The screaming had stopped nearly ten minutes before, and somehow that worried Bill more than everything else that had happened that day. If the screaming was over, didn’t that mean the whole ordeal was over too? Shouldn’t the midwife be rushing out to tell him the good news?
But the door stayed closed, and the occupants stayed silent, and Bill was certain he would go mad if he didn’t get news soon. Up and down the hall he paced, until he was sure he’d wear a hole in the floor; if he didn’t burn off his energy with his pacing, he wasn’t sure he could keep himself from barging through the door and demanding answers. But he was held back by the memory of the midwife, smiling but unmistakably firm, telling him that she needed space and no interruptions to do her work.
Another few minutes crawled by, and Bill had nearly made up his mind to barge into the bedroom, no matter what the midwife had said, when finally, the door opened. The midwife stood there, her expression somber, but Bill hardly noticed her face, for he was entirely focused on the little bundle in her arms.
“Bill Turner,” she said quietly, “come meet your son.”
Bill rushed to the door and accepted the infant with shaking hands. He had little experience with babies, but his impression of this one was that he was surprisingly small and quiet but otherwise perfect.
“Hello,” he said quietly to the baby, marveling at the tiny fingers with their tiny fingernails. “I’m your pa.”
The word “pa” made him think of his own father, who died many years ago, and had walked out on Bill’s mother even earlier than that. The memory prompted him to hold his son a little closer and add, “And I will always take care of you. I ain’t ever going to abandon you.”
And as he looked down at his son’s scrunched up little face, he felt love for this tiny new person course through him, and he knew he’d keep his promise to take care of his son.
“Amanda,” he suddenly said, looking up. His wife ought to be part of this moment, at this first meeting of the new family. “Can I see her?”
The midwife’s face grew even more still, and Bill felt a wave of dread coursing through him as he remembered that unnerving long silence. “Mrs. Fowler,” he repeated, “can I see my wife?”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Fowler quietly. “But Mr. Turner, you had best prepare yourself.”
And with those ominous words hanging in the air between them, she led him into the bedroom.
Amanda lay in their bed, and though it was small enough that it always felt a little cramped when they were both in it, right then it dwarfed her. Maybe it was just that she seemed smaller than normal—paler too, like she was fading away right before his eyes.
His heart fell to his shoes. He’d never seen a woman right after giving birth before, but his gut told him that Amanda was not supposed to look like that, drained of all her strength and barely clinging on to consciousness.
“Bill,” she murmured, exhaustion filling that single syllable. “Have you met little Harold?”
“So, you finally made up your mind on a name,” Bill joked, but it was forced—a desperate attempt to keep his sudden fear from overtaking him. “Took you long enough.”
“I had to see him,” said Amanda with a wan little smile. “Make sure the name would do.”
“It does,” said Bill. And then, after a moment’s hesitation, he said, “How are you feeling?”
“A little tired,” admitted Amanda as her eyes drifted closed for a moment. “Childbirth takes it out of you. Everything people tell you about how hard it is—that’s not enough. It’s much harder. But I’m sure all women are tired after they have babies.”
At that Bill’s spirits lifted, until he happened to glance over at Mrs. Fowler. Her face was ashen, her mouth pressed into a tight line; when he caught her eye, she gave the tiniest shake of her head.
And Bill’s heart sank again. With no doctor within miles of Arthel, Idaho, Mrs. Fowler had delivered just about every baby in the county since the area was settled ten years ago. If she was worried…well, then there was reason to worry. But it was just like Amanda to try and be brave—half out of compassion for her husband’s nerves, half out a stubborn refusal to admit there was anything wrong with her.
“Amanda,” Bill said softly, “you can tell me how you are really doing. I want you to tell me how you are really doing.”
Amanda was still and quiet for a moment. And then two tears escaped from under her eyelids and tracked their way down her cheeks.
“Sweetheart,” he breathed, and rushed toward her, sitting on the edge of the bed next to her.
“I feel so weak, Bill,” she whispered. “I feel like I’m fading fast.”
He glanced back at Mrs. Fowler, whose face confirmed what Amanda was saying. And now there were tears pricking at his own eyes.
Harold stirred then, making a weak little sound that Bill felt in his heart like a dagger. His son was so beautiful, so perfect. But if Amanda was the price he had to pay….
“Is that Harold?” Amanda murmured, opening her eyes. “Let me hold him.”
Bill obediently passed the baby to her, and then had to put a supporting hand under her arm to help her guide the baby safely to rest against her chest.
Truly, she was fading fast, and all the fears that had been swirling around him for a while now coalesced into an unmistakable conviction—Amanda was dying.
“There’s a doctor in Northfield,” Bill said desperately, looking up at Mrs. Fowler. “A rider could be there and back in six hours, maybe five.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Turner,” the woman said quietly. “It’s too late.”
The finality of those words struck him deep in his core, and he turned his gaze back to his young wife, who was looking even smaller and paler now.
“Hello, Harold,” she was saying to the baby in her arms. “I’m your ma, and I love you so much.” She hesitated, and there was a catch in her voice when she continued. “I wish I could be here to watch you grow up. I want you to know I never would have left you if I had the choice. But I’ll always be watching you from heaven.”
A few tears escaped her eyes, to go along with the torrent now streaming down Bill’s face. This wasn’t a speech a mother was supposed to have to make just minutes after her child was born. Especially not Amanda—young, vibrant, warm Amanda. For goodness’ sake, they were both only eighteen years old! They were supposed to have their entire lives ahead of them, to raise their son together and grow old side by side. Bill wasn’t supposed to have to bury his wife just fourteen months after meeting her, ten months after marrying her, and a day after the birth of their first child.
“This is your pa,” she went on, leaning down close to the baby but keeping her gaze on her husband. “He’s a good man, and he’s going to love you just as much as I do. I know he’ll take good care of you.”
Bill nodded. “I promise,” he whispered, his voice husky with tears.
Amanda kept her head close to the baby’s but her gaze on Bill, and he knew her next words were aimed at him. “And I hope that when he’s ready, you’ll help your pa find you a new ma. Someone who will love you just as much as I do. Someone who’ll fill the hole I’m going to leave behind.”
Bill’s brow furrowed. “Amanda—” he began.
“Can you promise to do that, Harold?” Again, her words were murmured to the baby, but her expression said that her husband was the intended recipient.
And Bill should nod; he knew he should nod and set Amanda’s mind at ease. But that wasn’t a promise he could make right now; it wasn’t a promise he could make under most circumstances, but especially not now, while the woman he loved more than his own life quietly faded from mortal existence. So instead of offering a reply, he reached out and cupped her cheek with his hand.
“I love you, Amanda,” he choked out. “I have loved you since the day I saw you at the church social. And I will until the day I die.”
“I love you too,” she whispered. And then her brow creased briefly, as though she were in pain.
“What can I do?” he said immediately.
“Just get up here and hold me,” said Amanda.
