Lily Salt has sworn off men. After finally gaining her independence, the last thing she needs is another man telling her what to do. But the handsome railroad engineer from New York isn't at all what she expected. He's kind, gentle...and tempting enough to make her wonder what a second chance at love might be worth.
A self-acknowledged black sheep, Roen Shepard knows what it means to feel alone. Recognizing a kindred spirit in the reserved widow whose fascinating blue-green eyes have seen too much, and charmed by the warmth of her ready-made family, the two begin an unlikely friendship.
When a complication from his past follows him to Frost Falls, Roen proposes a mad scheme to protect the new life he's built and keep close the stubborn woman he's accidentally fallen for—a marriage of convenience. But Lily has secrets of her own, and the closer he gets to uncovering them, the more he comes to realize that the only truth that matters is the secret to unlocking her heart.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jo Goodman
Frost Falls, Colorado
Back in New York, they called him the black sheep. Not to his face. Or rarely to his face. But he’d heard it whispered in a pitying sort of way in the free-spirited Bohemian circles where his family was revered. Roen Shepard didn’t mind particularly. Depending on one’s view, he supposed it might even be true. It was certainly his family’s view; although the appellation was couched in humor, not pity. They were dreamers. He was not. He’d been stewed in creative juices since birth. Musicians. Painters. Poets. Novelists. Surrounded by so much talent and imaginative genius, something should have inspired him. Nothing had.
He’d never been afraid to try, and so, encouraged by his parents and grandparents, by his siblings and cousins, by his tutors and teachers, he tried his hand at every sort of artistic endeavor.
He was fair to middlin’ on the piano if there weren’t too many sharps or flats, and if he wasn’t required to sing at the same time. For a while, he thought painting might be his forte. He could put a still life on canvas that looked exactly like the bowl of fruit on the table in front of him. It was politely pointed out to him that he represented the fruit too accurately. A photograph would do just as well, his mother said, and that would not do at all. He wrote bad poetry and even worse prose. He’d once revised the first chapter of a proposed novel sixteen times before his father kindly took the pages and burned them.
The differences between him and his family were not only artistic ones. There were physical differences as well, so many of them, in fact, that his brother and sisters teased him mercilessly that he was a foundling adopted by their parents in one of the impulsive, magnanimous gestures they were known for. As he was the only child with green eyes, chestnut-colored hair, and a clumsy, loose-jointed frame that took years to grow into, it was easy to believe the foundling story no matter how often his parents reassured him it was not the case. As for the dissimilarity in appearance, it was all on account of his being a change-of-life baby, his mother told him, although she neglected to furnish an explanation for what that meant.
Thinking about it now, Roen smiled to himself. He was still a fish out of water at family affairs, but as an adult, he’d come into his own. At twenty-nine, he was content with the features that set him apart. He was more athletic than graceful, which made him a better baseball player than a dancer, and at a hair above six feet, he stood half a head taller than all his male relatives. He could joke, before his family did, that he had physical stature if not an artistic one. He could also have pointed out that he was not possessed of the same fiery temperament as the rest of the Shepards, but they would have said he lacked their passion and wouldn’t have understood that he was thankful for it.
Roen studied the drawing he had made in his sketch pad, reviewed the calculations, checking and rechecking his work on the elevations, and, once satisfied, closed the book with a pleasant thump.
It was only then that he became aware that he was not alone, and he guessed that he hadn’t been for some time. Roen could acknowledge that upon occasion he had an extraordinary eye for detail while being oblivious to the whole. This was one of those occasions.
He looked up from his sketch pad and turned his head in the direction of his visitor. He merely raised an inquiring eyebrow.
A lesser man might have flinched at being caught out, perhaps even been unseated from his hunkered position on the rocky outcropping where he was perched like a bird of prey, but Clay Salt didn’t twitch. Roen estimated the boy was eleven, maybe twelve, so that explained both his curiosity and his lack of embarrassment.
“Are you done now, mister? Seems like you might be. Didn’t want to disturb you none while you was working, so I just settled down to watch. I never seen the like before, what you were doing. That much fascinated I was.”
Roen had no recollection of anyone ever being fascinated by what he did, and he looked for mischief in young Clay’s eyes. What he saw were a pair of dark brown eyes, earnest in their direct gaze and without a shred of guile.
“Did you follow me up here, Clay?”
Now Clay flinched. “You know who I am?”
“Uh-huh. Why does that surprise you?”
“Well, you’re new to town. You’ve hardly been here more than a minute.”
“Three weeks. People are friendly, and I’ve been to your church twice. Saw you there with your mother and your brother and sisters. Between the minister and Mrs. Springer, I believe I was introduced to every parishioner.”
“Yeah? Not us.”
“No, that’s true. I misspoke.” Clay and his family sat at the back of the church and were the first out the door both Sundays. Out of the corner of his eye he had seen them fleeing—that was the word that came to mind—while Mrs. Springer was pumping him for information under the guise of welcoming him to Frost Falls. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance now.”
“Are you? Ma said I should leave you be, that your work is too important to suffer the children.”
Roen’s cocked an eyebrow again, this time with a challenging curve. “Suffer the children? Did she say that?”
Clay shrugged, unabashed. “Something like that.”
