Keep a Little Secretby Dorothy Garlock
The new novel from the New York Times bestselling author follows Charlotte Tucker, the young girl from Garlock's most recent novel, Stay A Little Longer, into adulthood. As a child, Charlotte Tucker was raised in small town Minnesota where the only real company was the people who came to her aunt Louise's boarding house. Several/b>/em>/em>… See more details below
The new novel from the New York Times bestselling author follows Charlotte Tucker, the young girl from Garlock's most recent novel, Stay A Little Longer, into adulthood. As a child, Charlotte Tucker was raised in small town Minnesota where the only real company was the people who came to her aunt Louise's boarding house. Several years later, Charlotte is a young woman and thirsty to get out of her hometown and see the world. When a teaching position opens up in Oklahoma, she jumps at the opportunity to take a room on John Grant's ranch in Sawyer, a small town to the north, to begin her new career. She soon befriends Owen and Hannah Wallace, a brother and sister who have come from Colorado following the death of their mother. Abandoned at an early age by a father they never knew, they are set on revenge against the man who left them -- a man they believe is John Grant. As the summer heats up and a brutal storm wreaks havoc on the town, a secret is revealed that threatens to change Charlotte's life -- and her new friends -- forever.
Read an Excerpt
Keep a Little Secret
By Garlock, Dorothy
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Garlock, Dorothy
All right reserved.
Longbow, Colorado—December 1938
Owen Wallace stood alone on the ramshackle porch of his family’s small house, staring absently into the falling snow. The storm had come on hard in the last hour and showed no sign of letting up. Before him, the hood of the doctor’s automobile had already become covered, despite the heat of the rapidly cooling engine. A swirling, merciless wind cut sharply on the exposed skin of Owen’s hands and face, but he paid it little heed.
Though the inside of the small house was warm, well heated by the wood-burning stove, Owen felt no need to head indoors in spite of the miserable weather. Outside, alone with the growing fury of the winter storm, he could pretend that his mother wasn’t dying, if only for a short while.
Behind him, the door opened, then was quickly closed.
“I’m afraid there is nothing more that I can do for her, Owen,” Walter Calloway, Longbow’s doctor, said in a resigned tone of voice. “She never woke while I was examining her, but her sleep is far from peaceful.”
Owen gave a slight nod in answer, still facing the falling snow.
“Though it greatly pains me to say it, I believe the day we’ve all been dreading has finally arrived.”
“How much longer does she have?”
“It’s all in the Lord’s hands now,” the doctor answered. “Hannah is doing her best to keep Caroline comfortable, but besides making sure that the fire remains fully stoked, all we can do now is wait.”
Dr. Calloway’s heavy-lidded eyes, hidden behind thick-framed glasses, gave ample evidence that his concern was genuine. He looked tired, worn beyond even the many years he had served the town, weighed down by the burden of an illness he couldn’t hope to cure.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done for her,” Owen offered.
“I only wish that I could have done more,” Dr. Calloway answered, putting a hand on Owen’s shoulder in condolence, before he trudged through the piling snow to his car and drove away.
For a few moments longer, Owen remained on the porch. Looking out into the distance, he could see only the faintest glimmer of light emanating from a weather-shrouded home; the homestead he shared with his mother and sister had few neighbors, and now, even in their greatest hour of need, no one offered to help. Whatever was to come they would face alone, as always.
Reluctantly, Owen went indoors. When he entered, Hannah didn’t glance up from her duties. With determined diligence, his sister wiped away the beads of sweat that dampened their mother’s brow. Caroline Wallace lay small in her bed, ravaged by her sickness, her teeth chattering and her tiny, fragile shoulders shaking as if they were leaves caught in the teeth of an April storm. What beauty she’d once possessed had been stripped away by illness, leaving behind dark and sunken eyes, cracked lips, and skin as pale as faded parchment.
Soon she would be dead.
Tenderly, Hannah swept back a stray strand of her mother’s grey hair, tucking it behind the sick woman’s ear. With a weak smile, Hannah whispered words of comfort to the restless woman, but Owen was too far away to hear them clearly. Caring for her night and day, Hannah did all that she could, although nothing seemed to lessen Caroline’s suffering.
The small, three-room home Owen shared with his mother and sister was sparsely furnished; besides the bed in which his mother lay, the front room contained nothing except a rickety table, a pair of broken-down chairs, and the dilapidated wood-burning stove. Their lives had been full of little but struggle. Owen tossed a few more pieces of wood into the fire, following what little advice the doctor had been able to give.
Eventually, Hannah rose from her mother’s bedside and joined Owen beside the stove. Both weariness and worry were etched across her face; caring for Caroline in her dying days was a burden they had both willingly shouldered, but a burden nonetheless.
“Dr. Calloway said that it’s only a matter of time.” Owen’s words faltered.
“Don’t say such things,” Hannah whispered, her eyes darting to where her mother still fitfully slept. “She’ll hear.”
“She can’t hear us now, Hannah.”
“You don’t know that for certain.”
“Even if she knows what we’re saying,” he explained, “I don’t reckon she’d fault us for seeing the obvious.”
“It’s just not something that I want to hear.”
“But it’s the truth.”
