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Shingle Springs, California
"Look out, ma'am!"
Tess Grimsby jumped back to avoid a fellow about fifteen pulling a baggage cart with far too much speed for the bustling rail station. She collided with a mother herding her four youngsters, causing the weary-looking woman to drop her wicker basket. Several children's books slid across the wooden platform.
"My apologies. I didn't mean to bump into you." Tess stooped to pick up the books that had landed at her feet.
The woman made sure her children were all right, dropped to her knees and reached for a copy of Little Bo-Peep. "It wasn't your fault." She scowled at the baggage handler. "He needs to watch where he's going."
The young man parked his cart beside the baggage car and sprinted over to them. "Sorry 'bout that. It's my first day on the job, and my boss said to hurry. I've got to make a good impression." He grinned, reminding Tess of one of the many boys she'd befriended when she lived at the orphanage.
She smiled. "No harm was done."
A man with a voice as rich as Belgian chocolate addressed the teen. "Be more careful next time. Getting the baggage moved quickly is important, but Mr. Flynn wouldn't want you to endanger our passengers, nor would I."
"Right, sir." The lad left.
"Come, children. We need to get home." The mother took the books Tess had gathered, muttered something about troublesome teens and hustled her children across the crowded platform.
Tess slid her satchel back on her shoulder, straightened and found herself face-to-face with a broad-shouldered, golden-haired gentleman. He was younger than any of the men she'd worked forand far more handsome with his strong chin and arresting sky-blue eyes, currently clouded with sadness. If he was Mr. Abbottthe widower she'd come to seeshe could understand.
He held out her journal and said nothing for several seconds as he gazed at her, his expression unreadable. No doubt the tall man wasn't used to looking a woman in the eye.
The frown he'd worn faded, giving way to a hint of a smile that caused her breath to hitch. "I believe this is yours. It fell out of your bag during the commotion."
"Thank you." She took the diary from him, its pages so full of her hopes and dreamsas well as the mementos she'd tucked between the pagesthat she had to grip it tightly to keep items from falling out. She would add her train ticket to the collection of memorabilia, a symbol of the new chapter in her life she was eager to embrace. "You must be Mr. Abbott, the stationmaster."
His forehead furrowed. "I am, but I don't believe we've met."
She shoved the bulging book into her satchel. "Not in person, although we've corresponded. I'm Tess Grimsby, Polly's friend. I've come about the housekeeper position."
"Ah, yes. She told me you'd arrive today." He clutched a notebook with sun-bronzed hands that obviously did more than complete paperwork, and scanned the platform, where several passengers lingered. "I need to see to a few things. Could you come to my office in ten minutes?"
"That would be fine." She could use the time to compose herself.
"Actually, let's make that twenty. I need to see if anyone requires my assistance, and then we can take care of the interview."
He certainly didn't sound eager to meet with her. Not that she could blame him. Hiring someone to care for his motherless children could be difficult. "Very well. I'll see to my trunks and meet you there." She should have time to rent a room at the hotel.
Tess set off for the baggage area, weaving her way through those waiting to board the train for its return trip down the hill. As the end station of the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad, the depot was one of the busiest in the state. While it handled a great deal of freight, a number of travelers passed through Shingle Springs, too. However, few remained there, which she hoped to do.
People watched as she swept past them. Some even craned their heads to follow her progress. As much as she'd like to fade into the bustling throng, she couldn't. Everywhere she went she encountered the thinly veiled surprise and outright stares of strangers. You would think they'd never seen a tall woman before.
Peter Flynn, Polly's russet-haired husband who worked at the station, saw her and hustled over, a smile on his tanned face. They made quick work of their introductions.
"Polly said you were tall, but
" He tilted his head to look at her. "You could dust the ceiling at our place with the feathers on that hat of yours. Just how tall are you?"
Most people didn't come right out and mention her height, although she would prefer that to whispers behind fans. Polly had warned Tess that Peter spoke his mind. Since she tended to do the same, she didn't take offense. "Six foot."
He whistled a note of surprise, drawing the attention of several freight men, who viewed her with curiosity and made some less than flattering remarks. Indignation straightened her spine. She wasn't that much taller than other women. Why must everyone make such a fuss about a few inches?
She lifted her chin and gave the workers the impassive look she'd practiced in the mirror until she'd perfected it. Once she had, she'd pasted it on whenever the sharp-tongued orphanage director maligned her, unwilling to let him see her pain. Nearly nine years had passed, but the recollection of Mr. Grimsby's cutting remarks left a bitter taste in her mouth. Thank the Lord she'd been able to leave the orphanage the day she turned sixteen, having secured a position caring for the children of a family heading West.