It was so little—not nearly enough, not when Amanda lay dying. But at least it was something he could do. So, he climbed onto the bed next to her and pulled her into his arms. She leaned against his chest, while the baby leaned against her chest. So it was that the Turner family shared their first and last family embrace.
Bill held his wife as his chest ached and his heart shattered.
He held his wife as her breathing grew slower and shallower.
He held his wife as that breath finally stopped altogether.
And when Amanda lay still in his arms, he squeezed his eyes closed as the tears came. He placed a gentle but fervent kiss against her light brown hair.
And when he opened his eyes, it was to see his newborn son looking expectantly up at him through bright blue eyes.
Albany, New York
There was a pear tree right outside the kitchen window. Only, Cornelia hadn’t known that when she was growing up.
Oh, she’d known there was a pear tree on the edge of the kitchen garden, but she hadn’t known it was situated in just the perfect spot, so that when you sat at the worn worktable in the corner of the kitchen, the branches were framed perfectly by the window next to the door. After all, wealthy young ladies generally didn’t spend much time working in the kitchen.
But she could certainly see the tree now, and Cornelia looked at it frequently, desperate to find some kind of beauty in her circumstances. Of course, it was January now, meaning it was the dead of winter, and the leaves, blossoms and fruit of the pear tree were long gone. But still, there was a kind of beauty in the bare branches outlined in drifts of snow, like a statue carved from ice, which only she could see from her seat at the table.
There, that was a positive spin on her circumstances. Her mother would be proud.
But maybe thinking so much about the tree was a bad idea, because with her focus split between her surroundings and her task, Cornelia grew careless, and her peeler slipped and nicked her finger.
Quickly, she dropped the potato she was peeling and stuck the damaged digit into her mouth, keen to stop the bleeding and keep it from dripping on her dress. When she pulled her finger out to check it, though, she quickly saw she hadn’t actually drawn blood, and she sighed in relief.
Potato peeling, she had learned recently, was something of an art, and she was still attempting to perfectly master the skill.
She checked over her hands to ensure she hadn’t drawn blood anywhere. Her inspection gave her somewhat disappointing results, however; she wasn’t all that impressed with what she saw. Long, slender fingers that had once been used to coax music from a piano were now used for helping Mrs. Dalloway, the housekeeper, prepare dinner. Skin that used to be soft and pale and unblemished was now undeniably covered with callouses.
Living with Laura had not been good for Cornelia’s skin. Or for anything else about Cornelia, for that matter.
Speak of the devil.
Laura Hale came sweeping into the kitchen, looking, as always, immaculately put together and inexplicably angry. Out of habit, Cornelia ran over the events of the day, searching for that mistake or thoughtless remark or careless action that could have caused her stepmother to seek her out. Laura never actively looked for Cornelia unless she was angry, or she wanted something. Cornelia sighed.
But no immediate instigation immediately sprang to mind; Laura had been gone most of the day, shopping and dining with friends and visiting Cornelia’s father at his office. Meanwhile, Cornelia had spent the day as she generally did these days—helping with chores and stealing a few spare minutes to read. She’d felt a little guilty doing so, for it meant that Mrs. Dalloway had more to do, but the housekeeper had insisted. It was, after all, Cornelia’s twenty-eighth birthday today.
“Good evening, Stepmother,” Cornelia said politely. She would have far preferred to call Laura by her given name, for she did not like to acknowledge even the step-relationship to the woman. But Laura had insisted that Cornelia call her stepmother instead. It was all part of this charade the woman was always putting on for Cornelia’s father, to prove what a “close and loving relationship” the two women had.
“Not likely,” Laura snapped. “I hope you’re satisfied with yourself.”
There was no way to respond to that without earning the woman’s ire, so Cornelia did not try. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean that you’ve ruined my evening, obviously,” came the scathing retort. “We were all set to dine with the Millers tonight and then attend Mrs. Beaumont’s musical evening, but your father has told me that we have to stay in tonight because you prefer it.”
Cornelia very much doubted those had been her father’s exact words; they were probably more along the lines of, “It would be nice to stay in with Cornelia tonight, as it’s her birthday.” But Laura wouldn’t hear that, of course; she would only hear that her inconvenient stepdaughter had ruined her plans for the evening.
“Perhaps you can go without me,” Cornelia said politely. “I would hate to ruin any pleasure of yours.” What she meant, of course, was, “I’d have much better birthday celebration if you weren’t home,” but speaking her mind around Laura, while amusing, always made everything so much worse; speaking openly wasn’t worth bearing the brunt of Laura’s temper. Cornelia had given it up months ago and instead spent her conversations with Laura cultivating her skill in hiding her feelings behind a blank expression.
“You know your father will insist,” Laura shot back. “It’s your birthday, after all.”
Mr. Hale would insist; Laura was right about that. The dear, optimistic man still believed that once Cornelia and Laura had grown used to each other, they would all be one happy family, like they were before Cornelia’s mother died. He didn’t seem to notice that eighteen months were plenty of time for them to become friends, if they were ever going to become friends, and he never quite seemed to understand when Cornelia tried to explain to him how unkind Laura was, how Cornelia walked on eggshells constantly these days, fearing her wrath.
“You two just need to become accustomed to each other,” he had told Cornelia again and again, whenever she would bring her worries to his attention. “Someday, you’ll see Laura as I see her—as a wonderful woman.”
Mr. Hale was a hopeful man, but when it came to other people, he wasn’t always a very bright one.
“In that case, I do apologize,” said Cornelia, her mind returning to the present and her current argument with Laura. “Perhaps, you can take it up with my father when he gets home and explain that I don’t mind if we don’t all spend my birthday together.”
Six months ago, Cornelia would have caved and agreed to go to the dinner and the musical evening; she’d seen the extent of Laura’s bad temper and had come to fear what her stepmother could do to make life in the Hale household miserable for her stepdaughter. But in recent weeks, she’d grown back some of the backbone she’d lost around Laura. She had made up her mind—she would not be bullied any longer.
Laura simply rolled her eyes, as Cornelia had thought she might—to tell Mr. Hale that she wanted to spend the evening with her friends and without Cornelia would make her look bad, and the one thing that Laura was very careful of, was to cultivate Mr. Hale’s view of her as a kindly stepmother and dutiful wife.
Unable to do anything about the evening plans, Laura moved onto a new topic, “And I suppose you’ll be pretty pleased to get my ring.”
Cornelia looked at her stepmother, then fought back a sigh and set her peeler and potato down on the table—clearly this was going to be a longer conversation than she’d hoped. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“The emerald ring, from the jewelers on Main Street,” Laura snapped. “I pointed it out to your father last week, hoping he’d take the hint and buy it for me, but instead he decided it’d be a wonderful birthday present for you. He thought it would ‘match your complexion.’”
It probably would match Cornelia’s complexion; she had fair skin, green eyes, and auburn hair, and always looked particularly good in green. It was very thoughtful of her father to want to give her such a gift, and very foolish of her father to miss Laura’s pointed hint, for now Cornelia would be loath to wear the ring where her stepmother could see it and risk provoking her ire.