Hannah’s mouth opened as if she wanted to argue the point further, but instead her gaze wistfully settled upon their mother. For a long while, the room remained silent save for the crackling of the fire.
“She isn’t going to be able to tell us now,” Owen finally said. “Once she’s gone, we’ll never know.”
“It’s no longer important.”
“The hell it isn’t!” he snapped, the worry and anger he had been holding inside for days, months, and even years finally starting to erupt. “Are you saying that the knowledge we’ve waited our whole lives to learn can just die with her?”
“What are we supposed to do, Owen?” Hannah pleaded, her eyes growing wet with tears. “Do you want to rouse her and make her talk? Should I quit making her as comfortable as I can until her tongue finally loosens and she tells us who our father was?”
“But we just can’t… we have to know…” he sputtered, knowing how difficult it had always been to put what he wanted into words. Frustration burned in his belly. “Goddamn it all!”
Hannah’s hand found his and he turned to face her.
“We need to accept that we may never know,” she said softly.
Owen fought against the meaning of his sister’s words. All his life he had wondered about the man who had abandoned them when he and Hannah were still in their mother’s womb, who had broken his mother’s heart and left her to fend for herself and her children… the man who had forced them to accept charity and ridicule from neighbors and who now would not be there to watch Caroline Wallace breathe her last.
“I can’t do that,” Owen spat solemnly. “I can’t accept it. I’ll tear this place apart piece by piece if I have to. Mother may have wanted to keep her little secret, to try her damnedest to protect us, but for what that man has done to all of us, I swear that I will know his name.”
And then that son of a bitch will pay!
Kansas City, Missouri—June 1939
With an open hand, Charlotte Tucker slapped the well-dressed young man flush across his clean-shaven face, releasing a storm of shock and anger to darken his handsome features. While her blow clearly hadn’t hurt him, her reaction to his forward and improper advances had undeniably taken him aback. The sound of her striking him, loud as a gunshot, hung in the air of the train depot.
All around them on the busy station platform, people had begun to gawk. In the instant after Charlotte struck the man, there had been a deafening silence, hushing the frantic hustle and bustle of travelers scurrying to their destinations. But that quiet was short-lived. Murmuring voices rose as faces turned, fingers pointing at the source of the commotion.
“How dare you say such things to me!” Charlotte shouted, ignoring the attention she was attracting. “Have you no shame!”
“Miss… I… I…” the man stammered. “I’m afraid that you must have misunderstood me…”
“How could I possibly have mistaken what you said?” she disagreed forcefully. “When a man approaches a young woman he doesn’t know, has never so much as spoken to before, and asks if she would like to find a hotel room for the afternoon, what could his intentions possibly be?”
Color rose at the man’s collar, a bright, obvious crimson of embarrassment, in stark contrast to the perfect white of his starched shirt. His discomfort was worsened by the snickers that rose among the crowd.
“But… but I never said such things!” he argued defensively.
“And now you go and make it worse by lying!” Charlotte accused. “How many other young women have you approached in such a scandalous way, scheming and lurking in the shadows until you found an easy mark?”
“I suppose you imagined that I would go along with your ridiculous, insulting plans,” she continued, not giving the man a moment’s pause. “You never imagined you would be exposed, did you?”
“What kind of man says such a thing?” a voice asked from the crowd.
“Must be some kind’a pervert!” another added.
Quickly looking from side to side, the man was uncomfortably aware that he was drawing too much attention to himself. Dropping the façade of innocence, he stepped closer to Charlotte, reached out, and snatched her tightly and painfully by the wrist.
“You better keep that mouth of yours shut, bitch,” the man threatened, “unless you’re looking to get hurt!”
Instead of shrinking in fear from the man’s threats, Charlotte rose to meet them defiantly, her gaze never wavering, even as she unsuccessfully tried to disentangle herself from his grip.
“Let go of me this instant!” she cried.
Before the sound of her angry voice could fade into the depot, the man suddenly raised his hand as if he meant to strike her, a blow that would have hurt more than the one she had struck. Still, Charlotte never flinched, facing her would-be attacker with steely determination. But before the man could follow through with his intentions, a voice cut through the relative quiet of the platform, startling all those who watched.
“Now what seems to be the matter here!” a deep baritone bellowed. “That ain’t no way to treat a lady, fella!”
Charlotte turned to see a squat, frowning policeman waddle over menacingly to where she and the man stood, his watchman’s stick clutched tightly between calloused, thick fingers. He looked ready to act and broach no disagreement. At the sight of him, the man released his grip on Charlotte and took two hesitant steps backward.
With his arrival, the crowd began shouting in explanation, a jumble of voices where only bits could be heard.
“… and then that man laid hands on her…”
“… was only defendin’ herself!”
“… and it’s just like she done said, ’cause I seen the whole darned thing!”
“Now, now, now, let’s everybody quiet down!” the police officer shouted, putting a quick end to the rising chatter. Turning to Charlotte, he asked, “Is what these here people is sayin’ true, miss? Was this chap botherin’ you?”
Charlotte nodded, explaining the man’s repugnant suggestion that they find a hotel room. “And that’s when I slapped him,” she added.
The police officer laughed heartily. “Can’t say I blame ya for it!”