“I see. So you are in defiance of your mother’s wishes right now.”
“Not really. You didn’t know I was here until you were done so you didn’t have to suffer me at all.”
“True, and I admire your logic even if you are splitting hairs.” Roen saw one corner of the boy’s mouth lift at what he perceived was a compliment, and for the first time Roen had a hint of the rascal that resided within. He was gratified to see it. Until this moment, Clay Salt had seemed unnaturally self-possessed. Roen opened his sketch pad to the page he had just completed and held it up. “Do you want to get a closer look?”
In answer, Clay clambered down from his rock and closed the ten yards that separated them. Roen handed him the book and waited for the inevitable disappointment that would shadow Clay’s features. It wasn’t disappointment, though. It was puzzlement.
“What is it?” asked Clay. He turned the pad sideways as though an angle might offer clarity. “I mean, I see it’s numbers. I know numbers. But these other scratchings? Looks like a hen stepped in ink and walked across your paper.”
Roen tugged on the pad so that Clay had to lower it for him to see. He regarded his work with fresh eyes. He huffed a laugh and ran a hand through his chestnut hair: Δ h Σ D g. “So it does.”
“What does it mean?”
“It’s part of the formula to measure the refraction and curvature of the earth.”
“I need a lot of precise measurements to know where I can recommend that Northeast Rail lay down new track.”
“You know the earth is round, right?”
Clay’s lip curled. “’Course I know.”
“Good. And because there’s a curve, a straight line isn’t exactly straight, and air refracts light that further distorts the line, so what you see isn’t as precise as my equipment and calculations can be.”
Clay returned the pad to Roen and pointed to the upper-right-hand corner of the page, the only part that made perfect sense to him. “You drew the landscape over yonder, and that double line winding through it, those are tracks, aren’t they? You reckon that’s a place to put down rail?”
“It might be.”
“Huh. That’s Double H land. Hard to imagine Ol’ Harrison Hardy will sell to the railroad. He’s cussed cranky even when his lumbago isn’t bothering him.”
“Good to know, but that’s a problem for another day. Right now I need to pack up and get back to town before dark.”
Clay looked at the sky. “Dark’s coming on fast, but I’ll help you, and I know the way back day or night.”
Lily Salt did not raise her voice when her older boy attempted to make a stealthy entrance into the kitchen. Neither did she turn around from the stove, where she was stirring a pot of chili. “Clay Bryant Salt.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m going to oil that hinge first thing tomorrow.”
“Won’t help you. I suppose I know when my son’s been wandering and when he’s home.”
“Chili smells good.” He sidled up to the stove and bumped her affectionately. “Better than good, I’m thinking. Might be excellent.”
“I am not mollified. Not even a little.” But she bumped him back while she continued to stir. “Go tell your sister it’s time to set the table and then you wash your hands. Help Ham and Lizzie, too.”
When Clay took a step sideways but didn’t leave the kitchen, Lily was immediately suspicious. She swiveled her head in his direction. He was tall now, as tall as she was, and she hadn’t quite gotten used to it. It pained her some to look him in the eye. He had his father’s eyes and coloring, though in every other way he was nothing at all like his father. Still, the eyes. “What is it?” she asked.
Clay pointed to the kitchen door, where Roen Shepard stood framed in the opening.
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Salt,” Roen said, removing his hat and holding it in front of him like a penitent. “I wanted to see your son home safely. I’m Roen Shepard, the engineering surveyor employed by Northeast Rail.”
Lily indicated that Clay should take the long-handled wooden spoon. “Stir,” she said. She thought he was glad to have the spoon in his hand and not hers, though she had never once raised it against him. There were memories of his father not easily erased. “I know who you are, Mr. Shepard.” She crossed a few feet to the table and rested one hand on the back of a chair. She did not close the distance between them.
Roen did not inch into the room, nor did he back away. Lily Salt was regarding him warily, with the innate stillness of a rabbit in the wild sensing something feral in her midst. In deference to what he perceived as distress, he remained rooted where he stood.
It was in the back pew of the Presbyterian Church that Clay’s mother had made her first impression on Roen Shepard. He’d been sitting five pews ahead on the aisle when a cloth ball rolled between his feet. He picked it up, looked around for the owner, and passed it back to a harried mother with a child set to squall on her lap. The squalling was averted, and he was grateful for that, but more grateful that his backward search had afforded him a glimpse of the woman who later became known to him as Lily Salt.
She looked to him as composed and serene as any Madonna rendered in oils by the great artists of the Renaissance. That she was flanked by two boys and two girls, who could only be her children, made her calm seem preternatural. She had the smile of the Mona Lisa, which was to say it was more a smile of imagination than it was of reality, but when he turned away, that perception of her smile lingered.
She wore a wide-brimmed straw sailor hat trimmed with a black ribbon and tilted forward as was the fashion. Her hair, what he could see of it then, was rust red, but her older daughter had hair like a flame and made him suspect that this was Lily’s color in her youth.
When he caught sight of her escaping the church with her children in tow, Roen knew himself to be mildly intrigued. He was saved from expressing any measure of curiosity by Mrs. Springer’s account of the congregation, their lineage, their talents, and their foibles. Amanda Springer was a wellspring of information, most of which he later learned from the minister could be taken as gospel.