“That sounds like it would have been a wonderful surprise,” Cornelia couldn’t help saying, then immediately regretted speaking so unguardedly. Laura fixed a sharp glance on her, clearly wondering if Cornelia was being impertinent, but Cornelia had spoken in a sufficiently innocent tone of voice that her stepmother clearly couldn’t decide if she should be angry or not. Cornelia just smiled serenely.
“It will be utterly wasted on you,” Laura went on, apparently giving up on deciding whether she should be angry about Cornelia’s remark. “You never go anywhere except church, you always contrive to be unavailable when I entertain. Who do you need to impress? You had much better give the ring to me. I will make sure it is worn and seen as it should be worn and seen.”
Cornelia had not even seen this ring yet, but she felt certain she would throw it in the river before she would see it on Laura’s finger.
“I think my father might be unhappy,” she said mildly. She’d gotten away with her impertinence about the surprise, but she did not feel up to risking it again. “He might think I was showing a lack of appreciation for the gift he’d given me. He might wonder why I’d given it to you instead.”
Laura must have seen the wisdom in this, as she dropped this topic and moved on to yet another one. Cornelia wondered if she’d been collecting a list of issues to berate her stepdaughter about and amused herself with imagining the woman always keeping a notepad with her to jot down her latest insults and complaints. Laura arranged her face into what was clearly meant to pass for a pleasant smile.
“I ran into Jethro earlier today,” she said, her tone a poor approximation for warmth. “He said you hadn’t answered him yet.”
Cornelia hesitated. “I have thought about it a great deal,” she said, “and I do not think Jethro and I would be a suitable match.”
“You would not be a suitable match?” Laura repeated in disbelief. “He has his own house, and a very respectable position. Besides, he is only asking you to dinner, not to marry him.”
“But that is his ultimate goal and purpose, is it not?” Cornelia asked quietly. “And if so, it seems unkind to give him any encouragement when I know he will be disappointed in the end.”
“But if you get to know him better, you might change your mind about him.”
“I have known him since I was four years old,” Cornelia pointed out. “If I were going to develop feelings for him, don’t you think I would have done so already? I cannot marry him.”
“You cannot marry him? Why on earth not?”
Because Jethro had always been an unpleasant person, the sort who threw rocks at cats and dogs and killed birds and squirrels for fun, the sort who teased the girls until they cried and bullied those weaker and poorer than him. Cornelia wished to make her thoughts known but held her tongue. Growing up had not made him kinder, only better at hiding his true nature. But Cornelia, living so close to him for so long, saw him for what he truly was. She saw that the young lady who married him would likely have a hard time of it, and so had gently rebuffed his every attempt to court her. Unfortunately, he never seemed quite to believe her when she said no.
Equally unfortunate was that Laura had heard of the young man’s suit when she first came to live in the Hale household and had gotten it into her head that Cornelia ought to marry the man, or at least agree to his frequent invitations for outings or meals.
Unfortunately, like Jethro, Laura never seemed quite to believe Cornelia when she said she did not want to marry him.
Come to think of it, perhaps that was why Laura and Jethro got along so well—they both had a cruel streak and a knack for not hearing anything they didn’t want to hear.
So, Cornelia simply said, “I do not care for him.” She did not bother saying more, for she feared angering her stepmother, and she knew that no matter how many times they had this conversation, Laura would refuse to listen.
As was the case now—once again, Laura refused to listen, rolling her eyes, and stalking from the room without another word.
Cornelia breathed a sigh of relief as she watched her go; any room that Laura was in was a room where Cornelia couldn’t quite breathe easy. She hated that Laura had fired much of the staff in order to save money for her own expenditures; she hated that this meant that she did much of the work around the house to keep the place running herself, as Laura refused to lift a finger. But she was quite happy that, in this case, Laura had no desire to linger while she peeled potatoes, and so the hated chore was presently acting as a deterrent, keeping Cornelia from enduring more of her stepmother’s company than was absolutely necessary.
It hadn’t always been like this. When Mr. Hale first introduced Cornelia to Laura Potter, the woman he meant to marry, Cornelia had been ready to love her. Her own mother had been dead for some time, and while Cornelia was a grown woman—twenty-six years old at that point—and therefore had little need for a mother, she thought it could be lovely to have female companionship around the house—a woman to talk to about dresses and hairstyles, but also more serious things, things that a man just couldn’t quite understand, not even a loving and wonderful man like Mr. Hale. And Laura had seemed to want the same things.
It didn’t take long after the wedding for that to change, however. Laura’s true nature soon began creeping out of hiding, manifesting itself in cutting remarks and exasperated eye rolls and occasional angry outbursts. Then she began getting rid of staff that had served the family for decades; she even began selling family heirlooms at one point, all to make sure that more of Mr. Hale’s money went to her own desires and wishes. The heirlooms had made Mr. Hale unhappy, and Laura had stopped selling them. But she’d utterly convinced him that it was all for the best to get rid of staff. She’d told him that it was appropriate for Cornelia to help with the cooking and cleaning, so that she could learn to do it and be prepared to someday take care of her own household. In saying so, she was of course ignoring the fact that Cornelia’s mother had already spent a great deal of time teaching her daughter the domestic arts.
And Mr. Hale and Laura had only been married for a few months when the woman got it into her head that she needed to marry Cornelia off. Cornelia often wondered whether Laura had imagined having the house all to herself, and the presence of an unwed stepdaughter had quickly begun to ruin her enjoyment of her newfound wealth and prestige. Whatever the reason, her attempts to force Cornelia from the house were growing less and less subtle as time went by.
In truth, Cornelia had no complaints about leaving the house someday. She had always wanted to marry, to find true love, to have children of her own to raise and to care for. But her mother had gotten sick just when Cornelia was making her debut in society, so she’d put off her own desires to help take care of her. By the time Mrs. Hale died three years later, the time for Cornelia’s societal debut had passed—she was too old, she was too unknown, and she was in mourning. Besides, no young man had ever caught her eye.
So, she was happy to stay at home and care for her father.
Or she had been, until Laura arrived; now all she wanted to do was get away. She felt disloyal thinking so, for leaving Laura would also mean leaving her father. But Mr. Hale had refused to hear reason about Laura’s true nature, and Cornelia could no longer rely on him to look out for her the way he used to. Thus, while she felt guilty thinking about her wish to get away from her father’s home, she also supposed it was in no small part his fault.
But what could she do? She had no relatives she could go to—she and her father were quite alone in the world—and young ladies of Cornelia’s social standing simply did not work outside the home. Marriage would have been an excellent choice, but there seemed to be no young men in Albany who caught her eye. And even if there had been, Cornelia knew that at twenty-seven years old—twenty-eight, now that it was her birthday—she was considered quite firmly on the shelf.
What young man would choose a wife whose childbearing years were half over? No, if she were to find a husband, she suspected she would have to look somewhere other than Albany—somewhere very far from Albany, in fact.
And she wondered if she would ever work up the courage to do such a thing.
