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Carson Bend, Colorado, 1886
Marvel Anne Henley had made a decision. Why it had taken her three months to come to it, she wasn't quite sure-except perhaps for the fact that the entire rest of her life hung in the balance. She'd had to choose between spending the rest of her years married to a man for whom she felt only friendship-or living her remaining days as a spinster. Not exactly options to fulfill her long-tucked-away dreams, but in the end the verdict hadn't been that difficult.
"Your friendship is important to me," she told Henry Morrison. Now came the tough part. "But I can't marry you."
He still held his black felt hat. Snow had melted on the shoulders of his black winter coat and the drops glistened in the light streaming through the long beveled glass windows on each side of the front door. Marvel glanced at his handsome graying hair and thinly-trimmed mustache. She'd greeted him in the foyer and hadn't had time to take his wrap before he'd pressed her for an answer.
Henry had been a friend of her father's for as many years as she could remember, so his presence was familiar and reassuring. He and his wife had been to dinner more times than could be counted. Nora had been older than Henry, and a sudden illness had left her weak and housebound. Henry had cared for her until her death in July.
He'd proposed to Marvel in October.
Her heart hadn't fluttered, nor had she caught herself daydreaming of a union. But she'd been tempted-for the first time since she'd been very young, before her mother had died and her father had taken ill-tempted to want more.
Henry held his expression in check, though she knew she hadn't given him the answer he'd hoped for. "I respect your decision, Marvel. But may I ask how you came by it?"
Theirs had always been an easy relationship, one comprised of a fondness resembling that of an uncle and niece, but since his declaration of intent, their exchanges had become increasingly stilted.
"I understand a good many marriages are based on friendship," she began. "Or suitability or even necessity. It seemed sensible whenever I thought of it. You may call me foolish, but being sensible just wasn't enough incentive to make me turn my whole life upside down." She gestured with a wave of one hand. "I realize I'm turning down what is most likely my last hope for marriage. And it's not that there's anything wrong with you or that I wouldn't have enjoyed sharing your grandchildren one day..."
Henry had a grown son. She turned and surveyed the wide doorway that opened into a spacious drawing room where she'd played and later spent countless evenings with her father. There hadn't been another child in these rooms since. "I'm satisfied here. I love this house-my father built it when I was only eight, you know."
Of course he did. He'd been around then. She couldn't imagine selling her legacy, her independence, and moving to Henry's home. For one consideration, she had boarders who depended on her for their lodging and their meals. For another...well, she just didn't want to let go.
She loved the house and guarded her independence. She didn't love Henry. Passion was for the young, anyway. "This home and my work here will be enough for me. I've decided I'm content with my life."
Seeming more puzzled than upset, he frowned. "You're choosing a house over a husband?"
He couldn't understand, of course. She hadn't expected him to. "I'm choosing to be content where I am."
His dark gaze bored into hers for a long moment. "I hope you don't regret your decision later."
"I don't think I will." In fact, she was sure.
He turned his hat by the brim. "That's it, then."
"Will we remain friends, do you think?" she asked.
"I don't know. We can try."
"We'll see each other at church." She deliberately kept her tone bright. "And around town."
"I'm not angry, Marvel. A little bruised perhaps."
"Good. I mean, that you're not mad." She placed her hand on the damp sleeve of his coat and was ready to lean in and kiss him on the cheek as she always did when she noticed he was holding his expression taut and had cast his gaze downward. Everything had changed. In that moment she knew she'd lost a dear friend.
"I'm sorry, Henry."
He met her eyes then. "Be happy, Marvel."
He turned and walked out into a swirling snowfall. Marvel closed the door behind him and hurried to the window where she pulled aside the lace curtain and watched him climb into his black buggy and slap the reins over the horse's back.