So here he was facing Lily Salt, age thirty-four, a widow whose husband had perished in a fire almost two years earlier, mother of four children, seamstress employed in the dress shop owned by Mrs. Fish, and doing well enough on her own that she had no interest in inviting a man into her life, though according to Mrs. Springer, a number of men had tried.
This last was rather more than Roen had expected or even wanted to hear, since he had no interest in such an invitation, but Amanda Springer, once sprung, said what was on her mind. All of it. Her husband, an affable man who tended bar at the Songbird Saloon, seized on the opportunity to disengage her at the first sign she was winding down. Later, Roen rewarded Jim Springer’s strategy by buying him a drink at the saloon, though he never explained the reason for his generosity.
At the risk of Lily Salt turning tail and fleeing her own kitchen, Roen offered a slim, apologetic smile. “Your boy was a help to me,” he said. At the stove, Clay glanced over his shoulder and gave Roen an appreciative eyeful. Roen ignored him. “Thought it was the least I could do to see him home.”
Lily’s slim hand, the one that curved over the back of a chair, tightened so her knuckles stood out in stark white relief. Her chin came up. “I reckon Clay knows the lay of the land a mite better than you do even with all of your fancy instruments.”
Clay stopped stirring and stared openmouthed at his mother. “Ma!”
Roen thought Lily appeared more surprised by her temerity than she was regretful of it. Her lips parted but she had no words. It fell to Roen to supply them. “You’re correct, Mrs. Salt. Clay was a better escort to me than I was to him, and I’ll be taking my leave now.”
“Ma!” This time Clay’s cry was plaintive. “I invited Mr. Shepard to take supper with us.”
“Did you now?” she asked without taking her eyes off Clay’s guest.
“I did. He’s been taking his meals regular at the hotel and I figured home-cooked food would do him right.” He jerked his chin in Roen’s direction. “You can see for yourself that some meat on his bones wouldn’t come amiss.”
Lily’s eyes did not stray from Roen Shepard’s angular face, but it was impossible not to note that her son was correct. The man standing in her doorway probably filled out a black coat and tails just fine, even excellently, but his blue chambray shirt drooped some at the shoulders. The butternut leather vest was loose across the chest, and his denim trousers looked as if they would benefit from a belt and suspenders. Someone needed to take him in hand. That thought flitted uncomfortably through her mind, but what she said was, “The Butterworth serves excellent food.”
She stepped back to the stove, took the spoon from Clay, and set it aside. “Go do what I asked you to do.”
Uncertain, Clay nonetheless hurried from the kitchen.
When he was gone, Lily pointed to the pegs to the left of the door. “You can hang your hat there.”
Roen did as he was told and closed the door behind him. Lily was already turned back to the stove when he was done. Her thick hair was neatly arranged in a braided coil at the back of her head. His eyes settled on the fragile nape of her neck as she bent to her work. “What decided you?” he asked.
“It’s the least I can do to make amends for my son pestering you.”
“Oh, but he didn’t.”
Lily picked up a folded towel and used it to open the oven door. She removed a pan of cornbread, but not before she gave Roen Shepard a jaundiced look that said she knew her son as well as her son knew the lay of the land. It was gratifying that he accepted that silent reprimand and said nothing in return.
The warm fragrance of cornbread was wafting through the kitchen as Hannah came rushing in from the hallway. She skidded to a halt, closely followed by her younger sister Lizzie, and the pair of them held up their hands to show they’d been washed clean. Droplets of water flew from their fingertips as they shook them out. Whatever admonishment Lily meant to say when she opened her mouth to speak came to nothing as Hannah interrupted her mother.
“So you are here!” she said, addressing Roen Shepard. “Clay said you were but I didn’t know if I could believe him. He likes to play tricks. Say hello, Lizzie, to Mr. Shepard.”
Lizzie, at five, was a practiced coquette. She gave Roen a sidelong glance and a sweet smile while tilting her head just so. Her curls, the color of sunshine, swung to and fro when she righted her head. “Hello.” Then she sidled closer to her sister, where she sought the protection of Hannah’s gingham skirt.
“Hello, Lizzie. Hannah. What a pleasure it is to see you again.”
Lily set the pan of cornbread on a warming plate on top of the stove. “Set the table, Hannah. Bowls and spoons. Lizzie, take your seat.” To Roen, she said, “How do my girls know you?”
Hannah answered before Roen could. “We see him in church, Ma. Same as everyone.”
Lily recognized the truth in that, but she also recognized there was something left unsaid. “I was speaking to Mr. Shepard.”
Roen hadn’t moved more than two feet into the kitchen. His place at the table was not clear to him, and he waited to be invited to sit or asked to help. “They introduced themselves when we were in Hennepin’s mercantile.”
Lizzie plopped herself into her chair and swung her feet under the table. “He bought us a bag of licorice whips and horehound drops.”
Lily frowned deeply. “Why would you do that? No, Lizzie, I don’t want to hear from you. I want to hear from Mr. Shepard.”
Lizzie clamped her lips closed and regarded Roen sorrowfully. She had told the truth but her mother’s expression led her to believe it wasn’t the right answer.