When Bill Turner opened his eyes, it was to see his fourteen-year-old son looking expectantly up at him through bright blue eyes.
“Harold?” he yawned. “What is it?”
Harold’s expression grew more serious. “Pa,” he said, “you look tired.”
“I am tired.” Bill chuckled. “You just woke me up from a nap, son.”
“No,” said Harold, clearly frustrated, “not just that. You’ve seemed more tired than normal lately.”
Bill pushed himself up off the sofa and into a sitting position. “It’s been a busy few weeks,” he pointed out. “What with the Williams boys still on the loose.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Harold insisted. “Chasing those criminals all over the county. I’m worried it’s too much for you, Pa. You’re not as young as you used to be.”
Bill let out an amused snort. “Harold, bud, I’m thirty-two. I’m in the prime of life. I’m not quite ready to be put out to pasture just yet.”
“I should hope not,” said a voice from the corner, and Bill glanced over to see Dwight Conwell cleaning his medical equipment. Bill and Harold spent as much time at Dwight’s house—his medical practice was housed on the ground floor—as they did at their own home, partly because the furniture was so much more comfortable and partly because Dwight’s assistant, Izzy, was a much better cook than any of them. “Because if you’re old, so am I.”
“There, you see?” Bill told Harold. “Dr. Dwight doesn’t think I’m old, and he’s a medical expert.”
The two men shared grins across the sitting room that served as a waiting room for Dwight’s patients. Dwight Conwell had moved to Arthel three years earlier to become the town doctor, and he and Bill had become fast friends. It was partly because, as the sheriff of Arthel, Bill was constantly bringing Dwight new patients. Cattle rustlers and stagecoach robbers who’d put up a fight while being arrested, but also law enforcement officers who sometimes got themselves hurt in these scuffles too. Also, they’d bonded over being relatively young, relatively successful, and undeniably unmarried, which meant that both men faced constant scrutiny from the matrons of Arthel, who wanted to know why neither of them had settled down and found themselves wives.
Last of all, it was because Dwight and Harold had taken to each other immediately; the good doctor was like the uncle Harold had never had, which meant that in a way, Dwight was like the brother that Bill had never had. Dwight's assistant, Izzy, even joked sometimes that Bill and Dwight looked like brothers, with their dark hair, green eyes, and long, lean builds. Alas, Bill didn't see the resemblance. Dwight was handsome, with his fine clothes, carefully styled hair, and soft skin; he always drew admiring glances from the young ladies in town.
Bill looked every inch the law man he was—wiry and rangy, with sinewy arms ending in heavily calloused hands. His skin was leathery and dark, toughened and tanned by years spent out in the sun, experiencing all extremes of weather as he went about his duties as sheriff. His clothes were like his hair—a little unkempt and a little wild, because he didn’t see the point in spending a lot of money and time on looking presentable. This was Idaho, not New York, and there was no one he wanted to impress here. Not to mention, if he spent as much effort on his appearance as Dwight did, maybe he’d be constantly bothered by the single young ladies of the town, the way Dwight was.
“Dwight’s opinion doesn’t count,” said Harold with a roll of his eyes, bringing Bill’s attention back to the discussion. “He lets you get away with everything.”
“It’s not really his call,” Bill said reasonably.
“Besides,” Dwight said, “the work your dad does is important. And I know he’s as careful as he can be.”
“If he’s so careful,” said Harold with the triumphant air of someone delivering the winning line in an argument, “how do you explain that?” He pointed emphatically at Bill’s arm, the one still wrapped up in a bandage.
“That?” Bill repeated, lifting the arm to show it to Harold. “Through and through. Dwight here didn’t even have to dig a bullet out. It’ll be right as rain in a few more days.”
“Maybe more than a few days,” Dwight said in a cautioning tone. “Don’t start using it too early. But yeah, not a big deal. Not even the worst gunshot wound I’ve dealt with this month.”
That was not the correct way to reassure Harold, who looked even more alarmed at the reminder that even in a quiet little town like Arthel, sometimes bullets flew. Idaho had been a state for ten years; Boise, the capital, was a fine, large city of nearly six thousand people; and the transcontinental railroad had been completed when Bill was a baby, making it easy for people and goods to travel from back East.
Despite that, Arthel was a small town in a sparsely populated county, far from Boise or Pocatello or other population centers, and they still found themselves plagued by cattle rustlers and robbers, like the Williams boys.
“I’m always careful,” Bill reassured Harold. “Besides, I’ve got a lot of good years left in me before I need to hang up my badge. My aim is still good, and I can still spend all day in the saddle without a problem.”
“Which is amazing, because he’s two years older than I am, and I can barely stand two hours in the saddle,” said Dwight with a wink at Harold.
Still, Harold was not convinced. “Pa,” he said firmly, with all the confidence of an adolescent boy convinced he knows better than the adults around him, “I want you to stop chasing cattle rustlers.”
The conversation was growing a little old. “Son,” he said firmly, “that’s not going to happen. Who would protect this town if I retired? You know Deputy Rasband isn’t ready to take over—not by a long shot. If I stopped, the Williams boys and all their ilk would ride roughshod over this town. And all the good folks of Arthel would suffer for it.”
“What about how you suffer?” Harold demanded, his voice just shy of a shout.
“Watch yourself,” said Dwight, his voice kind. “Any louder and the whole town will hear you two argue.”
The gentle admonishment worked, and Harold deflated a little. “I just worry about you, Pa,” he said quietly. “You’re all I’ve got.”
Bill felt his heart constrict as he looked at his son. Harold was every inch Amanda’s boy—the light brown hair, the bright blue eyes, the gentle soul that loved books and music, and—most noticeably at times like this—the stubbornness.
Although, come to think of it, Bill could be pretty epically stubborn too. So, maybe Harold got that from both his parents. His height definitely came from his father, though—Harold was nearly as tall as Bill, and not done growing, while Amanda had been a tiny slip of a woman. Bill’s mouth tipped into a wistful smile as he thought of his wife, dead for fifteen years come this next June. He had never stopped missing her, and there were even moments when looking in Harold’s eyes caused his heart to skip a beat—they were so much like Amanda’s eyes, and looking at them made Bill’s chest hurt.
She’d have been so proud of Harold, with his gentle soul and his love of learning and his fierce protectiveness of anyone he perceived as needing his help. He sometimes wondered what Amanda was thinking, watching them both from heaven—was she proud of the way he was raising their son? Or rolling her eyes at his mistakes, the way she did when she used to tease him?
“I promise I’ll be careful, Harold,” Bill told him. “I promise, I will always do my best to come back home safe.”
“It’s not just that,” Harold said. “How are you ever going to find a nice woman if you’re always riding off and rounding up train robbers?”
Surprise froze Bill in place. A sound that resembled a muffled laugh came from the corner where Dwight was still seeing to his tools. “A nice woman?” Bill repeated. “What makes you think I’m in the market for a nice woman?”
Harold looked nervous but determined. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, Pa. And I think you should get married again.”