"At least you and Spencer will see eye to eye." Peter chuckled at his play on words but quickly sobered. "And speaking of him, I'd better get back to work. I'll have one of the boys deliver your trunks to the hotel." He doffed his hat and returned to his duties.
Standing on the platform in front of the depot, Tess surveyed the small town. Shingle Springs sat at the foot of the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range, which rose up to meet the cloudless sky. The steady stream of wagons headed east had dug deep ruts in the wide main street. Most of the businesses and houses lining it were made of wood, but an impressive stone building on the south side stood out.
She crossed the street and made her way to the Planter's House hotel, a two-story white clapboard building with a balcony that shaded the porch below. With the temperature approaching triple digits, she would welcome getting out of the early afternoon sun.
A glance at the watch pinned to her bodice caused her to move quickly. She'd have just enough time to change and dab on some rosewater to mask the lingering smell of the ashes and soot that had rained on her. Not that a railroad man like Mr. Abbott would notice the smoky scent.
From what Polly had written, he'd become so preoccupied since his wife's passing he could barely get himself to the depot on time. Once there, all he had time for was workto the exclusion of everything and everyone else. Tess understood. Grief could immobilize a person. How many times had she seen newly orphaned children go through their days as though encased in a fog?
If all went well, she'd soon be caring for Mr. Abbott's two little ones and helping them deal with the loss of their mother. She looked forward to easing their father's burden and helping him cope with his grief, too.
"If you'll step inside, Mr. Drake would be happy to send a telegram for you." Spencer Abbott directed the elderly couple to his ticket agent's cage and resumed his perusal of the platform.
Other than the new baggage handler's mishap, things had gone smoothly that morning. Spencer had been able to eat the meager pickings in his dinner pail in peace while rereading the letters Tess Grimsby had sent.
Although she had glowing recommendations from two of the families she'd served, her most recent employer had dismissed her. From what Spencer could tell, the banker had no complaints about her work but had taken issue with her personality. Such things happened. Spencer knew that from experience. But a trait one employer disliked another might value. He believed in giving a person the opportunity to prove what heor shecould do. Most people showed their true colors fairly quickly.
What troubled him more than Miss Grimsby's employment history was his reaction to her. When she'd stood and he'd looked into her eyes, speech had eluded him. Rarely had he encountered a woman that tall. She must be at least six foot, although with her hat the size of Texas, she appeared even taller.
While her height had come as a surprise, what had captivated him was the compassion in her warm brown eyes. Clearly she was a caring person. Rather than rail about the young man who'd almost barreled into her, she'd defended him and shown him kindness, which spoke well of her character. A woman like her should be able to take Luke's antics in stride.
What had kept Spencer riveted to her had nothing to do with her personality, though. He hated to admit it, but the reason he'd gawked at her like some smitten schoolboy had everything to do with her lovely features, from her delicately arched brows and high cheekbones to her rosy lips lifted in that mesmerizing smile. She was the first woman to capture his attention since he'd lost
Focus, Abbott. He had no business thinking about another woman. Trudy had only been gone three short months. He was a widower in mourning who'd loved his wife, not a man in search of someone to take her place. Not that anyone could. She'd held a special place in his heart and always would. It must have been loneliness that led his eyes to stray, that's all.
Well, he was master of his emotions. When Tess Grimsby returned, she'd see a man in control of himself. If he chose to hire her as his housekeeper, he would keep things strictly professional.
Tess emerged from the hotel wearing her favorite dress, a cobalt-blue calico that matched the three peacock feathers atop her hat. She tugged on her gloves, crossed the busy street and strolled alongside the tracks until she came to the railway station.
The depot was a hive of activity as men prepared for a freight train's arrival. Drivers seated on sturdy wagons waited for their cargo in front of three warehouses east of the station. Horses whickered and shook their heads to rid themselves of the ever-present flies.
Although the platform was large, the wooden building at the heart of the action was small. Somewhere inside sat the man who would determine her future. Mr. Abbott must hire her. If he didn't, she'd be forced to return to Sacramento City and pray she found another position before the last of the money in her reticule was gone.
She shook the small handbag dangling from her wrist, the jingle of the few coins inside lacking the reassurance she sought. While Polly had said she and Peter would welcome Tess, she couldn't impose on them, not when they were expecting a second child soon.