Without the least regret, Roen said, “It appears I overstepped, and that certainly was not my intention. Indeed, my intention was to move them along. As I’m sure you’re aware, Mr. Hennepin has a large selection of candy and your girls could not decide between the peppermint, the butterscotch, or the horehound drops. It was amusing at first, and then it was painful. I had an appointment, you see, and needed to be on my way, and Mr. Hennepin was giving the girls their due, as a good shopkeeper should. I chose the horehound candies for them and added the licorice whips because I wanted one myself. And that’s how it came to pass. They were grateful and I was on time for my meeting with the town council.”
He thought he saw Lily’s lips twitch, but whether she was amused or skeptical, he couldn’t say. After a moment she nodded once and the subject was closed. Lizzie’s sigh of relief was audible and Hannah actually winked at him. If Lily noticed either girl’s reaction, she did not comment.
“Can I help?” Roen asked as Hannah set bowls on the table.
Lily pointed out a chair. “You can sit yourself there. Ham will sit beside you. The girls opposite. Hannah. See what’s keeping your brothers.”
He assumed from the position of the chairs that it meant Clay sat at one end and Lily at the other. Roen went around the table but stood behind his chair rather than sit down.
Lily cut the cornbread and placed the warm pan on a trivet on the table. As she ladled chili into the bowls, Hannah reappeared with her brothers on her heels. The boys held up their hands for inspection, and when Lily pronounced them fit, they moved to the table.
Unlike his whip-thin older brother, Ham was a sturdy boy with a cherub’s face and deviltry in his eyes. Roen noticed he wasn’t wearing shoes and his hands were considerably cleaner than his feet. As soon as Ham sat, he leaned over to the empty chair designated for Roen and patted the seat. “This is you here, Mr. Shepard. Beside me.” With the unaffected aplomb of a six-year-old, he held out his hand and announced, “I’m Hamilton Salt, by the way, and I am glad to make your acquaintance.”
Lily regarded her younger son with suspicion and then her gaze slid sideways to Clay. He made a show of shrugging just as if he hadn’t been helping Ham master that introduction.
Roen solemnly extended his hand and shook Hamilton’s. “It’s a pleasure.”
“You can sit now,” said Ham.
“I am waiting for your mother.”
“Oh.” His mouth screwed up to one side while he considered this as Lily returned the chili pot to the stove.
Roen skirted the table and held out Lily’s chair for her. She stared at it and then at him. A vertical frown line appeared between her eyebrows. She sat slowly, hesitantly, almost as if she anticipated the chair being pulled out from under her. That didn’t happen. Roen pushed the chair closer to the table.
Ham watched this all with naked curiosity. “She’ll just get up again,” he said. “She always does.”
“Hush,” Lily whispered, and under the table, Hannah kicked him.
“Ow!” He glared at his sister. “Why’d you do that?”
“Because Lizzie’s legs are too short.”
It was true, but it was hardly the answer Ham was looking for. He settled into his seat and tucked his legs under him. He was quiet until Roen took his seat and then he announced, “We pray now,” and bent his head over dimpled hands folded into a single fist.
Roen bowed his head. The prayer was familiar, one he had learned as a child, but he chose to mouth the words rather than give voice to them with the rest of the family.
As soon as every “amen” was said, Ham reached for the pan of cornbread. Lily lightly tapped him on the back of his hand with the bowl of her spoon. “I should let you burn your fingers. We serve our guest first.” She slipped a turner into the pan and removed a square of cornbread. Roen raised his chili bowl toward her and she set the bread neatly on the lip. She did the same for Ham and herself and then let Hannah serve Lizzie and Clay.
“Go on,” Lily said, tipping her head in Roen’s direction. “Tuck in.” She saw him nod, but she also noticed he did not take his first bite until she had. She acquitted him of suspecting that she was trying to poison him. His reticence was born of good manners, and while she was grateful for what he was demonstrating to her children, it made her distinctly uncomfortable. She wasn’t used to this deference and doubted that she deserved it.
Lily’s throat felt thick. She choked down the first mouthful of chili and was grateful that no one noticed her distress. It faded with the second bite and was nothing at all by the third.
“There’s plenty more,” she told Ham as he shoveled chili and cornbread into his mouth. “Slow down.”
“It’s good, Ma. Real good.”
“I’m happy to hear it. Now slow down.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Roen saw Ham dutifully slow the lift of his spoon to his mouth but not the size of his bite. Aware that Lily Salt was watching him now, Roen took care not to smile. Amusement would not have been appreciated just then.
“Your chili is excellent,” he said. “A family recipe?”
“No. Mrs. Butterworth’s. If you take your meals at the hotel, you’ve met her.”
He nodded. “Ah, yes. Ellie. The owner’s wife.”
Clay spoke around a mouthful of cornbread. “She’s the sheriff’s mother. Did you know that?”
“I believe she mentioned that,” he said, his voice a tad dry. “Several times.”
“Well, she’s that proud,” said Lily. “And no one faults her for it. Sheriff Ben is good people.”
“I’ve had the pleasure.” Roen guided another spoonful of chili to his mouth. The aroma teased his senses. “He welcomed me, took me around to meet the shopkeepers and the gentlemen who manage the land office.”
“Dave and Ed Saunders.”