The setting sun glistened on the snow that had fallen in the yard, and her breath made a circle of moisture on the window glass. From the foyer came the persistent tick, tick, tick, of her mother's grandfather clock as the minutes and hours marched forward. Sometimes in the silence of the night she could hear the passing of weeks and months and years as her life slipped by. But she didn't believe in magic or miracles or even happily-ever-afters.
She believed in inner strength and pushing past regrets to bring all she could to this day and this hour. She had made the right decision. And now she had the rest of her life to live with it.
The following morning Marvel rose at sunrise and dressed in her forest-green merino wool skirt and puffed muslin chemisette, the worn cuffs of which she'd recently replaced. Opening the fabric-covered box in her top drawer, she selected a delicately painted antique brooch that had belonged to her grandmother and pinned it at her throat. She swept her thick dark hair up into a knot and secured it with half a dozen tortoiseshell pins that had been her mother's.
Leaning into her reflection in the mirror on her tidy bureau, she turned her head this way and that, daubed glycerin at the corners of her eyes with the pad of her longest finger, then swept a trail beneath each eye and a path across her upper lip.
She had no cracks or crevices yet, and she wasn't confident this regimen would prevent them, but she was bound and determined that if she could prevent looking remotely like her ninety-year-old boarder anytime in the near future, she would do so. Marvel was thirty-three, for heaven's sakes, admittedly long past her youth, but there was no call to let herself wither on the vine without a stouthearted attempt at preservation.
She raised her chin and admired the still-firm and smooth column of her throat. Maturity had a lot going for it if one was prudent enough to take stock. Her features had developed some character actually. Her face had thinned out and her body remained slim and strong.
Buttoning her shoes and checking her reflection one last time, Marvel made her bed, smoothing the quilt evenly over the mattress of the four-poster bed that had belonged to her parents. She made her way down to the kitchen, where she built a fire, boiled water and started tea steeping.
Sometime today the new town doctor would be arriving, and she had agreed to board the man until the current doctor had vacated his house and offices. The doctor's presence wouldn't upset the balance of the household by much. He would be working and visiting patients and whatever doctors did with their days and nights. She had biscuits baked and the dining room table set for three before she heard Liberty's cane tap-tapping along the hallway.
"Good morning, Mrs. Pargellis!"
"Good morning, Marvel Anne."
"We're having biscuits and jam this morning. Does that sound good?"
"Quite good indeed. I shall have time for only one before Ansel Simon arrives for his piano lesson."
"All right. Be seated and I'll pour your tea." Liberty hadn't given a piano lesson in twenty-five years, but Marvel was accustomed to her frequent forays back in time. "Did you happen to cross paths with Leo upstairs?"
"Leo." Marvel poured them each a cup of tea and passed Liberty the milk. "Mr. Brauman? Has lived upstairs across the hall from you for the past four years?"
"Leo," Miss Liberty said thoughtfully. "No, I don't remember him. Did he come on Tuesdays?"
Marvel ignored her question, gathered her skirts and hurried up the stairs, stopping outside the older gentleman's room. "Leo?" She rapped the door with her knuckles. "Are you awake?"
"Breakfast is ready."
"Can you bring it up?"
"No. If you want to eat, you can come down and eat with me and Mrs. Pargellis."
"She's as nutty as a fruitcake, and I'm not very hungry."
"Suit yourself." She walked away. He'd been spending more and more time in his room, making her wonder what the problem was. He'd never been what she would call sociable, but recently she'd felt as though he'd been avoiding them.
She and Liberty had each buttered a second biscuit when the door chimes rang.
"That's my eight o'clock," Liberty announced.
"I'll go see." Marvel excused herself and smoothed her immaculate apron. Reaching the front door, she pulled it open.
On her wide front porch, a tall dark-haired young man held a child bundled in a red coat on one arm. A small boy stood at his side. The darkly handsome father removed a black felt hat, and the first thing to strike Marvel were eyes as blue and clear as the winter sky beyond his broad silhouette. "Miss Henley?"
"The name's Paxton, Miss. Seth Paxton."
