.
And lurking beyond the memories of the orphanage was the fire, flames flickering behind Josie’s eyes, choking smoke filling her room.
She swallowed hard, squeezing her eyes closed.
“Are you looking forward to Easter?” Josie said, desperate to distract herself.
“I surely am,” Anita said, glancing over her shoulder with a grin. “There’s a certain gentleman in town I’m very interested in, and I think he’s going to ask to court me over Easter. I can hardly wait. This is exactly what I need after my last heartbreak, don’t you think?”
Josie chuckled. “You have men lining up around the block to court you, Anita. Who is it, or are you not going to tell me?”
“I don’t want to jinx it,” Anita said with a wink. “If he has a friend, I could set you up.”
Josie’s smile faded. “No thanks, Anita. Not just yet.”
She sighed. “You can’t stay single forever.”
“Oh, I can.”
Anita carefully ladled the fresh eggs – cooked over easy! – onto the warm plate.
“Just because you were hurt before doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give love another try,” she said sensibly. “I’m not going to push you into anything, but if you married a nice man, you could have your own house, your own money, your own family. Doesn’t that sound good?”
Josie picked up the plate. “It does, but I’m happy here.”
“I didn’t say that you weren’t. I just said that you might fall in love someday.”
Josie smiled tightly. She had no intention of falling in love ever again. Getting close to people was always a mistake. It always hurt in the end. Always. Why go plunging back into heartbreak?
Anita was watching her, waiting for a reply, but Josie only turned away and scurried out of the kitchen. She felt a little guilty about being so rude, but Anita did have a tendency to push and push when it came to Josie’s personal life.
“Everything alright, dearie?” Mr. Newton asked cheerfully as Josie came hurrying back from the dining room. She had to cross the foyer, which was where the desk with the guestbook and keys was kept.
“Yes, Mr. Newton,” Josie replied. “I was just fixing one of the guests’ eggs.”
“That’s my girl. There’s a train coming along from Chicago soon, and I reckon we’ll have an influx of guests. Will the empty rooms be ready by the end of today?”
“They surely will.”
“Excellent. Good work as always, Josie.”
Josie beamed at the praise. Mr. Newton was close to sixty, a good-humored widower with tiny half-moon spectacles and an explosion of thick white hair. He adored his two daughters, his two sons-in-law, and his growing brood of grandchildren. He and his wife had run the boarding house since they were first married, and he didn’t seem to have a malicious bone in his body. Josie knew how lucky she’d been, stumbling off the train and into Mr. Newton’s boarding house. She certainly hadn’t been trained to work in a boarding house, but he’d kindly and patiently trained her up. Three years on, and the wide-eyed sixteen-year-old girl barely out of an oppressive orphanage was capable of running the boarding house herself if she needed to.
She was happy here. St. Jute’s Valley was a small town but a growing one, and far enough from the bad memories that Josie could sleep soundly.
Most of the time, anyway.
Her work was very general. She cooked when Anita couldn’t, served food, catered to the guests, cleaned the rooms, did the shopping, and so on. It wasn’t difficult work, and Mr. Newton wasn’t a difficult employer. Josie had taken on the responsibility of the garden and her indoor plants, as well as her late-night patrols. She walked the dark hallways and downstairs rooms, checking for fires not quite put out, candles left to burn unattended, or anything else that might spark into a flame during the night.
Josie was glad. She felt foolish at times, but the memory of red-hot flames and black smoke kept her walking the halls before bed every night.
“Maura and Lucille are coming down later,” Mr. Newton said, breaking into Josie’s thoughts. “We’ll take tea in the kitchen. Would you like to join us?”
Josie swallowed. She liked Maura and Lucille, Mr. Newton’s daughters. They were pleasant women. But they only seemed to talk about their families and their happy lives. Josie would just spend a few hours being reminded of what she didn’t have anymore.
They’d be kind to her, of course, but Josie would just know that she wasn’t sitting at the table as one of Mr. Newton’s daughters. She wasn’t part of the family, and she never would be. Their kindness sometimes felt like pity, and that always grated against Josie’s nerves. She’d end up feeling bad-tempered, and her mood might darken Mr. Newton’s tea party with his daughters. That would hardly be fair.
“No, thank you, Mr. Newton,” Josie said lightly. “I’ve got too much work to do. If we’re likely to get a lot more guests, I think I’ll go around and polish up all the brass so the place looks shiny.”
