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Colorado, January 1899
Mr . Hammond's telegram had assured her, due to the mild winter, that the train would have no problem reaching Carson Springs mid-January. Violet Kristofferson unfolded his message and read it again, her gaze stumbling first over the name she'd chosen. She would have to remember. Bennett. Violet Bennett.
She'd barely been able to eat the entire way, even though train stations between Ohio and Colorado often had decent restaurants or a nice cafe next door.
Her stomach tightened now at the prospect of living and working among strangers in a place she'd never been, but she'd had little choiceher situation in Ohio had forced her to take action.
The heavy gray sky outside the steamed-over windows didn't bolster her mood or her confidence, but some time ago the conductor had announced their destination only an hour hence. A single stove glowed in an attempt to heat the railcar, but all day her feet had been numb from the cold. Absently she checked the delicate gold watch that hung on a chain around her neck and discreetly adjusted one leg, then the other, eager to stretch. She would sleep like a baby once she was finally able to lie down with a comfortable mattress beneath her.
The rhythm of the wheels changed, and the car slowed fractionally. Passengers straightened in their seats in anticipation of the stop.
Violet wiped the window with her mittened hand and studied the landscape. Horses and cattle huddled in clusters, dotting the white expanse of snow. Scattered houses came into view, situated closer and closer together the more the locomotive slowed. The train turned a last bend, climbed an incline and chugged into the town.
Carson Springs was larger than she'd anticipated, a combination of stone, wood and brick buildings, most of which she could only see from the back. The train rolled alongside the station, blocking her view of the town. A large canopy covered the platform, wisely protecting it from the elements. From her window seat Violet strained to see the men and women waiting for arriving passengers, unable to guess which might be her new employer.
She waited her turn, descending the stairs behind a portly woman wearing a fox coat and a large plumed hat. Making her way to an open space on the wood platform, Violet stopped to get her bearings. Her breath came out in puffy white plumes. Her feet ached.
Nearby the porters unloaded and stacked trunks and valises.
Violet scanned the crowd. A tall man in a black coat and hat separated from the others and made his way toward her. "Miss Bennett?"
"Um." Startled at hearing the unfamiliar surname, she composed herself. "Yes." She didn't want to be found, and her real name was too distinctive. "I'm Miss Bennett."
He removed his hat, revealing an unruly shock of russet-brown hair. "I'm Ben Charles Hammond."
"How do you do?" She offered her hand, and he held her wool-covered fingers for the briefest of moments in a polite greeting.
"I hope your journey wasn't too unpleasant."
He had a strong jawline, arching brows and friendly gray-green eyes. She liked him immediately. "Not at all. The accommodations were more than adequate, thank you."
"If you'll point out your luggage, I'll take it to the carriage."
"There's only one carpetbag. The other two are crates. Fairly large ones. I don't expect you to manage those on your own. I can hail someone"
"Let's have a look before you count me out."
"I didn't mean"
"I know you didn't." He adjusted his hat on his head. "Point them out."
She indicated her belongings and picked up the bag. He hauled one of the crates to his shoulder, and she followed him through the thinning crowd to a black carriage with a boot on the rear. He stored the load and went back for the second. Meanwhile Violet admired the sleek black horse harnessed to the carriage. Taking a few steps forward and cautious of the layer of dirty snow along the curb, she tugged off her mitten to stroke the animal's shiny mane and neck. The heat and texture of his hide was familiar and comforting. She could almost smell the stables.
Mr. Hammond stowed the rest of her belongings, folded down a step and waited beside the carriage until she joined him. Quickly pulling on her mitten, she accepted his outstretched hand. Climbing up from the other side, he took the seat beside her. "You like horses?"
"Yes. My father used to take me riding."
"There are saddles and tack in our stable. Henry takes care of the horses. He'll help you if you want to ride. Maybe you can get Tessa to join you once the weather's nice."
"I would enjoy that, thank you." Tessa was his sixteen-year-old sister. Violet had been hired to do the cooking for him, his sister and his other employees. He'd suggested she take an interest in Tessa as well, being a companion of sorts as time permitted. "Will I meet her today?"
