The bucolic town of Haven seemed like the perfect place for Emma Delancy to make a new life far from Kansas—and away from the threat of the hangman’s noose. For seven years, her secret has been safe. Until she rescues an orphaned boy . . . and clashes with local newcomer Noah Sawyer. Now everyone seems to be conspiring to fix her up with the handsome single father.
If Noah had wanted anonymity, he wouldn’t have chosen this close-knit community on the Ohio River as his new home. But after five years, it was time to stop running. Now beautiful, plucky Emma Delancy is threatening his hard-won peace of mind. His growing attraction to this remarkable woman who takes in an abandoned child and is already bonding with his young daughter makes Noah start to believe in the future. Until his Chicago past comes calling.
Twice Blessed is the 1st book in the Haven Trilogy, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Haven Trilogy, Book One
By Jo Ann Ferguson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Jo Ann Ferguson
All rights reserved.
Haven, Indiana 1876
"Stop! Stop, thief!"
The pencil froze in Emma Delancy's hand as she looked up from the counter of her busy store. A thief? Here in Haven? Here in this village on the Ohio River where everyone knew everyone else and everyone else's business? Here where even those with locks on their doors never bothered to bolt them?
She stared around the store. Although cans and boxes covered every counter and filled the shelves reaching to the ceiling, she knew exactly where everything should be. Mrs. Chandler was looking at the bolt of pink cotton that would be perfect for a gown once warmer weather settled in along the river, and Mr. Richards carried two cans of tobacco toward the counter. Everything else was in order.
Then why was someone calling, "Stop, thief"?
Another shout spurred her out of her shock. Flinging herself around the counter that held a scale at one end and glass canisters filled with candy at the other, she pushed past her paralyzed patrons. A small form burst out of the shadows by the barrels of flour halfway to the door, almost plowing her down.
Emma did not pause to see the man who was shouting. She had to keep her eyes on the slender shadow, or she would lose it. The thief was silhouetted in the sunlight before vanishing out onto the store's front porch. Hearing the thud of running steps, she raced after the thief. Thief? If her eyes had not fooled her, she was chasing a lad. Brown hair and skinny ... oh, heaven help her, she hoped it was not Jesse Faulkner, who had been endless trouble since he arrived in Haven to live with his uncle, Reverend Faulkner.
Blinking in the sunshine that still was not strong enough to warm air that held a lingering taint of winter, she looked both ways along the usually quiet street. She heard another shout and saw three men standing on the other side of the road in front of two houses that were separated by the livery. They were looking to her left. The kid must have gone in that direction.
More shouts came from behind her, but she gathered her black skirt and lacy petticoats higher as she sped around the corner of the store. The narrow alley between her store and the bank next door was almost lost in the shadows and smelled of things better left unexplored.
Her breath strained against her corset, and her steps faltered. Was she crazy? Did she think she could, encumbered by her heavy skirts, catch a lad? Lurching forward, she cursed under her breath when her hairpins gave up the battle and her hair fell down her back. Broken pins skittered against the bank's brick wall. She pushed her hair out of her eyes.
She had to get to Jesse—if it was the minister's nephew—before anyone else did. Someone had to give the kid a chance to explain what was going on. Someone who knew what he was going through.
She faltered at the thought. She had been foolish to think she had put what had happened in Kansas behind her. Yet just the thought of a boy being falsely accused of some petty larceny brought out all the instincts to protect him as she had protected herself.
"There! There he goes!"
She recognized that voice. Reverend Faulkner must have heard the commotion from the church on the far side of Haven's village green. This was getting far too complicated. She had hoped to catch the lad, find out what the ruckus was about, and end this quietly. Now ...
Emma pressed back against the weathered boards of the store. From the barn behind the store came the sound of Toby's whinny. The old horse, which pulled the store's delivery wagon, only got upset when someone he did not recognize entered the barn and wandered too close to the bucket of oats he watched over from his field. Someone must be in the barn even though the door was shut.
She patted the back door into the store's storage room. The door was closed, but she knew it was not locked. If she could persuade the boy to slow down and admit what he had done, she would let him wait in the storage room until the furor simmered down. Lewis Parker, the town's sheriff, might not agree with her, but she did not want to see a good boy get in trouble because of one mistake.
Everyone deserved a second chance, a chance to explain what and why something had happened. She believed that even more fervently than she had seven years ago. Then she had not been given the chance to explain that she had no idea her husband intended to rob the bank where he worked. Everyone had assumed she knew every detail about Miles Cooper's plans, and that she was guilty, too. Her one attempt to explain she knew nothing of Miles's schemes had led to her arrest. But the sheriff had had no place to put a woman in his jail, so he had left her, under guard, in her house. That had given her the chance to flee in the middle of the night and escape from joining her husband on the gallows.