“As you like, as you like,” Mr. Newton said, good-humored as always. “You’re so industrious, Josie. Don’t work yourself to death – you’ll be no good to me then!”
Josie smiled weakly. “I won’t.”
“Have breakfast before you get to work. Yes, I know you haven’t eaten this morning. That’s an order, my dear.”
“Better not wait too long,” William said gruffly. “The train won’t wait.”
Reuben put down his fork and grinned. “Is that your way of saying, ‘Goodbye, little brother, I’ll miss you’? Or is it just a hint that you want me to get gone? If so, you’re being a little too subtle there, Will. Not like you at all.”
William’s wife, Lyla, snorted. She’d always had a better sense of humor than William. Reuben liked to ask her, loudly and often, why on earth she’d wanted to marry someone like William. Lyla roared with laughter at those jokes. William did not.
Not that he really minded. Reuben knew his big brother well enough not to push too far. It was just a little knack he had.
“It is not a hint,” Willian snapped, although it looked as though he was trying not to smile. That was good. They wouldn’t get all maudlin and miserable if they were laughing.
Not that there was much to laugh at, not at the moment.
Goodbyes were always awful. Reuben had lived through too many of his own. His parents, his beloved childhood pet, and most recently and most heartbreaking of all, his oldest and dearest friend lost before his time.
That probably isn’t what most people think of when they imagine goodbyes, Reuben thought sourly. They probably think of waving goodbye to a loved one as they puff away on a train. Not leaving on a trip and never coming back. Not dying.
He gave himself a little shake. He needed to stay vibrant and optimistic for now, at least until everything was sorted out. At the very least, he needed to keep himself together for everyone else. William and Lyla kept looking at him with sad, anxious expressions as if they thought Reuben might burst into tears at any moment or announce that the pressure was too much and he was leaving immediately at that moment.
William especially thought that Reuben was weaker than he really was. It wasn’t an insult. It was just the way an older sibling looked at the younger one. Childish though it was. Reuben wished that his big brother could come with him.
He couldn’t, of course, so there was no point dwelling on that hope for even an instant. No point at all.
“Is Stefan coming down yet?” Reuben asked, hating how hopeful he sounded. “He’ll miss breakfast.”
It was already a bad sign that Stefan wasn’t down. The upstairs of the house was very quiet. There were no little footsteps rattling around, no sign of life at all up there. What was the poor child doing? Lying in bed and pretending that none of it was happening?
Lyla’s smile faded, and she glanced over at her husband. “Well, he’s been sleeping badly the last few nights. Nightmares and all. I don’t like to wake him up too early. But don’t worry, I won’t let you leave without saying goodbye.”
Ah. That was it. Stefan was angry.
It was hard to blame him. He was very young to have been abandoned so frequently and so thoroughly, even though it had really been nobody’s fault at all. How could you explain that to a child?
Reuben remembered talking to Stefan’s father, who was in floods of tears himself, trying to explain to Stefan why he did not have a mama. It wasn’t going to be an easy conversation, and Reuben couldn’t seem to think of a single helpful thing to say. Their conversation had stuck in his head all those years later. He wondered if it had made a similar mark on Stefan.
Probably. The poor child would be a mass of scars by now, none of them visible. It wasn’t fair.
“I don’t think he’s forgiven me for leaving,” Reuben said flatly.
William sighed, reaching over to place a heavy hand on Reuben’s shoulder.
“He’s only a little boy, Reuben. He’s seven years old, and he feels entirely alone in the world. No mother, no father. And now you’re leaving. A few months is an eternity to a kid.”
“I’ve told him that I’ll bring him up to Colorado as soon as I can, but he just looks at me with those big doe-eyes as if I’d just told him that I’m abandoning him forever,” Reuben murmured. “I feel like a monster.”
“You’re doing what’s best,” Lyla said firmly. “He’ll be fine here with Will and me until you get settled.”
Reuben glanced down at his watery oatmeal. Lyla was not a good cook, and since William would eat anything and appeared to have no actual tastebuds, there was no reason for her to try and improve. Reuben knew that he ought to eat – goodness only knew when he’d get a chance to on the train – but he simply couldn’t summon up the appetite. He swished his spoon around in the bowl, trying to convince himself to eat at least a few bites so as not to hurt Lyla’s feelings.
She and William were already doing Reuben a big favor.