“Now, why in the world would I do that?”
“So you won’t be lonely,” said Harold, and Bill opened his mouth to object that he wasn’t lonely when his son went on. “So I’ll have a mother.”
That stole away Bill’s words entirely. Had Harold been wanting a mother? He’d never said anything about it before.
Dwight, distracted by his tools, didn’t seem to notice the sudden tension in the room. “Believe me, kiddo, if your dad wanted to get married, he wouldn’t need to quit his job for that. The money he makes as sheriff—he could have his pick of any lady in the county.”
“There’s the problem,” said Bill, choosing to ignore his sudden discomfort at Harold’s admission until he had more time to think through it. “I wouldn’t want a wife who’s only interested in me because of the lifestyle I could give her.” Then he joked, “Besides, it’s Dr. Conwell who’s got the money in this town. Any lady who just wants a rich husband would go after him if she’s smart. And I don’t want a wife who’s not smart.”
Dwight laughed. “So, I should go for a woman who’s after me for my money, because I’ll know she’s smart? Wonderful advice, Sheriff Turner. Greatly appreciated.”
“Honestly, Harold, why aren’t you after Dwight to get married?” Bill teased. “He’s the one who’s never had a woman in his life. He’s the one who doesn’t even have a son to comfort him in his old age, like I do.”
Dwight sputtered, “Never had a woman—I’ll have you know, Turner, I went with lots of young ladies when I was in medical school. I bet I have more experience with romance than you do.”
Now that the argument had blown over and the tension had drained from the room, Harold wandered over to the end table by the sofa and started flipping through the magazine on it. It was one of the ladies’ magazines placed there by Izzy to keep the female patients entertained as they waited for their appointments.
It was Izzy who kept Dr. Conwell’s practice running, acting as his bookkeeper, secretary, and occasional housekeeper. She was the one who thought about useful details like giving patients something to read while they waited. Bill might have been concerned if it had been a publication Harold had found in another establishment in town—not every magazine was appropriate for a fourteen-year-old body—but he trusted Izzy only had respectable periodicals here, so he turned his attention back to Dwight.
“Okay, so you’ve taken a few young ladies to dinner or a show,” he joked, his dismissive tone all part of the teasing. “I actually convinced a young lady to marry me.”
“I could convince a young lady to marry me,” Dwight said, feigning offense. “I could convince any young lady to marry me.”
“Then why don’t you propose to Izzy?” Harold said distractedly, his focus on the magazine he was leafing through. “Half the town says you two already act like a married couple.”
At that, Bill laughed loud and long, while Dwight, red-faced, sputtered half-formed objections. “The tables have turned, Doctor. Now my son can give you grief about getting married.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Bill observed. “She’s a better woman than you deserve. You should do something before she comes to her senses and marries a man who’s good enough for her.”
Dwight just glared at him. “I need to take some things back to the sick room,” he informed them, striding to the door. “Not to mention, I want to get away from this conversation.”
Bill, still laughing, turned away from his friend just in time to see Harold finish writing something down on a scrap of paper and tuck it into his pocket. He was curious, of course, but he was willing to let Harold have his secrets.
He grinned at his son. “Should we go get some dinner?”
* * *
A few days later, Dwight stepped into his sitting room to see Harold sitting at the little writing desk where Izzy worked on correspondence and bookkeeping, scribbling away at a piece of paper. “What are you doing there, kiddo?” he asked.
Harold jumped in surprise and looked up at him, his manner guilty. But this was Harold, as straightlaced a fourteen-year-old boy as ever walked the planet, so Dwight was confident he wasn’t up to anything shady. Maybe he was writing a love letter to a girl he was sweet on, Dwight thought, grinning at the idea.
“Writing a letter,” Harold said.
“Who are you writing such a long letter to?” There were already two full sheets sitting on the desk.
Harold looked up at him for a long moment. “Can you keep a secret?” he finally asked.
“Of course!” said Dwight wrly. “I’m like a bank vault. No one’s getting any secrets out of me.”
“All right,” Harold said. “This letter is for my father.”
Dwight blinked. “You mean you’re writing it to your father? Or on your father’s behalf?”
“The second one,” Harold said. “He wanted help. He… well, you know he has pretty bad penmanship, and I won an award for my penmanship at school.”
That was true; Bill’s writing was little better than chicken scratch. “So why the secrecy?”
“Because of what this letter is for.” Harold took a deep breath. “I’m writing an ad for a mail-order bride agency. My dad said he thought about what I said and decided I was right. But there’s no one in town he wants to marry, so we’re trying this instead.”
Dwight stared, wide-eyed. “Bill Turner? Marrying again? I never would’ve believed it.”
Harold shifted uncomfortably. “You wouldn’t?”
“I mean, I believe he needs a wife, and I believe he’d think this is the most efficient way to do it. Your dad is a very practical man! I just never thought he’d get over your mother enough to do it.”
“You can’t tell him I talked to you about this,” Harold blurted. “He wanted me to keep it a secret, even from you. He’ll be mad if he finds out I told you.”
“I told you, bank vault,” said Dwight, and mimed locking his lips shut with a key. “I won’t let on that I know the secret.” He smiled. “I’m happy for him, though. And I’m happy for you. You could both use a good woman in the Turner household.”
Harold broke into a grin. “Thanks, Dwight. I think so, too.”
Albany, New York
“Oh, Miss Hale!” called Miss Perkins, waving at her from behind the counter. “Another letter for you from Ohio. Now who on earth do you know in Ohio?”
This, Cornelia reflected, was the danger of having your mail sent to the post office, instead of to your home—you might get the postmaster’s nosy daughter asking you questions about your correspondence. But she couldn’t possibly have had the letter sent to her home; then Laura might have seen it, and she might have demanded to read it—or she might have read it without permission, which seemed equally likely, knowing Laura.
Now, were she to see the contents… well, Cornelia wasn’t sure whether her stepmother would be furious or delighted at the fact that Cornelia had answered an ad from a mail order bride agency. Honestly, both possibilities frightened her.
“Just an acquaintance,” she told Miss Perkins with a smile, and technically it was true—Mrs. Wilson, her contact at the Wilson Matchmaking Agency, was just an acquaintance. “Good day, Miss Perkins.”
She left the post office and began her walk home. As she passed the park just off Main Street, the rain that had been threatening all day began to fall as a gentle sprinkle. It was the perfect excuse to duck into the gazebo and read the letter now, rather than wait until she got home.
The gazebo was empty, fortunately, and Cornelia seated herself on a bench and looked with mingled apprehension and excitement at the envelope in her hand.
Never had she imagined she would do something as drastic and rash as answer an ad for a mail order bride, so she’d rather surprised herself last month when she did just that. It had been just a few days after her birthday, and Laura had been particularly unbearable that day. She had spent most her time pestering her about having dinner with Jethro, criticizing how she was wearing her hair, and haranguing her about the emerald ring.
