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Sherburne, Nantucket Late summer, 1850
The one thing that Caroline Hudson could not abide was a suffering child. Now she was looking at three of them, apparently all from a single family. The tall and lanky boy was dressed in pants two sizes too small and a shirt that hung from his bony shoulders like a nightshirt. Both garments were patched, frayed and smudged with dirt. Caroline judged him to be about twelve years old, although the way he kept his eyes focused on the toes of his scuffed shoes, it was hard to say for sure.
Then there were the girls. One was no more than six. A petite dark-haired china doll, she blinked up at Caroline from under thick black lashes and smiled. The other was clearly the eldest of the group. She was tall and thin like her brother, her strawberry-blond hair haphazardly braided without attention to brushing through the tangles, her clothing the fashion of a woman, rather than a girl of no more than fourteen. She faced Caroline directly, one hand protectively on her sister's shoulder as she peered up from under the brim of her bonnet and made her announcement.
"We've come for schooling, miss."
"I see," Caroline replied, looking beyond the children standing on her front porch. "And where are your parents?"
The girl glanced down and her brother looked up for the first time, his eyes darting about as if seeking the nearest escape.
"We've come for schooling," she repeated. "This is a school and my brother and I have come for lessons." She motioned toward the small brass sign on the gate that announced the entrance to Miss Hudson's School for Young Ladies and Gentlemen.
"The new session does not begin for another two weeks," Caroline replied. "Did your parents send you here alone?" Surely the parents were aware that Caroline's school was private and accommodated a maximum of twelve students whose parents paid tuition that it did not appear these children could afford.
"We come on our own," the boy muttered.
"Came," his elder sister hissed.
Caroline racked her brain for some adult she might connect with them. The entire island of Nantucket was a small and close-knit community and the town itself even more so. Caroline had lived on Nantucket her entire life. True, she did not personally know every citizen, especially those who lived in the more remote areas, but surely…
"My name is Eliza Justice," the eldest girl said, dropping into an awkward curtsey. "I'll be fifteen in November. This is my brother, Jerome. He's thirteen. And my sister, Hannah, is five, but I know that you only accept older children for your school so Hannah's just here to…" Eliza's confidence appeared to falter for the first time.
"And who are your parents?" Caroline asked.
"Tyrone and Sarah Justice," the girl replied.
"Your family is new to the community?"
Hannah piped up for the first time. "No, ma'am. We've been living here my whole life. Our house burned down and Mama…"
Eliza silenced her sister with a squeeze to the shoulder. "Will you teach us or not?" she asked.
"Won't you please step inside?" Caroline could not believe she was asking these little ragamuffins to enter her home. Of all the homes on India Street, the Hudson house had been considered the finest. Of course, those had been the days before the great fire, the days before the whaling industry that sustained the island had begun to falter, before Caroline's husband of barely six months had decided to seek new wealth in the gold fields of California. Those were the days before he'd gotten himself killed in a saloon fight and she had been left with nothing but this enormous house that he had insisted they buy.
"It's important to keep up appearances, my dear," he'd pontificated when she'd protested they could hardly afford such a mansion. Now the house was hers alone, or more precisely, hers and the bank's. Caroline had opened the school in order to pay off the house and keep a roof over her head.
"Oh, my," Eliza whispered as she stood just inside the door and took in the spiral stairway winding all the way up to the third floor. Her gaze flickered over the large elegantly furnished rooms on either side of the expansive foyer and the gleaming chandelier that caught sunshine filtering through the fanlight over the front door.
"This way," Caroline instructed, leading them into the cozy parlor she used for interviewing prospective students and their parents. She indicated the damask-covered sofa, one piece of a suite of furnishings her parents had sent as a housewarming gift. They resided in Washington, where her father served in the president's cabinet. Caroline was far too proud to let them know that Percy had left her deeply in debt. "Please sit down," she invited the children.
"No, ma'am, that's too fine," Eliza said, just as her brother started to perch on the edge of the sofa. He bounded back to his feet. "We'll stand."
"Very well," Caroline said. "Now then, Eliza, am I correct in guessing that your parents know nothing of this visit?"
Eliza flushed and for the first time she refused to meet Caroline's eyes directly. "Papa wouldn't care," she said, "and Mama always said that learning was the key to the future."
"I see. Well, certainly there is the public school where you and your siblings could go and learn for free. The Quaker school would be another option and…"
"They don't teach all the things you teach—manners, how to be a proper lady or gentleman and that. Mama said—"
The brass knocker on the front door slammed repeatedly against the plate in a measured pounding that Caroline always associated with bad news. "Please excuse me," she murmured.
She peered through the narrow glass beside of the door and saw a man. He was dressed in a thick turtleneck sweater that was fraying some at the edges of the neck and sleeves, trousers that were patched at the knees and a seaman's cap pulled low over his forehead. He was tall, and the broadness of his shoulders and muscles in his arms were clearly evident through the knit of his sweater. His face—what she could see of it—was weathered by wind and sun. And his hair was copper in color with thick side-whiskers, while his face was clean-shaven. At the edges of his sideburns, his skin was discolored and an angry scar ran from his cheekbone through one sideburn. It disappeared beneath the high rolled collar of his sweater. She watched as he lifted his hand to the knocker again and she saw that the skin on his hand was also mottled and scarred.
Her heart went out to him. So many men had tried in vain to save people and possessions during the fire, and so many of them wore just such badges of their courage. Caroline pulled the door open before he could knock again.
The man snatched off his hat and squinted down at her. "Morning, ma'am," he said. "I believe my children have come here uninvited. I'll just see them home and beg your pardon for your trouble."
"And you are?" Caroline asked, aware that the three children had once again banded together in the sheltering protection of Eliza's arms.