William was twenty-six, four years older than Reuben, and he seemed much older. He was built like a mountain, tall and wide and craggy, and spoke gruffly and brusquely. He had hair a few shades darker than Reuben’s, a mousy brown color, and kept it cropped close to his head. Reuben’s hair was a pleasant sandy blond, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit that he took care of his hair. At the moment, it hung in curls over his forehead. The brothers had the same sparkling blue eyes hidden under thick, smudgy blond eyebrows.
They’d been known around town as the Hale boys, and they were thick as thieves. It hadn’t mattered to Reuben that he didn’t have a host of siblings. All he needed was his brother.
Reuben was tall and strong too, but beside his brother, he looked tiny. Lyla was tall and brawny, too, and if they had children, Reuben had no doubt that they would have little giants and giantesses.
I’m going to miss them both so much, he thought with a pang of misery.
It had been two months since he had requested a position as a deputy in Colorado. It had seemed like such a great idea. The pay was good, he’d have more responsibility and more chance to advance, and houses and land were cheap out there. He could do well for himself.
But now that the time had come to leave, Reuben didn’t want to go, not one bit.
And, of course, there was the business of Stefan Cob.
Stefan’s father, Jeremy, had been Reuben’s closest friend. The three of them – William, Reuben, and Jeremy – had run around town together, causing mischief and getting into trouble. Then Jeremy had gotten married, and William a few years later.
Jeremy lost his wife in childbirth, but at least he had his baby boy to console him. Stefan.
And now Jeremy was gone, too. It was some sort of fever, quick and quiet, and just like that, Stefan was orphaned.
Jeremy hadn’t asked Reuben to take care of his son. He hadn’t needed to. Reuben would never have let the little boy go into an orphanage.
Places like that broke children like Stefan down to nothing.
It seemed fair that Reuben should take the boy. After all, he and Jeremy had been the closest, and he made more money as a deputy than William did as a laborer. Besides, Lyla was pregnant, and her family had a history of twins. They couldn’t afford to take care of Stefan, and it wouldn’t be fair.
First, though, Reuben needed to set himself up in Colorado, and that meant leaving Stefan behind for a while.
He glanced at the clock and winced. Quarter to seven. His train left in forty-five minutes, at seven-thirty on the dot.
“I have to go,” Reuben murmured. “Maybe it would be best if you didn’t wake him.”
William and Lyla glanced at each other, frowning.
“Are you sure?” William said slowly.
Reuben nodded, getting to his feet and slinging his rucksack over his shoulder.
“I don’t want to upset him,” he said, forcing a smile. “Might be for the best.”
“Are you going, Uncle Ruby?”
A tiny voice came from the doorway.
A diminutive boy stood there with jet-black eyes and a wild mop of unruly black locks. His eyes seemed too large for his face, and his clothes swamped his small frame, despite Lyla’s inexpert attempts at tailoring.
Reuben moved over to Stefan, kneeling down in front of him. Stefan’s lower lip was trembling, a sure sign that he was near to tears.
“I’ve got to go for a while, little man,” Reuben said softly. “I’m going out to make a good home for us in Colorado. Remember what I promised?”
“My own room and a puppy,” Stefan said, his voice small.
“That’s right. I’ve got to go get your room ready and pick out your puppy. I won’t be long, and Uncle Will and Aunt Lyla are going to watch you while I’m gone.” Reuben smiled reassuringly, smoothing Stefan’s wild hair back from his forehead. “Just a little while, I promise.”
“Pa said that he was coming back too,” Stefan whispered. “He said he just needed to sleep for a bit, and I should go out and play.”
Reuben swallowed hard, a lump sticking in his throat.
“I know, little man. But your pa was sick, you know that. I’m not sick. You’ll be up with me in Colorado before you know it.”
“Promise,” Reuben reassured him.
Stefan gave the tiniest of smiles and threw his spindly arms around Reuben’s neck. “I love you, Uncle Ruby.”
“And I love you too, Stefan. Now, I’ve got to go, but I’ll write lots of letters to Uncle Will, and I’ll write something for you, too, okay?”
Before he could let himself change his mind, Reuben got to his feet and forced himself out of the warm, cozy kitchen and out into the cold. Easter was coming up, and the air still held a chill from winter. He’d promised to do egg hunts and all sorts of fun games with Stefan, and now he’d probably miss out on celebrating Easter with him this year.
Reuben turned to wave. William stood in the doorway with Stefan balanced on his hip, and Lyla stood beside him, arms cupped around her swollen belly.
“See you soon!” Reuben called with much more cheerfulness than he felt.
