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"I had to resign," Anna Simmons explained to her sister-in-law, Mariah, as she pushed open the mercantile door. Her red knit glove looked like a splash of paint against the darkened oak.
The bell on the door tinkled, announcing their arrival to the handful of customers shopping that afternoon. Most looked up to see who'd entered. That's the way it was in Pearlman. Everyone kept track of everyone else. Sometimes that was good. Other times gossip had a way of taking off and running around town until it had wrung the life out of everyone involved.
Anna knew full well that word of her leaving the Neideckers' employ would race through town like wildfire. Best douse that flame before it got started.
"I had no choice," she announced loudly enough for everyone in the store to hear.
"Why?" Mariah's brow puckered into a frown as she picked up a shopping basket.
"The uniform she wanted me to wear was positively indecent. Why, the skirt didn't even cover my knees. It was as short as a bathing suit."
Mariah shook her head. "It couldn't have been that bad."
"It was horrible, with a frilly white apron and cap." She lowered her voice when Mrs. Butterfield glanced her way. "How am I supposed to clean in that? Especially with Joe Neidecker looking at me like I was some floozy." She shuddered at the memory of the oldest son's stare. Everyone knew he frequented the speakeasy. "I can imagine what he was thinking. I've read books."
"Dime novels," Mariah pointed out.
"Books," Anna stressed. "In the last one I read, the maid fell in love with the duke's eldest son only to be thrown out on the streets."
"The son didn't rescue her? Usually those stories have happy endings."
"That's not my point. They threw her out."
Mariah clucked softly. "So you took matters into your own hands."
"I'm not wearing that uniform. I clean houses. I am not a servant." She'd told Mrs. Neidecker the very same thing, but the woman didn't take it well. Her tirade still rang in Anna's ears.
"We are all called to serve," Mariah pointed out. "Jesus washed his disciples' feet. There is no shame in working as a servant."
"Maybe." Anna did not need a lecture. Mariah might be thirty-one years old to her twenty, but that didn't give her the right to scold. "I'd rather be doing something exciting, like exploring ancient ruins."
"That requires connections and a great deal of money."
"I'll get another job."
Mariah looked unconvinced as she placed four cans of beans in her basket. "Jobs are difficult to find. I haven't seen a posting anywhere in weeks."
"The cannery in Belvidere is hiring."
"And spend half your wage on train fare?" Mariah's brown bobbed hair peeked out from under the brim of her blue tricorn hat. "I wish the orphanage could afford to pay you."
"I wouldn't take a nickel." Anna knew how tight Constance House's finances were. As director of the orphanage, Mariah scrimped and saved and solicited donations, but she could never make ends meet. The number of children had grown but not the funding.
"Thank you, dear." Mariah lifted the lid on the barrel and examined the flour. "No weevils today. I'll take five pounds," she said to the clerk, who'd finished waiting on Mrs. Butterfield.
Anna noted Mariah's long grocery list. "What can I get for you?"
"Would you ask the butcher for a five-pound beef roast?"
Anna strolled down the aisle lined with barrels containing flour, cornmeal, sugar, dried beans and oats on one side and shelves holding one-pound bags of coffee beans and packets of tea on the other. Rolls of butter sat on ice, while wheels of cheese and the lard can stood nearby.
She passed by the candy display without the slightest interest, but when her eye caught a headline on the Pearlman Prognosticatofs front page, she gasped.
"Mariah, come here." Hands shaking, she unfolded the newspaper and scanned the single-column article entitled, "Treasure Tomb Unearthed."
"What is it? What's wrong?" Mariah hurried to her side.
"Look." Anna pointed the frayed tip of her knit glove at the article. "A Mr. Carter found a pharaoh's tomb filled with gold and riches. He says it's so full of artifacts that it'll take months to clear."
"Is that so?" Mariah sounded unimpressed.
"It's the tomb of a young pharaoh, King Tutankhamun." She stumbled over the unfamiliar word. "Can you believe tomb robbers never found it? Mr. Carter is the first person to step inside since it was closed up centuries ago. Oh, Mariah, if only I was there. If only I could find a treasure like that. Imagine. We'd be rich. The orphanage would have everything it could ever want. Ma could have a big house on the hill. You and Hendrick too. Wouldn't it be wonderful?"
