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When the knock at the door sounded twice, sure, quick, Tora’s heart jumped. She swallowed and resettled herself in the chair, making sure the best side of her face was toward Trent and the flounce of her polonaise that fell to the floor was “just so.” She could feel his presence before he came into view, and she wondered at this thing inside her heart, this thing that would not die, that stirred for him more than any other. What was it about Trent Storm?
He entered the room as if he owned it, looking elegant in new attire. He peeled off his gloves and coolly perused her. “Tora,” he said with a nod and then a slight smile. There was something hopeful in his eyes, and Tora was glad for it.
“Trent!” she said in a surprised tone, as if she had forgotten he was coming, and went to him. He bent over her hand and kissed it, then held it in his warm, strong fingers as they stared at each other. After a long, intense moment Tora squirmed. “It has been a while, Trent.”
“Yes, well, things at home have kept me quite busy. Helena is a few miles from Duluth, mind you.”
“Please sit down,” she said with a grand gesture, hoping he would notice the neorococo furniture just in from France. He sat without hesitation. “Yes, but we haven’t seen each other for what? Five months?”
Tora frowned. His eyes were alive with challenge, and the air was suddenly charged with energy. “No, not at all. I simply was commenting. I’ve certainly been busy enough establishing new roadhouses—I’ve not had time to count the hours until seeing you again.” She hoped the edge of sarcasm in her voice would deflate whatever dangerous balloon was rising between them.
“Quite. The facilities here are quite impressive. Not to mention this house.” He glanced around. “Very nice. I trust you did this with only your own funds.”
Tora scowled. This was not going at all as she had planned. “Of course, Trent,” she said, hating the defensiveness in her tone. “I wanted to build a house in which I could entertain important guests, but moreover, a home. I had to borrow a certain sum from the bank, but they were happy to assist such a prominent—”
“A home?” Trent interrupted, rising and walking to a window that stretched from the floor to the twelve-foot ceiling. He parted the velvet drapes and looked outside. “Hmm. A home. Something that reminds you of Bergen?”
Tora felt the blood drain from her face. “Bergen? Why, it has been years since I’ve thought of Norway. No, I was thinking of someplace—”
“Camden-by-the-Sea?” she managed to ask without her voice rising an octave. Where was he going with this? “No, what I started to say was—”
“That you needed a home,” he put in.
“Yes,” she said, staring back into his eyes when he studied her.
“A sense of place.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“A place where you know who you are, and others do as well.
That’s the reason for this grand showcase of a home, correct? The three-story, overdone, showy Queen Anne of the Storm Roadhouse Maven?”
Tora rose, thoroughly alarmed now. “Trent, whatever is wrong with you? I had so hoped you would like it, so treasured the idea you might want—”
“What? To live here?” He shook his head once, decisively. “No, Tora. I do not even know who the Storm Roadhouse Maven is. You have not allowed it. How could I marry you? How could I come and make a home with you? You have grown more distant in the time I’ve known you, wrapped up in your own vision of the future and a very tangled net of lies.”
Trent pulled a yellowed paper from the inside pocket of his jacket and quietly unfolded it. “The Heroine of the Horn,” he read aloud. He stared down at her. “Elsa Anders Ramstad. Your long-lost sister. Here’s the amusing part, though. She apparently does not remember being lost. In fact, she seems to have a very solid idea of who she is and where she has come from.”
“You…you spoke to her?”
He ignored her question. “You told me she was dead. Do you think that she claims the same of you?”
Tora sat down, hard. “Perhaps in some sense she does,” she muttered, half to herself.
“That is the first honest thing I’ve heard from you in a long time.”
Tora sighed and stared toward the window. She knew it was the end; this was the reason for Trent’s growing distance. He knew. He’d known for a long time. And her secrecy had driven him further and further away, even as she sought to draw him closer. “How did you find out?”