She had come here to the so aptly named Haven, where no one guessed she was the widow of the infamous Clerk Cooper, who had emptied the safes of other banks throughout Kansas before he persuaded her to marry him to give him a cloak of respectability in her small town.
She had made her own second chance. Now all she had to do was convince the boy to let her help him do the same.
Her eyes widened as a shadow prowled past one of the barn's broad windows. The motions were furtive and cautious. Did the boy realize he was cornered in there? The only other way out was through Toby's field and over the tall fence that daunted even the nimblest boys in the village, or through her backyard. Pressing her fingertips under one of the clapboards, she smiled. She might still be able to put an end to this without more uproar.
The shadow vanished within the barn. Did he think she was no longer after him? He might think he could hide in there until everyone got tired of looking for him. If she was sure he would be cunning enough to do that, she would turn around and tell everyone he had eluded her.
Simple and over and done with. Forgiven and forgotten.
The shadow moved in front of the window again. Blast it! The boy did not have the sense to stay hidden. She must talk to him straightaway.
Emma ran to the barn, ignoring the stitch under her ribs. Throwing open the door, she darted in and took a deep breath that was flavored with the scents of hay and manure. Toby neighed softly, but she did not go to calm him. She scanned the barn. Where was the kid? If he thought she would—she screeched as arms seized her, dragging her back against a hard chest.
The voice was too deep and the chest too wide to belong to a lad. Who was it? She wanted to draw in her breath to scream, but the arm was an iron band around her stomach. When she was shoved up against the barn wall's uneven boards, her breath gushed from her in a gasp.
She stared at a man whose face was hidden by the shadows within the barn. She did not care who he was. Trying to slip out of his strong grip, she cried, "Release me this instant."
"You aren't going to get away this time. If you think—damn! Who are you?"
Emma wanted to fire that same question back at him. Her eyes were adjusting to the dim light. She would have said that she knew everyone in Haven, but she had never seen this tall man before. The fine line of a day's growth of whiskers edging his chin could not ease its stubborn line. His lips were straight. His eyes were wide with shock. Then they narrowed, revealing furious sparks. His broad hands could span her waist, she discovered when he tugged her away from the wall not much more gently than he had thrust her against it.
"Will you get out of my way?" he demanded.
"Your way?" She rushed to the door and threw back over her shoulder, "Let me handle this."
She was horrified when her arm was seized again. Spun back to face the man, she tried to peel his fingers off her. His other hand caught hers.
Bending closer so his eyes were even with hers, he growled, "Lady, stay out of this. It's none of your business."
Emma opened her mouth to retort, but he bolted from the barn and back down the alley. What an unmannered cad! Who did he think he was to order her about like that? Who was he?
Her breath caught. Maybe Jesse Faulkner was not the boy everyone was chasing. She had heard rumors about bands of thieves who went up and down the Ohio, sneaking ashore and helping themselves to whatever they wished. As much as the idea curdled in her stomach, getting the sheriff's help might be necessary.
She closed the barn door behind her. Glancing around the alley, she fought back a shiver of fear. Robberies and trouble were the last things they needed in Haven. They were the last things she needed. An investigation could create all kinds of questions she knew might lead to other, much more difficult questions.
Anxious voices came from the street. The search must still be on. Her eyes widened when she saw the door to the storage room was ajar. Maybe the lad had been hiding in there all the time.
Emma inched the door open. The storage room was a quarter of the size of the store. Dust clung to every board. The air was close, thickened by the sunshine that filtered through cobwebs creating lace across the single window.
"Is someone in here?" she called, trying to sound cheerful. "I won't turn you in. We can work this out ourselves."
Shouts from the street oozed through the uncaulked boards. She eased around the crate containing the new plow Mr. Jennings had ordered. The sewing machine ordered by that strange bunch out in the peculiar community just down the river had arrived on the train last week and was waiting for someone to come in to get it. Neatly stacked by the window were the medicines that were ready whenever anyone had an ailing animal.
Nothing seemed out of place. Maybe the lad had already left. That rude man might have run past the boy. Served the man right.
A thump was as soft as distant thunder. She whirled. The sound had come from the other side of the storage room. But from where?
Emma smiled. The lad must be hiding behind the crates. This could still be ended quickly if she could persuade him to show himself.
When she came around the back of the crates, she saw no one. Had she been mistaken? Maybe the thud had come from outside. Hearing more shouts, she wondered how many people had joined the search.
Leaning her hand on a barrel of cornmeal, she glanced around the room again. If the lad had come in here, he must be gone.
The door swung open. "Are you in here, Emma?"