That ring had turned out to be a curse—if Cornelia wore it, Laura eyed it enviously and made frequent comments about how well it would match her own complexion and her favorite green dress. If Cornelia didn’t wear it, Laura made frequent comments about how ungrateful Cornelia was and how she didn’t deserve such a beautiful piece of jewelry if she refused to wear it—not to mention, it made Mr. Hale sad when Cornelia did not wear it.
That small object had become a constant source of misery for Cornelia; she had taken to wearing it with the stone turned inward toward her palm, so that she was still wearing it, but it wouldn’t attract attention.
Top that off with a great deal of housework that had to be done so that Laura could entertain her friends, and Cornelia had been exhausted and discouraged. Indeed, she had never been more ready to move out of her father’s house than she was on that day. But she was increasingly convinced that even finding a new situation in Albany wouldn’t be enough; she would still be expected to visit her father’s home and to host Laura in her own home often. She needed to get out of the city, maybe even out of the state.
The ad in the magazine had caught her eye.
“Notice,” it had read. “Eligible gentlemen living in our western states seek honorable marriage with accomplished young ladies. Interested ladies should write to the Wilson Matchmaking Agency at the following address with their backgrounds and qualifications.”
Beneath it had been a list of ads from the agency’s clients, and for some reason, one in particular had stood out to her.
A gentleman of Idaho, widower, age 32, height six foot two inches of excellent means and health, seeks an amiable, accomplished, Christian wife. The gentleman is gainfully employed as a sheriff, owns a house, and has one son, age fourteen, who is keen to have a mother in the home.
It was the son that caught Cornelia’s eye, really. Everything else in the advertisement was perfectly acceptable—only four years older than Cornelia, gainfully employed as a sheriff—Cornelia had little knowledge of western towns, but she understood that a sheriff served the same purpose as a chief of police, so she supposed it was a prestigious position—and looking for an amiable and Christian wife, which suggested that he himself was an amiable and Christian man.
But she would not have stopped on that particular paragraph—would not have stopped on any of the hopeful grooms, really—if not for the mention of the son.
For some reason, she kept picturing this fourteen-year-old boy, living in the far West, and wishing for a mother. She imagined a bachelor’s life in Idaho was even more unrefined than a bachelor’s life in New York, and she pitied any child raised in such circumstances. Then, of course, she couldn’t stop thinking of her own life—how she missed her mother after her death, how she had looked forward to the companionship of her new stepmother, how disappointed she had been when Laura showed her true colors and dashed all hopes of a happy family situation. She found herself hoping that someone good and kind would answer this widowered sheriff’s advertisement, to give his fourteen-year-old son a loving stepmother and a happy home.
In the days that followed, Cornelia found herself thinking about these two men often—where they were, what they were doing. She imagined their small town in Idaho, the house they shared and hoped to bring a new wife and mother into. Eventually—perhaps inevitably—Cornelia began imagining herself as that mother—living there with them, keeping house, and cooking and cleaning, and running things as she wished, not as Laura wished.
She envisioned life in a small town—a task that required quite a bit of imagination, seeing as she had no idea what Idaho was like. She pictured church socials and Independence Day celebrations with their neighbors; she imagined inviting friends round for Sunday dinners and riding horses in the countryside, for one thing she had heard about the West was that everyone rode horses, even the ladies.
Most of all, she pictured herself as part of this family—quiet evenings spent together at home, the son reading to them while she darned socks and the father polished his boots. She envisioned herself helping the son with his schoolwork and sewing him new clothes and giving him advice when he fancied a girl from school.
Occasionally, she even dared to picture herself with this widowered sheriff, with this man who needed a wife. Surely, he wanted more than someone to cook or clean, or he would have just hired a housekeeper. Surely, he was looking for companionship, even affection. Perhaps, with his first wife deceased, he had grown lonely, and was looking for true love. Perhaps he could find that love in someone like her. The thought set butterflies loose in her stomach.
It was folly, the sensible part of her said again and again. This imaginary life she’d built in Idaho was just that—imaginary. She had no idea what this man was really like, and it would be foolishness of the highest order to answer this ad.
But once the thought had been put into her head, it refused to be dislodged. She found herself looking at her life in Albany with new eyes. The streets she had always known suddenly seemed dull and plain. The polite people in their tidy houses suddenly seemed boring and lifeless.
She found herself longing for the wildness of the American West—for mountains and lakes and rivers and pine trees, for a wide-open blue sky, for beauty stretching as far as the eye could see.
Suddenly, Cornelia couldn’t bear the thought of her life stretching out before her as it did now—nothing to look forward to but her own house, full of Laura’s unkindness, and her own street, where her neighbors were friendly but where she no longer entirely fit in, as no one knew what to do with a fully grown woman who didn’t have a house and family of her own.
Just one week after seeing the advertisement, she posted the following letter to the Wilson Matchmaking Agency before she could talk herself out of it:
I am writing to inquire about your advertisement in the Ladies Home Weekly magazine, specifically the advertisement from the sheriff in Idaho. I am twenty-eight years old, never married, in excellent health, a church-going Christian, gently bred and well educated but accustomed to hard work and housekeeping. If the gentleman in question is still in search of a wife, I would be interested in receiving more information about his situation.
She had spent the next week on pins and needles, not certain whether she was more afraid of the possibility that the agency would not answer or the possibility that they would. Finally, an answering letter had arrived from Mrs. Wilson at the agency, informing her that the Idaho gentleman was still in search of a wife and that she seemed an excellent fit.
Enclosed find a copy of Mr. Turner’s original letter to us, it read. “If you are satisfied with what you find, you may write a letter of introduction to him and send it to our agency for us to forward it to him. If he decides that he is satisfied with your letter, he has agreed to cover the cost of your train ticket to Idaho.
Heart pounding, Cornelia had read the enclosed letter, which had been copied over in Mrs. Wilson’s tidy hand. From it, she learned the following—the Idaho sheriff’s name was Bill Turner, his son’s name was Harold, and they lived in the town of Arthel, in the Snake River Valley. Bill worked as a sheriff, but his son was trying to persuade him to give it up, convinced it was too dangerous.
Bill owned a large home with two floors, three bedrooms, and large common areas. He and his son both loved reading, music, and riding horses; they attended church each Sunday. Arthel was a small town, but it had a post office, a bank, a church, a schoolhouse, a doctor, a jail, a hotel with a restaurant, and many friendly neighbors who met often for social activities.
Cornelia was utterly charmed by the letter, though she couldn’t quite say why. It was well-written, in terms of grammar, but its style was simple to the point of being juvenile; she was almost surprised to hear a thirty-two-year-old man had written it, especially one who claimed to love reading. But not everyone was a good writer; she would not hold that against Mr. Turner.
No, what charmed her about the letter was its simple, good-hearted description of the Turners’ lives and of life in Arthel. Suddenly, her daydreams about Idaho were that much more real—the town had a name. The father and son had names.