"Yes. She's waiting at home."
Once they'd moved past the main street of businesses, where wagons and buggies traveled and townspeople went about their day, he drove the carriage several blocks along a street of two- and three-story homes until they reached a cross street, where he turned to the right.
"I expect you to take time for yourself," he said. "Attend church with usor another church if ours isn't your preference. Sunday will be your day off. Tessa and I will either fix our own meals or eat in town. You're welcome to join us if you're not tired of us by then."
"That's thoughtful of you."
Mr. Hammond was polite and seemed kind and generous. It appeared her concern had been for naught.
The buildings on the north side of this street backed a wooded area. A row of enormous attached brick structures came into view. Behind them stood a matching carriage house and a small wood-frame stable. The sign in front of the first building they passed indicated it was a furniture maker's. "Do you make furniture?"
"No. My father did, but I sold the business to Walter Hatcher in 'eighty-five. Two doors down is where we live."
Her interest was definitely piqued now. Whatever he did, his company obviously thrived. "One of these is your home?"
"And my business," he replied.
A low hedge surrounded the next two connected buildings, where white shutters framed the windows and white arched doors indicated entries. There were two sets of doors on the front, a double set on the right.
They drew close, and a fancily lettered iron sign caught her attention:
Hammond Funeral Parlor
Ben Charles Hammond, Undertaker & Stone Mason
Undertaker? Violet's heart hammered and, though she'd had little to eat for days, her stomach threatened upheaval.
He'd brought her to his funeral parlor?
A dusting of snow fell now, and the smell of smoke curling into the sky from two chimneys was strong, but she barely noticed.
She fastened her gaze on the portion of the structure at the right. Double doors, wide enough for coffins. "You're an undertaker?"
"Used to be Hammond and Son until fourteen years ago when my father passed on. Now it's just me. I have help, of course. Too much work for one person to handle."
She guessed him to be no older than his mid-thirties, so he must have been quite young when he'd taken over the business. He helped her to the ground, where she stood unmoving while he unloaded the baggage. From around the end of the building, a young man joined them, removing his wool cap and giving Violet a lopsided grin.
"This is Henry," Mr. Hammond told her. "Henry, Miss Bennett."
"How do, Miss Bennett."
"Help me take her things upstairs, will you?" Mr. Hammond asked.
Violet hadn't answered. She stared at the other portion of the buildingright beside where she was expected to work and live and sleep. Were therewhat did Mr. Hammond call them?lifeless clients in there now?
Henry grabbed a crate and carried it into the house.
"A lot of people have an aversion to my occupation," Mr. Hammond said. "Is it going to be a problem for you?"
"It's justwellyou didn't mention it in your telegrams."
He hefted the other crate onto his shoulder. "I didn't think you'd come if I did."
She stared at his retreating back.
Ben Charles made a concerted effort not to grunt or sweat, since he'd been adamant about his ability to lift and tote Miss Bennett's belongings. The young woman had apparently packed bricks and planned to add an addition to his home while she was here.
He'd fully expected her revulsion regarding his profession and his home, and it had only been a matter of time until he'd seen the reaction on her face. "Henry will return for your bag," he called over his shoulder.
He experienced a slim measure of guilt for not telling her up front, but she wouldn't have come. And they needed her. He'd been relieved to find someone to take over the kitchen and he'd been eager for her to arrive. He hadn't known what he'd expected, but the pretty doe-eyed Violet Bennett wasn't it. There was something too vulnerable about her. Something that made him shudder when he thought of her traveling alone.
As soon as he'd seen her, he'd felt guilty that he hadn't gone to get her, as he had for Tessa when she'd come home from boarding school last year. "Thank You for keeping her safe, Lord," he whispered.
He stopped on the landing midway up the stairs and looked back.
She stood in the enormous tiled entry, staring up at the ceiling where cherubs cavorted with plaster ribbons, then studied the shining oak stairs and banister. She glanced at the east wall of the foyer, and he read the questions on her lovely face. She wondered what was on the other side.
He imagined he saw her shudder.
Henry passed Ben Charles on his way back down and greeted Miss Bennett. "I'll be right back with your bag."