“But… but… but what she’s saying isn’t true, Officer,” the man protested, assuming the innocent look he had unsuccessfully used just after Charlotte slapped him. “I’d never so much as spoken a word to her before she walked up and slapped—”
“Now why don’t you and I head on back to the depot office,” the officer said as he clamped a vicelike grip on the man’s wrist while wiggling his watchman’s stick threateningly. “That way we can have ourselves a little chat ’bout the whole thing.
“Sorry for the problem, miss,” he added to Charlotte as he led the man away.
A small smile crept across Charlotte’s lips at the satisfaction of having the disgusting man led away to his just punishment, but just as she was feeling smug about her victory, she glanced up at the large clock at the far end of the depot, and realized that she was about to be late. Snatching up her bags, she turned on her heel and dashed toward her rail line.
She had a train to catch.
Settling breathlessly into her seat, Charlotte thanked her lucky stars that she hadn’t missed her train. Out on the platform, the conductor shouted, “All aboard!” Moments later, the engine’s shrill whistle pierced the air of the busy depot and the train began to pick up speed and head toward its destination.
“We’re moving, Mommy! We’re moving!” the little girl in the seat ahead said in excitement.
“Yes, dear, we sure are,” her mother answered.
Charlotte smiled and settled into her seat.
Outside her window, the hustle and bustle of Kansas City, the cars and trucks and trolley cars, the buildings and construction that strained upward toward the summer sky, soon began to fall away, replaced first by houses and then by tall stalks of corn and endless fields of cattle as the city gave way to the countryside.
Removing her white hat, Charlotte pulled a small mirrored compact from her purse and began fixing her long, tousled blond curls. For a moment she paused, examining her bright blue eyes, high cheekbones, and pert nose. Accepting compliments, welcome or otherwise, had always been difficult for Charlotte, even if she knew she had some beauty. All her life, she had been told that she was the image of her mother, Alice, who had died while giving birth to her.
With a sigh, Charlotte closed her compact, smoothed the soft fabric of her white blouse and dark blue skirt, and settled back into her seat, thankful that her ordeal on the platform was over.
I’ve come a long way from Minnesota…
In her purse, folded carefully, was the telegram sent to her from Sawyer, a small town out in northern Oklahoma, hiring her to teach in their school. Her hands had shaken, with equal parts of excitement and nervousness, when she stood in the telegraph office at Lancaster College to send her acceptance. From that moment to now, traveling to her brand-new job, she had walked on air.
All her life, Charlotte had wanted to get away, to see what the world had to offer her. Growing up in Carlson, Minnesota, little more than a hiccup of a town north of the Twin Cities, she’d spent her childhood days playing in the woods that lined the shores of Lake Washington. But even before she went away to teachers’ college, she had yearned to see more of the world.
And that telegram from Oklahoma promised the opportunity to be independent in a new environment.
But excited as she was over what lay ahead, she knew that there were things she’d miss about the life she was leaving behind.
Saying good-bye to her family, especially her parents, was hard. They were in tears the whole way to the depot. For Rachel, her mother’s younger sister who had raised Charlotte and then married her father, the separation was particularly painful. Though there was no doubt that Rachel wanted her “daughter” to go out in the world and succeed, she still felt as if she were losing her little girl. Leaving her father, Mason, brought back some of Charlotte’s earliest memories. For her first six years, she had believed, as had the rest of Carlson, that her father had perished on some unknown battlefield in France during the Great War. When he finally returned, his face terribly scarred by an exploding shell, Charlotte had been the one to find him, deathly sick in a shack in the woods. To have him returned to her life, to watch as he smiled over her accomplishments and he worried at her failures, was a greater joy than she could ever have imagined. Seeing him at the depot, his dark hair growing white at the temples, affection beaming from his face, was a memory that Charlotte would carry with her to Oklahoma.
Even her grandmother, Eliza, who had helped Rachel raise her, had come to the depot to see her off. She had often chastised Charlotte for the troubles she caused as a child, but Eliza was now proud at what her granddaughter had achieved.
The hardest person to say good-bye to had been her half sister, Christina, younger by seven years, and her closest friend. There were many differences between the two of them physically; Christina had black hair and piercing green eyes and an even temperament while Charlotte was far more prone to fly off the handle, but the bond between them had always been unshakeable. All the hours they spent together, talking about their dreams and hopes, seemed to have passed by in an instant. To watch her older sister set off on the course of her life had prompted Christina to count the days until she could do the same.
And so, two days earlier, the twenty-year-old Charlotte Tucker had waved farewell to all that she had known. Through tears, she imagined that those who had passed away from her life—her mother, old Uncle Otis who had died one night in his sleep with a beaming smile across his face, and even Jasper, the mangy mutt who used to follow Charlotte on her many adventures around Carlson—were all watching down approvingly from Heaven above.
What lay ahead Charlotte couldn’t know, but she couldn’t wait to get to Oklahoma and begin her new life. Whether it was teaching schoolchildren, seeing new sights, meeting new people, or even, as impossible as it was to imagine, falling in love, she was ready to enjoy every step of the way.
As the reddish yellow sun, as full as a saucer, began its descent on the far distant horizon and stars crowded the edges of the sky announcing the coming of the night, Charlotte closed her eyes, relaxing with the gentle rocking and swaying of the train car, and slowly drifted to sleep.