“Yes. The brothers. They’ve been helpful providing me with maps and plotting boundaries.”
Clay said, “Mr. Shepard was looking at Double H land this afternoon, but I told him that Ol’ Harrison Hardy isn’t going to fool with the railroad.”
Lily raised a single eyebrow and regarded her son with a seriously set mien. “Maybe. Maybe not. That’s business between Mr. Hardy and Mr. Shepard.”
As a reprimand, Roen thought it was a mild one, but nevertheless Clay ducked his head and nodded.
Lily served another square of cornbread to Roen. “How long will you be staying in Frost Falls, Mr. Shepard?”
For all that the question was politely posed and made with an offering of sweet cornbread, Roen had the sense that if his answer was more than a few more days, it would be too long. Unless she was anticipating that he would be a frequent dinner guest, Roen couldn’t imagine why it mattered. “It’s never clear this early,” he said, hedging. “It’s hard to project a timeline at this juncture, and Northeast Rail has hired me on to see this through.”
“But roughly,” said Lily.
“I’ll know better inside of six weeks.”
Roen could see nothing in the placid composition of her delicate features to indicate that she was aggrieved; yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that she was. Her children, on the other hand, appeared to be delighted.
Hannah said, “So you’ll hardly be a visitor to Frost Falls. More like regular folk.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“Oh, it is. Especially since you’re staying in Sheriff Ben’s house, or what used to be his house, and not taking a room at the Butterworth.”
Lily frowned at her daughter. “And just how do you know so much about it?”
Hannah shrugged. “It’s like you say. Everyone here knows everything.”
Lily felt her cheeks warm. It was her own voice she heard in Hannah’s ironic tones. Her daughter was a perfect mimic. “Yes, well, you don’t have to repeat everything you hear.”
Roen said, “Northeast Rail is renting the sheriff’s house for the duration of my stay. I spend a lot of time in hotels and railroad cars, so this is a welcome change.”
Clay said, “Sheriff Ben likes having someone living in the house. He told me. I work for him sometimes. Me and my friend Frankie Fuller. Odd jobs mostly. I’m real good at a lot of things. So is Frankie.” He tilted his head to the side as he regarded his guest. “You ever have a need for an odd jobber?”
“Clay.” Lily said his name quietly, without inflection, but he nevertheless sat back in his chair as though pushed. “This is supper, and Mr. Shepard is your guest. You can talk business after over cigars and port when the rest of us retire to the front room.”
Her response was so unexpected that Clay’s jaw went slack. Hannah stared at her mother. Lizzie and Ham looked at each other with identical frowns. For his part, Roen threw back his head and gave a shout of laughter.
Lily took this all in, nodded faintly, satisfied, and smiled in a way that suggested she had swallowed a secret.
Roen Shepard wasn’t sure why Lily’s Mona Lisa smile came to him off and on that evening and again the following morning as he took his seat in church. Because of Ham’s chatter and Hannah’s shushing, Roen was aware when the Salts took their usual place in the last pew. He didn’t turn to acknowledge them, presuming that Lily would not appreciate the attention. She struck him as an isolated individual and one who was not unhappy about it. Her children, on the other hand, were creatures of the never-met-a-stranger variety, and he couldn’t help but wonder if they took after their father in that regard. Except to tell him that Jeremiah Salt had operated a forge and perished in a fire, Amanda Springer had nothing else to say about the man, and Roen hadn’t minded in the least back then. Now, upon meeting the family, he found that he was curious.
No one spoke of Jeremiah Salt at supper. They either thought Roen already knew the story or didn’t think the absence of a father and husband was important enough to mention. As with so many things he contemplated from time to time, the matter of Jeremiah Salt was likely to remain as persistently annoying as a pebble in his shoe. He wished to hell he knew why.
His interest in a dead man didn’t make sense to him. He generally concentrated on the living. He’d learned early on that his job was made easier when the locals understood what he was doing and how the railroad figured to improve their lives and their livelihood. There were always skeptics and folks who resisted change, but he was a good listener and made it a practice to look for compromise. Clay’s information, offhandedly offered, about Harrison Hardy and the Double H land was something worth knowing early, and Clay Salt, at twelve years old, was likely a superior source of intelligence to Amanda Springer. He genuinely meant to be helpful. Certainly he lacked the older woman’s guile.
Maybe, Roen thought, that’s why he wanted to know what sort of man Clay’s father was. In his experience, it never hurt to know how far the apple fell from the tree.
When the service was over, he turned toward the back of the church. As expected, Lily and her children were among the first to leave, pausing only long enough to pass pleasantries with the minister. Roen didn’t realize he was staring after them until Ben Madison nudged his elbow and spoke so softly that only he could hear.
“Careful Lily doesn’t take notice of your interest.”
Surprised, Roen gave a small start. “What?” He blinked, collected himself, and turned his head to the sheriff. “Oh. I was hoping Clay would look back this way. He asked me if I had need of an odd jobber.”
Ben flashed a quicksilver grin and repeated dryly, “Odd jobber.”
“That’s what he said, which I took to mean a person who does odd jobs. He told me you hire him and another boy for that purpose.”
“Uh-huh. Frankie Fuller. Good workers, the both of them. Why, do have some work for him?”