Before she could talk herself out of it, Cornelia wrote a reply:
Mr. Turner, I hardly know how to begin this letter; I have never answered a matrimonial advertisement before. I cannot decide whether the tone should be friendly or professional. But I think I must choose a friendly tone, for though we have both gone about this marriage business in an efficient, practical way, what I want is not an efficient, practical marriage. Oh, I do know that you are looking for someone to help you keep house, and I am looking for a house to keep—so far, so unromantic. But I also hope that such a marriage, should we decide to enter into it, would be more than a simple business arrangement. I hope we could both find companionship, even love, in such a marriage. I hope as well that your son and I would form a truly loving bond, and that ours would be a home full of affection.
I have gotten quite ahead of myself, I fear. I should start with the basics. My name is Cornelia Hale. I am 28 years old and have lived all my life in Albany, New York...
It took her only an hour to finish the letter, but three days to decide to send it. This was not a mere inquiry to see whether Mr. Turner was still available; this was Cornelia throwing her hat into the ring, as it were, and saying that if Mr. Turner liked her letter, they could move forward with plans to marry. Such a thing seemed so bold and so bizarre that she shut the letter into her desk drawer and did not look at it for days.
But three days of normal life—of her dull, colorless existence in Albany—were enough to convince her that something had to change, and if something were going to change, perhaps it ought to be something drastic. So, on the third day, after a spectacularly boring tea at Mrs. Gregory’s house and a very tense carriage ride home with Laura, who thought Cornelia hadn’t been sufficiently interested in Mrs. Gregory’s antique tea set, Cornelia pulled the letter from her desk drawer and sent it.
That had been two weeks ago, and Cornelia had nearly given up hope of ever receiving an answer—something that the sensible part of her brain told her was all for the best. But finally, today, Cornelia had received a response from the Wilson Matchmaking Agency. So it was that with equal parts excitement and trepidation, she opened the letter.
Miss Hale, it read in Mrs. Wilson’s neat hand, Mr. Turner has informed me that he would like to extend to you an offer of marriage. He has also authorized me to inform you that he too hopes that your household will be one full of affection. If this is acceptable to you, please inform me and I will begin arranging your railway journey to Idaho.
Mrs. Edith Wilson
Cornelia stared at the letter for what felt like ages as the rain poured down around the gazebo. She held in her hand her very first offer of marriage... from a man she had never met before. Who lived on the other side of the country… Who could be an abusive alcoholic or blatant criminal, for all she knew…
Was she mad?
Suddenly panicking, she folded the letter, tucked it into her pocket, and ducked out into the pouring rain.
She arrived home to a house in chaos. Laura was shouting orders at Mrs. Dalloway, who looked rather overwhelmed and rather pleased when Cornelia’s entrance distracted her employer.
“You’re soaking wet!” Laura shouted. “Your hair is ruined. You must change dresses immediately—though it’s rather for the best, I think, for perhaps that dress has been ruined by the rain and we can burn it. Why do you own such a dowdy thing?”
Cornelia looked down at herself in surprise. “This is one of my favorite dresses,” she objected.
“That explains a great deal,” sighed Laura. “No wonder you have never married, with so little fashion sense.”
Cornelia’s jaw dropped at the blatant insult.
“Stop dawdling!” Laura said. “Jethro is coming to dinner, and you must look your best.”
All of Cornelia’s swirling thoughts coalesced suddenly into anger. “I told you I did not want to dine with Jethro.”
“Then, think of him as my guest, not yours,” said Laura airily. “Though truly, I’m doing you a favor, Cornelia. He is the only man in Albany willing to have you, and if you have any sense, you’ll accept his hand.”
Again, Cornelia’s jaw dropped at her stepmother’s condescending and presumptuous behavior.
“Oh, don’t look so shocked!” Laura said. “You’ve been far too picky with suitors, given that you’re not much of a catch yourself.”
Shock flooded Cornelia. “You go too far, Stepmother,” she said shakily, fearing Laura’s reaction but knowing she had to draw a line somewhere.
“And you do not go far enough!” Laura snapped. “Are you even trying to get married? Truly I do not understand you, child. I have done everything I can to promote a suitable match for you since arriving in this house, and you have been ungrateful and uncooperative every step of the way.” Her voice rose in volume.
“When I married your father, I did not sign up to have a spinster stepdaughter dogging my every step for the rest of my life, and I will not stand for it! Better that you were dead than to remain unmarried and a burden on us for the rest of our lives.”
Shocked silence filled the room after that; Laura’s expression said that even she realized she’d gone too far. But then her expression hardened, and Cornelia knew there would be no apology.
At that moment, her mind was made up.
A few moments later, she was knocking on the door of her father’s study. When he welcomed her in, she found it rather easy to tell him the truth, no matter how hard it would be for him. “I’ve come to tell you that I’ve received an offer of marriage. I’m moving to Idaho.”
The shock on her father’s face was nearly enough for her to change her mind. But she had no faith that her father would listen if she tried to explain how hateful and venomous Laura had been just now; he was too blinded by his optimism and Laura’s deceit. So, she lifted her chin and stayed strong.
“Idaho?” he repeated. “But how...”
“We’ve been corresponding through the mail,” she said, which was technically true. “He’s a widower, just thirty-two years old, with a young son. He’s a good man, Papa, and I believe we will be truly happy. Besides, I am twenty-eight years old. I am of age, and I am of means. It is time I strike out on my own.”
“But to go so far away...”
“I am excited by the possibility of new scenery—of a whole new world to discover in the West. And with trains and stagecoaches, it will be easy for us to write to each other.” She grasped his hands. “Please be happy for me, Papa.”
His expression softened. “I have always wanted you to feel free to follow your own heart, my dear. If this is what you want, I will be happy for you.”
“Thank you, Papa,” she whispered. “This is what I want.”
She was surprised to find that she truly meant it.
Bill was exhausted when he got home that night, but he took a moment before his front door to stand up straight and gather his energy so he could enter as though nothing was amiss. Harold hadn’t made a fuss about his father’s “old age” for a month now, but Bill still caught the lad giving him worried looks on occasion, so he’d been trying very hard to show no signs of weakness in front of his son. It was fortunate that his gunshot wound had healed and that he’d managed to avoid collecting any more since then.
It was supper time now, and Bill was famished. He was thinking through the supplies in the house, wondering what kind of meal he could scrape together from what was in the kitchen, when he was stopped in his tracks by the beautiful sight of dinner already on the table—a tureen of stew, hot and steaming, and a basket of cornbread muffins.
“Pa, you’re home.” Harold beamed from his spot on the sofa. In his hands was a book, as was common for Harold; Bill had never met a child who loved to read so much. Even Bill himself paled in comparison; he’d loved reading since he was a kid, consuming any book he could get his hands on, but Harold put Bill’s reading habits to shame—especially now that Bill was so busy chasing the Williams boys.
“I am, and I’m glad of it, if this is the welcome I get,” laughed Bill. “Where did all this food come from?”
“Izzy brought it by,” said Harold, laying his book aside and rising to his feet. “She said she knew you were busy all day with your sheriff duties, so she thought she’d come to make sure I wasn’t starving to death.”
