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Red Willow, Colorado, 1880
"That old building is an eyesore," Richard Reardon declared, standing before the town council in his brown-and-gray-plaid cas-simere suit, his brown hair parted in sleek precision.
Chloe Hanley felt sick to her stomach at the thought of the beautiful old structure where her grandfather had been chaplain for most of his life being destroyed.
It was the week before Thanksgiving, and the council had gathered to discuss the Independence Day celebration the town would be hosting for the entire county in eight months. Much had to be done if the storefronts were going to be refurbished and the overgrown park brought back to life in time for that event.
"What's more," Richard continued, "it's a safety risk, now that the windows are broken out and animals and even drifters can get inside. We need to tear the whole thing down so work can begin on constructing a hotel. The property is right in the middle of Main Street, and anything less than a pristine new structure will reflect poorly on Red Willow and our citizens."
Chloe leaned forward on her chair. "But the church is a historical landmark. The stone foundation and the brickwork are unique in this part of the country."
"They're old, Miss Hanley," Richard pointed out. "Red Willow's most important street should be modernized."
"Edmund Rosemont designed that church," she argued. "He was one of the greatest architects ever to build this far west," she reminded him. "And what would you do with the cemetery if you tore down the church? Our founding fathers are buried there."
"We can move the graves to the newer cemetery out on Long View Road," he replied.
At that thought, Chloe wanted to cry, but she tamped down her emotions to be able to defend her position against his cool materialistic plans. Thinking that she'd once fancied herself in love with the man, humiliation warmed her cheeks.
Apparently, he thought he had bested her because he offered her a cool smile. She wanted to climb across the table and slap that smug expression from his face, but she folded her hands demurely. "I've already paid the taxes that were in arrears. The women's league fundraising provided enough."
His smile dissolved.
Frank Garrison, the council chairman, leafed through the papers in front of him and shuffled one to the top. "She's right. The taxes have been paid."
"The town owns the property the church sits on," Richard reminded the group.
"After the church was vandalized, my grandfather couldn't hold services there and people stopped coming and giving. That's the only reason the property reverted to the town." After ten years of struggling, the few remaining members still gathered at the school. "The town could have helped repair the damages at the time."
"A church that can't afford to support itself must not be needed," Richard said.
His derisive dismissal came as a personal insult to Chloe. Her grandfather had dedicated his life to serving the people of this community. "The church was here before the businesses and the school," she told him heatedly. "The town sprang up around it, for goodness' sake. Even though we don't have a building to meet in, we still serve Red Willow all through the year. We just delivered food baskets to seven families who wouldn't have had a Thanksgiving meal without our help."
"I agree the church is important to the community," the bank owner, Charlie Salburg, finally offered, to her immense satisfaction. He didn't attend, but his wife June did and had helped Chloe with the food baskets. "I've thought for a long time that it's a shame not to salvage the existing building. It was quite something in its day."
"There is a lot to be said for the historic value," Guy Allen agreed. "What if we set a deadline for the church to be restored? If it's not improved by then, we tear it down. At any rate, we can't have a dilapidated building in the center of town next summer."
Chloe experienced profound relief. Yes! Support for her cause at last. "How about the first of March?" she suggested, thinking four months would give her enough time to raise money and make repairs.
"Building a hotel in its place will require more time than what's left after that," Richard argued. "If the church is still an eyesore by Christmas, it comes down. That gives us six months to hire architects, contractors and have the work done by the Fourth of July."
"Christmas is only a month away," Chloe objected. "And it's winter."
"I think giving you a month is all we can afford," Frank said apologetically. "We do need to get things moving."
Chloe sat in silence as the council members agreed and voted. When all was said and done she had one month to find help to repair years of neglect and decay, do the actual work and have the place looking presentable. And she had no idea how or if the church board could pay for the work.
Trudging along the hallway of the municipal building on her way out, she noted each framed photograph lining the walls, settling on her grandfather's photograph. A similar likeness hung in the study of the house she'd inherited from him, and every time she looked at him in his flowing black robe with a white satin vestment, she missed him anew.
"Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do, isn't it? " He never answered when she spoke to his photograph, of course, but she imagined the corner of his mouth, defined by his neat white beard and mustache, curled upward. He'd always believed in her.
Owen Reardon used a brush made of short horsehair to clean the intricate carvings on the interior door lying atop sawhorses in his wood shop. The door was one of twelve, which were all sanded to a smooth finish and ready for stain. They were nearly ready to hang in the home he'd been working on for a wealthy local rancher with an eye for detail and craftsmanship.
Though it was a cold day in late November, his shop was warm from the lumber scraps and aged chunk of maple burning in the stove. The sense of accomplishment he felt looking over his handiwork gave him bone-deep satisfaction. Every piece of wood had a character of its own and what he loved best was bringing each piece to life.
He ran his fingers over the smooth design. The wood had been carved and prepared, but there was as much skill involved with the final steps of stain and varnish as with the original design. The image he'd seen in his mind's eye was a darker stain in the grooves, enhancing the design to its fullest.
Owen washed traces of dust from his hands, opened a tin of stain and stirred it with a clean stick.
Someone cranked the bell on the door at the front of the store, interrupting his concentration. It was late in the day, and he hadn't been expecting anyone. Of course sometimes a customer dropped by with an order. He walked from the back room through the dim store and pushed back the bolt.
A young woman in a cranberry-colored wool coat with beaver fur at the collar and wrists stood outside. She wore a scarf over her hair, and it took him a minute to place her.
"Miss Hanley? Come in."
"Are you closed for the day?"
"I keep the door locked because I work in back. What can I do for you? "
"Do you have a few minutes? I'd like to speak with you."
