Nothing prepares her for what she finds. Her pupils are the daughters of the Cherokee eliteeducated and more wealthy than sheand the school is cloaked in mystery. A student drowned in the river last year, and the girls whisper that she was killed by a jealous lover. Willie's room is the very room the dead girl slept in. The students say her spirit haunts it.
Willie doesn't believe in ghosts, but when strange things start happening at the school, she isn't sure anymore. She's also not sure what to make of a boy from the nearby boys' school who has taken an interest in herand whose past is cloaked in secrets. Soon, even Willie has to admit that the revenant may be trying to tell her something. . . .
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I thought by the time I’d transferred to the Kansas and Arkansas Valley Railway, this foolish tendency to jump at every sound, to blush each time someone looked me in the eye, would have subsided. If Papa had been sitting next to me, he’d have patted my hand, his mustache curving into a smile. “All the world’s a stage, Willie,” he’d have said, “and you’re playing your part out of necessity, as have many before you.”
But Papa was dead, and the space next to me was empty. Staring at that void, I knew in my heart I was something much worse than a player on the world’s stage. And more than the summer heat made the perspiration trickle down the back of my neck. I jumped and blushed and perspired for good reason.
I was a liar and a thief.
The conductor called all passengers aboard, and I breathed a sigh of relief. But before I had time to celebrate my solitude, a young man bounded up the steps of my car and slid into the opposite seat. I stiffened, bracing myself for the prying questions strangers asked so freely of young ladies traveling alone. But he only removed his hat and, with a quick nod to me, slumped against the window with his eyes closed. The train jerked into motion with a great metallic screech, but even this did not rouse him. Grateful, I turned back to the window and studied what I could of Van Buren, Arkansas, branding my memory with details of the landscape before we entered Indian Territory.
What had I expected to find outside the train windows when we’d crossed the Arkansas border? Men with crow-black hair riding painted ponies and throwing spears at buffalo? Women in buckskin tending the fires outside their tepees? I knew it could not be so wild or so quaint as the stories I’d read, but I’d expected something . . . else. I never expected to find the terrain so familiar. The trees weren’t quite as tall here, but otherwise we might as well have been traveling through Tennessee, what with the densely wooded hills and crisscrossing rivers. It should have been comforting to me, this familiarity, but instead it made my heart ache and I had to turn away from the window.
More than an hour had passed, and yet the young man across from me slept on, his mouth hanging open slightly. Something about him reminded me of Papa after a night cozying up to his whiskey bottle. No doubt he’d spent the previous evening carousing with gentleman friends. He was a gentleman, I felt sure. His clothes were much finer than mine—they fit his rangy frame as though tailored rather than ready-made. A barber had trimmed his smooth brown hair, and though his tanned cheeks were covered in stubble, the skin itself looked accustomed to careful tending. I studied his face, noting his strong features and handsome cheekbones. Papa would have deemed it a good face for the stage. “Some folks,” he often said, “have delicate features that seem pleasing up close but look mushy from a distance. An actor needs bold features and sharp angles to his face. The audience needs something for the eye to grab hold of.”
The face across from me would have made a fine Cassio, I thought, with those handsome features slack with fatigue after a wild night. Or perhaps a Demetrius—there’d been a haughty quality to the young man’s bearing when he leapt upon the train and sat down without the merest “How do ye do.” But not a Hamlet. There was nothing tortured about his face, no inner turmoil written there.
At that moment, he opened his eyes and looked directly at me. His mouth curved.
Then he winked.
I turned my head to the window so quickly that my neck bones nearly cracked. My cheeks flushed with heat. Such an impish sparkle to his eye! He must have thought me quite common to stare so openly. Surely he would think it an invitation to pry and flirt.
But he said nothing. When I risked a peek at him, he seemed to be asleep once more. My toes tingled with a longing to kick him. He could have at least shown me the courtesy of being aware I was ignoring him.
Two more hours dragged on, and the champion sleeper barely stirred. When we reached Gibson Station, I leapt to my feet as soon as we came to a stop, heaved my bag off the floor, and headed for the door without a backward glance. But once outside, no one would meet my gaze long enough for me to ask directions. The letter had provided no details about this part of the journey, and I was overwhelmed again by the brazenness of my scheme. I stood alone as the press of people continued past me.
A sudden and powerful gust of wind tore the hat from my head. I whipped around to follow its flight through the air until it fell at the feet of . . . the smirking young man. He reached down, catching it before the wind tossed it again. My heart sank to see him hold the crumpled thing in both hands.
His eyes met mine. “Miss?”
I wanted to turn my back to him, but he held the only hat I owned.
“Yes?” I gripped the pinned coil of my hair as the wind gusted again.
“Pardon me,” he said, “but are you on your way to the female seminary in Tahlequah?”
I blinked. “How did you know?”
He smiled, though gently this time. “You look the scholarly type.” He pointed past the platform. “You’ll find the stagecoach just beyond the station house. It will take you to the school. There’ll be other young ladies from this train heading the same way. May I help you with your bag?”
“Thank you, no,” I said quickly, reclaiming the offered hat. “It’s not terribly heavy.” His brown eyes were warm and no longer impish. I stifled the urge to say more, for fear of speaking foolishness.
“I wish you good day, then.” He tipped his own hat and turned away, strolling easily and not looking back. I set the bag down to pin the hat more securely to my head. Then I slipped my fingers into my purse to count the few remaining coins, praying they would be enough to cover this final leg of the journey.