The train gave another almighty wobble, and Reuben leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and concentrating on not being sick.
Reuben glanced up at the man sitting in the opposite seat, some businessman in an expensive suit and hat. He clutched a newspaper protectively as if it might protect him if Reuben really did vomit everywhere.
“Just a little travel sick,” Reuben managed. “This is the farthest I’ve ever traveled on a train. I guess the road’s a little bumpy here.”
The businessman smiled wanly, clearly not reassured. “Look out of the window, not down at your feet,” he advised. “Don’t count the passing trees, though. Look at the scenery or up at the sky.”
Reuben leaned back in his seat, fixing his gaze on the scudding clouds. The man was right – the nauseous feeling faded away after a few moments. He still didn’t feel good, but at least he didn’t actively feel like he was about to vomit up that disgusting pie he’d bought at a train station that morning.
Even thinking of that pie made Reuben feel queasy again. If he hadn’t been absolutely ravenous, he wouldn’t have eaten it. The first thing he would do in Colorado was get himself a decent meal.
“That helped,” Reuben said, careful to keep looking out of the window. “Thanks.”
The businessman chuckled. “No problem. Where are you headed?”
“Colorado, St Jute’s Valley.”
“Ah, I know St Jute’s. It’s a nice place. Getting bigger all the time, I hear. What’s your business there?”
“I’m a sheriff’s deputy. Say, you wouldn’t know anywhere to stay in St Jute’s? Looks like it’ll be late when we get there.”
The businessman folded up his newspaper. Reuben could hear the crunch and rustle.
“Actually, I do. There are a few boarding houses, but one, in particular, is very good.”
The train screeched lazily to a halt, and Reuben was out of his seat the second it stopped altogether. He nodded and smiled at the businessman, who’d finished his newspaper and was now staring idly out of the window at the growing dark.
“Good luck!” the businessman yelled after Reuben.
Reuben knew exactly what time it was because the station master kept yelling it at the top of his voice. Seven forty-five in the evening. Twilight was already gathering, the last of the light getting sucked out of the sky and replaced with cold, crisp moonlight. The temperature had dropped sharply with the sun gone, and Reuben’s breath billowed around him in clouds.
This place felt very different from what he was used to. It wasn’t really that far between Chicago and Colorado, but even so, Reuben felt as though he’d stepped out of the familiar world he was used to and into another world altogether.
It was quieter here, which was what he’d expected. This was a much smaller town and nothing in comparison to the bustling city of Chicago. But that was good, wasn’t it? Quieter was what he wanted. Quiet was good for raising a child, putting down roots, build a life for himself and his new ward. Quiet was easy, if not exciting. Quiet was necessary.
Reuben didn’t like quiet, but really that wasn’t important at all. What was important was that he took care of Stefan. Stefan couldn’t be let down again.
And, more pressingly, it was important that Reuben found somewhere to stay for the night, and the next few nights, until he could settle into his new job and find a decent enough place to live.
Then he could send for Stefan, and the terrifying business of parenting could begin in earnest. He was trying not to think too hard about that part. Surely parenting was natural. Instinctive, even. Maybe he’d pick it up easily, and in a year’s time, he’d be smoking a pipe on a rocking chair on his own porch, laughing at how terrified he’d been when he first arrived in town.
He didn’t smoke a pipe, but that wasn’t the point. He didn’t have a rocking chair, either, but he could build one easily enough if he got time.
Reuben briefly treated himself to a vision of two rocking chairs with a faceless wife sitting beside him. Faceless because he hadn’t met any woman he’d ever considered marrying – except her, of course – and it didn’t seem wise to tempt fate by looking for wives in this very small town.
He gave himself a shake, banishing the little vision. No, Reuben Hale would not be getting married. Not anytime soon. He needed to focus now, focus on parenting, focus on being serious. There was no time to waste at all on romance or the search for romance.
A cold wind made him shiver, and Reuben realized that he was the last person standing on the platform, with the station master staring curiously at him from the safety of his little office.
Reuben flashed him an awkward smile and fished something out of his pocket. He pulled out the bit of paper that would direct him to his new home.
For a while, anyway.
He glanced down at the piece of paper the businessman had given him, with an address scrawled on it.
“Excuse me,” Reuben called over to the station master, who had opened the window to his office and was sucking in a breath to bellow out the time again. He looked disconcerted at being interrupted. His swelled chest deflated like a pricked balloon.
“What is it?” he asked brusquely.