One of the first days of the rest of her life was finally drawing to an end.
Charlotte awoke to bright rays of sunlight streaming through the window onto her face and the sounds of her few fellow passengers as they began to stir. Her sleep hadn’t been peaceful; a man’s snoring had wakened her and she had the vague memory of gazing out her window upon the shimmering surface of a slow-moving river silvered by moonlight. Fortunately, she’d been able to fall back to sleep. She rubbed at her neck, stiff from the discomfort of having to sleep sitting up.
Outside, the landscape had changed as the train sped through the night; gone were the gently rolling hills of prairie grass, replaced by a mostly flat scrabble occasionally spotted by squat, clumpy hills of much-redder soil than any she had ever seen before. Tufts of buffalo grass sprang up here and there, far taller than the rest of the short, parched-looking grass. Trees were few and far between, with bunches of scrub bushes scattered about.
Having grown up on the shores of a large lake, surrounded by majestic maple, elm, and pine trees and the thick woods full of wildlife, Charlotte found the many differences of the Oklahoma landscape startling, yet beautiful at the same time. She wondered whether the people she would meet in Sawyer would be so different from those at home.
Suddenly, Charlotte spotted one of them. Up on a rocky rise, sitting atop a tan and white horse, was a cowboy. When he caught sight of the passengers looking up at him, he took off his dusty hat and gave them a hearty wave. Charlotte managed to wave in return, but only after the train had moved on and the cowboy had fallen from sight.
At the front of the train car, the door opened and in walked the train’s conductor, a portly man with a thick, bushy white mustache wider than the small hat sitting atop his head. Checking a pocket watch connected by a chain fob to his vest, he nodded to passengers as he made his way down the narrow aisle.
“How much longer until the train arrives in Sawyer?” Charlotte asked.
“Next stop.” He thumbed in the direction the train was heading. “By my watch we should be there in just under twelve minutes.”
The first signs of Sawyer soon began to come into view. There were ranches with enormous steers and dozens of horses all lazing behind sturdy fences. As the train passed by one ranch, a battered pickup truck pulled out and followed alongside Charlotte’s car, its tires kicking up enormous plumes of dust, before finally turning away just short of town.
Craning her neck out the window to get a better view, Charlotte could see the center of town ahead. Except for its water tower, it didn’t appear to be much different from Carlson. Businesses lined the main street, their signs and awnings announcing their wares, as people milled about on their daily business. On the far side of town rose a church spire, stark white against the brilliance of the blue sky. A group of children, with a yapping dog in tow, did their best to keep up with the train as it slowed. Near the small train depot, its iron wheels screamed against the iron tracks. With another blast of its whistle, it shuddered to a stop.
Gathering her things, Charlotte hurried into the aisle, scarcely able to contain the nervous excitement that coursed through her. Up ahead, a man groaned exhaustedly as he heaved himself out of his seat, planted his cowboy hat over his sun-burned head, and headed for the door, stopping when he saw Charlotte approach.
“Ma’am,” he said with a nod of his hat, letting her go by.
“Thank you,” she replied.
Once she had passed, Charlotte stifled a smile at the thought that the man looked as if he would have been much more comfortable on the back of a horse than inside the train. She wondered if he wasn’t the source of the snoring that had woken her in the night!
Finally, she was before the door. Pausing until a box was placed beneath the steps, Charlotte took a deep breath, accepted the assisting hand of the conductor, and stepped out onto the platform.
The early afternoon summer sun felt warm upon Charlotte’s skin as she futilely tried to shade her eyes from the bright glare. A sniffing wind swirled the scattered dust at her feet. The air felt dry and heavy, a far cry from the oppressive humidity of Minnesota, but no less hot.
Sawyer’s train platform lacked the activity of the depot in Kansas City; besides the cowboy who had nodded to her, the only other passenger who disembarked was an older woman, her shoulders hunched low from the weight of the pair of heavy bags she carried.
At first glance, Charlotte saw no one waiting for her.
“Miss Tucker?” a loud voice asked, startling her.
Charlotte looked up as a middle-aged man, well-worn cowboy hat in his hand, strode toward her from deep shadows inside the depot. Trailing behind him was another man.
“Yes?” she replied cautiously.
Smiling broadly, the man stretched out his hand in greeting. “I’m John Grant. You’ll be stayin’ at my ranch while you’re here in Sawyer.”
Immediately, Charlotte felt at ease. She had received a letter weeks earlier from Mr. Grant, offering her a place in his home on a horse ranch. Apparently, he rented out a couple of rooms in much the same way her grandmother had at her boardinghouse in Carlson. Having grown up in such an environment, Charlotte had readily accepted his offer.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Grant,” she answered.
“Now, the only men I ever knew that went by ‘Mr. Grant’ was my pa and my grandpappy before him, and since I ain’t half the man either one of them managed to be, it just don’t seem right for me to be takin’ their names. I’d like it best if you’d call me John.”
“Only if you call me Charlotte,” she replied, taking his offered hand.
“Then you got yourself a deal.”
John Grant made a strong first impression with his neatly combed, snow-white hair, his deep-set, sparkling blue eyes, and his broad, welcoming smile. But the ruggedness of a rancher was hard to disguise. The many lines and wrinkles on his weathered face, his hands worn and calloused, and his bronzed skin were the result of his days spent working beneath the hot Oklahoma sun. With his shirt, pants, and boots caked with dust he would never be mistaken for a banker or lawyer.