"Back here, Reverend Faulkner," she called. Why hadn't she gone for him immediately to help her? The squat man was the gentlest person she had ever met, and she could not imagine him not finding a way to forgive even the most heinous criminal. She started to turn, then discovered her skirt had somehow become wedged between two barrels. Tugging on it, she asked, "Did you catch the thief?"
"Sheriff's heading out toward the mill. Someone saw the lad fleeing that way."
She yanked at her skirt, but paused when she heard threads snap. She did not want to rip it. She hated mending. Standing on tiptoe to peer over the top of the stacks, she said, "Thanks, Reverend."
"Are you all right, Emma?"
"Fine, fine," she hurried to say when he took a step toward her. It was easier to lie when she did not stand face-to-face with the minister. "Maybe the lad was scared enough so he won't come back. Just let me know when they catch him."
"You'll hear the cheers back here." He paused, then asked, "Do you need some help?"
"No, thank you. I'm just getting a couple of things."
She sighed as the door closed behind Reverend Faulkner. Folding her arms on the edge of a crate, she leaned her head against it. Blast! The whole village was acting as if the kid had robbed a bank.
With a shudder, she straightened. She had to keep tight rein on her thoughts before they betrayed her. Even though she had hoped the past was the past, forgotten and done with, her fingers trembled as she loosened her skirt from a splinter on the barrel.
Emma froze as a shrill creak assaulted her ears. What was happening? Only she and the delivery man from the railroad station ever came back here. The train was just in. She had heard its arrival minutes before the shout of "Thief!" went up, so the drayer would not be arriving for another hour or so. She stared in disbelief as the top of the fancy coffin Mrs. Lambert had requested for her husband shifted.
She pressed her hand over her breast, where her heart was struggling to beat. Behind her, she heard a choked curse, but she could not drag her gaze from the coffin. Slowly, slowly, as if a dead body within were fighting its way back to life, the top rose.
"What the —" muttered a deep voice behind her.
She moaned as the top struck a barrel. The fancy coffin would be ruined. Someone leaped from it and raced past her. She tried to grab the lad, but her fingers caught only air.
Emma turned to run, but hit someone behind her. She bounced back and stared at the man who had treated her so crudely out in Toby's barn. "You! What are you doing here?"
"Trying to catch a thief," he shouted before racing out of the storage room.
Emma ran after him. As she stepped back out onto the street, her name was shouted. She waved to Reverend Faulkner, who was standing on the store's porch.
Reverend Faulkner grinned and pointed toward the green. A crowd had gathered near the retired cannon sitting in front of the Grange Hall. More stood on the porch of the Haven Hotel, which was, in truth, little more than a boarding house. The minister called, "They've caught him."
Emma was torn between satisfaction and regret. If the boy had not been so scared, he might have heeded her. She took a deep breath. Maybe she still could help him.
"Excuse me, Reverend Faulkner," she said.
She walked toward the crowd. Twisting her hair at her nape, she sought through it for some vagrant hairpins. In vain, she realized, and let her hair fall back along her white blouse.
She elbowed aside two men who were laughing together, not bothering to apologize. She paused as if the spring air had solidified into a wall as she stared at Lewis Parker, who had his back to her.
Although no taller than the minister, the light-haired sheriff was as slim as the cannon's barrel. No one in Haven was fooled by his size, because every fall for the past three years at the county fair he had won the title of champion boxer. He held the wiggling boy with ease.
Lewis smiled. "Miss Delancy! I was just about to send for you. Look what I've got here." He did not loosen his grip on the lad's ear, and the boy grimaced with a half-swallowed moan.
Emma walked closer, wishing the boy would look up. With his head hanging so the brown thatch of hair drooped over his face, he could have been one of more than a dozen boys in town. Seeing him up close, she realized he could not be more than eight or nine years old. All of this excitement over such a young child?
Lewis held up a hammer and a bag. "And here's what he took, Miss Delancy."
She glanced at him. He used such formality only when he was in the midst of his official work. The rest of the time, he addressed her by her given name, like everyone else in town. Her brow ruffled as she examined the items. The hammer showed signs of heavy use.
"Did he take these things from the store?" Lewis asked.
"No. I don't sell this kind of hammer." She hefted the bag of nails. "And this isn't a full pound of nails. Less than half, I'd say." She turned the small burlap bag over and looked at the faint red lettering. "These didn't come from my store. I think there's been a mistake."
"But I heard someone yell there was a thief."
"I did, too. Maybe it's just someone's idea of a joke."
"It's not a joke." A man stepped out of the crowd.
Excerpted from Twice Blessed by Jo Ann Ferguson. Copyright © 2002 Jo Ann Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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