Opening Scene: Maybe This Christmas
Opening Scene: Maybe This Christmas
Copyright © 2014 Kristin Holt LC
Sometimes even an old-fashioned courtship needs a deadline.
.December, 1899 Mountain Home, Colorado
On December first, Effie’s dreaded day of reckoning arrived.
She’d known it would, eventually. She’d savored every last day of freedom. Two years, three months, and twenty-one days.
She’d run as fast and as far as she’d known how. More than two thousand miles. It hadn’t been far enough.
Late afternoon sunlight cast elongated shadows on the street beyond her shop window. Cold, gray shades of winter. In her nightmares, this scene consistently played out against brilliant colors of autumn.
He stood on the far side of the street, less than thirty feet away. With feet braced wide and fists upon narrow hips, his open coat displayed a federal badge.
She hadn’t seen him in five years. Dark curls hung longer than in her memory. Yet she’d know him anywhere.
An icy river flowed sluggish in her veins.
August Rose, United States Marshal.
Hunter Kendall stood at her shop’s counter, admiring each piece of the infant layette he’d come for. “You outdid yourself this time, Mrs. O’Leary. Beautiful work. Miranda will be so pleased.”
Effie tried to pull her panicked attention from Gus and focus on her patron. She blinked rapidly. Hunter Kendall was more than a client–he and his wife, Miranda, were her friends. Good friends who knew nothing of her crimes. She wished to God it were possible to bury her soiled past so deep no one in Mountain Home would hear of it.
There was no chance of that now.
Hunter refolded a baby gown made of the finest cotton. “Miranda’s anxious for the little one to come.”
He seemed to want a response, so Effie made a sympathetic sound. Her throat had constricted, her thoughts scattered to the four winds. She could do no better.
“We’re staying at the Finlays’ through New Year’s, maybe longer.”
Of course she’d want to be with her mother, though her own home was a scant mile away.
“Wish her well for me, won’t you?” How could her voice sound natural?
A four-horse team pulled a heavily loaded wagon past, blocking her view of Gus. Time slowed like molasses poured in January. Her breathing rasped too loud as her fear doubled.
“Sure will.” Hunter ambled to the shelves lining the north wall. His gaze roved over the display of fabrics and he paused to finger a cotton flannel in pale buttercup. “This is nice.”
The wagon finally cleared. Gus strode straight for her door.
Her heart skipped two beats and slammed back into rhythm.
“Is this spoken for?” Hunter was oblivious to her distress. “I picture a night dress and wrapper. A timely Christmas present for my wife, don’t you think? I want to give her something that makes her feel beautiful, especially after the baby comes.”
Effie gripped the wooden counter top, panic rooting her boots to the floor.
The back door. She could make it, just as Gus cleared the shop’s entrance. He would apprehend her within seconds.
“Do you have time?” Hunter seemed to really see her then. “Mrs. O’Leary?”
She blinked, desperate to mask her terror. If Hunter read her, he’d stay and try to help. He’d witness her humiliation as August Rose, U.S. Marshal, locked her in handcuffs.
Gus no doubt brought proof of her true identity, along with a warrant for her arrest.
Hunter, bless his good-hearted soul, took a step closer. “You feeling all right, ma’am?”
Bells hanging from the doorknob clattered as Gus pushed the door open. Winter air swirled in, but Effie was already so cold. She fought to keep her focus on Hunter… and failed.
Don’t let it be him. Please, let it be a trick of the light, a waking nightmare–
His gray eyes zeroed in on her, pinned her to the spot.
Definitely Gus Rose.
Five years later, the handsome young man she’d loved had filled out and broadened, hardened into a lawman.
Her stomach rolled all the way over within her too-tight corset.
Hunter followed her gaze over his shoulder. He glanced at the newcomer long enough to make a decision. He covered one of her clenched hands with a big, warm palm, a soothing touch meant to convey…something. Support? Kindness? He raised one brow as if to repeat his question: You feeling all right?
She needed Hunter to leave. Now.
She didn’t want anyone to witness her humiliation, especially Hunter. The townsfolk witnessing her walk of shame, in shackles and handcuffs, would be awful.. But if anyone overheard the conversation sure to come, the sensational news would spread like wildfire. The train ran through Mountain Home once daily. By the time Gus forced her onto tomorrow’s train, everyone would know.
Hunter leaned both elbows on the counter, as if he had all the time in the world. “Think you’ve got time to squeeze that project in before Christmas?” He indicated the flannel with a tip of his dark head. “I’ll pay double your rate.” His smile said what words did not–he’d look out for her until the stranger was long gone.
For once, she wished her friend’s husband wasn’t so kind.
Effie cleared her throat, fought for breath. With trembling hands she pulled out her ledger that tracked all orders placed, materials used, hours of labor, selling price, and date of delivery or pick up. She scanned the entries, unable to make sense of it. “Yes. For you, yes.” If, by some miracle she were still here, she’d do it.