“This is one of my men, Del Grissom,” John explained, introducing Charlotte to the man who had followed him from the depot.
“Nice to meet you,” Del offered with a tip of his dusty hat. He was much younger than his boss; his thick coal black hair fell from beneath the hat’s brim and framed a worn, narrow face. Occasionally, his left eye gave a sort of nervous tic, all of its own accord. Still, he looked to Charlotte to be a hardworking, pleasant man.
“Your trip weren’t too hard, I hope,” John said.
“Not at all,” she said. “It was wonderful to see a different landscape. It sure is a far cry from what we have in Minnesota.”
“Even so, my thinkin’ is that people who spend too much time in one of them iron contraptions,” John said, nodding at the idling train, “find themselves needing a washbasin and a few hours of shut-eye. Once we’re back on the ranch, you’ll have a chance to have both.”
When Charlotte’s heavy black trunk in which she’d packed away all of the life she had known was unloaded from the train with a heavy thud, John and Del each grabbed an end and hoisted it up as if it were lighter than a bale of hay, and headed for the end of the platform.
Charlotte followed along behind, smiling with every step.
John Grant drove the old truck from the station and headed down Sawyer’s main street with Charlotte in the passenger’s seat. Del sat in the truck’s bed, riding alongside her baggage. Glancing back, she saw that he seemed content to travel in the back, one arm resting upon the truck’s railing as the afternoon sun shone brilliantly down.
As they drove, John pointed out all of the sights in town; from the post office, to the grocer’s, and even to the theater, Charlotte felt dizzy with all of the information that was being sent her way. The streets were lively with people going into the stores and other places of business. John explained that they were trying to get their business done before the sun got to be too much to bear.
“Folks in these parts ain’t too complicated, not like in a city,” John explained, giving a wave out the window. “They go to church, look after their loved ones, and say, ‘Howdy,’ to their neighbors. They like things to be simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re simple folks, if you know what I mean.”
“I do.” Charlotte nodded. “Sawyer sounds a lot like where I come from.”
“Good folks is good folks, no matter where they call home.”
Occasionally, John would give the truck’s horn a brief tap and yell out the window at someone he knew.
“There’s Carlton Timmons’ barber shop,” John told her, pointing out the business as they passed. “Known Carl ’bout all my life, and except for one reservation, I can say he’s as fine a man as this town’s ever produced.”
“What’s that one thing?” Charlotte asked.
“He’s one hell of a cheat at cards,” John answered. “You ain’t a fancier of poker, are you?”
“No, I can’t say that I am. Are you?”
“Used to be, but I ain’t no more on account of Carl!” John exclaimed.
Soon, the truck passed by the last business that lined Sawyer’s Main Street and took a gentle turn alongside the dried-up remnants of a creek’s bed. In an instant, the sights of the town had vanished, replaced by the same kind of scrabbly earth as she had seen from the train.
“Where’s the school?” Charlotte asked, looking around, wondering just where it was that she would be spending her days.
“Back on the eastern side of town,” John explained, thumbing over his shoulder back toward where they had come. “Since it’s the opposite direction from the depot, I figured it’d be best to wait until the next visit into town ’fore givin’ you a chance to become acquainted with it. School won’t be startin’ for a few more weeks, so there’s plenty of time.”
“Is the ranch far from Sawyer?” Even as she asked her questions, Charlotte wondered why she hadn’t bothered to inquire about where she would be staying in all of the time she’d been corresponding with John Grant.
“Not far,” the rancher answered. “ ’Bout two miles or so.”
When John glanced over at Charlotte, he could clearly see the confusion written plainly across her face. To soothe her, he explained that although his ranch was a distance from town, he had long been a member of Sawyer’s School Board, and that after she had agreed to come and teach at the school he had volunteered to provide her with lodging.
“You see, the truth of the matter,” he explained a bit sheepishly, “is that… well, I was hopin’ that maybe you’d be able to help me with a… a problem I’ve been havin’ on the ranch. My askin’ you to stay with us ain’t without other motives.”
“A problem? What sort of problem?” she asked, her interest rising.
“While I’d be happy to try explainin’ it to you, it’s really the sort of thing that’s best seein’, I reckon. Somehow, I ain’t just sure that my words would explain.”
For a long moment, Charlotte stared at John Grant as the truck continued on its way. On the one hand, she didn’t like thinking that she had agreed to come all the way from Minnesota under false pretenses. But on the other hand, something in the old rancher’s face made her believe she was not being maliciously manipulated.
“Will it interfere with my job at the school?” she asked.
“If it does, then I won’t fault you for stoppin’.”
Charlotte thought it over for a moment longer before saying, “I’m not agreeing to anything without knowing what it is exactly that you want me to do, but I’ll do my best to go into it with an open mind. If it’s something I feel I can do without harming the reason I was brought here, then we might be able to manage to work something out.”
“I couldn’t expect you to be agreein’ to more.”
“But if I’m going to be living out on the ranch, how will I be getting back and forth to the school?”
“You mean to say you can’t drive a truck?”
“Do you expect me to drive this every day?” Charlotte exclaimed, more than a bit surprised.
