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Peaceful, Indiana, April 1900
H ow long before someone got hurt? How long before she couldn't pay the bills? How long
Lord, help me find a way to keep my house and make it safe. For Elise. For my baby.
Automatically, Callie Mitchell's hand cradled the swell of her unborn child. Martin had been gone a few weeks when she realized that she was pregnant. She wanted this baby with an intensity that stole her breath away. In less than four months she'd hold a tiny infant in her arms. Soon she'd be too clumsy to make repairs herself.
She swiped a strand of hair clinging to her damp skin and let her gaze roam the old Victorian, the house where she and Martin had lived the past two years. Once majestic, now the house's peeling paint demanded another coat, the rickety porch begged for solid boards and rails, the roof pleaded for shingles. The house looked like a princess down on her luck.
Her breath caught. Martin had called her his princess, usually when he sought her forgiveness for some infraction. Those infractions usually involved skipping work or spending money they didn't have. But how could she not forgive that happy-go-lucky charmer almost anything? Her throat tightened. Especially now?
Of their own volition her eyes traveled the steep gabled roofline, to the spot where Martin had lost his footing in November and tumbled to his death.
The words she'd said to him that morning echoed in her mind. If you don't repair the leak, one night the ceiling's going to fall on us while we sleep.
Her gaze darted away. She wouldn't think about that now.
She wouldn't remember how he looked lying there. She wouldn't.
Tightening her grip on the milk pail, she trudged toward the small barn at the back of the property, the prospect of tearing out and replacing each board on the porch slowing her steps. Lady needed oats. Bossy needed milking. The garden needed hoeing. That much she could do.
But the list of chores she couldn't handle grew longer every day. The roof leaked. The window casings on the north side of the house had rotted. The staircase railing wobbled.
Inside the barn, she fed and watered the mare, then moved to the open stall where Bossy waited. Callie pulled up the stool, giving the jersey a pat. Laying her forehead against the cow's wide side for balance, she closed her eyes, taking a minute to inhale the familiar scent of livestock, hay and manure. Across the way, the mare snuffled her ration of oats. As always the serenity of the place soothed her and eased the weight of her responsibilities.
The cow placidly chewed her cud, paying Callie no mind. As the first stream of milk hit the galvanized pail, she prayed for strength and wisdom to handle the needed repairs. To rally around Elise and regain harmony with her father-in-law, a strong-minded man she didn't usually buck.
Callie had grown weary of Commodore fussing about her dilapidated house, yet not lifting a finger to help. Instead he pressured her to move in with him and Dorothy. He blamed the house for his son's death. And though he'd never said as much, he blamed her, too.
Sometimes lying in bed at night, sometimes rising at the dawn of a new day, sometimes at the cemetery standing before Martin's headstone, she blamed herself more.
But nothing would stop her from giving Elise and other unwed and pregnant women refuge. Her home would be a place for them to live, free from judgment.
Not long after she and Martin moved into the house, she'd talked to him about that very thing. He'd rejected the idea, citing the cost as the reason. A valid concern, but Callie suspected his main objection centered on the work involved and the lack of privacy, something she'd understood.
Now she had only her baby to consider and a large, empty house. Once she completed the repairs, she'd seek funds and community support and make her dream of an unwed mothers' home a reality. God would work it out in His time. A blessed sense of peace stole over her, renewing her awareness of God's provision.
Stripes trotted over, tail high, and rubbed against her skirts, purring like a well-oiled engine. "Where are your kittens?" No doubt on the back stoop waiting for breakfast.
Bossy's tail swished Callie's way. A signal the milking was done. "Thanks, girl."
Accompanied by her strutting cat, Callie hauled the pail to the house. In the kitchen, she skimmed cream off the top and poured the rest into two pitchers. She crumbled day-old bread into an iron skillet, soaked it with milk, and then stowed the pitchers in the icebox.
Outside, Stripes and her offspring crowded around the pan, lapping the meal with dainty pink tongues. The male of the litter shoved one of his sisters aside and stuck in his paw.
"Mind your manners. There's plenty for all of you," Callie said.
Finished with her morning chores, Callie gathered tools from the barn and walked around the house to the front porch. The fistful of nails she'd driven into the boards a few days back made no difference.