“Some detective work. I so wanted you to confide in me, Tora.” He spoke as if he were talking about someone else, a distant relation. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why the secrecy? Was I untrustworthy? What is so humiliating in your past that you could not simply tell the truth? Not enough drama for you? Tora Anders,” he said with a shake of his head and a sigh, “you could have been a star on the stage. You’ve put on quite a performance these last four years. For a while, I told myself it didn’t matter, that you must have your reasons. Probably a silly pride thing, or whatnot. But it kept eating at me, and I couldn’t let it go. Last month, I decided enough was enough. If you couldn’t be honest with me, we certainly had little hope for a future.” He turned to her, his voice full of anguish. “Why, Tora? Why did you not tell me?”
She could feel his stare but could not find it within herself to meet his gaze. “Tell you? When we first met, you were my employer! It was easier, cleaner if I came to you as an orphan. And as to Camden, and the baby, I couldn’t tell you all of that. Trent Storm would never have hired an unwed mother.”
When he did not respond, Tora quickly looked at him. The stricken expression on his face spoke volumes—he hadn’t known! He hadn’t known all of it! Looking suddenly ten years older, Trent sat down hard on the settee. Tora rose and went to him, kneeling at his feet and resting her face on his thigh. “Oh, Trent!” Tears came unbidden. “Trent, I did it to survive. If you had known I was less than the wholesome woman you hired to work in your facilities, would you ever have employed me, much less courted me? I had to do it! I wanted to do something important with my life. To do this,” she said, waving about her. “And soon I was doing it as much for you as I was for me.”
“At the expense of a child,” he said numbly. “Where, Tora? Where did you leave your baby?”
“In a good home,” she said simply.
“Look at me,” he said sharply, raising her chin forcefully. “The child lives?”
“I hope so,” she whispered. For the first time in years, Tora felt a sense of relief in sharing the burden of her secret with another.
“You feel sorrow over your decision?” His eyes never wavered.
“Occasionally. But not for some time. There’s so much more to my life now—”
Trent laughed a mirthless laugh and rose, as if brushing her off. “Do you realize how heartless you sound? God wants a different woman for me, Tora. A woman with heart and passion. Not perfect. I am far from a sinless man myself. But I fancy that I face up to my mistakes. I expect nothing less of a woman I would love.”
So that was what this was all about? Some overblown sense of judgment? Why, he didn’t know her! He didn’t know what she had gone through to get to this station.
“You are dead to me, Tora Anders,” Trent said simply, walking to the door with heavy footsteps. “You are fired and no longer associated with Storm Enterprises.” Tora’s mouth dropped, and her heart thudded dully. “I—I—”
“You are on your own,” he said, walking to the doorway. He turned back once. “I sincerely hope, Tora, that one day you will find your way home.”
And with that he was gone.
Karl was not sure why, but after supper that evening he decided on a walk. Casually, he asked directions toward Tora Anders’s home, and gradually made his way there. She sat by herself in the front garden, sipping from a tall crystal glass and looking morose. It stunned him to see her again. She was as lovely as ever, her dark hair done up on top in an elaborate knot, her clothing impeccably fine. What does it cost to find dresses like that in the Montana territory? he wondered briefly.
He stood at her iron gate, transported in time to their voyage six years before when he discovered Tora had stowed away aboard the Herald. She was an imp of perhaps sixteen then; now she was a grown woman. His mind flickered to her older sister—the woman he had longed for who had ultimately cost him his best friend. Had Elsa grown in beauty as her younger sister had? Quickly he pushed the thought from his mind. He had seen Tora at social events on Trent Storm’s arm in years past, but something was different about her tonight. She looked somehow lost, troubled.
Karl chastised himself at the protectiveness that rose in his breast. Whatever sadness she felt, Tora probably brought on herself. He cleared his throat.
Tora looked up at once and a small smile raised the corners of her perfect mouth. “Why, Karl Martensen. Here in Montana!” She rose and waved him in. “Please, join me. Would you care for some lemonade?”
