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Kimbell, Louisiana, May 1872
Lacie Montgomery managed a smile only with considerable effort.
"Yes, Mrs. Mooring, the school has suffered a great loss. I'm not sure how we shall go on without Frederick. We will simply have to manage the best we can."
"Oh, and I'm sure you will. I'm sure you will. Of course, there's your own personal loss to deal with as well." The woman cocked her head curiously so that her fuzzy sausage curls fell along her plump cheeks.
Lacie lowered her gaze to a selection of lace collars in the glass-topped display case. She'd known this would happen and had tried to prepare herself by anticipating the inquisitive looks and the prying questions. But how many times in one day must she run this gamut?
"I was heartbroken when Frederick died," she murmured. That, at least, was not a lie. He had been teacher, father, brother, and friend to her. The problem was, he had not been her husband.
No matter how often she told herself that this deception of hers was justified—indeed, it was an absolute necessity if Sparrow Hill School for Young Ladies were to survive—she still could not shake off her feelings of guilt.
"And the pair of you so newly wed," Mrs. Mooring persisted, her eyes bright with the inveterate gossip's curiosity.
Lacie lifted her head and smiled grimly at the storekeeper's portly wife. "Barely a week before he—" She pressed a plain linen handkerchief to her mouth. "If you don't mind, I'd rather not speak of it."
That was true as well, Lacie thought as she made her way out of Mooring's Dry Goods. She did not want to speak of Frederick's death at all, for with every word she seemed to be digging a deeper and deeper hole for herself.
Still, it had been four weeks since Frederick had died. Surely the worst of the gossip was over, she reasoned. If she could just remain in quiet mourning all summer, by the time the students returned in the fall, everything would be smoothed over. Her biggest trial would be to get through the coming graduation ceremony.
Lacie was resolute as she made her way down the two blocks that constituted the town of Kimbell's main thoroughfare. She kept her face carefully downcast and murmured only a word or two to those she passed. But her back was straight and her stride determined as she crossed the street to meet Leland at the wagon.
"I settled the bill with Mrs. Mooring. Is everything in the wagon?"
"Yes, ma'am. I got it all." Leland hefted himself onto the high wooden seat and took up the reins. It was only when Lacie stood patiently on the plank walk, looking pointedly at him, that he started in realization. If anyone could be both embarrassed and put out, the old black servant certainly was. He was muttering under his breath as he shuffled around the team of horses to Lacie's side.
"I never been no driver to the ladies."
"I know, Leland."
"Mr. Frederick, he never needed no hand up."
"I'm sure he didn't." Lacie made the high step, then carefully smoothed her skirts and settled onto the seat. She watched Leland make his way back around the wagon once more, then waited until he too was seated. "There are many things that will be different now that Frederick is gone," she began. "But all of us must cope."
Leland did not answer. He only kept his eyes on the road as he guided the horses through town. But his very silence weighed most heavily upon Lacie. She fought down an urge to slump in defeat as she considered what lay ahead. Only the stringent reminder that proper ladies always sat unbowed with their heads up and their backs straight kept her from caving in then and there. It was one thing to maintain a facade before Mrs. Mooring and the rest of the townfolk. But Leland was a part of Sparrow Hill School for Young Ladies. If he didn't support her—if the others didn't either—then how could she go on?
Despite her prim exterior and her neatly folded, cotton-gloved hands, Lacie was on the brink of tears as they neared the edge of town. So caught up was she in her depressing thoughts that she hardly noticed Leland stopping, except when the meager breeze they'd enjoyed stopped as well.
Lacie wiped the dampness from her brow. When she spoke, her voice was sharper than she'd intended.
"Do get along, Leland. We've no need to be stopping, especially before such an unsavory place."
Leland's eyes stared straight ahead and his lower lip jutted out petulantly.
"Mr. Frederick, he done always stopped at the Half Moon on the way home. He always brought me out a little glass of whiskey."
Lacie's mouth dropped open in surprise. She could not imagine Frederick Allen Kimbell ever setting foot in a tavern, let alone encouraging someone in his care to actually partake of spirits. Yet as the moment stretched out and Leland did not budge, she realized it was true.
"But surely you cannot think that—that I could go into—into ..." Lacie crumpled her handkerchief in her hand and blinked back tears. The old man's head sank lower between his shoulders, and his chin began to quiver.
"But Mr. Frederick—" he choked and wiped his eyes with the back of one large fist. "He done always looked out for me. Who's gonna look out for poor ol' Leland now?"
It was the final blow for Lacie. Her simple square of linen was woefully inadequate for her tears as she tried to stanch the flow. It was small consolation that the wagon finally did lurch forward, for once the tears began, they would not be stayed. It was awful enough to have lost dear Frederick. She truly did not know how any of them would cope without his reassuring presence. But to have all his responsibilities on her shoulders—the school, the students and their families, the teaching staff, and now even Leland's terrible sorrow ...