With one gloved hand clutching Martin's toolbox, the other gripping the crowbar and her dyed-black skirts, she climbed the wobbly steps, careful to avoid the rotten wood. Once she removed the deteriorating planks, she'd replace them with the lumber stacked in the barn.
She forced the tip of the crowbar under a board and pushed down with all her might. Instead of coming up, nails and all, the plank splintered, pitching her forward. Gasping, she staggered, dropped the tool, but remained on her feet.
Heart pounding from her near fall, she knelt and used a hammer to knock off the remaining pieces of wood until she'd removed one board. At this rate, the task would take weeks. Callie wiped a hand across her moist brow and let her gaze roam the neighborhood.
Up the street, a stranger strode up the walk to Mildred's house. He was not a salesman. He carried a sack, not a sample case, and looked strong enough to handle this job. But if he sought work, she couldn't spare a penny to hire him.
She repositioned the crowbar and shoved again. Nails squeaked in protest, then slowly the board lifted. A few more shoves and it pulled free. Smiling, she tossed the plank aside.
The screen door creaked. Elise Langley, just eighteen, her family home a few doors down, stood in the opening, resting an arm on the bulge beneath her apron. "That job's too hard for you. Why not hire someone?"
From a family with money to spare, Elise wouldn't realize that Callie didn't have funds to hire anyone. Nor would Callie tell her, lest her houseguest feel unwelcome.
"It's good exercise." Callie grinned.
"I'll help." Before Callie could stop her, Elise, heavy and awkward with child, stepped onto the porch. The boards sagged and she stumbled, lurching sideways. "Ouch!"
The crowbar clattered to the floor. "Are you hurt?"
Elise hobbled to the door, pushed open the screen and lowered herself to the threshold. "I twisted my ankle is all." She lifted her skirts and rubbed the injured spot.
Callie picked her way to Elise's side and took a look. "It's already swelling."
Wrapping an arm around her middle, Callie helped Elise shuffle inside, settling her on the parlor sofa, then removed Elise's shoe and elevated her foot on pillows. She hurried to the kitchen, returning with chunks of ice wrapped in a dish towel and propped it on Elise's ankle with more pillows.
"I'm sorry, Callie. You warned me about the porch. Why do I always have to learn the hard way?"
"You were only trying to help." She patted Elise's hand. "If you're all right, I'll get back to work."
After Elise's mishap, Callie edged her way across the porch, determined to remove a few more planks before she had to change the ice on Elise's ankle. She reached for the crowbar. A movement out of the corner of her eye stopped her.
The man she'd seen earlier ambled toward her, a jacket and sack tossed over his shoulder, his sleeves rolled to the elbow, revealing tanned, muscled forearms. He moved with a loose-legged ease, suggesting he'd covered his share of ground on foot.
Strangers were rare in Peaceful.
What did he want?
At the bottom of the steps, he tipped his hat. "Ma'am." His gaze landed on her rounded abdomen then slid to her face. "I'm looking for work. Heard at the Corner Cafe you'd lost your husband and might need help."
"If I did, I've no money to pay you."
His eyes roamed the house. "Your roof's missing shingles, the wood siding needs scraping and a couple coats of paint."
Hadn't he understood what she'd said? "Lots needs doing, but"
"Nothing I can't handle." His self-assured tone held no hint of arrogance. He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a paper tucked inside. "This backs my claim."
When had she encountered a pushier man?
When had she been as desperate for a man with push?
Callie picked her way down the steps, took the paper from his hand and read the reference praising Jacob Smith's skill and work ethic, even his character.
What did that prove? He could've written it himself.
Above-average height with a wiry, broad-shouldered build, the man's angular face looked hard, chiseled from stone. The power radiating off him reminded her of a caged tiger pacing its enclosure, ready to spring. A guarded look in his eyes, as if he'd lived under scrutiny and been deemed defective told her this man had been hurt by life as much as she had. But that didn't make him honorable. It could mean exactly the opposite.
"Does anyone know you in this town?"
"I'm sorry. I don't hire strangers." Not after the incident with the last handyman. She gave an apologetic smile, then returned to the porch and began prying up the next board. As she shoved against the lever, a jolt of pain streaked up her arms. She bit back a moan.