Bill knew Izzy’s teasing nature well enough to know that probably wasn’t an exaggeration on Harold’s part, but also well enough to avoid being offended by that, so he grinned at his son. “Then let’s eat!”
After they’d washed up and said grace, the Turner men tucked into their meal, and Bill nearly moaned with delight at the food. It was just stew and cornbread, but Izzy had a knack for getting taste into things, even plain, everyday things like cornbread. “I don’t know what we would do without Izzy,” he joked as he ate.
“Eat a lot more plain beans,” Harold agreed.
“Good thing she has no plans of leaving town,” Bill observed. “It’d be a shame to lose her company, but it’d be as much a shame to lose her cooking.”
“Although she won’t have as much time for you once she’s married,” Harold said blithely.
Bill fixed him with a surprised look. “Do you know something I don’t? Is there some announcement I haven’t heard yet?”
Harold laughed. “No, just supposing. She’s just so great that I can’t imagine someone won’t come along and sweep her off her feet. She can cook like crazy, and she can run a business. It seems like that’s what a man would look for in a wife.”
“That’s exactly what a man should look for in a wife,” agreed Bill. “At least a sensible man. And I hope that someday, our good old Dr. Conwell will be a sensible man and see what’s been right under his nose this whole time. But I’ve got to say, I wouldn’t hold your breath about it happening soon; it would require Dwight to pull his head out of the sand, and that will take a lot of time.”
“Yes, and by then, maybe you’ll be married.”
It was such an offhand comment, seemingly coming from nowhere, that Bill froze entirely to look in surprise at his son. Harold knew his comment had been audacious—Bill could read it in his expression—but he didn’t seem particularly apologetic. Bill forced himself to laugh, but it came off stilted and awkward. “You know I have no plans for that any time soon.”
Then, to change the subject, he asked about Harold’s schoolwork, “How is your arithmetic coming, son?”
His son was not so easily put off, however. “Fine,” he said. “I’m the top of my class, tied with Millie Pert.” Then, before Bill could ask any inaner questions to which he already knew the answer, Harold returned to the topic of marriage. “So, why haven’t you remarried?”
Bill looked around the room helplessly, as though someone might be lurking in the corner who could help him out of this conversation. “When did you get so stuck on the idea of me remarrying?”
“Is it because there are no ladies you like in Arthel?” Harold said reasonably. “That makes sense. Maybe we need to start looking farther away. Have you ever thought about that? What about a mail order bride?”
“No!” spluttered Bill. “It’s because I don’t think about marriage. I don’t want to remarry. I was married once to the love of my life, and I don’t see any reason to do all that again; it’s a lot of work and effort.” Then, hoping to put Harold off this subject and onto another one, he added, “Besides, I already have my son, and he’s perfect. Why would I need any more family than that?”
“Thank you,” said Harold seriously. “But you’re trying to change the subject. Why won’t you remarry?”
Bill gave up on deflecting with humor. “Because I don’t want to remarry, son. I had your ma, and that was enough.”
“Yeah,” said Harold, “you had Ma, but I never did.”
Bill glanced up at the mantle, at the framed drawing resting on it. Amanda had done that drawing of this very house when she was pregnant with Harold; she’d been an excellent artist, and the drawing was almost perfect. They’d framed the drawing and put it up, then Amanda had died only a few months later and Bill hadn’t moved that picture since.
It made him feel better to have something in the room that she had created with her own hands, and he’d gotten in the habit of glancing at it when he was trying to make a decision or take an action and he really wished his wife was there beside him. He glanced at it now, wishing he had a mother’s touch to help him understand his son’s sadness.
“So, you’re thinking you’d like a mother? That’s why you want me to marry again?”
Harold shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable and shy. “Everyone I know has got a ma and a pa. Even Jerry Coulter—his pa died, but then his ma got married again and now’s got a pa again. And I just got to thinking... I wish I weren’t the only one with only one parent. I wish I weren’t the only one without a ma.”
He spoke casually, but Bill was his father and knew him too well for that; he heard pain in his son’s tone, and he felt his heart constrict painfully. “I didn’t know you felt like that, son,” he said softly. “Why did you never tell me?”
Harold shrugged uncomfortably. “I didn’t want you to feel bad. I didn’t want you to think I was saying that you aren’t enough, Pa. You’re great. But... you’re not the same as having a ma.”
Bill had finished his stew by then, and he picked up his plate and took it back to the kitchen just to buy himself some time to think. Then he turned back around. “I hope you always feel like you can tell me what’s on your mind, Harold. So, I’m glad you told me this. As for what you said...” His voice trailed off, and he sighed.
“Raising you alone hasn’t always been easy. You’ve always been an easy kid to raise, but it was tough sometimes, especially with my job, to make time for everything. There were lots of times I wished I had help, and I wished your ma was with us every single day. But remarrying... that’s complicated, son. Losing your mother is the hardest thing I ever went through. What we had, it wasn’t just an arrangement between two people. It was true love, the kind that changes your whole life. Your whole soul. I’ll never find something like that again, so to be honest, I’m not really keen on trying. Now that I’ve had true love once, I don’t know if I could settle for anything less. So, looking for a new wife... it’d just be a waste of time.”
Harold’s expression turned pleading. “You don’t want to give love another chance?”
He was so earnest that Bill felt bad dashing all his hopes and dreams. Instead, he joked, “I will admit, it’d be nice to have a womanly touch around here. It’s pretty masculine in here these days. And I wouldn’t mind having home cooked meals without having to rely on poor Izzy. She’s got her hands full looking after the doc.”
Harold laughed at that, as Bill had hoped he would. “Besides, having someone to help me with my homework would be nice. I’ve got to keep ahead of Millie Pert, after all.”
The tone had turned light and joking, and it was much nicer than the somber tone of earlier, so Bill decided to keep on in this vein. “Well, Izzy’s smart, and we know she’s a good cook. Maybe I should just steal her away from Dwight.”
“I like that idea,” laughed Harold, “but I bet Dwight wouldn’t.”
“He would hate it,” Bill agreed. “He’d be heartbroken, too, though he’d never admit it.”
“Why does he do that?” Harold asked. “Why does he pretend he doesn’t care about her?”
This felt like a far safer subject than Bill’s own love life, so Bill was happy to offer his opinion. “It’s a scary thing, admitting how you feel about someone. What if she doesn’t feel the same way back? What if you confess your feelings and it ruins your friendship with her, because now she’s uncomfortable around you?”
Harold’s eyes were wide. “So, what do you do?” he asked, and Bill reflected that his son was at that age when he was probably starting to notice girls. This was probably a topic that was often on his mind.
“Sometimes, you have to take a risk, son,” he said. “Sometimes you have to look at a situation where you are taking a risk and decide whether what you have to gain is worth more than what you have to lose.”
That was enough to distract Harold from Bill’s love life, and soon the conversation drifted into other topics. But Bill couldn’t help looking at the mantle, at the drawing Amanda had done. Not for the first time—not even for the first time that day—he wished she were there with him.
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