It sounded like an uncommon luxury to Karl, having citrus in a mountain town, and he nodded quickly. “Tora,” he said in greeting, bowing his head as he took off his hat and hugged it to his chest. He did as she bid and sat beside her on the garden bench, while Tora told a maidservant to bring more lemonade.
“I’m pleased to see you, Karl,” she said, a note of weariness in her voice. “It has been a most unpleasant day.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“Yes. Perhaps you can take my mind off it. I refuse to dwell on the unpleasant! Tell me of you! It has been what? Three years?”
“Four, at least,” Karl responded. “I’ve seen your work along the Northern Pacific. Our paths, surprisingly, have not crossed, although your reputation and expertise have not escaped me.”
“Yes, well, apparently my reputation and expertise are not enough for Trent Storm.”
“He saw fit to sever our business relationship this afternoon.”
“Ah,” said Karl, understanding at once why Tora was less than her normal self. “And your personal relationship?”
“It was dead long ago. I had a schoolgirl’s dream of what it could be. Trent let life interfere.”
“Life?” Karl asked carefully.
Tora glanced at him sharply. “Yes. I told him the truth, and he could not handle it.”
“About your daughter.”
“Yes. He just cast me away like so much riffraff.” She pulled a handkerchief from somewhere in the folds of her dress and dabbed at her eyes. “Can you imagine?”
Karl fought a smile. Here was the Tora Anders he remembered, manipulative to the end. “I can,” he said softly. “You must have hurt him deeply. What was it?”
Tora sniffed, as if offended, then sagged a bit. “Well, to secure a job with Storm Enterprises I had to present myself as a woman with no ties. Free to do as they bid. As Trent bid.”
“No ties. No child?”
“As well as other things.”
Karl let her comment slide. “I see. So he just found out about your baby?”
“Yes. I do not see what difference it makes! She isn’t a part of my life. He would have no responsibility for her!”
“Perhaps that is just what he wanted.”
Tora laughed, laughed as if it was a tremendous relief to do so, then soon sobered. “You think Trent wants a family?”
“I know few men who don’t. Maybe he was simply waiting all these years for you to be honest with him, to show him who you really are, rather than who you want to be.”
Tora rose, color flaming on her cheeks. “Who are you to presume to judge me? You know nothing of who I am, let alone who I will be.”
Karl stood beside her, sensing their time together was already at an end. He silently lamented not having the chance to sip lemonade, to catch up with a woman who shared some of his history. He laughed at himself. He was apparently so lonely that he even felt led to reach out to Tora Anders! “I beg to differ, Tora. I know who you are. I’ve known you all your life.” He brushed a tendril of dark hair from her eyes as she shied away, clearly irritated at his overly familiar gesture. “On the other hand, I do not know who you will be.”
“Oh. And who are you now, Karl Martensen? Still the philanderer in sad pursuit of my married sister?”
Karl winced at the truth of her comment and forced himself to stare back into her eyes. “I made a fool of myself and wasted some of the best friendships I ever made. I made a mistake and then I walked away before apologizing. Are you letting Trent do the same?” Bile rose in his throat. How long would he be haunted by past sins? He seemed unable to recapture any sense of peace in his life. Even Tora could see it, use it.
She ignored his question. “I think you should go.”
“I will.” He turned to depart, then looked back at her. “What will you do?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, as if miffed that he dared question her. “I have investments, and ideas of my own about what to do along the railroad.”
“You intend to compete with Trent?”
“Did I say that? I said I had plans of my own.” She smiled in feline fashion, and Karl knew that it was exactly what she was scheming.
“Trent would be furious. Believe me, you don’t want an enemy like him on the line.”
“Like Hall?” she baited him, reminding Karl of his infamous past employer.
“You’ll note that I found it prudent to develop my own business along the Northern Pacific, rather than the Great Northern. Villard has gone broke again,” he said, referring to the chief financier behind the Northern Pacific, “so who knows what will transpire along this route. It might be wise to consider moving, and for reasons beyond
“And leave all this?” she asked, her eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Never. Helena is my home, and a perfect base of operations along the Northern Pacific.”