“Hell, ole Betsy here don’t much like me drivin’ her.” John chuckled, patting the seat between them. “Some days gettin’ her started is tougher then coaxin’ a stubborn horse out of its stall, sometimes the damn steerin’ wheel jerks to the left so hard it feels like it’s tryin’ to escape right on out the window, and I don’t even want to warn you ’bout drivin’ her in the rain.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“Just an old rancher’s sense of humor, is all.”
“I can’t say that I found it particularly funny,” she admitted.
“Most folks don’t,” John snorted. “The truth is that one of the fellas that’s workin’ for me on the ranch heads into town pert near every day for some errand or other and I reckon catchin’ a ride with him’ll get you anywhere you’d want to go. Even if it’s rainin’, blowin’ to beat the band, or even snowin’, we’ll manage to get you wherever it is you’d need to be.”
“So this employee of yours has managed to tame Betsy,” Charlotte teased, clearly liking the fact that John Grant was so quick to humor.
“This truck ain’t all that different from the horses we got back on the ranch.” He smiled knowingly. “With the really wild ones, the ones that would just as soon stomp you into a mud hole as let you put a saddle on ’em, you don’t ever really break what spirit they got, not really. ’Bout as easy to tame as a spring storm that come rollin’ in across the prairie. In the end, you just hope and pray that you ain’t the one that ends up broken.”
John Grant’s horse ranch lay just across a worn and rickety bridge that spanned a wildflower-strewn creek; unlike the dried-up streambed that lay just outside of Sawyer, its rushing water gurgled across rocks below their passing wheels. An enormous pair of trees, sun dappling their breeze-blown leaves and branches, stood silent watch as the truck drove beneath.
“We’re here,” John said, nodding toward the house.
“It’s… it’s…” she began, but her words failed her.
The ranch house was much more than Charlotte had expected; two stories tall with a pair of porches on each floor that ran the length of the front of the building, decorated with four columns, the house showed that John Grant’s enterprise had been successful. Painted a crisp white, it shone as majestically in the sunlight as a jewel. Surrounded by a white fence, the property was dotted with young trees. High above them, a windmill churned lazily in the soft breeze.
Farther back on the property, numerous small buildings lined a path that led from the ranch house to the holding pens at the rear. A couple of larger barns, painted dull red with white trim, had their doors flung open, and men milled about, working on various chores. Laughter and the sounds of labor, steel hammers colliding with anvils, even the sawing of wood, rose above the sounds of the truck. There’s so much activity! Charlotte was even pleasantly surprised to see a couple of men cultivating a garden.
But what really caught her attention were the horses; those who ran wildly about the pens, and others who milled about next to the water trough, or were ridden by men herding a small group of steers. All were captivating to Charlotte: white, black, brown, and spotted colors in between. With their upraised ears, large and expressive eyes, and strong musculature, they were beautiful.
“Do you ride?” John asked.
Charlotte shook her head.
“That is somethin’ we’re gonna have to change,” he declared.
He drove the truck up the drive, shouting a bit of encouragement to a pair of men who were working with an unruly black and white stallion in a nearby corral. Turning toward the house, he slowed the pickup directly before a side door. Del leaped from the back of the truck before the vehicle came to a full stop, his boots crunching loudly on the hardscrabble ground when he landed.
“Don’t you worry yourself none ’bout your belongin’s,” John explained. “Del’ll have one of the other fellas help him haul ’em up in a bit. In the meanwhile, why don’t you let me show you your room.”
Charlotte followed the rancher as he led the way through the side door, passed through the mudroom, and into a small foyer. Beside them, an entryway led into the kitchen, but she didn’t get more than a quick look before John began to climb a nearby staircase toward the upper floor.
All along the length of the tall stairway were framed photographs, some so old that they were brown and mottled. Some were posed, bearded gentlemen with their impassively unsmiling wives standing beside them. But there were other images that were more captivating; one photograph was more than two feet wide, a panoramic view of the breadth of the ranch.
“That photo is from my pa’s time,” John explained, coming back down the steps to where Charlotte stood. “That’s him standin’ there at the front of the house,” he said, pointing a worn finger to the small figure visible at the head of the walk, his thumbs hooked into his vest.
“He looks like a proud man,” Charlotte remarked.
“As a peacock,” John stated. “He was rightfully pleased with what he and his father before him built.”
“Where are you in this picture?”
“More likely than not, I was runnin’ around in my short pants as blind to what was happenin’ as a baby bird just out its shell.” He chuckled. “You know, for the longest time, I thought these pictures was nothin’ but a waste of time, memories best forgotten, but now that I’m older, it’s nice to be able to look back to what come before.”
“I wish I had photographs to look back on in my family,” Charlotte answered wistfully, “but most all of my family’s history was lost in a fire when I was a little girl.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Charlotte followed John up the remaining steps and down a darkened hallway to the last room on the right. After opening the door, he stood to the side, encouraging her to enter.
“It probably ain’t what you’re used to,” he said, “but I hope that it’ll do.”
Sunlight streamed through the southern window, illuminating a room without much furniture. Beside the single bed, there was only the nightstand near the door and the dresser against the opposite wall. Light fell upon the washbasin atop the dresser, sending shimmering reflections dancing across the ceiling.