"Oh, Anna, you're such a dreamer." Mariah smiled softly. "It would be wonderful, but what would be even better is to finish my shopping before school lets out. Will you pick up the meat from the butcher?"
With a sigh, Anna refolded the newspaper. She wanted to buy it, but, as Mariah would point out, that wouldn't be prudent now that she had no job.
As she walked to the butcher counter and requested the roast, words from the article bounced around her head. Valley of the Kings. Boy king. How she wished she could have been there when Howard Carter opened the tomb. Had the centuries-old air rushed out? Did it smell stale? Did he gasp when the torchlight danced off glittering gold?
Her imagination raced as she absently accepted the paper-wrapped package of meat from the butcher. One day she would discover an even bigger treasure. The press would swarm around her, eager for just one word from the famed Egyptologist, Anna Simmons. Cameras would flash as the reporters asked what she'd found. She'd shield her eyes from the glare and answer mysteriously, "You'll just have to wait."
"Excuse me?" The irritated question came from a very tall and very distinguished man.
Blinking, she pulled herself out of the fantasy to take note of the stranger. He must have been in the store the whole time, but she'd been too preoccupied to notice him. What a mistake. Judging by the quality of the stranger's clothing, he had money and lots of it. His straight nose and commanding jaw made her tremble. He looked exactly like how she'd imagined Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester.
"I thought you were finished," he said in a rich timbre that resonated clear to her toes.
"I, uh, uh.. finished with what?"
"You said I had to wait." He pointed to the paper-wrapped package she cradled in her arm. "Since you walked away, I thought you were done." He swept a magnanimous hand toward the counter. "Please, go ahead."
"Oh, no." Anna felt heat infuse her cheeks. When she'd imagined telling the reporters to wait, she must have spoken aloud. "That is, I'm done." The words came out all awkward, like a dumbstruck schoolgirl. "Go ahead."
"Thank you." His lips curved slightly, greatly softening his appearance. "If I might correct you, the seals had been broken."
"Seals?" She stared blankly. "What seals?"
"Clay seals. They are affixed to the entrance of any pharaoh's tomb. You said the tomb had never been opened before, but the seals at the entrance had been broken sometime in the past. Fortunately for Mr. Carter and the Cairo Museum, the contents appear to be largely intact."
Anna could hardly breathe. Not only did he look distinguished, but he knew everything about the excavation. He must be a professor. Or an archaeologist. Maybe he'd take her to Egypt. Stupid idea. He'd never trust a girl who stammered and talked to herself. He certainly wouldn't take someone poor. Expedition members had to pay their way.
She bit her lip to force away the disappointment and tried to say something intelligent. "Why is it fortunate for the Cairo Museum?"
His smile deepened. "They will receive the tomb's contents after Mr. Carter inventories them."
"How do you know so much?" She was gushing, but how could she help it? A pharaoh's tomb had been discovered, and this man knew all about it.
"I read the archaeology journals and reports."
"You do? Do you think ?" She hesitated, but the twinkle in his eyes persuaded her to ask. "Do you think I might borrow your journals someday? When you're done, of course."
"You may," he corrected. "Come by my new bookstore, The Antiquarian, when it opens next month."
Next month? January was two weeks away. She didn't know if she could wait that long, but she had no choice. He hadn't offered to loan his precious journals a moment earlier.
"Thank you, oh thank you," she said a bit too eagerly.
If he found her schoolgirl reaction amusing, he had the kindness not to mention it. "I suggest you begin with Dr. Davis's book on Tutankhamun."
She nodded dumbly.
"Until then." He turned to the meat counter. "Until then," she whispered, unable to tear her gaze from him.
"Oh, good, you got the meat. Thank you." Mariah gently took the string-tied package from her hands. "We should be going. I just need to sign the account first." She tugged Anna toward the sales counter where the rest of her purchases were already piled into a crate.
Anna reluctantly followed, but her mind lingered elsewhere. She glanced back at the butcher counter. This fascinating man was opening a bookstore. And he read archaeology journals.
"Deliver it to the house with the rest," the man said to the butcher. He grasped an ivory-headed ebony cane in his right hand. A cane like that could only have come from Africa. The Dark Continent. He must have traveled the world. She would do that one day.