Given her recent dismissal, Tess hadn't been able to secure another governess position in the city, despite spending two weeks searching for one. Polly's letter with news of Mr. Abbott's need had been most fortuitous. If he hired her as his housekeeper and her work pleased him, she'd be able to restore her reputation and replenish her depleted savings.
A bell tinkled as she entered the depot. The man in the ticket cage peered at her through the wrought iron grate and smiled. "Good morning, ma'am. May I help you?"
"I'm Tess Grimsby here to see Mr. Abbott. He's expecting me."
The ticket agent nodded. "Welcome, Miss Grimsby. I'm Mr. Drake. I'll let you in."
She waited at the door he'd indicated. It opened, and he pointed out another on her right. She paused and said a silent prayer.
"Don't be scared. He doesn't bite
She wasn't afraid of Mr. Abbott, but she was concerned about her reaction to the appealing gentleman. Despite his rumpled frock coat and limp collar, it could be all too easy to cast admiring glances his way, and that would never do. She must act like the professional she was and keep her goal of being hired first and foremost. "Me? Scared? He's the one who ought to be. Men have been known to run from me."
Mr. Drake chuckled, the curled ends of his heavily waxed handlebar moustache dancing. "You've got spunk. That's good. You'll need it if you're to work for him. He's a fine boss, but he can be a mite intimidating on his best days. Lately
well, let's just say losing his wife three months back changed him." He inclined his head toward the door to Mr. Abbott's office. "Give it a rap, and he'll invite you in."
Tess peered through the small window inset in the door. Mr. Abbott sat at a desk in a painfully clean office with a ledger spread before him and his head in hands. Like Mr. Drake, who had a shock of wiry gray hair, Mr. Abbott had a full head of hair, as well, although his was the color of ripe rye at sunset. Unlike his ticket clerk, who had a ready smile, Mr. Abbott sported a frown, as he had earlier. Not a promising sign. She knocked.
She stilled her trembling hand and opened the door. He jumped to his feet.
"Miss Grimsby. Please, have a seat." He held out a hand toward the bentwood chair facing his desk.
"Thank you, sir." She sat, folded her hands in her lap and drew a calming breath. "I trust you received all the documents I sent."
"I did." He remained standing, resting his hands on the windowsill with his back to her. Several seconds passed before he spoke. "You're not what I expected."
Her nervousness fled. She didn't appreciate being challenged at the outset, but she wouldn't let him fluster her. "Neither are you, but I can do the job, I assure you." She'd worked for some prominent families in Sacramento City, the last one having a name anybody in the state would recognize. The wife of the widely respected banker had written her a letter of recommendation, albeit reluctantly. Not that Tess could blame her. The woman's husband had found Tess's direct manner problematic.
Mr. Abbott sat on the corner of his desk with his long legs draped over the side, forcing her to look up. She caught a flicker of feeling in his eyes. Curiosity perhaps? Or was it concern?
"Why would you come to a small town when you're used to living among the elite? I lead a simple life, and I don't want my children exposed to any newfangled notions."
His manner and tone rankled. If she were to work for him, she'd have to show him she wouldn't tolerate his high-handedness. "I'm a simple person myself, eager to leave the bustle of the city behind. I was most recently employed by a family of means, true, but I hail from humble circumstances."
Please, don't let him ask me to explain. She had no intention of educating him about her past. Humble circumstances didn't begin to describe her miserable childhood.
"Your circumstances don't concern me. But your methods do. I contacted your most recent employer. He said you have a tendency to speak your mind. Is that true?"
That was a more tactful description of her supposed failings than the domineering man had used when he dismissed her. "I have opinions, but doesn't everyone?"
His blond brows rose, and he pressed a fist to his mouth. She thought she saw his lips twitch, and it gave her hope, but when he pulled his hand away, the frown was there as before. "Can you cook?
Mr. Abbott's abrupt change of subject took her aback. "I assume you mean can I cook well, and the answer is yes. I can keep house, do laundry, sew, garden and care for animals, too. But the most important thing is that I'll do all I can to help your children through this difficult time." The Lord had used her to minister to countless youngsters who'd lost their parents, and she could put that experience to good useprovided Mr. Abbott hired her.
He folded his arms and took his time studying her, as though she were a horse or a milk cow. Well, two could play that game. She tilted her chin and let her gaze rove over his fine features, drinking her fill.
At length he nodded. "I'll give you one week."