Chloe Hanley lived beside his mother and younger sister in an Italianate-style house she'd inherited from her grandfather. While her neighbors had progressed to the popular white and off-white tones, she'd preserved the original tricolor palette of her home. He admired her efforts each time he visited next door.
"It's gets chilly in here once the sun sets," he said. "It's warm in my work area, though, if you want to come back."
"Thank you." She removed her scarf. A lock of her fair hair trailed against the dark fur collar. The combined scents of outdoors and her fragrant hair drifted to where he stood, and it took him a moment to move.
She had been childhood friends with his sister Pamela, and in those days had often attended his family dinners. He'd once thought his brother might marry her, but while at law school in the east, Richard had married someone else.
"I don't get much company." He led her through the store into the back room, where he found a stool and wiped it with a clean rag. "Have a seat."
She perched on the stool, and her gaze flitted from the shelves of tools and brushes to the doors waiting for stain. "I'm in a bit of a quandary."
He wanted to pick up his brush and see what the color looked like on the wood, but instead he rested the lid on the can of stain and snagged another stool, this one multicolored by drips of various stains and varnishes, and sat, one boot heel on the floor, the other hooked on a rung.
She lifted her luminous blue gaze to him, and if he didn't know better he'd have thought his stool tilted off balance. "The town council is bent on having Main Street sleek and clean before July."
Of course. The Independence Day celebration had been in the planning stages for a good long time already.
"They've given me until Christmas to fix up the old church."
At the mention of Red Willow First Church, weighted memories flooded Owen. The household in which he'd grown up had been filled with the drama created by his older brother, Richard, and the constant chaos his three sisters kicked up. In their father's eyes, Owen had never measured up to Richard, and of course he'd never tried or wanted to.
As an escape, he'd discovered a way into the church through a loose window and had spent many a late night in its darkened interior. Lighting a few candles had illuminated the rich wood carvings and thrown the beams and altar into sharp relief. Owen had never been particularly religious, but he'd found peace in the silence and immeasurable beauty of the sanctuary.
"If it isn't restored by then, the building will be torn down."
Jolted out of his reverie, Owen stared at the woman across from him. "But that place is a landmark. It's a work of art."
"Well, I'm afraid your brother considers it an eyesore," she told him.
He might've known Richard was behind the blasphemous idea.
"The congregation raised enough to pay the taxes," she said. "There's a little left over, not enough for all the supplies or labor. I asked Hackett's and Jerome Gleason, but neither could take on the project until spring. And they wanted to be paid up front," she added with a shrug. She'd mentioned the two biggest builders in a three-county area.
Now he knew why she'd come to him. "You want me to take on the job of restoring the church."
"Everyone says you're the best. I saw the Bentleys' mantelpiece and the beams in their great room. You made them look as though they were original to their house. If anyone can do the work on the church, it's you." She paused and glanced down at the white wool mittens she still wore, as if just noticing they were there. She plucked off one and then the other and stuffed them into her coat pocket.
The sight of a woman, especially one as young and pretty as Chloe, seated beside the workbenches and storage bins in his solitary space contrasted like a graceful butterfly resting upon an anvil.
"You're my last hope," she said. "I've come to beg you to help me. I can't let the church my grandfather loved be hauled away in a pile of stone and brick rubble and replaced with a modern hotel."
He understood her attachment to the building. He had a special fondness for the architecture and workmanship himself. All those secluded hours within its walls had planted and nurtured his appreciation for beautiful craftsmanship. If not for that place, his future may have been shaped in an entirely different manner.
"Richard is used to getting what he wants," he said, thinking aloud. If Owen helped her, his participation would cause friction between the brothersand maybe even within his family. He'd stopped rocking the boat a long time ago to keep peace.
She nodded, her expression grim. "I know. And his opinion holds a lot of sway with the council."
"Not so much his opinions as his money," Owen remarked.
"At any rate, they listen to him."
Owen was a thinker. He'd never made a rapid decision in his life that he could recall. His quiet contemplation was something that drove Richard crazy. He mulled the options and different scenarios around in his head. He considered his current list of scheduled work, pondering the idea of how to fit in an undertaking this big in a short length of time.
"I asked about the graves and Richard suggested the" she paused and took a breath "the remains could be moved out to Long View. I've had two daysand nightsto think about it. I know the people buried there wouldn't know the difference. They're long dead, but moving them seems
well, just wrong. Some of those sandstone markers are pretty weathered, and I don't know how they'd make the trip. I'm sure Richard would just as soon see them replaced with fresh new headstones, but those are the markers their families set in place to honor their loved ones."
If Owen remembered correctly, one of his uncles was buried there, as well as a brother and sister his mother had lost only weeks after their births.
"Some of the epitaphs are too worn to read," she went on. "But most still have their inscriptions and designs intact. Do you remember all the lambs and trees and flowers carved into the stones? One of my favorites is a tall marker that reads Until the Day Break. Below it are the graves of a brother and sister who died days apart. In early summer, pink-and-white phlox weaves around between those old headstones." She'd been gazing absently beyond his shoulder, but her attention focused on his face. "How can something like that be moved without destroying its sanctity and integrity?"
"It can't." In the end it was Chloe's passion that swayed his decision. Richard's need to accumulate yet another property and put a feather in his cap paled in comparison to Chloe Hanley's fervor regarding history, beauty and reverence.
Her eyes widened in expectation, but she didn't rush him. He liked that about her. She was patient.
"I haven't been inside for a long time," he said. "I expect the first thing we'll need to do is make a list of supplies and get them ordered. We can take a look around tomorrow and see how much can be salvaged and what needs replacing."
Chloe hopped down from her seat. "You'll do it? You'll help get the church ready by Christmas?"