“Can you direct me to Newton’s Boarding House? I’m looking for a room for the night.”
The station master pursed his lips. “Steward’s is closer. And cheaper. My brother runs it.”
Reuben hesitated. Closer and cheaper sounded good, but the businessman – whose name he’d never asked, to his shame – had been adamant that Newton’s was the best.
Besides, it was pretty clear that the station master was only recommending his brother’s boarding house out of nepotism. Reuben couldn’t care less where he stayed, but it would be nice to have some sort of comfort.
“Do they do food at your brother’s boarding house? I’ll need meals.”
“Ah.” Reuben nodded. “I’m looking for a meal. Reckon Newton’s would serve food this late?”
The station master shrugged, seeming to lose interest now that Reuben wasn’t going to his brother’s boarding house.
“How should I know? You’d better ask, I suppose. It’s over that way,” he said absently, waving vaguely in a direction. “They might be full, though. Newton’s is popular.”
Reuben sighed, resisting the urge to make a sarcastic comment thanking the station master for his help. This was a small town, after all. This wasn’t Chicago. He was an outsider, and he’d better learn to fit in fast.
I don’t just have myself to think about, Reuben reminded himself. I’ve got to think about Stefan too.
That was a sobering thought. Reuben had never imagined himself with a wife or children. And now he had a child who was his sole responsibility. How was he going to manage it?
One thing at a time, Ruby, Reuben told himself. Find shelter, then food, then you can worry about getting settled.
He saw distant lights and hurried toward them and was rewarded by a large sign with chipped paint reading “Newton’s Boarding House.”
He pushed at the door, relieved to find that it was open, and stepped into a warm foyer with a worn but colorful carpet. The place was simply decorated, shabby but not dirty. A fire burned in the grate, and through an open door at the back, Reuben spotted what looked like a dining room, and the delicious smell of roasting meat floated toward him.
“Hello, sir. Can I help you?” came a soft, feminine voice.
At the other end of the foyer was a large desk with a heavy guestbook resting on it. Behind the desk stood a slim, dark-haired woman with tanned skin and startlingly bright green eyes. The sort of eyes that could mesmerize a person.
Reuben shook himself out of it, reminding himself that this poor woman had a job to do.
“Evening,” he said, grinning. “I’d like a room, please.”
“Just in time. I think you got the last one,” the girl said, smiling shyly up at him. “What’s your name?”
“Reuben. Reuben Hale.”
“Welcome to Newton’s Boarding House, Mr. Hale. Sign here, please. It’s two dollars a night or twelve dollars for the whole week. Breakfast and supper are included.”
“I’ll stay for the week,” Reuben said, scribbling in the guestbook and rummaging for his wallet. “Am I too late for supper? I’m starving.”
“No, not at all,” the girl said, laughing. She turned to take a brass key out and handed it to him. “Go on and take up your things, and then come down and sit in the dining room. I’ll get you a plate.”
“Thank you. It’s good to see a friendly face after a long journey,” Reuben said. He turned toward the staircase and hesitated, glancing over his shoulder. “Uh, mind if I ask what your name is?”
The girl paused as if she wasn’t sure whether she should give it to him. A pretty woman like that probably got flirted with a lot in a boarding house like this.
She seemed to make up her mind.
“Josie,” she said. “My name is Josie Riggs.”
“Touched by an Easter Miracle” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Josie Riggs is a young woman with a troubled past. Beset by tragedies, orphaned at a young age, and left in a cruel institution, she finally finds peace in a boarding house. However, her world is turned upside down when a strange young man comes to town. His arrival intrigues Josie, but even though she’s unstoppably drawn to him, it seems as if he holds a terrible secret…
Can Josie overcome her fears and open her heart to love?
After the loss of a dear friend and a heartbreak that left him scarred, Deputy Reuben Hale finds himself with a child to take care of. The terrified man realizes he must work hard to become a good father, and the town of St Jute’s Valley seems like the perfect place for a fresh start. When he meets Josie, he finally hopes that his secrets are far behind him, but little does he know that danger lurks around every corner…
Can Reuben establish himself as a good deputy in town with a dark past like his?
Josie and Reuben seem to be made for each other, and hope begins to grow between them – something they thought they would never feel again. Together, they must face their demons, as well as a dangerous figure from Reuben’s past who is determined to keep them apart. Will they manage to overcome all the wicked challenges or will they be forever drifted apart by their enemies?
“Touched by an Easter Miracle” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.