Tearing her gaze from his eyes, she surveyed the trio of early-morning callers in puzzlement.
"I'm the new doctor," he added.
"Oh!" She opened the door wider, then stepped back to afford them space to enter. The direct way he looked her straight in the eye as he moved past made her stomach flutter.
She closed the door and they stood in the foyer, the scent of wool and crisp winter air strong. Marvel glanced from the redcheeked boy to the blue-eyed toddler on the man's arm. The honey-colored tress of hair escaping her knitted hat indicated her femininity. The child blinked in curiosity and looked from Marvel to her father.
"I understood that the city council made arrangements for us to stay here."
Marvel glanced at the children again. "Well. The councilmen didn't say anything about a whole family."
"Just the three of us," he corrected. "I'm a widower."
"I'm sorry." She hadn't meant to blunder or be rude, but she'd been caught off guard. She wasn't prepared to house children.
"I have elderly boarders who require attention and adequate privacy. I'm concerned about upsetting the equilibrium of the household, Dr. Paxton."
"Is it Ansel?" Liberty asked, shuffling into the foyer.
"No, it's the doctor I told you was coming," Marvel replied. Liberty beamed at Seth Paxton. "Well, aren't you a fine young man, now. And these are your little ones? What are their names?"
"This is Nate and this is Tessa," he answered.
"Well, take off your wraps so you can have biscuits and tea with us."
Nate glanced up at his father with hope in his round blue eyes. "Marvel Anne makes the best strawberry jam in the county," Liberty added.
The invitation had been extended, and it would be rude to take it back, but Marvel was supremely flustered. She covered her discomfort by saying, "Let me take your coats. We'll talk over breakfast. I'm afraid it's nothing substantial."
"We've been on a train for days, so anything that doesn't rock or spill will suit us," Seth declared with an engaging smile. He placed Tessa on the floor and crouched down to unbutton her wrap and remove her hat. The toddler had long tawny hair that had been tied haphazardly away from her face with a green ribbon, then mussed by the hat.
Marvel hung the children's coats on the hall tree and turned. Seth wore a wide leather holster that held a huge dangerous-looking gun. Carson Bend was s small town and few men besides the sheriff wore weapons. Her surprise must have shown.
"I always wear it while traveling," he explained. "Would you like me to remove it?"
"Perhaps the atmosphere at the table would be more relaxed if you did."
He nodded and unbuckled the holster, wrapped it around the gun and glanced for a place to stow it. Marvel spotted the top of the grandfather clock at the same time he did and their eyes met for a moment before he stashed the weapon.
She led the way to the dining room.
Liberty had settled herself back on her chair and Marvel showed the Paxtons to seats. "This is Mrs. Pargellis," she said.
"Have you been practicing your scales?" the old woman asked Nate with a quizzical lift of one white eyebrow.
The puzzled child glanced from the old woman to his father. "Mrs. Pargellis taught piano lessons for many years," Marvel explained, placing plates in front of their guests. She handed Seth the basket of biscuits, then moved the butter and cut-glass bowl of jam closer. She turned to the hutch and set out three more cups and saucers.
He prepared a biscuit for each of his children and one for himself while Marvel poured tea and went to refill the china pot.
"Just half, please," Seth requested as she prepared to pour tea into Tessa's cup. She did the same for Nate. Seth sweetened the liquid and filled the rest of their cups with milk.
"You're from Denver?" she asked, seating herself across from the little family.
Seth nodded. "Yes."
"But you're taking over a practice in our little town."
"We needed a change," he told her. "I want to raise my children away from the big city."
Well, that was understandable. "Perhaps you can find lodging at the hotel," she suggested.
"I was hoping I wouldn't have to do that," he said, again meeting her gaze in that forthright manner she found so unsettling. "I like the idea of someplace more comfortable. Less populated. But of course if you're refusing us lodging-"
"It's just that I wasn't prepared," she interrupted. Again, those eyes. "So you are refusing to board us?"