Lacie bit her lip hard in an effort to control her runaway emotions. She had taken on this task, she reminded herself sternly. She had weighed the alternatives and had decided quite on her own to take on the responsibility for the school. Crying would not change that.
The wet handkerchief was quite insufficient, but Lacie did her best to dry her face. Then she straightened up and laid her small hand on Leland's arm.
"I know it's hard," she murmured.
The old man clucked to the team. "It ain't never gonna be right again. Not ever."
Lacie dropped onto her plain dormitory bed with a sigh that mingled sorrow and defeat. She pulled the long wooden pin from her hat and removed her newly dyed black bonnet. Her gloves were next, then the stiffly boned muslin bodice of her mourning costume. It was only midafternoon, yet she wanted nothing so much as a cool, refreshing bath. She grimaced as she arose and poured a thin stream of tepid water into a blue porcelain bowl with pink lustre accents. Unfortunately, she knew that whether she bathed only her face and wrists or took a complete bath in one of the enameled hip tubs, she would still not be able to rid herself of the guilty feelings that plagued her.
Lacie was patting her face with a damp cloth when a quick knock came at her door, followed by the fair head of Ada Pierce peeking around the frame.
"Oh, Ada," she called to her fellow teacher. "Do come in."
"I was wondering how you fared in town." Ada pursed her lips and stared seriously at Lacie. "Was it dreadful?"
Lacie's shoulders slumped, and she sat on her bed, clasping the damp cloth between her fingers.
"It was positively awful. No one came outright and said anything, but I could tell they were all still wondering why they hadn't heard of the wedding before Frederick died."
"They can't say anything—you have the papers."
"Yes." Lacie bit her lower lip. "At least we have the marriage papers. But I would hate to have anyone examine them very closely."
Ada took the cloth from Lacie's hand, then began to loosen the thick coil of hair at her friend's nape. "You underestimate your skill, Lacie. Why, your rendition of Reverend Hainkel's signature would confuse that good man himself."
"I'm just as glad that he'll not be here to verify it one way or the other. I only hope he's happy in his new parish and never, ever returns to Kimbell." She relaxed her shoulders as Ada began patiently to plait her hair. "If he would just stay in St. Louis! And if everyone else would just hold their silence!"
"No one else has anything to tell," Ada put in. She shook her head emphatically. "I don't rightly know just how you came up with such a brave plan to save our school, Lacie. I know you feel bad in one way, but you can't lose sight of the good you're doing either. Just keep in mind that letter that Mr. Frederick was writing when he became ill. It was clear that his brother had suggested that he close the school. But the last thing Mr. Frederick did before he died was to start that letter telling him that he would never sell off Sparrow Hill. Even though he didn't get to send that letter, it's clear what he wanted. Why, it would be awful if Mr. Frederick's brother got the school, for he surely wouldn't hesitate to close it down now. Then what would happen to all our girls? There are so few decent schools left since the war. Where would they go?"
Lacie clasped Ada's hand fondly. "They won't have to go anywhere. We're going to stay here and the students are going to keep on coming back year after year, just as Frederick would have wanted. And if Frederick's brother—half-brother—should try to claim the school, he'll find he hasn't a leg to stand upon. Frederick seldom spoke of his brother, but he did say that he was a well-to-do businessman. Why would such a man—probably well settled in Denver with a wife and children—why would such a man want a school that barely gets by? Heaven knows, the value of property has plummeted since the war."
"Maybe he doesn't realize that, being from Denver. Besides, some folks are odd about their inheritances. Even if they don't have any use for it, if it's theirs, they want it."
"But I'm Frederick's widow. I have the papers to prove it. Even if he should send someone to snoop around, he'd find nothing." Lacie stood up and took Ada's hands into hers. "All we have to do is go on as before, teaching our girls just as we've always done, taking care of the school buildings and the horses, and making sure Sparrow Hill School is a credit to dear Frederick's memory."
They were brave words, and they carried Lacie through the remainder of the afternoon. Not until the evening meal was finished and Ada was leading the younger group of girls in their evening prayers did Lacie have a chance to contemplate once more the circumstances that had brought her to do such a devious act as feign marriage to a dying man.
Forgive me, Father, she prayed most fervently. Please forgive my lie. But there was no other way to save the school Frederick worked so hard to build.
Frederick's last coherent words had seemed to force her to it. "My school," he'd whispered in that breathy shadow of his normally ebullient voice. "Help me preserve my school."