“I’ve been thinking I might. I have some modest regrets about firing my last assistant. I’ve never worked with anyone as young as Clay Salt, but I could train him, and I have a feeling he’d be a quicker study than Joe Watson was.”
Ben looked around and saw the congregation had thinned considerably. He picked up his hat from where it lay on the pew and set it on his unruly thatch of carrot-colored hair. “You want to join me at the hotel for dinner? My wife had to make a call on Bob Washburn this morning and she told me that she expected to be there a spell. I’m on my own. We can talk about this idea you have for Clay there. I’d like to hear more.”
“All right. I’d like that. Thank you.”
After making their farewells to the minister, Roen and Ben headed diagonally across the wide main street to the Butterworth Hotel. Ellie’s greeting was equally enthusiastic toward both men, though Roen thought her green eyes sparkled a bit more brightly when she regarded her son. She was a handsome woman in her fifties, and all indications were still there that she had been even lovelier in her youth. She had a warm smile and a lively energy that transcended her fine features and made the most curmudgeonly of hotel guests uncommonly good-natured.
Ellie seated them next to a window that faced the side street and their respective homes. The house Roen rented from the sheriff was a pleasant two-story frame home painted white with blue shutters, while the house next door where Ben lived with his doctor wife was similarly constructed but butter yellow from the top to bottom.
Ben took off his hat before his mother cuffed him for wearing it to the table. Grinning cheekily, he hooked it on the spindle of the empty chair on his left. Ellie told them the specials, they ordered, and then she left them alone.
Ben leaned back and stretched his long legs under the table. He looked askance at Roen. “She likes you. I can tell. Maybe you already noticed that her good opinion goes a long way around here. She accepts you, folks accept you.”
“I did notice. And, well, I like her.”
Ben nodded. “Most days I like her just fine, especially when she remembers not to hug me within an inch of my life in public. It’s not dignified, I say, but that point is lost on her.”
“I imagine your mother harbors worry and pride in equal measure every time she sees you, and probably just as often when she doesn’t.” Roen looked pointedly at Ben’s holstered weapon. “Your position in Frost Falls is not precisely without hazard. Have you had occasion to use that?”
“My Peacemaker? I have.”
“There you go.”
Ben’s blue eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “Has Ellie been talking to you?”
“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but your mother talks to everyone.”
“You know what I mean. About me. Has she been talking to you about me?”
Roen was saved from answering by the arrival of a young woman carrying a pot of coffee. He moved his cup and saucer a few inches to the side to make it easier for her to pour and thanked her when she’d finished. She offered a small smile that was as timid as her downcast, almond-shaped eyes and then moved to Ben’s side to pour.
“Mornin’, Fedora. Smells like the coffee’s fresh.”
“It always is for you.”
He chuckled and raised his cup to Roen. “There are benefits to having my mother here.” He looked up at Fedora, who was standing at his elbow waiting for his approval. Taking a careful sip of the hot brew, he told her it was excellent. She left as silently as she’d come. Ben watched Roen’s gaze slide sideways as he watched her go.
“You’ve met Miss Chen, haven’t you?” asked Ben. “Or should I have introduced you?”
“No, I know who she is.” He picked up his coffee cup but didn’t drink. He regarded Ben over the rim. “I’m not sure she’s spoken above a dozen words to me in all the time I’ve been coming here. I’m fairly certain she avoids my table. That she attended me today has everything to do with you. At first I thought she was merely shy, and that’s part of it, but I’m coming to the opinion that it’s more than that.” He took a mouthful of coffee that was pleasantly warm all the way down and set his cup aside. “I’ve been wondering if I’ve done something to offend her.”
Ben also set his cup down. He said candidly, “Your presence here offends her.”
Roen’s dark eyebrows arched symmetrically as his head reared back a fraction. “Here? In this hotel?”
“Here. In Frost Falls.”
“It’s not you specifically. It’s who you represent.”
“More generally the railroad. Any railroad.” Ben nodded as he watched Roen’s features clear of confusion. The penny had finally dropped.
“Because she’s Chinese,” Roen said flatly.
“Good. You noticed. I was beginning to question your powers of observation.”
Roen’s mouth twisted sardonically and allowed that to speak for him.
“Sorry,” said Ben.
“Maybe a little.”
“That’s more like it.” Roen lifted his cup and drank. “I take it Miss Chen’s family came here when the Central Pacific was hiring.”
“Hiring,” Ben repeated without inflection. “That’d be the word they used. The fact that they paid a wage is all that kept it from being slavery. That’s not a widely held view, but it’s my view. It’s a sure thing that Fedora has the same perspective.”
“She was born here?”
“Yes, not in Frost Falls, but in the country. Her grandfather and father came here back in the sixties. Her grandfather was killed working for the Central. Her father survived, married, and raised his family somewhere in Utah until they were all but driven out. They resettled in Colorado; Mr. Chen took up with the railroad again, this time the Union Pacific, and now with his two sons. The way I understand it is that a few years later, Fedora was the only family member to survive an outbreak of influenza that ran rampant through the railroad community.”
Roen exhaled slowly. The tightness in his chest eased only marginally. He said quietly, “It must have been extraordinarily difficult for her.”