“Put it down, then. Can’t have that beautiful cloth going to anyone else now, can I?” He claimed the yardage off the shelf and set it on the counter. He’d been in often enough to know Effie set aside pieces once selected. “I’m thinking a long row of buttons down the front, to make it easy with the baby.”
“Yes, of course.” She tried to smile, quite impossible with Gus watching her every move.
“Long sleeves, high neck. Tucks?” He drew lines from his collarbone on down, to illustrate.
Fortunately, Gus remained in her line of sight, leaning against the door frame. A smile of triumph curved his mouth–like a cat who’d cornered his prey, content to toy with it.
Passersby bundled against the winter cold paused to admire the new display she’d put in the window the previous night. Two more customers stopped. Move along, keep going. How much of an audience could she tolerate?
Gus drew her attention, the quirk of a smile about his lips more amusement now than triumph. She recognized his compassion in allowing her to finish with her customer…an unexpected kindness.
“You have her measurements?” Hunter asked.
She nodded, smiled as genuinely as she could muster, praying he wouldn’t think ill of her when he heard the sordid details. He’d been a frequent patron, ordering dozens of beautiful items for his bride to replace the mourning black she’d worn until their marriage a year ago. They’d been so happy together.
Effie had never known contentment, much less love like theirs, in her ill-fated marriage.
Which lead to this fateful day.
Quickly, she documented Hunter’s order in the ledger, wrapped the baby’s layette in brown paper and tied it with string. He paid in full with a generous tip, despite her protestations.
“Thank you, Mr. Kendall.” She tried to convey far more than appreciation for his patronage. “Give Miranda my best? Kiss the baby for me.”
“You’ll come visit after the birth, won’t you? Surely you can get away on a Sunday afternoon.”
The shop was closed on Sundays, and she’d made a habit of visiting friends. She’d miss it. She’d miss everything about Mountain Home. She nodded.
The weight of all she would lose provoking tears.
She would not cry, she would not plead. She’d made her bed, and she’d lie in it.
“On second thought…” Hunter dug deep into his pocket. “Let me leave a deposit on the night clothes.” He quickly counted a few coins and set them on the counter.”We’ll settle when I pick it up. Or you can send it with Noelle.”
Miranda’s younger sister Noelle worked three days a week as Effie’s assistant. Thank goodness the young woman wasn’t here to witness Effie’s humiliation.
“Yes. Th-thank you.” Anxiety flushed her body hot and cold all at once. With Hunter’s departure, nothing stood between the pretense of normality and incarceration.
Hunter pulled on his gloves, nodded to Gus, and with the layette bundle beneath his arm, left the shop.
Cold air swirled about Effie’s ankles, swishing the hem of her widow’s weeds.
The bells hanging from the knob tinkled. The door had barely shut when Gus flipped the sign to CLOSED. He pulled down the rolling shade over the front door’s window.
Her heart raced.
Too bad the bay window didn’t have privacy shades. Several curious faces peered inside. They’d long since lost interest in the display. No, no! Must Hunter join the crowd at her window?
Within the quarter-hour, everyone in Mountain Home would know of her disgrace. Gut-twisting agony made her weak-kneed. So many friends and neighbors trusted her. Numerous orders were half-completed, and she’d accepted payment on dozens not yet delivered. They’d be justifiably angry over the loss of hard-earned money.
Her thoughts raced ahead–she’d leave instructions with Mr. McGillicudy to issue refunds…
Gus twisted the key in the lock. The soft click knocked her heart into a frantic staccato.
She expected him to pocket the key but he left it in the keyhole. Armed, twice her weight, a predator–she couldn’t escape him and he knew it.
Bile rose in her throat and she feared she’d be sick.
His boots thumped ominously on the polished floorboards.
She fell back a step. All determination to accept her fate fled like the wind. “G-Gus, listen, please. I can explain.”
Two steps closer. His feral grin widened.
Her back collided with the door to her private quarters at the back of the shop. “I can explain–I know it wasn’t right–“
If he had an ounce of compassion, if he recalled the tender feelings they’d once had for each other–
He snagged her wrist.
He wouldn’t do this!
She expected the cold slap of iron.
Instead, he yanked on her arm, tipping her off balance. She fell against his chest and found herself looking up–way up–into eyes the color of a storm-tossed Atlantic.
In that split second, she glimpsed the intention in his eyes… what? Surely he didn’t mean to…
Her breath snagged in her throat.
He lowered his head and claimed her mouth with a kiss.
Copyright © 2014 Kristin Holt LC
COMING OCTOBER 1, 2014
Holidays in Mountain Home, Book 2
Each book in this series stands alone and may be read in any order.
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Updated August 2022
Copyright © 2014 Kristin Holt LC
Opening Scene: Maybe This Christmas Opening Scene: Maybe This Christmas Opening Scene: Maybe This Christmas