Eyes flashing, he bounded up the steps and hauled the crowbar from her hands. "You can't raze this porch in your condition."
Angry tears flooded her eyes. She wanted to slap that disapproving scowl off his face.
As if reading her mind, he took a step back. "I don't mean to criticize, but that much exertion could harm your baby."
Ignoring her refusal to hire him, he bent to the task, removing the board with ease, and then tossed it to the yard. "How do you plan to replace the missing shingles on your roof?"
The mere thought of that roof made Callie queasy. "If I trusted youwhich I don't." Her tone should make that perfectly clear. "I can't pay you."
Again his gaze roamed the house. "I'll restore this beauty for a roof over my head and three meals a day, a price most folks appreciate."
She appreciated the price all right. But he was still a stranger. "I've got to wonder why a man with your experience would work without a wage. I'll still have to say no."
"I can't allow a woman to harm herself, even a headstrong woman like you."
Of all the nerve! She glared at him. "I'm perfectly capable of handling whatever task I set my mind to."
His eyes held a flicker of respect. "I'm sure that's true, if setting your mind to a task got it done. But this job requires more brawn than brains." He winked, bold as brass. "That makes me perfect for the job."
Aghast at the rush of attraction that shot through her, Callie folded her arms across her chest, more determined than ever to send this rogue packing.
"One day I want a business of my own. Why not give me a chance to test my mettle by bringing this Victorian back to life?"
Though he'd used that spiel to manipulate her, she couldn't argue with his logic. Fixing up her house would prove his ability and allow her to keep her home.
Besides, she didn't see anyone else lining up to help her.
If the house wasn't safe, Martin's parents would insist that she live with them, putting an end to Callie's dream. What would happen to Elise and her baby then?
As she grappled with the decision, the man returned to the task of ripping up boards. As if enjoying the effort, his sinewy muscles danced, her stomach dancing right along with them. She dropped her gaze to her feet, tamping down the ridiculous reaction. What had gotten into her? Those muscles of his merely proved he could handle the job.
Stranger or not, what choice did she have? Jacob Smith had a reference and the skill. Had offered a price she could afford.
Lord, I've prayed for an answer. Is this drifter Your solution?
The knot between her shoulder blades eased. The final assurance she needed. "I'll risk hiring you."
The corners of his mouth turned up. "Reckon we're both taking a risk."
"I'm taking a chance you're a passable cook."
She couldn't contain a grin. "I'll cook as ably as you work."
"Good enough for me," he said, the rumble of his voice ending on a chuckle.
"Have you had breakfast?"
"I'll prepare a meal to fuel a working man."
He shoved his hat brim up his forehead. "Appreciate it."
The morning sun lit his face. A smile softened the hard edge of stubble on his unshaven jaw and spread to his eyes. Green. They were green as jade.
Callie's mind went blank. "Ah." What was she about to say? "While you're, ah, waiting, you can put your things in the lean-to attached to the barn. The last hired hand had no complaints about the accommodations." At the mention of that scoundrel, her hands fisted. "Thanked me by running off with the money from my sugar bowl. You don't plan on doing the same thing, do you?"
His jaw jutted. "No."
"In that case, settle in. I'll serve your breakfast on the back stoop." She turned then pivoted back. "Oh, I'm Callie Mitchell."
"Folks call me Jake."
"Just so you know, Mr. Smith, there's no money in my sugar bowl or anywhere else in the house."
He met her gaze, his eyes as steely as his muscles. "Just so you know, Mrs. Mitchell, I'm no thief."
Her hand flew to her throat. Giving a brisk nod, she hurried toward the chicken coop, glad to put distance between her and the stony-eyed drifter.
Smith was a common enough name. Her heart tripped in her chest. Too common.
Suspicious name or not, he'd come along when she needed his help. Badly. Still, she'd trust him only as far as her stoop.
Jake removed his hat to get a better look at the spitfire who'd hired him. The snippety woman had all but accused him of being a thief with that prickly tongue of hers. And those probing eyes, suspicious, reproachful, as if he had burglar stamped in capital letters across his forehead.