Roen waited, but it was all Ben would say on the matter. “Thank you for telling me. It probably won’t matter, but I’ll tread even more carefully.”
“You’re right. It probably won’t matter, but it won’t hurt. She hasn’t been here long, less than a year, and there are folks who aren’t happy about it. Some don’t want her serving them, so she’s naturally skittish. Ellie won’t have it, though there’s not a lot she can do about it.”
“I suppose even her good opinion has its limits.”
“I guess it does. Can’t say that it stops her from pushing at those limits. My mother has Fedora firmly under her wing, which is not bad, all things considered.” Ben’s eyes shifted from Roen to a point beyond his shoulder. “Here she comes,” he said under his breath.
Roen didn’t know if Ben meant his mother or Fedora. The wisest course was not to inquire and risk being overheard.
It was Fedora Chen who approached their table balancing two plates heaped with roast beef, potatoes, and carrots on one forearm and carrying the coffeepot in her other hand. She set the pot down and then carefully placed the plates in front of Roen and Ben. Both men thanked her. Her response was the same small smile accompanied by downcast eyes. She poured more coffee, swept the pot away, and disappeared.
Ben savored the aroma of the beef as he lifted it to his mouth. He swore he could taste it before it reached his tongue. “So tell me about this conversation you had with Clay Salt. I reckon it happened when he followed you out to your work site yesterday.”
Roen didn’t try to hide his surprise. “You know about that?”
Ben shrugged modestly. “I try to keep abreast of the comings and goings of folks, particularly the rascals.”
“Clay is certainly one of those.”
“Is he? I was talking about you.”
Roen laughed and swallowed at the same time. “You might have waited until I cleared the potato to say that. I almost choked. Your wife warned me that you like to amuse yourself.”
“She did? Of course she did. She thinks I’m a rascal, too.”
“So about Clay . . . he stopped by my office to see if I had something for him to do. I didn’t, so he said he was going to go out to where you were working and watch, see what he could learn about surveying. I told him not to pester you. Did he?”
“No. I didn’t know he was there until I was getting ready to pack up. How did he know I’d gone out?”
“He lives close to the livery. You hired a pack horse, didn’t you?” When Roen nodded, he went on. “I imagine he saw you leave. Truth is, I think he would have been disappointed if I’d had work for him. He was so clearly wanting to be on his way that he was twitching in his shoes.” Ben speared two carrots. “What is it that you think he can do for you?”
“Pack and carry. Keep the horse settled. Help me sight my marks. Act as a guide, a scout, if you will. The Saunders brothers provided me with good maps, but sometimes what I’m looking for hasn’t been recorded yet. Clay indicated that he knows the area. He could be an asset.”
“Clay would tell you he knows every crater and hillock on the dark side of the moon if he thought it would get him a job with the railroad.”
“Hmm. Well, I’m an independent contractor. He’d be working for me, not Northeast.”
“Close enough.” Ben paused to get Fedora Chen’s attention when she passed through the door from the kitchen to the dining room. He asked her for bread and butter when she reached the table and then spent the next thirty seconds alternately listening to her apology and promising her that her oversight did not mean she would be fired.
“I’m not sure she believes you,” said Roen when she’d finally left, hurrying away as though hungry dogs were nipping at her heels.
“I’m sure she doesn’t. She will, though . . . eventually.”
They ate in silence for as long as it took the basket of warm bread to arrive accompanied by a small plate of sweet cream butter. It was not Miss Chen, but Ellie who delivered the bread and butter. She placed both on the table and then looked from Ben to Roen and back to Ben. She did not need to set her hands on her hips to communicate that she was aggrieved.
Ellie looked around quickly to make certain she had not attracted notice. Nevertheless, spoke in a tone not much above a whisper. “What did you say to her?” she asked her son.
“Me? I asked her for bread and butter.”
Ellie turned her head and arched an eyebrow at Roen. “Then what did you say to her?”
Roen was glad he’d set his knife and fork down. He raised his hands, palms out.
Ben said, “Not a word, Ma. He didn’t say a word.”
“Then why is she sobbing into her apron? Mrs. Vandergrift has no patience for her on a good day, and this is not a good day. The oven’s too hot and the piecrusts aren’t flaky enough to suit her. You know who she’s blaming, don’t you?”
“You?” Ben asked hopefully. He ducked when she swung, but he wasn’t quick enough and she caught him on the back of his head anyway. He was grinning when he straightened. “You have to stop that, Ma.” He rubbed the back of his head. “I’m going to arrest you for assault one of these days.”
“Uh-huh. Behave yourself or I’ll hug you. You decide.” Ellie turned her gaze on Roen. His hands were still raised and she batted them down. She appreciated that he was struggling manfully not to laugh. “I suppose you don’t give your mother reason to cuff you.”
Roen answered with all the gravity he could muster. He did not want this woman doubting his sincerity. “I give her plenty of reason, but I duck and run better than your son.”
Ellie smiled. “Good for you. Now. Tell me what happened. Not you, Ben. I want to hear it from Mr. Shepard.”
“It’s as Ben said. He asked for bread and butter. Miss Chen began to apologize profusely for forgetting to bring it to the table. Your son tried to reassure her that it wasn’t a criticism and no harm was done. Ben promised her that her job was not in jeopardy.”