She looked up, caught Ben Charles watching her and quickly composed her features. As long as she was a decent cook, a person of good moral characterand Tessa liked herhe intended to do everything in his power to keep Miss Bennett here.
Violet gathered the hem of her traveling skirt and climbed the stairs, her aching feet protesting. At the top was an open room with an arched and draped window facing the rear of the house, and framing a white-blanketed lawn and the copse of trees beyond. The room held floor-to-ceiling shelves of books and assorted plush furniture.
"Tessa!" Mr. Hammond called, startling Violet.
"No need to shout, Ben Charles. I'm right here." A slim young woman stood from one of the chairs facing the window and rested a book on the seat she'd vacated. Her rose-colored dress was nicer than anything Violet owned, though it was simple in design. The girl walked forward.
"This is Miss Bennett."
"Pleased to meet you," Tessa said, without a smile. "Your room is ready. My brother gave you the one next to mine."
Violet followed her, and when Tessa stepped back, she entered first. Two windows opened to the west, taking advantage of the side of the structure away from the funeral parlor, thank goodness. At least she would be on the opposite side.
A small fireplace burned, warming the room and adding a comforting hiss. The walls were papered with a pale peach wide scrolling pattern. One wall held a bureau. Handkerchief drawers held lamps and the top a trifold mirror. On the opposite wall stood a tall armoire with carved roses adorning the doors and drawers.
The head of the bed, with its white wrought-iron spindles, stood between the windows, and a calico spread in colors matching the throw rugs was topped with comfortable-looking pillows. A plump chair stood near the fireplace.
The room was so bright and welcoming, Violet had difficulty imagining it as part of the funeral parlor.
"Can you start tomorrow?" Ben Charles asked from behind her.
She turned to face him. "What about supper this evening?"
"We'll make do like we have been."
"I'm here now, and we will all need a meal. I'd feel better if you let me start right away."
"You'll get no argument from me. Poke around the pantry and the kitchen. As soon as you want to shop, either Henry or I will take you. There's a tub and running water in the water closet across the hall. Also a small coal stove to heat a kettle of hot water. I'll start the stove now."
"I can't imagine I'll want for anything." The accommodations were far more luxurious than anything she was used to.
Henry entered with her bag. He set it down and used a hammer he'd brought along to remove the lids from the crates. Once he'd finished, she thanked him and he exited silently.
"Tessa will help you unpack." Ben Charles turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Tessa studied the door with an uncertain expression.
"You don't have to stay." Violet sensed her discomfort and she wondered how Tessa felt about Violet coming to live in their home. "I can take care of my things if you want to run along."
The girl took a few steps into the center of the room. "I don't mind."
She remained quiet as Violet opened the bag and stacked clothing on the bed.
"That's a pretty watch," she said finally, as Violet placed her undergarments in a drawer.
Violet stopped to touch the timepiece she wore. "It was my mother's."
"Has she passed on?"
Her brother had used the same phrase. "Yes."
"My mother passed on when I was a baby. And I was only two when my father died."
"You were still just a baby," Violet said. "Your brother raised you?"
She nodded. "We had Mrs. Gable to take care of us until a few months ago. Her sister got sick, and she went to take care of her family."
"Was this her room?"
"No, she stayed downstairs. Ben Charles said this room hasn't been used much at all. He painted the ceiling and had the wallpaper replaced."
Violet took out several books and a few framed pictures she'd wrapped in clothing.
"Are those of your family?"
"I don't have any likenesses of my parents. These are pictures of horses I saved from magazines. I'd like to hang them on the wall if you don't think your brother would mind."
"I'm sure he wouldn't." Once Violet had set down the frames, Tessa looked at the pictures. "You're fond of horses?"
Violet nodded. "They're incredible animals."
"There are several in the stable." Tessa stepped to the window. "There are two in the corral now."
Violet joined her and held back the curtain to gaze out at the horses. "Both are black."
"They're all black. Ben Charles says they look smart pulling the hearse."
Violet let go of the curtain.
"Surely after your trip you're ready for a bath. I'll go check on the hot water and fill the tub," Tessa said.