Karl cocked one eyebrow and pursed his lips. “It is your decision, obviously. I’m simply saying it’s always wise to diversify.” He turned to go and was at the gate when she called out to him, her tone hesitant.
“Karl! Tell me…have you heard from my sister or Peder?”
He gave her a small smile. “Not for years. Peder and I had a parting of the ways. Last I heard, they had built a second home in Seattle. Running lumber from the Washington Territory back east. You should write. I bet Elsa would appreciate hearing from you.”
Tora sniffed and shrugged her shoulders a bit. “Perhaps. I have heard of things more crazy than that.”
“Karl,” she responded with a stiff nod. He closed the gate behind him and strode down the dusty street, the long dusk of northern nights holding firmly to the light around him. And suddenly, it was as clear as day to him that Tora Anders was only as lost as he was in the world.
Still feeling listless and at odds the next evening, Trent forced himself to rise from his bed and dress for his dinner with Karl Martensen and Bradford Bresley. He had actually slept through the hot summer afternoon, something he had not done since he was a child. But he had had little choice. The weariness overcame him and sleep came as a blessed relief. Now, drowsy, he buttoned his shirt and tucked it into his trousers as he gazed at his image in the mirror.
He was not unattractive, he decided, looking at one side of his face and then the other. The years had left him with deepening lines about the mouth and eyes and graying hair, but there was no sign of jowls or a paunch about his waist. He could have had his pick of women in the years since his beloved wife had died. Why had it been Tora Anders who stole his heart?
He regretted his decision to cut her off from Storm Enterprises—she had done a fine job in setting up the last sixteen roadhouses. But how could he go on loving, let alone working with, a dishonest woman? A woman who would desert her own child? Who knew when her questionable morals would end up affecting his business? No, it was time that Tora Anders was on her own to prove just what she was made of.
Shaking his head as if to remove thoughts of her, he donned a bowler hat and left the hot room. Downstairs it was cooler, and he greeted Karl and Brad in the lobby. In minutes, they were seated in the hotel dining room, menus in their hands, and shortly thereafter, the waiter came and retrieved their orders.
“Saw John Hall last week,” Trent said casually, studying Karl carefully. He knew little of what had happened between the men other than that Karl had broken off his engagement to Hall’s daughter, Alicia, and had left John’s employ at the same time. He had long suspected John of unscrupulous business dealings, and had since cut off his own relations with the man.
“You did?” Karl asked with an upraised brow. “I try not to.”
“As do I,” Bradford put in.
“How do you manage?” Trent asked. “This is a big territory, but John Hall is every where.”
“We’ve met up a few times, but I always try to steer clear. I have found that there are some battles worth waging, and others best avoided. Besides, I like to think that time and distance heal many wounds. It’s been four years since I broke my engagement with Alicia, and Hall, apparently, has bigger fish to fry. I think he’d just as soon not see me either.”
Trent nodded. “I would not want to wage war with Hall—I think you are prudent. But do not ever think that John Hall will forget; he has the memory of an elephant and a dark side once encountered. I’ve met many a man who was broken by him. I’m glad you escaped unharmed.”
“Yes, sir,” Bradford said. “That’s why I recruited him as my business partner. Prudent and fast as a hare,” he chuckled, bringing the other two into his laughter. “And we’ve done well for ourselves. Despite a few losses to Hall, as you said, this is a big territory. Everywhere we look these days, we see new opportunities. Perhaps Storm Enterprises would like to hear about a few of our ideas.”
Trent looked from Bradford to Karl and smiled. He was approached weekly to help finance new “opportunities.” But there was something about these two young men he liked. He immediately trusted them. And after his last exchange with Tora, he felt like a hungry trout ready to pounce on a fat worm. This was just what he needed, the chance to jump into something with both feet, the opportunity to feel genuinely good about something. And these men were good at heart—he could sense it in his gut.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “I’m interested. Tell me what you have seen, and what you would like to do.”