He limped toward the sales counter, and Anna turned away so he wouldn't notice she'd been staring at him. The cane. The limp. Perhaps he'd been gored by a rhinoceros or barely survived a tiger attack. Maybe natives shot a poison dart into his calf, and he'd lost the use of his foot.
"I'll have Josh drop this off," the clerk said to Mariah.
After thanking the man, Mariah asked Anna if she wanted to come over for a cup of tea.
Anna shook her head. "I'd better go home. Ma wanted me to make supper." She sighed. "Cleaning and cooking. Does it ever end?"
"When you're doing it for your loved ones, it's a joy," Mariah started. "Goodness, is that the school bell?" She hastily buttoned her coat. "I'd better hurry."
"Go ahead. I want to look around a little." And read more of the article.
After a final farewell, Mariah left.
Before Anna could drift back to the newspapers, the door opened with a rush of icy wind, and none other than Sally Neidecker entered. Sally had graduated from high school a few years before Anna and went to college the following year, which is where she should be now. Mrs. Neidecker hadn't expected her daughter's return until the end of the week. Her appearance now meant trouble.
Anna pretended to be engrossed by the candy selection and hoped Sally wouldn't spot her.
No such luck. Within seconds, the girl had ferreted her out.
"There you are." Without so much as a greeting, Sally flounced toward her, the hem of her scandalously short skirt barely peeking out below the bottom of her fur-trimmed coat. "How could you leave Mother without help on the day of her Christmas party? She was beside herself. Absolutely hysterical. I thought we'd have to call in Dr. Stevens."
Anna's tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. "I, uh"
"Is that any way to treat a friend? I thought we were friends, Anna. Haven't I always helped you?"
Not always. True, she'd looked up to Sally when she was younger, and Sally had taken her under her wing, but not like a friend. More like a foot soldier.
"I, uh, thought you were still at the university. Your mother said Michigan didn't let out for the semester until the end of the week." It wasn't much of a distraction, but it worked.
Sally lifted her nose even higher. "I finished my course-work early, and my new guy drove me here."
The familiar way Sally mentioned her beau made Anna's skin crawl. She acted as if he was some swell from the big city. Maybe he was, but driving all the way from Ann Arbor alone with a man?
"He's perfect," Sally continued, her stained lips bright against the fox fur, "much too good for the girls around here."
Anna didn't bother to point out that Sally came from here. Instead, she glanced toward the newspapers.
That reminded Sally of her purpose. "You have to come back to work."
"I'm sorry. I can't."
"But then who will clean up after the party?" Anna stared at the candy jars. "I don't know."
"What is wrong with you? It can't be the wages. Mother pays better than anyone else in town."
"I'm not a servant," Anna said through clenched teeth. Sally snorted. "You're a maid. Maids are servants."
"I clean houses."
"Just like your mother." Sally lifted her nose. "We would have hired her, if we could. She's more reliable. You should be grateful we gave you the job."
Anna struggled to choke back her indignation. "I'll get another job. Someplace where I don't have to wear a humiliating uniform."
"Is that what all this is about?" Sally flicked her hand dismissively. "I'd think you'd be proud to wear it. Mother bought them directly from Ashton's. They cost a fortune and are in the latest fashion, something you wouldn't know a thing about."
No one could misconstrue Sally's meaning as her smug gaze raked downward from Anna's threadbare coat to her sagging wool stockings.
Anna blinked back tears of angry humiliation. The Bible said to turn the other cheek. It didn't mention how tough that could be.
Out of nowhere came the warm masculine voice of the distinguished stranger. "If the uniform is that fashionable, perhaps you should wear it."
Anna's jaw dropped. She could have hugged the man for lobbing that volley at Sally. He'd come to her rescue in as spectacular a fashion as Mr. Rochester had lifted Jane out of the driving rain and onto his horse.
"The nerve," Sally said under her breath, before pasting a smile on her lips. Cocking her head until the ostrich feather on her stylish turban swept downward, she fixed every ounce of feminine wile on Anna's hero. "How witty you are, sir. I don't believe we've met." She extended a hand.
He ignored it. "At least you're correct about that." He nodded curtly. "Good afternoon, ladies."
Without another word, he strode out of the store and straight into Anna's heart.