“Oh, Lord.” Ellie turned back to her son. “Did she mention being fired first or did you bring it up?”
Ben frowned slightly as he went back over the conversation. “I think I said it first. She was so distressed I figured that’s what she was thinking.”
Now Ellie did set her hands on her hips. “The next time you think you know what a woman’s thinking, you remind yourself you have no earthly idea. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said dutifully. “No earthly idea.”
“That’s right. You planted that notion in Fedora’s head.”
“Is there something I can do to make it right?”
Ellie’s hands fell to her sides. “You’re a good man, Ben, but unless you’re willing to escort Mrs. Vandergrift out of here before I have words with her, I’ll take care of everything.” She started to go, stopped, and turned back. “Is your meal satisfactory?”
It was Roen who answered. “Better than satisfactory. Quite as good as any fare I’ve had in Manhattan.”
Ellie’s eyes crinkled at the corners as her smile deepened. “Thank you. There’s something I can tell the cook that she will find most gratifying.”
When she was gone, Ben picked up his fork and waggled it at Roen. “As good as you’ve had in Manhattan? You understand I’m skeptical.”
Roen shrugged. “It’s true.”
“Isn’t Delmonico’s in Manhattan?”
“It is, but I’ve never eaten there. Mostly I do my own cooking when I’m in the city, or if I’m having dinner with my family, well, there’s some trial and error involved there. A lot of experimentation with spices. My mother is as creative a cook as she is a painter, but the food is often more interesting than good.”
Ben hesitated as he raised his fork to his mouth. A small crease appeared in the space between his eyebrows. “Your mother’s a painter?”
“Shepard.” Ben repeated the name mostly to himself, rolled it over on his tongue. “Anne Shepard?”
“Yes. You know her work?” Roen hadn’t expected that. His mother was well known, even celebrated, in New York and Paris. But Frost Falls?
“I do. Jackson Brewer, the sheriff before me, took his wife to Paris a few years back and sent some postcards. One of them was of a painting that caught his eye in a museum he visited. He said he liked it especially because the artist was an American. His wife liked it because the artist was a woman. I still have it. Use it as a bookmark, if you want to see it.”
“No. I know which one it is. Children at Play.”
“I thought it was called Hide and Seek.”
“That’s the popular name for it. Mother simply titled it Children at Play.”
“Huh. Hide and Seek suits it better, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“I agree with you. So does my mother.”
“It’s a clever painting,” said Ben. “Admittedly I’ve only seen the postcard, but besides the obvious children running to their hiding places, I was able to spot two more hiding in tree branches.”
“There are five hiding. Even in the painting they are hard to see, but once found, you can’t unsee them.”
“Any of them you?”
“No,” Roen said. The lie was force of habit. He was in several of his mother’s paintings along with his brother, two sisters, and a cousin. She’d been interested in them as children but stopped painting each of them around the time they turned twelve. Since he was the youngest, he was last to disappear from her body of work.
“Do you paint?” asked Ben.
“Tried and failed. Too much detail and not enough imagination.” He marveled that he could say this as a statement of fact, without rancor. That hadn’t always been the case. “Good for practical applications like designing bridges but not for paint on a canvas.”
“I don’t know,” said Ben, looking doubtful. “Seems like designing a bridge would take plenty of imagination.”
Roen shrugged. “It’s mostly math.”
“Uh-huh. Right.” Ben buttered a slice of bread and resumed eating. “Clay’s pretty clever himself, but I guess you figured that out.”
“I did. He had a lot of questions on the way back to town.”
“He’s a good student. If he works for you, it can’t interfere with his schooling. His mother won’t approve it if it does.”
“I’m not surprised. Mrs. Springer spoke to me about her.”
Suspicious, Ben cheeked his bite of bread and asked, “She did?”
“She told me something about everyone. Cornered me in church the first time I attended.”
Ben swallowed. “Gossip is Amanda Springer’s specialty, best taken with more than a few grains of salt.”
“I used a shaker.”
“Good for you.” Ben folded his bread and used it to sop gravy from his plate. “She must have failed to pump you for information, otherwise I’d have already known about your mother.”
“I diverted her with railroad talk. Jobs. The men I’d be hiring, local and from neighboring towns. It’s just good business. She told me she owns the butcher shop. An army marches on its stomach. Likewise, full bellies build railroads. Mrs. Springer understands that.”
“She’s a savvy businesswoman and an honest one. You can depend on her for fair prices and good product.”
That was Roen’s sense also, but he was glad to have it confirmed. “About Clay . . . what do you suggest is the best way to approach his mother? How much of a factor is the money that Clay will bring home?”
“Money’s never much motivated Lily,” said Ben. “Not that I’ve ever seen. She was a couple of grades ahead of me in school and smart as a whip, but she missed a fair amount because she took care of her mother—a woman who was perpetually ailing or claimed she was. I lost touch with Lily for a lot of years but caught up again when I moved from the ranch into town and became Sheriff Brewer’s deputy. She does all right for herself and her family, but I know that what she cares about is that her children get a good education and make what they can of that.”
“I can offer Clay a better than good education working alongside me.”
Ben did not offer encouragement. He leveled serious eyes on Roen and said, “Then you better be ready to tell Lily about that.”