“It’s perfect,” she said.
“I’m happy you think so,” he answered, “but if there’s anything you need that you don’t have, let us know.”
“You get yourself a bit of rest ’fore dinner and don’t worry ’bout missin’ it, ’cause there’ll be more noise than if the circus come to town. A mess of hungry cowboys make more than a fair share of racket!”
As John shut the door behind him, Charlotte twirled about the room, so excited about her new life she had to release some energy. Still, John’s advice was no doubt sound, and she lay back on the bed. It was hard to believe she was so far from Minnesota.
Closing her eyes, Charlotte found sleep as easily as if she had reached out and grabbed it.
By the time Charlotte awakened, the sound of boisterous voices was rising up from the bottom of the stairs. Peeking out into the hall, she saw that Del had brought her belongings. After refreshing herself at the washbasin, she selected a fresh blouse, tied back her blond hair, and took a long look at herself in the mirror above the dresser.
Charlotte pulled at the thin chain around her neck and freed the locket that had been given to her by her father soon after his return to her life. Popping open the clasp that held it shut, she looked down upon the tiny photograph of her mother that had accompanied Mason Tucker across the battlefields of France. Though less faded and far better traveled than the images John Grant had hung along the stairway, the image of her mother, a woman she had never known, was her greatest treasure.
With a smile, she closed the locket, slid it safely back inside her blouse, and made her way down the stairs.
The dining room at the Grant Ranch was bustling with rowdy men who were finally finished with a long day’s work. Their raucous, noisy laughter occasionally was punctuated by a shout and good-natured ribbing. To Charlotte, everything was a bit disorienting. She smiled and nodded here and there as she wove her way through the throng and over to where John waved at her, every step allowing her to hear snippets of the many conversations going on around her.
“—that dang bull is a heller, fer sure.”
“—if’n we don’t get rain soon, we’re gonna get blowed clear down to Texas.”
“—the way that son of a bitch was buckin’ I thought I might get throwed all the way to the pearly gates.”
“That’s about the only way you’ll get there!”
When Charlotte approached the long table in the center of the room, she was surprised to see several women racing back and forth from the kitchen carrying wide platters and deep bowls heaped high with food: huge portions of green beans, red potatoes, high-rising biscuits, and steaks. But when she inquired if she could help with the preparation of the meal or in setting the table, John shooed her away.
“You’re a guest here and that means your only job is to sit down at the table and eat your fill.”
“But surely I could help in some way?”
“It seems to me that you’re the sort of gal who gets an idea in her head and can’t let it go, no matter what argument is used ’gainst it.” John chuckled. “After all the time you spent travelin’, why don’t you just let things be as they are, at least for tonight.”
Reluctantly, Charlotte agreed.
Happy that he had persuaded her to see things his way, John began to introduce Charlotte to each of the men who worked for him. From Ken Caldwell on to Matthew Hoskins and then to Dave Powell and beyond, the list seemed endless, one weather-beaten, whiskered face replacing the one that came before, if only for an instant, over ten in all.
“Is it always this hectic at dinnertime?” she asked a cowboy she thought was named Will.
“Nope, it sure ain’t,” the man answered. “Some of our nights is spent sweatin’ over our wood-burnin’ stoves, cookin’ up whatever grub we scrounge up from the general store Mr. Grant maintains. But tonight we was invited to the house for proper eatin’ on account of you bein’ here.”
“All of this for me?” she said in surprise.
“With the look of this here food,” he smiled, glancing over at the laden table, “there ain’t a one of us who’s gonna complain!”
Then John gently grabbed her by the elbow to introduce her to someone else. “This here is the part about John Grant that most people like best,” he beamed proudly, “and I can’t say I blame them. Charlotte, I’d like you to meet my wife, Amelia.”
With her thin, mousy auburn hair piled high atop her head in a haphazardly formed bun, soft and round greenish gold eyes that seemed mismatched above her high, rosy cheeks, and a thinly pursed mouth over a weak, dimpled chin, Amelia Grant struck Charlotte as an awkward match for her lively husband as she was shorter than John by nearly a foot. Amelia wiped her hands on her apron before offering them to her new guest; they felt warm and clammy to the touch.
“Welcome to our home,” Amelia said softly.
“Thank you so much for having me here,” Charlotte replied.
While her first assumption was that Amelia was as meek and timid as a church mouse, Charlotte couldn’t help but notice the sweat that slicked the woman’s brow and the steely strength readily apparent in her arms and hands. To think her unimportant would be to underestimate the burden she carried as a ranch owner’s wife. Besides, the fact that John doted on her, singing her praises unabashedly, crowing about her as if she were blessed from on high, was another indication that there was more to Amelia Grant than what initially revealed itself.
Del came up beside her with his hat in his hand and a warm smile; though she had just met him earlier that day, Charlotte found herself happy to see a face she recognized. “Are you gettin’ settled in all right?” he asked.
“I am, thank you.”
“Arrivin’ somewhere new can be a bit overwhelmin’.” Del chuckled, nodding to all of the commotion around them.
“I’m finding that out.”
“Give it time and I’m sure it’ll start feelin’ like home.”
Suddenly, the rear door crashed open thunderously and a deep voice bellowed into the dining room, silencing all other talk.