After that, there had been a week of silence. Then one night he had simply let go of life. Dr. Cromwell had said it was his heart and had signed the death certificate. He'd only looked at her with his bushy eyebrows a little raised when she told him she and Frederick had been married two days before he'd been struck down. By then, she had already forged the papers and donned a mourning gown. If the doctor had questioned her slightly desperate revelation, he'd clearly not mentioned it to anyone in Kimbell. Nor had any of the staff, although she was certain they had their suspicions. But they also knew that their livelihoods hung in the balance. There was no going back anyway, not since she'd sent the letter to Frederick's brother in Denver.
Her hand had shaken terribly as she'd written that dreaded letter. It had been bad enough to have to inform a man of his brother's death, even if they were hardly of the same social standing. But to lie and steal from the man and his family in the process seemed the most heinous of acts.
Still and all, that man did not need the school, and they did. If Sparrow Hill were to close, she and Ada would be teachers without a school. Leland would be deprived of his lifelong home, and Mrs. Gunter the cook, the two housemaids, the stableman, and the gardener would be without any jobs whatsoever. Added to that, Monsieur Fontenot, who taught French and ballroom dancing, would also be quite without an income.
Then there were all the school's young ladies. Where would they find another school in the South that was more than just a finishing school? Frederick's girls received a well-rounded education by the time they graduated. That would be more important now than ever, with all the changes the war had brought.
Lacie shook off her doubts and made a devout sign of the cross. God would understand, she told herself. He would see that behind her sinful acts, she only wanted to keep the school going, and He would understand. Lacie grimaced to herself, then focused back on the restless girls.
"All right, young ladies," she intoned in her most serious voice. "We've all been silly and giddy this evening, for the term ends tomorrow. But we are still ladies, and we must still make a proper showing for ourselves. Not only will your own families be here to participate in the graduation ceremonies, but everyone else's families will be here as well. They'll be watching every one of you." She smiled at their sincere young faces. "You're the ultimate proof of the quality of Sparrow Hill School. So remember to be on your best behavior tomorrow."
Lacie stood beside the tall parlor door as the thirty-odd girls trooped out single file. There was something special about each and every one of them, she thought. Then she was suddenly enveloped by two chubby arms.
"Nina, whatever has gotten into you?" she asked as she gently unpried the arms that were wrapped so tightly about her waist. "Here, now. Let me see you."
"I don't want to leave you," Nina's sad little voice cried, muffled as she pressed her face against Lacie. "I want to stay here."
"But your parents want you to be with them, dear." Lacie led the weeping girl to the settee, then gathered her in her arms. "They have missed you so. Haven't you missed them as well?"
The plump face, set in a pink-cheeked frown, nodded reluctantly. She wiped a tear away with the back of her balled-up fist. "But what if you go away like Mr. Frederick? What if everybody goes away? Then what shall I do?"
Lacie's heart went out to the young girl in her arms. Something about Nina had always drawn her. Perhaps it was that Nina, too, had lost her mother at the tender age of eight. Bundled off to Sparrow Hill School a year later, Nina had never had a chance to warm up to her stepmother. Instead, she had lavished all her childish love on Lacie, who had been unable to resist.
"I shall be here," Lacie promised as she stared into the damp blue eyes of the grieving child. "You shall spend the summer with the new baby and your parents, and when you come back in September, everything will be precisely as it is now." She gave Nina a fierce hug. "I shall be right here as always, waiting for all my girls to come back."
When Nina scampered up the wide mahogany staircase, Lacie roamed through the empty rooms. She straightened a pillow on a settee and stacked several magazines more neatly. She smoothed a rumpled antimacassar and turned down the lanterns in the two parlors.
It was so rare that the big school building was empty. Only after the girls went up to their rooms in the high-pitched attic in the evenings did the grand old house quiet down. Then the two parlors and the great dining room would stand silent and still. The classrooms always seemed to lie in wait for the next school day as she routinely made her final rounds for the night. She usually felt a warm, reassuring contentment as she made her way to her own room on the second floor.
But Lacie felt anything but content this night.
She was taking a huge chance. Despite her brave words to Ada, she dearly felt the strain of keeping Sparrow Hill School for Young Ladies going.
Lacie let her hand slide lovingly along the smooth worn rail of the beautiful staircase. It needed a good polishing, she thought automatically. She would see to it in the morning. It was up to her to take good care of this place now, for who else was there? Frederick would have approved—she was sure of that. Sparrow Hill had been his home, just as it was hers now.
Excerpted from Thief of My Heart by Rexanne Becnel. Copyright © 1991 Rexanne Becnel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 31, 2013
This book starts out well. Somewhere towards the middle it lost me. I didn't really like the lengths Lacie was willing to go to to get what she wanted. That made it hard for me to feel sympathy for her.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 27, 2013
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