"Tyrone Justice, ma'am."
"I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Justice. I am Caroline Hudson and your children have come to me to see about the older ones attending the school I offer here in my home."
The man looked away for a minute and it seemed to Caroline as if he was trying hard to control some force of anger within himself. "We'll just be going, ma'am," he repeated, as he tried to look beyond her to where they waited in the foyer. "Liza, come now."
Caroline lowered her voice and positioned herself more firmly in the doorway. "Your daughter's intentions were quite laudable, if misguided, in coming here today."
He glared at her. His eyes were as black as September storm clouds over the Nantucket Sound. "Misguided? You mean because I can't pay for your lessons?" It was more a challenge than a question.
Caroline sighed. Her late husband had suffered from that same kind of pride. What was it about men who, faced with hard times, insisted on clinging to their vanity?
"On the contrary, Mr. Justice, the children and I were just about to discuss why Mrs. Justice thought sending them to inquire about lessons was a good idea. Perhaps she failed to discuss the matter with you because she hoped to have it come as a surprise."
"There is no Mrs. Justice," he muttered. "Liza, Jerome, Hannah, let's go."
The children filed past Caroline. Bringing up the rear, Hannah gave Caroline's flounced skirt a slight tug. "Mama died in the fire," she whispered. "I was just a baby." And then she was gone, hurrying to catch up to her sister and brother and the man who marched ahead of them down the front walk, obviously confident that they would follow.
"Mr. Justice," Caroline called and was relieved to see him turn, then say something to Eliza, who kept walking back toward town with her siblings. When he looked back at Caroline this time he did not remove his hat.
"Mr. Justice," Caroline continued as she stood just inside her closed wrought-iron gate and faced him through the bars. "Perhaps we can work something out. It's rare to see children who are so determined to learn." She laughed, trying to disarm his scowl. "Actually, most of my pupils come under duress. Perhaps Eliza could—"
He took half a step closer, grasped the bars and growled, "Don't you think I want my children to learn more than just the basics? Don't you think I try to see that they are in school as many days as possible? Don't you understand that there's little work to be had and what work there is keeps me away from dawn till after sunset? If Liza comes to your school, then who'll watch over Hannah?"
"Then send Jerome," Caroline heard herself reply and wondered at her determination to win a battle begun by three children in tattered clothing who'd had the audacity to knock at her door.
"Jerome can work."
"He's a boy," Caroline replied.
"He's big and strong and age doesn't always matter." He turned away, then immediately turned back. "Look, ma'am, I appreciate your concern, I really do. But people like you—" He glanced toward the house, gleaming under a cloudless blue sky and bright August sun."—People like you don't understand. I pray you never have to. Good day, ma'am."
"People like me?" Caroline said in a low tone that made him pause and look back. "How dare you judge and label me, Mr. Justice? How dare you assume I have never known pain and suffering? You have lost your wife? I have lost my husband. You are struggling to find work? I have turned my home into a school just so that I can pay my bills and feed myself. Do not presume to think you know me, sir."
And with that Caroline turned on her heel and marched up one side of the dual stairway that led to her open front door. Without so much as a glance back to see if he had gone, she went inside and closed the heavy cypress door with a slam that rattled the glass on both sides of it.
Ty Justice stood outside the gate for a long moment after the teacher had disappeared back inside her grand mansion. He gazed up at the three stories of the house and realized that, first impressions aside, it was badly in need of painting and repair. He allowed his attention to wander on to the gardens—wild and overgrown—and then he suppressed the ridiculous idea that sprang full-blown into his mind. Shoving his hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders as if the day were blustery instead of calm, he stalked off down the street.
By the time Ty reached the dilapidated fishing shack near the docks where he had settled with his children after the fire, Eliza was chopping potatoes and onions for soup. She did not glance up when Ty entered.
"Where's your brother?" he asked.
"I sent him for water. Hannah went with him."
Ty sat down in the lone wooden chair, which along with an old warped table and two wobbly benches furnished their one-room shack. He watched his daughter expertly dice the few vegetables into the smallest pieces so that everyone would be sure to have bits in their bowl of soup. Of his three children she was the one who most favored her mother. At least in looks. But she got her hair-trigger personality from him.
"Mrs. Hudson seems like a nice lady," he ventured.
"It's Miss Hudson," Eliza informed him. "After her husband left for California and no one sent word until he got killed, she went back to using her maiden name."
Ty was surprised at his daughter's knowledge of the woman. "And how do you know that?"
Eliza shrugged. "People talk and when you're a child, they assume you aren't paying attention. I know a lot of things." She set the knife aside and dumped the vegetables into the heavy iron pot, then wrapped her apron around the handle to lift it onto the stove.
"I've got it," Ty said, taking the pot from her. He waited until she was adding salt and pepper to the soup and added, "What's wrong with the public school, Liza?"
"We can't learn how to be proper ladies and gentlemen there." Eliza sipped the soup, added more seasoning along with a small piece of bacon fat and set the pot back on the little cookstove in the corner. "Mama always said…"
"Mama isn't here, is she?" Ty replied quietly. "Things have changed, Liza. I'm sorry for that, but it's a fact we have to accept."
When she said nothing and refused to meet his gaze, Ty got up and left the dark, close room. Outside, he headed to the far end of the wharf where he could take a moment and get hold of his emotions. They ran the gamut from sadness and grief to anger and guilt. Ever since the fire, he'd been determined that his children know they could rely on him. And nothing aroused Ty's temper faster than a reminder that his late wife had come from a high-society Boston family. Sarah had assured him that, regardless of how much money he made, the children would be educated. Up until the fire, she had often talked about supplementing their public schooling with lessons in music and art.