“Thank goodness you didn’t start without me! I’m so hungry my stomach is gnawing on my backbone!”
Squeezing through the door to the dining room, enthusiastically greeting his fellow ranch hands, was undoubtedly the largest man she had ever seen. Hugely proportioned, he was as impressive to behold as a prize ox at the fair; his broad shoulders looked wider than a pair of axe handles, and his taut, muscular arms strained against the fabric of his work shirt.
When the huge man made eye contact with John, he hurried over to where they stood with the enthusiasm of someone about to receive a gift.
“I reckon this must be our new schoolmarm!” he practically shouted, towering over Charlotte with such a presence that she found herself speechless.
Thankfully, John stepped into the silence by saying, “Charlotte, let me introduce you to one of the best hands a rancher could ever hope to have. This big fella is Hale McCoy.”
“It’s really nice to meet you,” Hale said.
“I… I… why… yes, it is…” Charlotte stumbled.
“Let’s hope she ain’t gonna be this tongue-tied standin’ up in front of the classroom.” Hale laughed. “Or else I got the feelin’ those little buggers are gonna have the run of the roost!”
“She ain’t the first woman to trip over her words the first time she met you!” a voice shouted from the back of the room.
“I believe my mother was the first, startin’ on the day I was born!” Hale boasted.
“That poor woman!” came another shout.
Though Charlotte was quite certain she was blushing a bit at the teasing, she could see that Hale McCoy, for all his size, clearly possessed a gentle soul. From the downy blond hair that stood up in a prominent cowlick to his mischievous, dancing light blue eyes, he was childlike and charming. She found him easy to like and began warming up to him even if she was the source of his amusement. She decided that she would deal with him the same way she had always dealt with those who were so overwhelming.
I’ll give it back every bit as good as I get!
“I wasn’t stumbling over my words because I was tongue-tied,” Charlotte corrected, straightening her shoulders and raising her chin to meet Hale’s questioning gaze. “I was only drawing in my breath in the hope that you would be able to hear me all the way up there.”
Hale was momentarily taken aback, but his eyes lit up and he finally exclaimed, “Oh, I like her! She’s got spunk in spades!”
“And don’t you forget it,” she declared.
“I’m thinkin’ you ain’t,” he said with a chuckle.
“Seems to me that you’re gonna fit in just fine under this roof,” John joined in.
Before any more teasing could ensue, the ranch owner called everyone to dinner, holding out a seat for Charlotte near the head of the table. Hale settled his massive bulk into the seat directly opposite her, clearly relishing the thought of more verbal jousting during the course of the meal. Amelia took the seat to Charlotte’s immediate right. Every ranch hand looked up to where John stood, not a hat to be seen on a single head.
“Since we have the providence and good fortune to have a new face here among us,” the older man began, looking over to where Charlotte sat,” it only seems proper that she be allowed to say Grace.”
Taken aback, Charlotte managed to sputter, “I… I… couldn’t possibly know what to say…”
“Ain’t nothin’ to it with a mouth like yours,” Hale teased.
Charlotte shot him a withering look but only managed to make him laugh harder.
“Just do the best you can,” Amelia encouraged.
Nodding, Charlotte bowed her head and clasped her hands together in her lap. Saying a silent, private prayer before beginning, she said,
“Thank you, our Father in Heaven above, not just for the large meal prepared for us and the wonderful company in which it will be shared, but also for bringing me safely from my family in Minnesota to be among such kind and,” Charlotte paused for a moment, opening one eye to look at Hale before adding, “interesting people. May our time together continue to make us every bit as happy as I have been this day. Bless us and this house. Amen.”
When she finished, Charlotte looked up cautiously, as if she expected someone to raise an objection to her words, but instead found that everyone at the table had already turned their attention to loading their plates with food. With a silent laugh at her unnecessary nervousness, she joined them.
Just as dinner was drawing to a close, silverware being set down on plates still containing the last bites of a deliciously rich apple pie, the back door beside the mudroom opened again. Before Charlotte could turn around to see whoever had just entered, she was struck by the clear, surprising strangeness of Hale’s reaction.
All throughout the meal, the enormous ranch hand’s mood and voice remained every bit as great as his size; every time she had ventured an opinion, Hale had been there with a contrary comment, his deep baritone drowning out every other voice at the table.
But now when he spoke, Charlotte was taken aback.
“Eve… evenin’,” Hale sputtered, his voice only a fraction of what it had been only moments before.
Her curiosity completely getting the better of her, Charlotte turned and looked back over her chair; there, walking into the dining room, was a very pretty young woman. About the same age as Charlotte, with raven black hair that swept loosely across her narrow shoulders, green eyes that moved easily about the room, and features as delicate and dainty as a starlet on a Hollywood movie poster, she beamed at the group at the table. Still, beneath her smile a sad weariness flickered a moment, as if it were a candle’s flame, before vanishing.
“I’m terribly sorry that we’re so late in getting back, but I just couldn’t manage to get away from my work at the office,” she explained, her voice every bit as remarkable as her looks. “With all of the new cases Mr. Barnaby’s law practice takes on, my day never seems to end!”
Excerpted from Keep a Little Secret by Garlock, Dorothy Copyright © 2011 by Garlock, Dorothy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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